Newly appointed as the head chef of Meridian Restaurant & Bar (5694 N. Meridian St., 317-466-1111) Layton Roberts brings some lusty, low-country cooking to Meridian-Kessler. (SPOILER ALERT: That means the return of the fried chicken dinner.) The 30-year-old toque, who started his career in Louisville before arriving in Indianapolis five years ago, headed up the kitchen at 14 West and most recently served as chef de cuisine at Mesh on Mass—an impressive resume in its own right. Using a dog-eared Meridian menu heavily annotated with handwritten notes as his show-and-tell, Roberts gives us a preview of what he has planned for one of Indy’s longest-standing eateries.
JULIA SPALDING: What is definitely staying on the menu?
LAYTON ROBERTS: Tuna poke has been on the menu since Day One. The same prep. So that’s something the staff thought shouldn’t go. Also, the Hot/Cold Smoked Salmon. It’s a smoky fish cream wrapped in cold cured salmon with onion marmalade. And I can’t touch the smoked corn puree. I think it’s the best soup I’ve ever had. Some of the products we will keep, but we’ll transition to summertime flavors. We’re going to keep a gnocchi dish, but we’ll change it to a classic gnocchi with cannelloni beans, Swiss chard, and Smoking Goose pancetta, finished with balsamic and some Parmesan.
JS: Which dishes will be tweaked?
LR: We are going to keep the shrimp and grits, but I’m going to throw in a little southern flair. We’ll get some big head-on U-10 shrimp and do a prosciutto wrap on them. We’ll do white cheddar grits with a sunny side egg, leek fondue, and a little asparagus wheel. It’s kind of a play on saltimbocca. We also seem to sell a lot of beets, and they have always had beets on the menu. We are going to go with a confit of baby beets—a candy-stripe beet, a yellow beet, and a baby red beet in a couple dollops of whipped Capriole goat cheese, with bitter greens and a little port reduction. We’ll keep the same crispy calamari, but we’ll bread and fry some thinly sliced lemons in there. So you will get the crispy lemon wheels. That will come with an artichoke-tomato-white wine stew, with a little Parmesan mayonnaise and some crispy parsley. Right now we are doing it with cocktail sauce, and I look at that every time and think, “Why cocktail sauce?”
JS: How would you describe your style?
LR: I was trained in a French kitchen, but it was also in Louisville, so there were a lot of country influences—a lot of low-country French food. And then my chef was from Iran, so there were some Middle Eastern elements. I fell in love with what he was doing—the smells in the kitchen, the spices, the heavy herbs and sauces. But I’m a comfort-food kind of guy.
JS: Are you familiar with the history of this location, and its days as Dodd’s Townhouse?
LR: Yes, and we are working on doing a Sunday night dinner—Dodd’s Dinners. It would be family-style carryout fried-chicken dinners. We would get day-ahead orders and do complete meals with Gunthorp Farms chicken as a way to boost our Sunday night business. People want to stay at home on Sunday nights, and if we can find a way to get our food into their homes, that will make a big difference.
JS: When will we see these menu changes?
LR: I would say that by May it’s going to be completely reflective of me.
JS: After working at Mesh, which probably had more of a corporate-kitchen tone, do you feel like you have more autonomy here?
LR: Mesh was a great experience. That’s for sure. They were a little more business oriented. I got to see a side of the business that I hadn’t had my eyes open to. Now I bring it here, and hopefully we can apply it in different areas. But for the last two years, all I’ve known is mass quantity production. The food we were doing was great, but I can’t be a foreman in a factory. And that’s what I felt like I was doing—going to a factory every day. Not that all restaurants aren’t factories. But I want a smaller factory.
JS: Are there any food trend that you won’t touch?
LR: Molecular stuff. That can stay in Chicago where it’s needed.
EXTRA >> Meet Roberts and a few other fellow young chefs, in photos and in their own words. here.