How far afield do your dishes have to go to qualify as “fusion” food? That was the question on our minds as we stopped in at Rook (719 Virginia Ave., 317-759-5828), Ed Rudisell’s much-anticipated, sure-to-draw-crowds Vietnamese sandwich shop, which opened quietly late last week in The Hinge building in Fletcher Place. Already a restaurateur known for his playful takes on Thai and New American cuisine at his perennially popular Siam Square and Black Market, Rudisell throws his hat into the quick-service, order-at-the-counter side of the culinary business with Rook, where butcher paper and metal sheet pans stand in for plates, and napkins are all the utensils you need.
But what a fashion-forward, high-style hat that is. Much has been done to make this sandwich counter stand out from the crowd, and the shotgun storefront is dressed up to suggest something between an abandoned roadside shack in Saigon and a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. A telephone pole jutting perilously through the ceiling is strung with bare bulbs, a focal point that directs the eye to the counter area, which is framed in distressed wood paneling. Fabricated rooks (a member of the crow family whose name appropriately derives from the Latin word for “food-gathering”) perch in a deep yellow cutout above a self-serve area of napkins and trash bins. A row of red Sriracha bottles is as much a design element as something to dress up your sandwiches. Push open the door to the men’s room, and a flock of escaping crows glows brightly from the ceiling while more industrial bulbs give the dim appeal of abandonment. (Customers won’t be surprised to find out that Rudisell enlisted both local design maven Nikki Sutton of LEVEL Interior Architecture Design and installation artist Nick Allman, known locally for the tree bursting through the far wall at The Libertine.) Vintage chairs brushed with more deep yellow paint come from Indy Swag.
With all of these clever innovations in design, Rudisell’s menu, which draws heavily from his travels through Asia with wife Sasathorn, takes a surprisingly purist and reverential approach to banh mi, the iconic Asian sub sandwich that fuses elements of French and Vietnamese cuisine. These sandwiches aren’t new to Indy, but we have definitely wanted for a clever revisionist to take them a little further from the original. Here, eight versions, all with names alluding to big scavenging birds, range from the classic, with a pork roll specially made by Chris Eley of Smoking Goose and a mild chicken liver terrine, to a vegetarian version with an Indian-spiced tofu. Every element of these restrained sandwiches has a homemade quality and precision, down to the mayonnaise and pickled daikon, though our sandwiches came without the jalapenos the menu promised.
Bread for the banh mi offers a good chew with a soft interior that helps the fillings stay put. Especially tasty is the Thai sour sausage, with just the right spice and tang to wake up the other milder ingredients—definitely a one-of-a-kind charcuterie we’d love to see turn up in other spots around town. All in all, however, these sandwiches remain firmly rooted in the Southeastern Asia of Rudisell’s travels and Sasathorn’s home country of Thailand. Perhaps the most far-flung, American version is one topped with smoked turkey.
“Snacks,” not sides really, are currently limited to two crispy items: rich, audibly crunchy pork cracklings, and lighter, sweeter “chips” flavored with shrimp, both of which we drizzled in some of that Sriracha for want of a bit of a sauce. Desserts, too, are few but flavorful: four Asian-inflected macaron cookies in versions such as lemongrass and wasabi white chocolate, made by City Market’s Circle City Sweets.
As Rook’s website states, this is the kind of quick, on-the-go food that Rudisell and his crews at Siam Square and Black Market like to eat on their break, though little seems quick about how Rudisell’s banh mi are constructed. For a complete lunch, one might want a bowl of soup or a something a bit more green or vegetable-based to round out the experience. But as a slender slip of a style-centered sandwich shop, Rudisell’s latest project exhibits his rebellious and quirky—yet ultimately pious (to the food at least)—personality the best.