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Review: The Libertine

Elegant cocktails and elevated bar bites make The Libertine Neal Brown's most successful effort yet.

The Perfect Mix, Indianapolis Monthly, November 2011Of all the experiments chef Neal Brown has conducted, whether in his kitchen laboratoire or the culinary free market, none has come as close to successful alchemy as The Libertine Liquor Bar, his shrine to the cocktail in a Washington Street storefront downtown. A shot of Scandinavian austerity, a jigger of pre-Prohibition American frontier swagger, and a dash of orange bitters dosed from eyedroppers by Brown’s exacting barkeeps, The Libertine is a study in contrasts—some logical, some forced—that all mingle, dazzlingly. Take “The Last Word,” one of several clever coinages on Brown’s drink menu. It mixes Bluecoat gin, lending its distinctly piney profile, with Luxardo maraschino and green chartreuse, haute liqueurs as opposite as stop and go. A bracing hit of lime merges these improbable comrades into a restrained elixir that cleanses the palate at the same time it sweetens it, a beguiling medicine you’re all too glad to take.

Getting things this right didn’t exactly happen overnight for Brown, a journeyman restaurant renegade in his own right whose stops are as legendary as his starts. Is his taco shop still in the works? His pizza truck? No local chef’s resume is as colorful—or complete. At Tavola di Tosa and H2O Sushi, he apprenticed with chefs now inscribed in local culinary lore. Brugge Brasserie saw scholar Neal ace the exam on a single country’s (Belgium’s) cuisine. With L’Explorateur, he put out splendidly rich and complex dishes—luxurious braised short ribs, exuberant beet salads—but aimed his creative view too narrowly at foodies and at a price point many save for celebrations. Pizzology brought him down to Earth, somewhere between Carmel and Naples. The lines are still out the door. At Libertine, he combines cocktail culture and his better half Lindy Brown’s largely Old World wine selections with approachably amplified bar snacks in environs sure to please all of his fans—while making many more. Having passed the torch to his capable chef de cuisine, Erin Till, Brown can finally step back to be enshrined as Indy’s hippest brand.

Late nights at The Libertine are definitely not sleepy, as devotees to the vibe sip frothy, well-shaken Nouveau Carres and Seelbach cocktails with Kentucky Vintage bourbon and prosecco, crowding the long aisle of the slender shotgun bar. How many times did fellow merrymakers borrow, then return, our table’s extra ladder-back chair? Yet it’s an ethereal scene: deep browns lightened by grays, and maple cubbyholes showcasing colorful bottles of arcane decoctions. A whitewashed tree sprouts through the far wall, a desiccated bison skull guards the entryway, and the whole place is lit by twinkling bulbs shrouded in burlap twine.

Naming his new place The Libertine implies less the debauchery of the term and more its daring.

You could fill up on atmosphere, but then you’d miss the food. Oh, that all bar fare could be this thoughtful! A sampler of artisan ba-cons spills over the sides of a stainless-steel chalice, with colorful sauces to anoint it. Deviled eggs exalted with smoked fish and caviar nestle in a porcelain egg carton. A disc of gloriously smooth, rich chicken-liver pate rests atop two small waffles, waiting for your server to christen it with buttered maple syrup. Big wedges of roasted beet balance on a long rec-tangular plate, showered with horseradish and flecks of tangy Capriole goat cheese.

Among heartier options, long-cooked ribs nearly candied in a spicy-sweet sauce with a hit of bourbon come with textbook coleslaw and a bit of charred poblano chile. A ham-and-cheese sandwich is made “proper” with smoky ham from Goose the Market between, essentially, two slices of French toast held in place by Mornay sauce and nutty Gruyere.

Only a few missteps marred the initial offerings, though they’ve largely been fixed. Hamachi carpaccio, a popular L’Explorateur holdover, came a bit over-garnished with horseradish and pickled mustard seed. An utterly pristine but perhaps slightly bracing scallop crudo with pickled cauliflower is now a fluffy Stilton cheesecake with apple chutney, subtly perfumed with thyme. The menu, both food and drink, will continue to evolve.

Naming his new place The Libertine implies less the debauchery of the term and more its daring. “We use the word to represent the untamed, innovative, and uncompromising spirit,” Brown says. “Those whose somewhat reckless ideas often make the greatest contributions to culture.” No wonder he quotes Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” on his foyer wall: “Come my tan-faced children, Follow well in order, get your weapons ready.”

38 E. Washington St., 631-3333, libertineindy.com  HOURS Tues.–Wed. 3 p.m.–midnight; Thurs. 11 a.m.–midnight; Fri. 11 a.m.–1 a.m.; Sat. 3 p.m.–1 a.m.

Photograph by Tony Valainis.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.