Given the stranglehold sports fans have on this town, as well as a certain big game Indy expects to host next winter, it’s surprising that the two-story brick storefront near the industrial corner of South and Minnesota streets remained untapped as long as it did. Little more than 100 feet from Lucas Oil Stadium, Tavern on South is a spiffy surprise—a sportingly handsome spot where your game-day eats might be drizzled with a shagbark hickory–soy syrup or arrive with a side of pistachio couscous.
Owner Steve Geisler has made the most of the space, renovating the ground level with a 12-tap bar and two dining areas with sky-high ceilings. The upstairs is decked out with a space for parties and a balcony for diners who want to take in those coveted skyline views while relaxing over a plate of wonton-soft crab ravioli and a light-bodied Sun King Osiris. A mix of distressed wood floors and knotted support beams, as well as a few thoughtfully chosen historical Indianapolis photos blown up to banner size, lend the tavern a timeless patina, even though it just opened in December.
Hailing from such kitchens as The Glass Chimney and the erstwhile Broad Ripple Steakhouse, chef Allen Shideler steers clear of typical bar food in a menu that has as many lighter options and seafood dishes as it does chops and sandwiches. He can’t avoid a Hoosier tenderloin, panko-crusted and topped with a tasty mustard aioli, though a bit unwieldy for its “sliders” presentation—a pair of downsized, all-too-soft pretzel rolls can barely contain the meat. Shideler’s bison burger is definitely a winner with its charred-tomato glaze and Indiana bacon on a brioche roll. This elegant hunk of meat delivers all of the robust flavor but none of the fatty ridiculousness of an equally massive beef burger. But an open-face slab of grilled ciabatta with buttery medallions of broiled sea bass is the big surprise among tavern sandwiches, flaky as it is and served with a luscious corn remoulade.
That hickory-soy syrup turns up on the tavern’s go-to dinner starter: perfectly seared tuna flecked with coriander and perked up with a heavily marinated kimchi “slaw.” The other starter to go for is the generous Heartland pizza, really a big, crisp wheat
tortilla piled with veggies, grilled chicken, and Indiana goat cheese. A more basic selection of 12-inch pizzas (from a tomato-and-basil pie to a version featuring charred-tomato barbecue sauce, Cajun grilled beef tenderloin, and bleu cheese) appears on the lunch menu.
The broiled sea bass entree comes with a corn-and-crab “stew” that’s really more of a sauce with the undertone of a tangy Bloody Mary. The flavors come together nicely, but no entree will linger in your memory more deliciously than the smoked prime rib, a hulking slice of juicy beef with the restrained flavors of low-and-slow cooking. The cut comes with a garlicky potato puree and a smooth horseradish mousse. Manly, yes. But you won’t be standing in line for that at halftime.
Not everything that emanates from the kitchen scores a touchdown. Salads such as the “Tavern” with candied asparagus and caramelized walnuts arrived too gently dressed—and really needed the promised goat cheese we didn’t get on either occasion. A Caesar salad packs a punch of garlic but needs more lemon. And the second attempt at an apple strudel, after our first was dropped, was a bit tough and tepid.
Much better was the Black and Tan cake, the ubiquitous molten chocolate dessert but here with a rich peanut-butter filling and a cake that actually has some structural integrity. An ice-cream sandwich is perhaps closer to the ballpark treats you’re used to, though the ones at the concession stand don’t consist of cinnamon ice cream pressed between a pair of walnut chocolate-chip cookies—with a tiny coconut smoothie sidecar for dunking.
Then again, this downtown newcomer proves that you can’t judge a restaurant by its great location, location, location. Tavern on South would not have to put forth much effort at all to fill the house on game day. Fortunately, it exceeds all expectations of food this close to where the home team rules the field.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.
Photograph by Tony Valainis