The well-behaved kids coloring on butcher paper at the next table didn’t clue us in to the culinary aspirations of chef Craig Baker’s kitchen. Nor did the plasma screens streaming basketball scores—though one TV in the bar was tuned to Rachael Ray perkily whipping up another quick weeknight supper. Mixed messages aside, we’d been tipped off to the ambitions of Baker, who honed his skills in several Portland restaurants before heading up the kitchen at Casler’s in Geist and working the pizza station at Napolese. We hadn’t driven out to Westfield to a restaurant called The Local just to nosh on humdrum pub grub, after all.
All too often, we’ve found seasonal cuisine created from regional ingredients a little esoteric and dear, sometimes far from filling and rarely priced for casual weekday consumption. But there’s something unmistakably approachable here. Above the restrooms, a painting of an unspooling roll of toilet paper declares that this place will never take itself too seriously. The nights we dropped in, mothers in jeans sharing bowls of pasta with their children chatted with dads still dressed from work while neighborhood sports fans in the bar opted for local craft brews and hummus plates—clearly all were pleased with food that is several notches above the? franchise fare available down the road.But just what was the draw for those of us who had traveled farther, and what would bring those families back again? One glance at the specials menu, which featured walleye seared in a cast-iron skillet, pheasant with butternut-squash hash, and a coffee-crusted ribeye, and we knew this onetime strip-mall watering hole had the potential to be more than a mere local haunt. Then, among Cajun tater tots and salads with silky house-cured salmon, our eyes fell on a cheesesteak, the Philadelphia classic, in which the typical top round had been replaced by beef tongue. “I tried it,” our youthful and exuberant waiter assured us, though his slight wince showed that he, too, was still getting used to the innovation.
With a sweet and tangy “mustarda” of?caramelized onions and figs, as well as melted Swiss cheese, it was definitely a highlight of the night, a sandwich of tender, not-at-all gamey meat that would portend other?gut-busting housemade specialties. Baker now serves up a sandwich of his own decadent head cheese, made from the jowls and bellies?of the first hogs butchered at Local Folks?Foods in Sheridan, topped with horseradish, mayo, onion straws, and a runny fried egg. With earthy, hand-cut fries, it’s a rib-sticking lunch that’s not for the faint of heart. Baker crafts many of the offerings in house, including various pickles and sauerkraut—in a recipe that sent a county health inspector to see if it was safe for the public. It was. More-familiar dishes, including a succulent and juicy 18-ounce pork chop with rich mashed potatoes and cipollini onions glazed with balsamic vinegar, succeed. Angel-hair pasta comes topped with a piquant Creole cream sauce and three jumbo head-on prawns, sweet and meaty as they come. And don’t think about visiting without ordering a bowl of ultra-creamy mac and cheese with hunks of smoky bacon.
Given that The Local is Baker’s first independent restaurant in Indiana, he was bound to make a few missteps. He simply couldn’t get the pheasant as tender as he wanted it, and his flatbreads, though generously topped, have been taken off the menu while he ruminates about adding actual pizzas. Waitstaff are still learning the ropes, with some more knowledgeable and confident than others. But Baker’s business partner and amicable general manager Derek Means, recently of Ram Brewery, is elevating the art of mixology in the bar with cocktails featuring elderflower and melon liqueurs, as well as a full selection of Sun King and other local microbrews, even organic wines. Desserts hit the mark almost universally, especially warm, sugar-dusted beignets with a creamy apple-cider caramel and a refreshingly not-too-sweet-or-heavy goat-cheese cheesecake.
So far, Baker’s gamble that the locals would cotton to his brand of full-flavored, rustic eats has paid off. “I’ve gone through 30 pounds of beef tongue already,” he says, and he’s not planning to take the cheese-?steak off the menu anytime soon.
14655 N. Gray Rd., Westfield, 218-3786
Photograph by Tony Valainis
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.