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Review: Black Market

Somewhere between rustic farmhouse and big-city bistro, Black Market finds a hearty, hip balance in the best of both worlds.

The homemade pickles on the plate in front of us weren’t exactly the ones our grandmothers made us as kids. There were cucumbers, yes, though mostly to support the lightly brined stars: hunks of crunchy daikon radish with a subtle bite of kimchi; a beet-pickled egg blushing pink. A single slender ramp—a wild leek foraged in spring—snaked around to a glistening dollop of peanut spread. Was this the new wave of pub grub, or just some quirky concoction dreamed up by a pregnant chef? And just how did the folks at Black Market, the much–buzzed-about, long-awaited nouvelle comfort-food spot tucked at the end of the Mass Ave restaurant district, expect us to approach it? “People eat it all kinds of ways,” said co-owner Ed Rudisell, smiling from behind the bar where we sat sipping glasses of wine. “We don’t tell customers how to do it.”

Rudisell’s wry response betrayed his utter seriousness as a restaurateur well on his way to his second smash hit. Anyone who’s stopped in for the Panang curry at Siam Square would recognize his red beard and shock of spiky hair directing the throngs lining up daily at his Fountain Square draw. Now, with co-owner and chef Micah Frank, who honed his skills with creative seasonal eats on the line at R Bistro, he’s put together an even more forward-thinking eatery with the potential to rewrite the book on local cuisine. Their collaboration may have taken a few more months than planned, but it has paid off with a refined but approachable storefront destination. Chalkboard-gray walls with even darker trim get lightened by exposed brick and plenty of raw wood. Lights recessed into a repurposed barn beam give the bar a warm glow; outsize metal dome lamps lend a funky factory feel.

So far, the crowds at Black Market have been as eclectic as the decor. Dinner is practically a who’s who of local arts organizers and community movers and shakers. At lunch, ordinary Joes in backward Colts caps take seats at the custom-made communal tables to one-up each other with stories about other great meals in town.  And who knew that peanut butter would go so well with hard-boiled eggs and garlicky ramps?

 The bar, with its usual-suspects craft-beer selection and anemic wine list, is still getting its legs under it. Frank’s innovative yet comforting eats beg for smarter pairings—something to better punctuate the “cocktail” of beef tongue with whipped cottage cheese, beets, and dill, for example. But the food is winning. An appetizer of soft buns stuffed with tender pulled duck, and a glazed hunk of pork belly on a bed of cabbage and al dente beans, hail from the East. The straightforward Welsh rarebit with a tangy beer-cheese sauce is more evolved than the midnight snack of yore, and ale also lends a complex tang to the broth on a big bowl of mussels studded with bacon.

Salads offer up some of Frank’s more original combinations, particularly an arugula version with both cantaloupe and heirloom tomatoes tied together with more salty bacon and plenty of sharp bleu cheese. The brief, selective menu makes it hard to choose between tender slices of braised beef with a restrained tomato-based barbecue sauce and melted cheddar, and a devilishly rare burger of both lamb and beef with a thick schmear of goat-cheese spread. A big butterflied filet of rainbow trout comes with perfectly crisp skin and creamy flesh atop a fragrant dill-and-olive panzanella that could be faulted only for being a tad soggy.

Eccentric desserts—panna cotta with candied popcorn, a s’mores-like shortbread with a charred marshmallow—can feel a tad thrown together, though they’re always fun and offer the same moment of wonder at just how to attack them. To the very end, Rudisell and Frank may not be telling their customers how to eat their whimsically composed dishes. But subtly they’re teaching Indianapolis how to dine.

922 Massachusetts Ave., 822-6757, blackmarketindy.com; HOURS Tuesday–Friday 11 a.m.–midnight, Saturday noon–midnight, Sunday noon–5 p.m.

Photograph by Tony Valainis.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.