For local fans of Top Chef, watching episodes can inspire bouts of metropolitan envy. Where, people might wonder, do our own hot culinary upstarts—our Harolds and Hungs—conspire to plate their next great dish? How far would we have to drive to taste them?
If you think that kind of fresh-faced creativity doesn’t exist in Indy, take the elevator straight up the middle tower at the Pyramids. There, atop one of three glass monoliths on the northwest curve of I-465, students in the international culinary program at the Art Institute of Indianapolis run a 40-seat daytime bistro called Eleven at the Pyramids. Dining here at lunch, on contemporary Continental dishes like complex, authentic pastas and trumped-up Black Angus burgers, feels like you’re in the middle of a cooking reality show—a local version in which you get to be the judge.
You also get to enjoy the show. A giant picture window in the elevator lobby offers a view of one of the school’s pristine kitchens, and monitors throughout the dining room provide a closed-circuit feed of student-chefs preparing your meal. It can make for tasty voyeurism, at least when you’re not gawking at the sweeping panorama, 11 stories up, of forested suburbia. “This view is like nothing else in the city,” says dining instructor Steve Keneipp, who runs the class.
Keneipp, who made his mark on the local dining scene throughout the ’80s as the chef of Noblesville’s white-tablecloth icon, Classic Kitchen, will likely explain to you, as he strolls over in his toque and spiffy chef’s shirt, that the students here are completing an 11-week course, getting hands-on experience both in the kitchen and at the front of the house. This means a lot more staffers mill about the place than at your typical restaurant, making for a swift dining experience. The servers-in-training are exceptionally polite and eager to please, proof that Keneipp runs a tight ship.
Eleven’s slender pamphlet of a menu evolves with the school quarters, and the cafe is open just 40 weeks each year to accommodate semester breaks and vacations. Learning experience or not, the students’ dishes are refreshing in their edgy, distinct flavors and innovative plating. Soups (such as a brothy riff on etouffee) and salads (including one dressed in a citrus vinaigrette with light, crisp veggies like thinly shaved parsnip) come gratis but hardly seem gratuitous.
As a sheer tour de force of mastered technique, a well-balanced plate of duck breast complemented by luscious duck confit garnered top marks from our table. The meat was first cooked to temperature sous-vide, not exactly a new process (in which food is cooked slowly inside sealed plastic bags immersed in circulating water), but still a rare one in Indy. After a good sear in a saute pan, the duck was plated with an aromatic chutney of preserved lemon and figs, lending a slight holiday flair, as well as shreds of sweet chard and whisper-thin tips of asparagus. The coating of dried cloud ear mushrooms on a triangular steak of swordfish provided more in the way of color than seasoning, the predominant flavor drawn instead from black pepper. But its garnishes, from a lightly perfumed lemongrass broth to pickled radishes interlaced with soba noodles, delighted.
Even the drinks are ambitious, given that alcohol is not served on campus, a fact that hampered dinner crowds when the restaurant opened briefly at night in late 2011. A host of housemade beverages fills the gap, in combinations ranging from hibiscus tea to a thyme-scented Italian lemonade with woodsy, savory undertones—almost more appropriate for marinating chicken than drinking.
As if to riff on culinary reality shows even further, the dessert du jour had the feel of a successful Chopped assemblage of mismatched ingredients: a porcelain bowl filled with sweet Grape-Nuts–like crumbs of streusel, topped with pastry cream lightened with whipped cream, a dense compote of tart summer berries, and buttery rounds of puff pastry. Was there a bit too much streusel at the bottom of the bowl? Too little pastry cream? We could have passed along these nitpicking comments to the chef, but having enjoyed the experience so much, from the food to the service to that view, how could we recommend anything less than an A?
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the November 2012 issue.