The menu plays coy at Topo’s 403, Bloomington’s elegant-edgy riff on Mediterranean food. An entree billed as spanakopita rainbow trout arrives not in the expected brick of phyllo but as a piece of iridescent-skinned fish, filleted and stuffed with spinach and cheese. You taste the same strata of crisp, salty flavors—the sweet nuttiness of the fish layered with the savory greens, on a bed of bulgur salad brightened with lemon-caper vinaigrette. But this is the big fat Greek restaurant standard deconstructed. Here, authenticity is overrated.
Open since early August, the restaurant takes its name from owner Jim Topolgus, a local surgeon, and sits grandly in a restored 1870s brick townhouse tastefully outfitted in high silk drapes and transomed doorways. A handsome crew of servers dressed in black adds to the air of refined swagger.
The menu is equally confident, developed under the guidance of James Beard–nominated chef David Tallent, the toque in charge of another Bloomington standout, Restaurant Tallent. Elaborately sauced and locally sourced meats—such as a Gunthorp Farms chicken breast plated with couscous-stuffed tomatoes, roasted broccoli, and romesco—bear Tallent’s haute Hoosier stamp. And he recruited a Tallent alum, Jason Shoulders (most recently of Oakleys Bistro), to serve as chef de cuisine. The two took some creative liberties with traditional dishes such as avgolemono soup, a bright, rich chicken broth imbued with lemon and beaten eggs, served here with the inspired addition of roasted-chicken arancini—a flotilla of crunchy Italian risotto balls that you shear off as you eat the soup to get a wonderful spoonful of texture.
“There were some dishes that we definitely wanted on the menu,” says Stephanie Topolgus, a daughter of the surgeon, who left a position at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin to help set up the restaurant. “Greek spaghetti is something that we had all grown up with, eating my grandma’s version,” she says. Topo’s rendition is a complex ragu of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, honey—“about 20 ingredients,” as Topolgus puts it, all playing off of the richness of the finely ground beef and lamb. Under a melting snow of salty white myzithra cheese, this simply presented entree is one of the most coveted dishes on the table. And that’s saying a lot at a restaurant where everything seems to have been conceptualized down to the last dollop of tzatziki.
A bowl of paella places fat shrimp and mussels atop a bed of saffron rice—lightly fried to a crunch—to soak up the chicken-and-chorizo–studded broth. It’s an aromatic showstopper, like something found on the streets of Valencia. A hulking lamb chop, rich and gamey, rests on braised greens, flavored with roasted-artichoke sauce and a Nike swoosh of jus. Two metal skewers of pork souvlaki with alternating bites of baby squash crisscross a heap of fat tomato-braised gigante beans and loukanika sausage, exotic and delicious. And for an appetizer called Devils on Horseback, the kitchen stuffs candy-sweet Medjool dates with Capriole goat cheese, adds the musky flavor of bresaola—an air-dried beef—and covers it all with a spicy tomato sauce. Sop it up with hunks of thick, grilled housemade pita, more like chewy Moroccan bread than the standard Greek pockets.
It seems Topo’s falls short only when it attempts too much. Such was the case with a piece of Hawaiian swordfish that paired wonderfully with the tomato richness of
its base layer—orzo cooked with red peppers, olives, and caramelized fennel—but then got lost in the sharp bite of an overly acidic pesto. Likewise, a grilled summer-melon salad placed on a disk of warm, firm manouri cheese couldn’t find its focus under so much olive tapenade and arugula.
Topo’s makes good at the end, though, with a brief lineup of desserts (all Shoulders’s creations), including powdered sugar–dusted balls of fried yeast dough called loukoumades—Greek doughnut holes that you dip in salted caramel sauce between moans. And yes, there is baklava, drenched as it is in orange-blossom honey and topped with rosewater whipped cream, to remind us of the sweet taste of tradition.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the October 2012 issue.