Editor’s Note, May 27, 2014: For the full 2014 roster of Best Restaurants, click here.
Each May, the editors of Indianapolis Monthly feature the city’s best restaurants, whether new or tried and true.
From The Libertine to Recess and Oakleys to Bluebeard, Korean to Latin and sushi to steak, our critics chose the cream of Indy’s dining crop in 2013. Who’s at the head of the table? Read on to find out.
—Edited by Julia Spalding, with Trisha Brand
Napolese: Neapolitan Dynamite
We know we shouldn’t fall for such art-directed soul. We want to hate the oversized lighting and the washtub where they keep the water carafes and the mini jars of grated Parmesan delivered to reclaimed-wood tables. But we thoroughly adore the pizza salon’s rustic-chic–meets–Type-A-perfection. Neapolitan pizzas come with no more than three artisanal ingredients—we favor the Elliot’s Pie, with pancetta, roasted new potatoes, and Gorgonzola, served “white” (Napolese parlance for replacing red sauce with olive oil and garlic). There’s much more to love beyond the main attraction, too. An appetizer trio of bison-and-sausage meatballs, veiled in provolone, surprises with its spicy bite. And you’ll want to save room for dessert, especially the seasonal cobbler. 114 E. 49th St., 317-925-0765; 30 S. Meridian St., 635-0765; napolesepizzeria.com.
St. Elmo Steak House: Bastion of Beef
In many ways, the downtown icon that has hosted generations of expense accounts and gentlemen’s nights out has not bothered to fix what isn’t broken. It’s the same glass of tomato juice/cup of navy bean soup, baked potato rolled in salt, and wet-aged hunks of meat that yield tenderly to the cut. And God forbid anybody mess with the sadistic degree of heat in the shrimp cocktail’s sauce. But the addition of 1933 Lounge—with its crackling fireplaces, deep leather chairs, and drink list that incorporates plenty of bourbon—has locked in a younger audience as well. 127 S. Illinois St., 317-635-0636, stelmos.com.
Indigo Duck: Southern Belle
A delicious hybrid of Southern cooking, French technique, and pure stacked-and-molded ambition, this small-town surprise sits just off the square in Franklin. South Carolina transplant Joseph Hewett, an alum of Oakleys Bistro, runs this show featuring elaborate renditions of standards such as fried green tomatoes (with chili-pickled shrimp), fried chicken (upon caramelized cabbage), and Caesar salad (with fried Brussels-sprout leaves). The Sunday brunch raises the bar for bedheaded elegance. 39 E. Court St., Franklin, 317-560-5805, theindigoduck.com.
[Editor’s Note: Sadly, Joseph Hewett, owner of Indigo Duck and the chef who ushered many of the restaurant’s dishes out of the kitchen, passed away earlier this month.]
Oakleys Bistro: Delicious Design
The elaborately deconstructed plating of nouvelle cuisine is alive and well at Steven Oakley’s safe house for diners who still prefer to sit back and admire their food before eating it. The menu descriptions are more like suggestionsof what might end up on the table before you. Oakley’s interpretation of the French classic coq au vin, for example, involves not Julia Child’s hearty stew of poultry and red wine, but rather a pressed cylinder of white meat wrapped in its own skin and crisped, on a plate decorated with button-sized dollops of carrot puree and skeletal fans of dried onions. Oakleys translates meat-and-potatoes standards into dishes like fall-apart short ribs with bleu-cheese hushpuppies and potato puree piped into a tube made of fried potatoes. The showmanship here deserves a standing ovation. 1464 W. 86th St., 317-824-1231, oakleysbistro.com.
Cerulean: Modern-Art Meal
A seasoned restaurateur at the age of 30, Cerulean chef-owner Caleb France had already found success with his flagship restaurant in Winona Lake when he brought the out-there concept to downtown’s CityWay complex last winter. He fearlessly rolled out a gorgeous repertoire of plates, like a tiny roasted quail resting amid a Harlem Shake of adornments: frizzled kale; potato puree; dabs of cherry butter; and a jelly bubble that, when pierced, releases a warm stock cooked out of a blend of maple, walnut, and hickory woods. Servings are downsized, designed to be ordered in multiples and shared around the table, an idea in perfect step with France’s goal of running a restaurant that brings people together (perhaps while sheltered inside a private dining area called The Nest, an Airstream-sized structure made of interlocking strips of bent wood). Sound a bit overwhelming? Cerulean takes the concept down a notch at lunch, when the menu offerings are served in modern bento boxes, with one main and three sides. 339 S. Delaware St., 317-870-1320, ceruleanrestaurant.com.
Late Harvest Kitchen: Accessible Elegance
Head chef Ryan Nelson reinvented his polished cuisine when he went solo with this ambitious venture on the outskirts of The Fashion Mall. Restaurant scenesters expecting an-other fish-centric spread were instead surprised with a rotating lineup of hearty yet refined beef-and-starch dishes with decadent sauces generously applied. But Nelson has not lost his surfside touch. On a recent visit, the delicate mahi mahi impressed on a bed of barley and feta. But most importantly, none of the food here feels forced. Only a true star can make it look this easy. 8605 River Crossing Blvd., 317-663-8063, lateharvestkitchen.com.
Tulip Noir: Bauhaus Brunch
Don’t be put off by the idea of the “healthy” cooking happening at Tulip Noir; the lovingly researched, smartly executed brunch and lunch fare is never too contrived. Energetic owner Dina Romay-Sipe presides over this minimalistic scene. “I strongly feel restaurant owners have a responsibility to serve healthy meals,” she says. Since opening in 2008, Romay-Sipe has let her uber-fresh, gorgeously presented rotating dishes convert skeptics. “I now sell more vegetables and less meat,” she says. Pay special attention to Sam’s Eggs Benedict (constructed with a perfectly orange, perfectly runny egg topped with the most wonderful hollandaise brightened with extra lemon). Brunch agnostic? Get after the popular veggie quesadilla: The roasted seasonal vegetables, cocooned in a velvety layer of pepper-Jack cheese, rest within a crispy multigrain tortilla.1224 W. 86th St., 317-848-5252, tulipnoircafe.com.
Peterson’s: Supper-Club Scene
In the 14 years this northside standard has been in business, two things have always been true: The diners at the next table have spent more time in the salon than you, and, despite several changes in chefs, the food has been consistently excellent. The kitchen staff seems to maintain the chophouse traditions of this clubby draw while adding some unexpected twists. The steaks are top notch, but the short ribs rubbed in coffee and served with polenta and a rich red-wine jus will be what you remember days later. The salads might just rank as the best in the city, and certainly the prettiest: jewel-like pickled beets with walnut yogurt; artisan greens with slivers of root vegetables so crisp they crackle and then vanish in your mouth. The secluded booths trimmed in cut-glass dividers might be a tad dated, but Joe Peterson’s desire to strive for the best dining experience possible still holds true, down to the ultra-thick and luscious slice of sugar cream pie, baked from a Peterson family-heirloom recipe. 7690 E. 96th St., Fishers, 317-598-8863, petersonsrestaurant.com.
R Bistro: Seasonal Simplicity
In the beginning, Regina Mehallick was a trendsetter: the first chef in town to list her local farmstead sources, changing her menu weekly to reflect the season, with straightforward dishes tasting of the terroir on which their components were raised. Indeed, the experience here has hardly changed since R Bistro opened in 2001, amidst darkened storefronts on the far reach of Mass Ave, though today’s staff seems less knowledgeable about the offerings. Lightly dressed greens and homey soups start your meal; pork, chicken, or seafood seasoned with restraint and served with grilled or mashed veggies comes next. There is always an equally delectable vegetarian option—savory bread pudding, a galette, or hearty grains. Fruit crisps, pies, and pots de creme also truly delight. 888 Massachusetts Ave., 317-423-0312, rbistro.com.
Black Market: Classy Comfort Food
Now that the buzz about pickle plates and communal tables has died down, Black Market has settled into the kind of restaurant that Indianapolis needs: a come-as-you-are, brick-and-wood charmer that draws you back time and time again with its evolving menu of innovative comfort food, dead-on beer list, and delectably offbeat cocktails. Is it any wonder that veteran New York Times contributor Mark Bittman cited it in a June 2012 article as a “winner” and evidence of “the interest in food that has spread throughout the country”? What co-owner Ed Rudisell has long known is that our interest was always there—we just needed a venue that lived up to it. And whether you choose a big plate of fried bluegill with grits smothered in hamhock gravy or a hearty vegan coconut curry with as much flavor as any carnivorous dish you’ve ever eaten, chef Micah Frank, Rudisell’s soft-spoken business partner, has the savvy to tweak his menu to prevailing tastes without spilling an ounce of pretense into his saute pan. 922 Massachusetts Ave., 317-822-6757, blackmarketindy.net.
Delicia: Latin Beauty
This airy, modern eatery (brought to you by the owners of The Northside Social) opened in March but already feels like it has been here for years. Exposed wood beams and glass arched accents mix with soft ambient lighting, creating a chic, relaxing vibe. And Delicia’s upscale-ish fare melds many styles of Latin cuisine, not just from one country or culture. Playful craft concoctions dominate the menu, as well as some regional wines. Among a variety of dishes, these stand out as winners: the rich queso fundido with chorizo, melted cheeses, and a tomato-poblano sauce; a trio of scallops wrapped in Serrano ham and topped with a fantastic lemon-cava sauce, matchsticked radishes, and microgreens; and the velvety, not-too-soggy tres leches cake. 5215 N. College Ave., 317-925-0677.
The Libertine Liquor Bar: Posh Bar Nosh
When Neal Brown opened this spot in 2011, Indy was new to the cocktail trend. Success spread like a meme, as cool kids thirsty for the next big thing queued up for cocktails assembled with eyedroppers and shaken by handsome men in proper vests. But genteel irony will only get you so far. So the prolific restaurateur filled the remaining pages of his leather-bound ledger menu with heartier entrees much more filling than bar snacks, like Dijon-braised local rabbit—decadence to the third degree. The deviled eggs arrive in a porcelain egg carton, topped with caviar. Salads—like the one with sliced green grapes and slivered fennel—are brilliantly composed. The bartenders are still the headline act—as proficient and precocious as ever. But it would be a shame not to stay for the full show. 38 E. Washington St., 317-631-3333, libertineindy.com.
10-01 Food & Drink: Comeback Kid
Bru Burger: Beef Bombshells
There’s no shortage of quintessential guilty pleasures in this town: cheesy pizza, steak-and-tater combos, and frozen treats on cones. Oh, and burgers! We found a place that gets it right every time. The juicy griddle-cooked patties at Bru are made with beef from Creekstone Farms, the same purveyor who sells meat to high-profile restaurateurs in New York (including Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, and David Burke). Owner Mike Cunningham (of the Cunningham Restaurant Group) admits the haute- burger trend wasn’t his idea, but after watching them pop up in other markets, he saw an opportunity in Indy. It’s taken off—Bru served 150,000 burgers its first year. The menu includes the Provencal, piled high with red-onion jam, herbed goat cheese, and sauteed mushrooms, along with The End, a beef bomb loaded with horseradish Havarti, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and a fried egg. It’s not just the toppings—the all-important bun-to-burger ratio is spot-on, thanks to a custom patty die mold (which also gives them that hand-shaped look). Sides come a la carte, and the jalapeño mac ’n’ cheese, with andouille sausage and shrimp, gives the PBR-battered onion rings with slightly sweet housemade ketchup a run for their money. 410 Massachusetts Ave., 317-635-4278, bruonmass.com.
Szechwan Garden: Spicy Standout
A Chinese restaurant tucked among gentlemen’s clubs and body shops hardly promises to rank among the city’s best. But the quality of the Szechwan favorites this eatery puts out has gained it a loyal following. That success earned Szechwan Garden a recent renovation, raising the ambience several notches. The extensive menu makes few Western concessions, offering a primer in the often lightning-hot dishes of southwestern China. Dan Dan noodles in chili oil and simple pork dumplings are required starters, but the possibilities are endless thereafter, from whole fish in bean sauce and dry pots of frog legs to eggplant that invariably wins converts and perhaps the lightest fish soup in the city. 3649 Lafayette Rd., 317-328-2888.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room: Old-School Trawler
Given how busy its parent group, Landry’s, has been acquiring chains (Morton’s, McCormick & Schmick’s) in the last few years, one might wonder if this local outpost is still paying the attention to detail that earned it a special place in the hearts of Indy’s seafood-lovers a decade ago. Fortunately, chef Mark Marlar makes exciting dishes from daily shipments of Skuna Bay salmon or grouper cheeks, and he still plans regular themed dinners. Pristine oysters from both coasts, crispy calamari tossed with vegetables, and whole fried yellow snapper in a sweet chili glaze are all recent highlights, and standards, such as the hash browns and sticky toffee pudding, still impress after all these years. 30 S. Meridian St., 317-955-2277, theoceanaire.com.
Mama’s House Korean Restaurant: Asian Barbecue
If you’re seeking an obscure spot to drag your adventurous friends to on a food odyssey, MaMa’s House Korean Restaurant is it. In traditional ethnic dives, taste often surpasses style, and this friendly 20-year-old family-run place is no exception. MaMa’s offers Korean-inspired tabletop barbecue, where diners can opt to cook the food themselves on a charcoal fire system. Ask for a sweet-and-golden Hite-brand lager (not listed on the menu). Then order the dolsot bibimbop, a satisfying and colorful bowl of rice, sliced marinated beef, julienned veggies, crisp greens, sprouts, and hot chili paste, topped with a fried egg and sesame seeds. It’s served in a hot clay stone that continues to cook the ingredients as you eat. The complimentary small plates of banchan (pickles, salads, and fermented treats) are delicious only when this fresh. The best include cubes of pleasantly chewy potatoes in a soy glaze and lengthwise-cut cucumbers in a paste of red pepper, garlic, scallion, and ginger. Save some—these little dishes complement the big, fatty flavor from the soon-to-be-grilled-yourself kahl bee (short ribs), tenderized and marinated for 10 hours before being broiled. Newbies: It’s best to let the meat cook slowly on the edge of the grill, long enough to get a tiny bit of char to really build up the flavor. 8867 Pendleton Pike, 317-897-0808, mamaskoreanrestaurant.com.
Taste Cafe & Marketplace: Top Technique
You expect something special when you sup at a restaurant that only serves dinner twice a week (on school nights, no less), and that’s what you get at this cozy College Avenue hotspot. Brunch might be Taste’s claim to fame, but it’s clear the dinner program gets the most fussing-over. Expect to spend some time studying the 60-plus items on the menu (not counting the long list of highly involved specials the server will rattle off). The options manage to run the gamut from Mediterranean to American Haute to gussied-up comfort food without feeling unfocused. Be prepared to labor over choices such as a “snack” of yolky truffled eggs with asparagus and Swiss cheese on toast, and a tartine with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, and pesto. And which “main” should you pick—pink salmon slow-roasted and topped with a tangy dill-pistachio pistou, or that perfect little filet mignon? Your best bet is to bring a group and try it all. Just be sure to save room for the ungodly panna cotta or berry clafoutis (translation: fancy strawberry shortcake)—but you won’t want to share those. 5164 N. College Ave., 317-925-2233, tastecafeandmarketplace.com.
The Local Eatery & Pub: Farm-fed Gastropub
Co-owners Craig Baker and Derek Means bring a touch of Portlandia to their perpetually mobbed restaurant in Westfield. When concerned diners ask if their braised rabbit is organic, hormone-free, and raised nearby, the partners—who keep close ties to their 65 local food vendors—can answer with a clear conscience. But The Local doesn’t come off like any ordinary regional-cuisine–centric restaurant: It’s casual, approachable, and affordable, the expected food snobbery curbed by cement floors, mounted TVs, servers in branded tees, a playful kids’ menu, and unapologetically tavern-style fare (23 of the dishes are served between the bun). The options are inventive. Housemade kimchi props up crispy duck wings. The veggie burger is made of ground beets and walnuts. Dessert might be a peppermint-mocha tiramisu. But not all are adventurous—the menu offers several straightforward dishes, like a technically perfect grilled pork chop dressed with a smoky black pepper–honey reduction (and complemented by the familiar mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables). Required order for the table: the ultra-creamy, decadent white cheddar mac ’n’ cheese, tinged with bits of rich bacon lardon. 14655 N. Gray Rd., Westfield, 317-218-3786, localeateryandpub.com.
Recess & Room Four: Polished Pizzazz
The fixed-price menu at Greg Hardesty’s Recess is constantly evolving, with one wickedly delicious plate after another coming out of the kitchen. When he opened the spot in 2010, chef-owner Hardesty brought the big-city trend of small, predetermined multi-course meals to Indy—only he left out outrageous price tags and pretension. A recent favorite: three perfectly browned Maine scallops atop a thin layer of pasta with a touch of oven-roasted tomato broth and crunchy nubs of shaved bottarga for another layer of texture. Portions are small, just enough to add up to a satisfying meal in the end. Feel like controlling your dining destiny? At Room Four, the a la carte sister spot next door, Hardesty elevates familiar dishes such as chicken tenders and burgers, using the finest ingredients (a lamb burger comes with white cheddar on a toasted sesame bun) and top-flight technique. Having two full-fledged restaurants side by side could lead to sibling rivalry. But instead, Hardesty lives under the steadfast belief that every customer—and every dish—counts. 4907 N. College Ave., 317-925-7529, recessindy.com.
H2O Restaurant & Sushi Bar: Fusion Favorite
A vacation, even a short one, can restore the original zeal and passion for one’s job. That definitely seems the case at this fusion sushi spot, where chef-owners Eli and Nicole Anderson have been back in business for just more than three years after taking a much-needed break from the rigors of owning a restaurant. Building on the funky, utterly original innovations of recently departed chef John Adams, the Andersons have continued the tradition of seasonal daily specials as well as some of the cheekier, more daring sushi rolls in town. The Crazy Ho and Buttery Nipple are more than just winking monikers, offering up ultra-fresh components such as tuna and eel paired with crunchy accompaniments and topped with piquant sauces. The lush noodle bowl with duck is a must when it’s available. And Nicole Anderson’s long-famous cookies, gelatos, and sorbets still make for some of the most playful desserts in the city. 1912 Broad Ripple Ave., 317-254-0677, h2osushibar.com.
Plum’s Upper Room: Revived Bistro
The garret-like second-floor walkup that serves as the dining room for this beloved Zionsville draw has never been short on charm. The soaring beams, the wood-framed bar, and the view of Main Street all conspire to make this one of the coziest spaces in the area. Now, rising-star chef Jeremiah Clark is injecting a bit of youthfulness into this century-old address, evidenced in specials with a host of locally sourced ingredients and such innovative bistro fare as skate with Lyonnaise potatoes, hearty vegetarian pastas with pickled beet greens and Brussels sprouts, and rainbow trout with a mushroom ragu. His seasonal menu diversifies with a host of salads, flatbreads, and smaller dishes like bacon-wrapped scallops and a version of the classic Alsatian tarte flambe. Even heartier plates, such as duck breast and a delectable nut-and-spice–crusted rack of lamb, have a lightness to them. Save room for the balsamic and pistachio ice creams. 112 S. Main St., Zionsville, 317-873-5577, plumsupperroom.com.
Meridian Restaurant & Bar: Rustic Refinement
Pizzology: Perfectly Upper Crust
The name of Neal Brown’s most casual restaurant to date compels your eyes to beeline to the list of pies—Neapolitan, of course, blazed for a few minutes in a 700-degree oven. The thin, chewy crust comes out with pillowed edges and intended spots of char, and toppings read like a picnic packed by Mario Batali—the Carni garnishes medallions of housemade porchetta, mortadella, and pepperoni with a bush of Eden Farms arugula. The menu must be the only one in town underplaying the provenance of its proteins; the kitchen cures its own sausage using Gunthorp Farms meat and pulls its own mozzarella from imported curds. As satisfying as the pies are, they alone do not land Pizzology on this list. Part of the credit goes to the large-portioned risotto and a penne dish dressed with sage brown butter and tossed with a dice of sweet, roasted squash; crumbles of fennel sausage; and ribbons of rapini, a leafy green. The risotto is prepared perfectly al dente and enriched with an earthy mix of herbs and vegetables. One version is cooked in a reduction of juice from wood-roasted mushrooms; another combines Brussels sprouts and charred figs. As for the uninspired location—a barren corner in Carmel’s newer sprawl—and that soundtrack of ’80s cheese, all is forgiven thanks to the playful attitude inside. A chalkboard wall says it best: “Hey, kids, we saved your seat.”13190 Hazel Dell Pkwy., Carmel, 317-844-2554, pizzologyindy.com.
Bluebeard: Restaurant of the Year
It is no surprise that the nearby neighborhood associations clamored to claim residence for this scruffy gourmet spot on Virginia Ave. Whether the locale belongs to Fletcher Place or Holy Rosary, or falls under the ever-growing halo of Fountain Square, Bluebeard not only put that blue-collar pocket on the dining map but also surpassed every other restaurant in town as this year’s top place to eat. Using a perpetually fresh rotation of ingredients, chef-partners John and Abbi Adams keep the tables in this crowded dining room loaded with deliciously weird combos of grilled octopus … radishes and goat butter … foie gras and pineapple … and salads, chopped and stacked, that burst with flavors of fresh greens mixed in lemon and oil and piled with cured meats and artisan cheeses. The food is creative without trying too hard. The thoughtful servers earn your trust. The atmosphere is warm and humble, filled with old typewriters, vintage books, and other erstwhile trinkets. Through and through, the restaurant is decidedly Indianapolis, even named after a Vonnegut book. Bluebeard might have ridden into town on a wave of buzz, but it has lived up to expectations: a place everyone wants to call their own. 653 Virginia Ave., 317-686-1580, bluebeardindy.com
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the May 2013 issue.