You’ve probably seen the Portlandia “Is the chicken local?” scene by now. It’s the one where a bistro-aproned restaurant server tells her customers that “The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts … His name was Collin. Here are his papers.” Snarky people like me might have laughed a little too hard at the joke—not that we needed any encouragement for all of our eye-rolling and snickering in the back pews of the Church of Sustainable Eating.
A place like Plow & Anchor could turn us into believers, though. The first time I had lunch at the airy, 74-seat restaurant on the ground level of downtown’s Ambassador building, I glanced out the window to see my friend Kate pull up on a bicycle hauling a large white cooler full of produce from Growing Places Indy, an urban-agriculture nonprofit with three downtown farm sites. She popped in the door, dropped off an order of microgreens without so much as removing her helmet, and then pedaled away. And yes, I did sit up a little taller in my repurposed–church pew chair, knowing that the tiny lettuces atop my Popcorn Duck Gizzards had traveled a mere two miles from soil to plate, via a human-powered vehicle, no less. You can name-drop your farmer friends and local sources until you run out of chalkboard—or you can deliver the goods quietly, like this.
I devoured those battered-and-fried gizzards, as delicate as oysters and garnished with chicken-liver mousse and popcorn-butter aioli. I didn’t need to know the duck’s name to realize that this new restaurant claiming to use local produce “whenever humanly possible” is the real deal. Dishes are as calculated as a fat slab of roasted halibut resting in a pool of creamy spring-pea nage with butter-poached radishes (which taste like the most decadent turnips) to the simplest inventions, like hot, crisp fingerling-potato chips scattered with creme fraiche and caviar—chips and dip fit for a Gabor sister.
Owners Derek Means and Craig Baker developed a loyal following on the suburban north side when they opened their family-friendly gourmet spot, The Local Eatery & Pub, in 2011. Plow & Anchor’s head chef, John Adams, served as co-executive chef at Bluebeard and recently worked at two of the top restaurants in Louisville: Proof on Main and Milkwood. And this address, a good-looking corner spot next to Central Library, housed three restaurants in as many years (each short-lived, Baker believes, because they focused more on their drink programs than on their kitchens).
Adams is at his best when he pushes his customers to taste new things, to trust his offbeat epicurean instincts.
All of these elements come together in one of the most exciting (and important) area restaurants to open this year. It even nails the details, like a genuinely informed staff and a wine list that gives plenty of love to sakes, roses, and bubbles. “I originally wanted to do more of a Southern Mediterranean menu, focusing on Greece, Italy, and Southern France,” Baker says. “But John’s cooking style gravitates toward Spain.” The chef’s orientation found the perfect platform in Plow & Anchor’s custom 800-degree plancha grill, a Spanish flat-top that cooks and sears proteins very quickly—including a double-pattied burger that comes out topped with drunken goat cheese, onion jam, and pickle chips.
But Adams is at his best when he pushes his customers to taste new things, to trust his offbeat epicurean instincts. In one version of his daily-changing menu, Adams paired chunks of plancha-seared octopus with the musky, salty flavors of cured olives and chorizo and piled it on crisp bruschetta with dollops of Greek yogurt. He plated a lamb loin with a poached farm egg and the spreadable Italian pork sausage nduja, which has a distinctive spicy funk that almost stings the tongue at first bite but gets better with each mouthful. For one of his first dessert offerings when the restaurant opened in early summer, Adams topped a lavender biscuit with strawberries, rhubarb gelee, and peas. The dull sweetness and vegetal undertones showcased not only the chef’s brilliance but also the freshest ingredients of the Indiana season.
Which proves that you can preach the gospel of local food without forcing it down our throats.
PLOW & ANCHOR
43 E. 9th St., 317-964-0538, plowandanchor.com
Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the August 2014 issue.