Gone are the rustic mailboxes, the grape-vine wreaths, and the weathered tin watering cans. But chef-owner Ryan Nelson, former executive chef at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, has kept a good deal of the woodsy charm of the old Smith and Hawken location for his first solo effort, Late Harvest Kitchen (8605 River Crossing, 317-663-8063), which opened officially to the public on Friday night. We had fun trying to imagine where a bank of shelves might have been or whether we were dining in a former storage room or not (and dreaming of warmer weather to dine in the pergola outside). Nelson has definitely made the space his own, and a cozy bar inside the entryway, a dining room with sweeping ceilings, and elegant dark wood against white walls demonstrate the attention that’s gone into converting this former retail space into the latest seasonally inspired eatery to open in town.
That it’s opened its doors in a maze of chain eateries near Keystone Mall is a welcome sign that locavore cuisine isn’t merely for, well, locals in neighborhood enclaves. We toasted this fact with some fairly exemplary cocktails, including a spiced-up “Apple Smash” and “The Sancho,” a tequila drink with all the sweet, grassy tones of a green pepper and tangy pineapple juice. As for the food, Nelson hasn’t sacrificed anything without the support of an upscale national franchise. Nelson’s menu divides dishes into small plates, big plates, and sides, though we were so entranced by the promise of “poutine,” the quotidian Quebecois classic of cheese fries with gravy that we ordered it for a starter. A rich beef gravy and gooey, tangy cheese curds made this a hit.
A salad of greens with a subtly bitter edge was the most artful of small plates with hunks of charred pumpkin and luscious duck confit, though the house-made ricotta on toasts could have been seasoned a bit more. Hearty kielbasa, also made in house, were perked up with a dill-brown butter, and butternut squash soup got a twist with honeycrisp apples, though this made it quite sweet, and chestnuts might have had a slightly more roasted character to them. For entrees, ravioli with super tender braised short ribs got a shower of corn and an earthy undertone of truffles infused in creme fraiche. A big tender pork chop hardly needed the clams that came with it, but bacon marmalade and tender butter beans were nice touches. A golden and creamy skatewing was made even richer with andouille sausage.
Definitely on their game from the start are the desserts, especially the warm sticky toffee pudding, which Nelson brought with him from The Oceanaire, only here with almost more of a sweet crunch of raw sugar and a dark and earthy toffee. A big parfait glass came filled to the top with some of the thickest, silkiest chocolate mousse that any of us had dip spoons into. An apple tarte tatin with well-browned apples and a dense but crisp crust and vanilla ice cream was runner-up only by virtue of how good the other desserts were. Is Nelson’s first independent efforts the kind of food and finesse that Keystone Mall-goers and Northsiders will buy into for the long haul? If our first taste is any indication, we’ll definitely be back for many more meals, or even just dessert and drinks after a marathon shopping spree next door.