When chefs Marc Urwand and Deidra Henry, both fresh from restaurant stints in Southern California, opened Taste Cafe & Marketplace in 2004, the term “SoBro” had barely entered our lexicon. The same goes for “frites.” Ten years after their elevated brunch cuisine sent the first wave of diners south of Broad Ripple and changed the way we address our french fries, the couple have set their sights on cocktails, turning the space next door into Eat + Drink, a two-level gin den partially positioned inside a retired shipping container.
Mixology is a natural progression for the Taste brand, which rolled out a long-winded, twice-a-week dinner menu five years ago featuring enough braised meats and chorizo-stuffed dates to suggest that the kitchen needed more of a challenge. What surprises about Eat + Drink is how this snug, graffiti-chic space reimagines the concept of boozy swank. The decor mixes crisp, midcentury molded-plastic chairs with paneled floors as craggy as pallet wood and Plexiglas-topped case tables filled with spent spray-paint cans for a rather refined under-the-bridge feel. Between sips of Toasted Walnut Martini, you can rest your stemmed glass on a reclaimed-wood tabletop built into a neo-institutional steel base straight out of study hall, or ease your sit bones onto a stool that is really just a varnished tree stump. Deep leather club chairs and tufted sofas? You won’t find any of those old cocktail-lounge frills here, Grampa.
The scene is more forgiving on the lower level, where the decor softens (with a fireplace built into the wall, even) and the lights dim to a dusky glow that, while flattering in a Dutch Masters–painting kind of way, creates a challenge when reading the menu. I chuckled (too soon) as the gentleman at the next table used the flashlight app on his smartphone to see the print. And then I had to tilt my own paper menu toward the light of a flat-screen TV before deciding on a couple of small-plate snacks, among them salmon-roe deviled eggs stuffed with a creamy, picnic-style sweet yolk that popped with the delicious brininess of those salty little fish pearls. This is the kind of smart interpretation of a simple dish that Taste (which shares the kitchen and—come to think of it—several familiar menu items) does so well.
Sandwiches make up the bulk of the menu, ranging from breaded tilapia, smeared with remoulade and tucked neatly inside a bun, to a pork-shoulder “banh mi” wrap stuffed with strips of meat, a swipe of pate, and all of the musky marinated veggies of the original Vietnamese sub. The hulking bacon-and-Boursin sandwich, a glorified BLT, adds avocado and sprouts; replaces the mayo with the soft, cream-cheesy texture of Boursin; and roasts the tomatoes for a more-concentrated
tang. And a zesty fried–green-tomato sandwich layers the cornmeal-crusted slices with a rich pimiento-cheese spread (a double dose of Southern), chopped fresh kale, and basil vinaigrette. That’s a lot of strong, competing flavors—a hallmark of this crew’s unapologetically rich food, leaning hard on mayo and garlic and determined to send diners home with leftovers. The reason they went with sandwiches, Urwand explains, is because “we didn’t want to serve anything that required a knife and fork.”
That vision bodes well for an establishment that defines itself as a cocktail lounge (primarily) with a bit of food. The drink list has flickers of brilliance, as in the gin fizz–like Nosferatu, a pretty pink sipper made with gin and housemade blood-orange syrup, topped with an egg-white foam. Most of the drinks—like an “xtra dirty” Triple D Martini and a Bonfire Margarita poured with housemade tamarind syrup and rimmed with smoked salt—rely more on gimmick than on flawless execution, however, and a true libertine might balk at the lack of an actual, physical bar. Potions are mixed behind a counter that you pass on your way to the washroom, which removes the thrill of watching your drink come together at the hands of a skilled ’tender, the artist at work.
Then again, Eat + Drink is itself a bit of an installation piece, with its carefully chosen decor and menu items planned out as meti-culously as movie props. Maybe we, cast as the performers, are the ones who should worry about looking the part.
EAT + DRINK
5168 N. College Ave., 317-925-2233, eatplusdrink.net
Hours Wed.–Sat. 5 p.m.–midnight; weekend brunch Sat.–Sun. noon–3 p.m.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue.