On the other end of the phone line, the server stammered and asked if I could hold for a moment. And then, speaking loudly over the din of background noise … “We might be able to get you a table at 7:15, but it will probably be closer to 7:30 or 7:45.” Or, she said, I could eat at the bar—if I could find a place to sit.
Really? Could a Saturday-night reservation at downtown Franklin’s 60-seat gourmet bistro, Indigo Duck, be this difficult to get? Were hordes of diners really this smitten with a tiny college-town restaurant eight highway exits south of Indy’s closest culinary flashpoints? Apparently so. We took the 7:15 and hoped for the best.
Two years after Joseph Hewett—a South Carolina transplant who honed his skills in Indianapolis at Oakleys Bistro—opened this shotgun-style restaurant just off the courthouse square, people are still discovering its creamy, buttery, emulsion-dribbled charms. Here, menu items sound temptingly dreamed-up: pork-and-pistachio terrine on truffle-grilled toasts, brick-grilled Simpson’s Farm chicken on chive-and-hominy waffles with peach butter, and (of course) a decadent shrimp and grits with white wine and cream (as well as its equally sinful cousin, duck confit and grits). Comfort food shows its wild side in dishes like cracker-fried Indiana pork loin, which sits in pink slices on a layer of thick greens sauteed just past their wilting point. Beneath that, three sweet-corn Johnnycakes come crispy-edged and dense enough to hold up to the heavy layering of flavors, even with a salad tumbling off the top, bursting with a briny Amish cherry-tomato vinaigrette. Did you get all that?
Hewett’s dishes have a lot going on. Maybe, in some cases, a bit too much going on. But he’s a big man who makes big food—the kind of plates that leave an impression. “For $20-plus an entree, the food has to be serious enough to deliver,” the 35-year-old chef explains. “But when you go out to eat, you should enjoy yourself. So I like to keep my customers happy on a whimsical level, too.” Hence, a monstrous grilled-scallop Monte Cristo sandwiched inside sourdough French toast with warm maple syrup for dipping, and the return of the amuse bouche—playful little courtesies from the kitchen, like a dollop of pulled pork on crostini, that demonstrate the chef’s prowess in two bites or less.
Whimsy or not, I was dubious about an appetizer described as avocado pancakes topped with jumbo lump crab salad and microgreens. It sounded like one of those overwrought dishes better in concept than reality. But the avocado gave the pancakes an earthy richness cut by the crab’s sweetness, with citrus butter sauce melding the components and a swoosh of mango puree adding a final layer of flavor. Somehow, the combination—sweet and savory, warm and cool—worked.
Building out your dinner like this can get exhausting, though, parceling bites so that each ingredient gets onto the fork. Take the $31 grilled ribeye. This hulking cut with a subtle crust and a velvety rare texture could only tease, wedged as it was beneath tiers of cheesy hash-brown casserole, slow-cooked green beans, and beer-battered onion rings—all drizzled with a creamy Tabasco hollandaise that made the entire plate taste like a very elaborate hot wing. Down-home cooking meets fine dining … at a sports bar.
Hewett’s background contributes to this bouillabaisse of concepts. The Southern chef, who claims to offer “the best fried chicken you have ever tasted,” has a classical French training that shows up in a rainbow of cream-based sauces and wine-braised meats. Hewett also has a sense of humor. His menu refers to something called Pate of the South, also known as pimiento cheese. “There’s a little bit of sour cream, some cumin, and a little bit of cayenne,” the chef explains. “It gets whipped in a mixer, and the end product is a nice spreadable cheese.”
Juxtaposition makes Hewett’s ambitious plates all the more surprising. This might be just Franklin, Indiana: population 24,040. But seeing servers in their Gap casual blacks carrying plates of big-boned Viking Farm lamb shanks across a dining room no bigger than a two-car garage gives hope that good food knows no boundaries.
39 E. Court St., Franklin, 560-5805, theindigoduck.com
Hours Tues.–Fri. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., 5–10 p.m.; Sat. 5–10 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the December 2012 issue.