Selling the Sizzle: A Review of CharBlue
With its posh downtown address and handsome indigo-on-brick color scheme, CharBlue naturally exudes the kind of sexy confidence that other restaurants strive to achieve. If it were a person, this new after-dark steakhouse, co-owned by former Colt Gary Brackett, would read GQ, give good toasts, and wear Salvatore Ferragamo driving loafers. Details like black napkins folded neatly on crisp tablecloths and crumb comb–wielding servers in blue jackets add to a vibe so untouchably cool that it’s almost intimidating. But as you sit beneath the glowing, towering bar, sipping a martini flecked with actual gold flakes, perhaps, you can’t help but see CharBlue through the murky filter of what it failed to be.
Back in October, these same tables (rustic slabs of rough-cut timber underneath the linen) held platters of fried chicken and peach-barbecue pork chops served with cheddar grits, greens, and other scoops of homey goodness from the kitchen of Georgia Reese’s Southern Table & Bar. Slinging smoked wings alongside well-coifed signature cocktails, like a grilled-peach Manhattan, it specialized in high-styled Southern cooking, a concept that Brackett (who named the restaurant after his youngest daughter) deemed—after 16 months—not nearly as bankable as steaks and martinis. Partnering with restaurateur Jeremiah Hamman, who operated the late sushi lounge Sensu and several iterations of Mo’s A Place for Steaks, Brackett removed the small live-music stage, replaced the “Honest Goodness Soul” lettering over the bar with “All things through HIM,” and decorated the walls with paintings of gridiron action shots.
More significantly, the new ownership hired on former Peterson’s chef Ricky Hatfield to redo the menu with his signature brand of thoughtful, artfully plated cuisine. His northside fan base will recognize the clever flavor combinations in dishes like lemon-dusted scallops arranged on a swoop of rich black walnut Romesco with pickled mustard seeds, and a bone-in short rib surrounded by roasted local mushrooms and rosemary crème fraîche. Hatfield uses tweezers to arrange the components of a deconstructed lobster Louie salad—quail egg, cheese lace, and pork lardon atop three charred halves of Little Gem lettuce—and serves pumpkin tamales in the husk with crispy pork cheek, green mole, and pretty slivers of watermelon radish.
A seasoned hunter who grew up in Martinsville, Hatfield shows his mastery of lusty proteins in a plate of confit “duck ham,” chargrilled with harissa barbecue sauce to give the skin a nice, fiery North African stickiness. It sits over cauliflower couscous soaking in sweet coconut milk and studded with golden raisins, curry crème fraîche smeared on the plate’s rim and crispy chickpeas scattered over the top. They should bring out a Moroccan pouf ottoman to accompany this plate, with its flavors so complex and exotic, yet somehow comforting—shades of John Adams’s global soul-food repertoire at Marrow. The hickory-roasted Cervena venison chop (imported from New Zealand) gets an equally elaborate presentation. Cold-smoked for 20 minutes before it’s cooked, the double-boned cut is aggressively flavored and served medium-rare to retain the suppleness of the meat. Black walnut–and–blueberry pesto provides a sweet foil to rein in the smoke, and the chop is propped up on a base of delicate finger-sized cannoli piped with puréed potatoes—crispy, savory treats that rewrite the rules of pastry. “To me, that dish screams hunting season in Indiana,” Hatfield says. “I thought it would be nice for the fall and winter—to capture that spirit.”
Indeed, the menu is at its best when Hatfield gets adventurous. A row of sea salt–roasted heirloom beets would be deliciously sweet and tart on their own, but the chef presents them in an ensemble cast that pairs the bright cubes of dirt candy with clouds of dehydrated sage meringue, a heady smear of goat cheese mousse, and shards of pumpernickel tuile made from buckwheat and rye flours, griddled and dehydrated. The play of familiar flavors in surprising textures (sage that melts in the mouth like a delicate cookie, pumpernickel crunchy like brittle) hints at a chef with both talent and whim. A tiny cast-iron dish of crab–and–black truffle macaroni and cheese is a no-brainer, though, with thick spirals of pasta set in a rich umami base of fontina cream and dark, wilted mushrooms. A crab claw with the sweet meat still intact reaches out of the center of the dish, ready to be cracked and plundered, a snack within a snack.
But when a menu item misses its mark, it doesn’t seem to land anywhere close. A starter called Foie Gras and “Caviar” tried to pull together too many components—earthy Beluga lentils, creamy dabs of duck liver sweetened with cider reduction, and thick slices of grilled bread. Salads—even the old-school Caesar topped with two wispy, silver anchovy filets—proved overdressed and wilted into submission.
None of this will matter to a certain segment of CharBlue’s clientele—the ones who will skim right past the whipped sweet potato soufflé with its pretty crown of brûléed marshmallows, the barbecue shrimp and grits with pork-belly croutons, and the mussel pici stocked with clam broth and Nicole-Taylor’s handmade (in SoBro) pasta. Those customers will focus on the restaurant’s roster of pricey steaks—some of which fall into the St. Elmo Steak House tax bracket, including a 16-ounce strip loin dry-aged for 40 days and priced at $62. The steak eaters will be perfectly happy with their filets and New York strips. Hatfield, also a veteran of Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Weber Grill, and McCormick & Schmick’s, has the appropriate red-meat CV to join the league of tony steak masters.
That’s a highly marketable skill in downtown Indianapolis right now, as witnessed by the slew of steakhouses in the Mile Square, including another brand-new house of red meat, Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, and the coming-soon Red the Steakhouse. All lined up with their hulking ribeyes and polished wine glasses, they seem as promising as the handsome contestants in a restaurant version of The Bachelorette’s rose ceremony. Not all of them will survive, of course. Will the last man standing be wearing a pair of Ferragamos?
14 E. Washington St., 317-986-7883, charblueindy.com
Mon.–Thurs., 4:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 4:30–11 p.m.
Elaborate chef-driven menu alongside steakhouse standards served à la carte.
Exotic duck ham served with coconut-flavored cauliflower couscous.
Starters $14–$18, Certified Angus steaks $25–$62, entrees $29–$36