I glanced up from my butternut-and-acorn squash salad just as a group of business-dressed women in CityWay hard hats filed past Cerulean’s courtyard windows—on what looked like a guided tour of this $155 million mixed-use complex-in-the-making. When complete, the downtown site will house a boutique hotel, townhomes, shops, a park, a YMCA, and this gorgeous fishbowl of a restaurant where lunch arrives in westernized polished-walnut bento boxes. I wondered, as I plucked bites of balsamic-glazed pork loin, green beans spiked with vinaigrette, and spicy chorizo–crumbled potatoes from their individual compartments, if that tour group was as captivated by the soaring modern floorplan as I was by my lunch. It’s easy to get excited about this much new-urban design and sauce-painted dishware. But should we resist the temptation to fawn over all the pretty plates? Does the style have substance? Or have we fallen under the spell of a very impressive dog-and-pony show?
These are the questions you might ask yourself while sipping a bourbon cocktail that contains both fresh ginger and egg white in a dining room of soft leather clamshell booths, featuring a cozy enclosed area (inspired by an installation in a New York art museum) that looks like an Airstream trailer made of bent strips of wood. Before the November opening, chef-owner Caleb France personally hosted a series of private preview dinners and invited, among others, food bloggers and social-media mavens. It was not a bad idea, considering that many of Cerulean’s dishes need some narration.
I might have better appreciated my plate of hay-smoked quail garnished with button-sized dollops of cherry butter had I known that the little gelatinous marble of brown juice that I popped with my fork was full of liquid boiled out of wood, not just your ordinary broth. As for the tufts of white foam that frothed amid miniature wedges of brown-butter cake and Earl Grey cream on my Chocolate & Citrus dessert plate? Turns out those were bubbles of orange juice and vanilla, emulsified and fluffed with an aerator. Basically, flavored air.
Whether or not Indianapolis is ready for food this highly evolved, or even grown-up enough to nibble a pork-belly macaron without giggling, Cerulean represents a turning point of sorts. The decor is as sleek as a W hotel, the plates art-directed right down to the last tire track of liquefied arugula. What we have here is the anti-Bluebeard—scruffy gourmet’s dandy cousin. And not since Neal Brown closed L’explorateur have we been this awestruck by our food.
The dinner menu opens with a grouping of small plates in the $3 to $4 range—just bites, really, of things like a little jar of mushroom custard and creamed rabbit rillettes on a pouf of horseradish. A second page of shareables might (depending on the season) include a wee brick of bison mousse alongside a tiny loaf of sliced bread, or chilled sweet-potato soup with a twig of nutmeg-thyme cracker.
France, who majored in business at Taylor University and had no formal culinary training when he opened his flagship Cerulean six years ago in Winona Lake, pulls out all the stops with the short list of mains. The tenderest slab of soft-braised beef short ribs rests atop a bed of crunchy ghee-fried spaetzle with baby-food dollops of brown butter and a bright-green smear of Swiss chard bleeding off the plate. Two pan-fried filets of sunfish lie next to a thick strip of cured pork, propped up on a miniature goat-cheese–beet cake. Desserts could range from a pretty plate of spiced peanut-butter ice cream with housemade toasted marshmallows and bits of burnt honey to Greek-yogurt panna cotta—sweet, silky, and cool.
Cerulean’s open dining room and cozy front bar have a sexy vibe at night, with the city lights twinkling just beyond the glass. But Cerulean also shines—perhaps even brighter—during the light of day. At lunch, mix-and-match mains and sides are parceled out in a 1:3 ratio and served inside those handsome bento boxes. A pair of seared scallops might join a small bowl of roasted-carrot soup, Brussels sprouts caramelized in maple syrup, and a crisp picnic salad of broccolini, cranberries, walnuts, and cured pork. The presentation is as sweet as a housemade marshmallow, as precious as a candlelit bentwood hut. Who could resist?
339 S. Delaware St., 870-1320, ceruleanrestaurant.com
HOURS Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., 5–10 p.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the February 2013 issue.