You might remember that sweet old mantra from The Before Time, “Think of your happy place! Go to your happy place!” In the world’s current unhinged state, the sentiment doesn’t work like it used to. In fact, it feels almost cruelly irrelevant as a pandemic rages against the backdrop of a social, political, financial, and environmental meltdown. But if, in the midst of 2020’s hellscape, there is a happy place to be found, it probably looks a lot like downtown’s new Gallery Pastry Bar.
The sidewalk-level restaurant across the street from Bankers Life Fieldhouse feels like a tiny urban fairy garden, a refreshing tonic for the eyes in waves of blues and greens with soft, brushed-gold accents. At the back of the room, a live-moss wall creeps around the edges of a big, cursive letter “G” begging for an Instagram tag. Another corner is decorated with Indianapolis artist Salma Taman’s vivid, oversized portrait of the late celebrity chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain. (It’s an homage as well. One of Bourdain’s recommended Paris haunts was inspiration for Gallery Pastry Bar’s pared-back vibe.) And in front of a tidy shelf of what could pass for a mixologist’s library of booze bottles (rolling ladder and all), bar manager Corey Ewing mixes up exotic house cocktails, like a tart, bracing It’s Berry, B*tch that will pull the Britney right out of you, made with vodka and Ewing’s own mixed-berry compote, perfumed with a transportive garnish of fresh rosemary.
One evening in late September, on opposite ends of room-length tables made of polished live-edge wood, two separate girl tribes huddled together over their Chai Mintinis and charcuterie boards, laughing and leaning in. If you squinted or ordered a second It’s Berry, B*tch, the scene looked as normal and carefree as downtown Indianapolis circa early March.
In reality, Gallery Pastry Bar—a spin-off of SoBro’s popular Gallery Pastry Shop—didn’t even open until July 2, already a few months into COVID-19’s restrictions regarding masks and restaurant capacities. Owners Alison Keefer and Ben Hardy created a duplicate of their four-year-old Monon-adjacent concept at this 3,000-square-foot space inside downtown’s new Hyatt Place complex. The second location was two years in the making, and it debuted not a day too soon. “We were having lots of growing pains in Broad Ripple,” Keefer says. “We don’t have ventilation or a hood in there. We do everything on induction burners and butane.”
But here, a gleaming steel-on-steel open kitchen spreads across the back half of the room, where executive chef Hardy labors over trays of delicate macaron shells while a culinary team that includes executive sous chef Sam Moehle and sous chef Laney Glick (best known for her delightful work at Zionsville’s The Lemon Bar) sends out artful plates that the menu classifies as Commencer, Petite, or Protéine. You can order oysters on the half shell to be dribbled with cucumber salsa, cherry tomato cocktail sauce, and champagne–green peppercorn mignonette, or why not spring for a plate of crispy, Parmesan-dusted frites with a bottle of Champagne Drappier for $95? Three gently seared scallops rest in a bath of herbed coconut cream with crunchy shards of Smoking Goose jowl bacon. And they serve a housemade croissant with brûléed Trillium cheese from Tulip Tree Creamery, candied pecans, and mixed-berry compote. For an extra $5, you can add a wisp of fresh honeycomb.
I couldn’t get my flavor bearings with an elaborate plate of foie Antoinettes—the patisserie’s signature delicate, chewy macaron cookies piped with buttery, funky foie-gras mousse and showered with caviar. The same way I can’t eat a single BeanBoozled Jelly Belly. And I gave up on the overcooked 6-ounce, bone-in pork chop on an otherwise perfect layering of fried potatoes, sorghum-glazed roasted carrots, and over-easy eggs with caramelized onions—wishing I had kept my order a little more simple. Deep-fried artichoke hearts, for example, are like sophisticated fried pickles, with crispy charred petals on the outside and a soft, sour core that you run through a squiggle of garlic yogurt for best results. They go especially well with the thick Gallery Club sandwich on fresh, toasted brioche that has just the right meat-to-aioli ratio.
But the clear star of the restaurant’s earliest menu is a double-stacked foie burger topped with goose-liver mousse, house pickle salad, and a blossom of fried shallots. It’s wedged inside a flaky croissant, weeping triple-cream, bloomy-rind cheese, and it is as decadent as it sounds. Also, totally worth it. Once you’ve licked the last of the butter and the grease from your fingertips, you might as well make your pastry selection—an almond-sponge opera cake, a chocolate pillow, a ganache-covered pear that has been poached in pinot noir, a Ding Dong–sized macaron pierced with a tiny plastic pipette of strawberry sauce. They are all lined up like decorated soldiers in a long glass display case just inside the door, manned by the same masked hostess who took your temperature with an infrared thermometer when you walked in.
Which brings us to the question that Gallery Pastry Bar is probably tired of answering, even though it’s the pretty pink elephant in the room: What’s it like to open a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic? “It was one of those decisions we had to make,” says Keefer. “Do we let a just-completed restaurant sit empty, or do we try to make this work? Because our bills didn’t stop. And, you know, it’s always teetering on that fine line. It’s a day-by-day process. We have one bad weekend, and we aren’t paying a bill—or we’re paying a bill late.” A PPP loan kept the business afloat during the worst of it, and there were regular customers who made generous donations to the staff at both of Gallery Pastry’s locations. Currently, they are sitting at 48 employees. “And they keep knocking it out of the park,” Keefer says. “Miraculously, we are pulling this off.”