Photo by Tony Valainis
ALONG ONE WALL of Hotel Indy’s street-level restaurant, The Hulman, a row of vintage black and whites recall a few long-ago photo ops at the Indianapolis 500, and there are no cutoff shorts in sight. Instead, everyone looks handsome and Hollywood tan as they cut their celebratory ribbons and smile for the camera. The spectators are pulled together in the same way that people used to wear business suits on airplanes. If they were around today, those race fans might be dining on Ora King salmon and Moroccan-spiced meatballs in this very dining room that pays tribute to auto racing’s VIP tradition.
The overall look of downtown’s newest aspirational spot, which takes its name from Indiana royalty (the Hulman family that owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1945 to 2019), draws heavily from a midcentury-modern Mad Men aesthetic. Low leather booths are sparse and angular, some simply backed with piped bolster pillows and others decorated in pops of wild mod fabric. Bottles glow amber in the middle of a squared-in bar topped with white marble, under a massive globe light that floats overhead like the Goodyear blimp. You can scoot to the center of a mustard-colored clamshell booth and spread chicken-liver mousse on housemade pretzel lavash while sipping a Millionaire cocktail (in honor of Madam C.J. Walker’s Indianapolis empire) beside white-neon wall art that spells out “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN The Hulman.” A proper server dressed in black might tell you, at the end of her menu spiel, that there is only one serving of autumn squash mezzaluna left for the evening. If you take the bait, she will bring out a plate of delicate noodle pockets stuffed with tangy Capriole chevre and floating in brown butter sauce that will not disappoint.
The 52-seat restaurant opened with lots of hype in October, the first-floor showpiece for the upscale hotel, a Marriott Tribute Portfolio property. It boasts 90 luxury rooms and a rooftop bar, The Cannon Ball Lounge, spread across a sixth-floor addition that was part of the $30 million renovation of a 1969 building at the busy corner of East Washington and Delaware streets.
The place feels like a landmark, with its stark stone façade and broad windows. It was probably built to impress out-of-towners, accommodating the kind of visitors who can spring for $400 city-view suites. But resident tourists can also take advantage of executive chef Patrick Russ’s menu, a lineup of clever dishes that transcend the ho-hum tradition of hotel food, for the most part.
For an elegant but quick downtown lunch, entree salads are appropriately downsized, and the sandwiches have some culinary flourish. A toasty short rib melt amps up a modest layer of tender meat with roasted peppers, caramelized onions, horseradish aioli, and gooey Gruyere. The Cuban checks all the boxes for a respectable pressed pork sandwich. But the crispy chicken sandwich is disappointingly clunky, overpowered by wet buttermilk slaw and a potent jalapeño relish that soaks into the brioche.
The dinner menu is much more finessed and representative of Russ, an Indy native who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami and worked at eateries in Seattle and Chicago, including famed chef Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant.
When Russ eventually moved back home to raise his daughter, he brought his culinary vision along with him. He makes all of the pastas in house, along with the sausages, the addictive pretzel lavash that goes out with the chicken liver and grass-fed steak tartare, and “really anything we can possibly do ourselves,” he says. That scratch-kitchen approach adds surprising layers of flavor to dishes like short rib spaccatelli with horseradish sugo and a bump of housemade ricotta, and a sexy tableside pour of Alaskan king crab bisque made decadent with creme fraiche, fermented gochujang hot sauce, and squid ink. Russ’s grilled PEI oysters are shucked to order and anointed with a compound butter of cilantro, lime, and salt before they feel the heat of the fire. “They boil inside their own shell with that butter,” says Russ, who arranges the bivalves on smoking wood chips and tops them with a garlicky sweet housemade condiment similar to a Vietnamese dipping sauce.
A 10-ounce flat iron steak is the breakout star of this menu—a thick cut of beef that sits high off the plate, ringed with roasted peppers and wild mushrooms, with chopped hazelnuts and a sweet chili glaze. To finish the dish, Russ fills a whipping canister with potato cream and tops the steak with an aerated cloud of light and fluffy spuds.
The chef isn’t done tweaking the menu, and he’s ready to bring on a pastry chef to follow up an original dessert list that included a wee Key lime tart and a life-changing churro curled like a state fair–flavored serpent around roasted banana gelato and chocolate custard. It first appeared on a special-events menu, “but we liked it so much that we kept it,” Russ says of this dish that, just like Indy in the month of May, manages to be both deep-fried and fancy.