IF THE FIRST accounts of America’s cinemas are correct, food and film weren’t always a match made on the silver screen. From humble nickelodeons to posh Art Deco movie houses of the ’20s, food typically wasn’t on the bill at most of the nation’s movie theaters, though many film-goers sneaked in their own snacks from nearby restaurants to munch on during matinees or double features. According to Rachel Friedman in Bon Appétit’s “A History of Movie Theater Snacks in America,” it wasn’t until the Depression that theater owners started offering snacks for sale to stave off dwindling revenues, and the movie concession stand has been a cultural expectation ever since. So, too, is the idea of a flick followed by a meal, or vice versa, a pairing that has long made for the perfect date.
That’s why the opening of Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, postponed by the pandemic since its planned debut in March of last year, was such a welcome event late last month, as the one-of-a-kind independent cinema and culinary collaboration has ushered in new local options both for first-run and vintage films and some of the best food to hit an underserved neighborhood in years. The theater is the brainchild and five-year effort of two father-son pairs: property management and business incubators Tom and Ed Battista, and local investor Sam B. Sutphin and son Ben, cofounder of the DIY art and music venue Healer. The quartet lamented the lack of a truly independent cinema as an emblem of the city’s film and cultural community, conversations that eventually planted the seeds for Kan-Kan and birthed the Indianapolis Film Project, with a mission that extends well beyond the building. The food is courtesy of one of Indy’s most talented chefs, Abbi Merriss, who has for several years now headed up the kitchen at the Battistas’ popular Virginia Avenue Italian-inflected eatery Bluebeard.
From its colorful, sloping façade and tidy, landscaped lawn to a funky lobby concession stand and cozy, mod bar, Kan-Kan immediately stands out from any movie spot in the city. And with three theaters playing such films as recent retro arthouse darling La Piscine and cult favorite The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as well as David Byrne’s American Utopia and the Arthurian epic The Green Knight, the cinema is already positioning itself more as a center for film than just a place to catch a flick, indeed a place that will undoubtedly catch the attention of filmmakers and film studies professionals around the country. Not to mention the attention of local cocktail and spirits lovers, who will definitely recognize bar manager Dimitri Morris’s skill and wit in such golden age and new wave film-themed elixirs as the clever Hollywood Boulevard(ier), a play on the classic Boulevardier, and the 35MM with Rieger’s Midwestern dry gin, orgeat, and lime. Favorites such as an elegant Aviation cocktail and a Sex on the Beach with a nod to landlocked Indiana in the form of rhubarb liqueur also make for great pre-movie sipping.
As for the food, Merriss is ecstatic to be a part of the larger mission of Kan-Kan but is quick to remind anyone who stops in that her brasserie at the back of the facility is absolutely a first-class restaurant on its own, not just glorified concessions for the theaters. However, should your film be showing soon, any of Merriss’s tasty starters, such as the super savory CC’s dip with cheddar, cashews, and scallions (think of this as the best French onion dip you’ll ever eat), chicken liver paté, and crudité and meat plates, will definitely tide you over to the credits. But you’ll want to set aside a night just to come back to try what are some of the most ambitious dishes to premier in Indy in some time, especially Provencal scallops showered with crab, mascarpone, and focaccia breadcrumbs, lavished with a garlicky white wine–butter sauce. Equally good is a hearty salad of roasted turnips, radishes, carrots, and onions with aromatic notes of tarragon and basil, as well as a bright vinaigrette and bits of the rich Spanish goat’s-milk cheese, garrotxa. And a tangy mélange of roasted mushrooms that’s already off the menu is one dish you hope will run again.
For brasserie mains that would impress the crowds at Cannes, Merriss has put together a dressed-up steak frites plate with flank steak, home fries, and a knockout house ranch that is so far from the bottled stuff you’ll swoon. A swank take on fish and chips with parsnip and beet chips and curry tartare, as well as chicken under a brick with a host of fun accompaniments, are also nice departures from the favorites fans of Bluebeard have come to love. As Merriss says, “We thought we were going to keep the same menu for each season or quarter, but we’ve been loving the produce we’re getting that we’re always switching things up.” So the dishes may be changing as much as the movies. One thing you’ll hope will stay is Merriss’s bright, light olive oil cake, served in two crisscrossed wedges with strawberries, a generous dollop of mascarpone, and a judicious sprinkling of black pepper, which keeps the evening’s dinner scene from ending too sweet.