Farm to Turntable: Review of Pioneer

Fountain Square newcomer Pioneer cranks out food and music in stereo.
Pioneer Review

The two-story building hugging Shelby Street’s bend in the Cultural Trail sat mystifyingly empty for so long—years—that peeking through its papered-over windows for signs of revival became as much a Fountain Square ritual as taking selfies beneath the “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” mural and hitting the ATM inside Bud’s Supermarket. When the property finally came back to life in October under the clubby neon glow of Pioneer, one mystery remained: What kind of comeback was this old kid on the block trying to make?

Barely recognizable from its previous life as the wine bar Deano’s Vino, the space underwent a massive renovation to achieve its current darkly handsome luster. The 114-year-old building’s foundation was gutted and rebuilt, along with the subflooring, electrical work, and plumbing—all in keeping with historic-preservation code—before Pioneer could swagger onto the scene, looking like a rich bachelor’s warehouse loft. But the dining room, as sleek and dark as a gothy corner of Ikea, seems poised to transform into a nightclub at any minute, white plates replaced with black T-shirts.

It’s a gorgeous presentation with a Portlandia-ish backstory: You are eating the same foraged fungi that your dinner enjoyed.

That’s all part of the plan, actually. During one early visit, as my server sat down an artfully dissected house-made sausage with chunky mustard and a tuft of bright sauerkraut, he explained how the industrial-chic tables and chairs were designed to be folded and stowed in 10 minutes, clearing the floor for standing-room-only concerts after Saturday-night dinner service. That certainly explained the black-on-black stage built prominently into the far end of the room and the high-end Meyer sound system—but the exciting specter of live music also feels unnerving at a restaurant serving a $45 whole roasted chicken with kale and caramelized onions and an exquisitely rare ribeye sliced over fingerling potatoes and foamy, light dollops of aerated celeriac puree.

The menu is no garage-band effort, after all. General manager J.B. Andrews, who oversaw the bar program at Pioneer’s esteemed neighbor, Bluebeard, for more than three years and conjured drinks at Ball & Biscuit and Dorman Street Saloon before that, drew culinary inspiration from the lusty region of northern Italy, which is influenced by neighboring Germany, Austria, and France. It’s a delicious but unsexy larder of rich meats and mustards, sausages, and spaetzles that have gone mostly unappreciated here since the days of Dieter Puska and The Glass Chimney, even though those flavors make up part of the Hoosier DNA. “A lot of the menu choices had to do with the history of Fountain Square, which was predominantly settled by Germans, Italians, and people from northern Europe,” Andrews explains. “This is where the cultures collided in this city. Literally, where I am standing right now.”

He brought in Bluebeard alum Justin Eiteljorge, a Greencastle native who trained at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America, to head up the kitchen. Eiteljorge’s Northern California externship under Michelin-starred restaurateur Thomas Keller gives his cooking the kind of French-technique flair needed to pull off high-concept dishes like a rich mound of chicken-liver mousse and a salad of butter lettuce dressed in blood orange–basil citronette with wilted shallots, clumps of ricotta, and the most delicate crisps of paper-thin chicken skin.

The left side of the menu, designated small-plates territory, checks all the trendy boxes. There is a conga line of pickled yellow beets and slivered pears decorated with fried onions and arugula for people who can’t get through a single restaurant meal without that earthy, tart standby. Wilted broccoli rabe mingles with squash and pine nuts in a softly tangy tonnato sauce, a deceivingly heavy dish almost as filling (but not nearly as fun to pronounce) as the kartoffelpuffer—thick, fluffy mashed-potato pancakes seared to a proper crunch and dotted with garlic aioli.

Chunky room-temp pork rillettes, like pig-roast butter to be slathered on nibs of oiled and toasted baguette, share the menu with Eiteljorge’s nod to pork belly, a luscious hunk of whey-fed oinker from Eli Creek in Connersville, slow-braised for two days in mustard and rosemary and seared just enough to caramelize the skin in its own juices. Thick and nearly gelatinous with fat, the meat sits in a puree of reduced red wine and cabbage with baby kale and a spoonful of curried mustard seeds that pop in the mouth like condiment caviar. Sauteed oyster mushrooms, also sourced from Eli Creek, are scattered on the plate. It’s a gorgeous presentation with a Portlandia-ish backstory: You are eating the same foraged fungi that your dinner enjoyed.

The three fresh pastas listed on the other side of the menu seem dowdy by comparison, though each has a rustic simplicity that would hold its own anywhere else. Little pinches of gnocchi wear a simple, sweet tomato-paste sauce under basic shavings of pecorino. A Nonna-approved plate of cavatelli pairs the thick and chewy curls of ribbed pasta with a classic wine-and-butter sauce. Spaetzle, squiggled onsite and pan-browned in all the right spots, comes slicked with chicken jus tasty enough that you will want to eat it with a soup spoon. Just not on a Saturday night after the kitchen closes at 11 (or dinner seating ends as early as 8:30) and Pioneer turns into a nightclub.

“We want to touch on a lot of different things in this space,” says Andrews, who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and works out of his house as an audio engineer for local bands. He had the live-music component in place even before he knew what kind of food he would serve, and plans to add a heated biergarten on the south end of the building with seating for 60. A dedicated bar menu will provide the melody for high-octane, Old World–style beers and bar manager Ryan Gullett’s roster of cocktails that get their names from pieces of audio equipment. Take the Logic, a darkly sweet sipper composed of rye, Amaro, and Scrappy’s Chocolate Bitters that trends toward the Radio Radio and Hi-Fi spillover—the I’m-just-here-for-the-album-release-party hordes.

And why not? Maybe Fountain Square after dark belongs to the type of patron who is just getting started when I’m already at home with a belly full of pickled beets and a season of Gilmore Girls to binge-watch. If the gourmet bit is just Pioneer’s opening act, I’ll still buy the T-shirt.