The man walked slowly across the room toward our table as if in a trance, his head tilted with curiosity, his eyes locked in focus. Stopping within inches of our two-top, he reached up and gingerly touched the wall behind my friend’s head. “Oh, okay,” he announced, the spell apparently broken. “I thought it was made out of a piece of metal or something.”
Honest mistake. The wall in question—one of the (many) focal points in Cunningham Restaurant Group’s newest stunner, Vida—is a large piece of digital art: a deceivingly realistic close-up of something rusted-out and robin’s-egg blue, perhaps the crackled seat of an old clamshell lawn chair enlarged to appear (from across the room, at least) like big shingles of peeling paint. That wall, like most of the design details at this former little Italian restaurant reimagined as the cover of Dwell magazine, takes a minute to register. In fact, you might spend the first part of your dinner at Vida, which sits on the edge of Lockerbie Square, wrapping your brain around the decor. The place is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, loaded with slate-colored angles and sweeping windows. A blazing, two-sided fireplace connects a wood-slatted dining room to an outdoor courtyard. An entire hydroponic “green wall” rises at one end of an exposed kitchen, itself gleaming with stainless steel and chefs’ whites. The bar, with its dangling exposed bulbs and Brady Bunch stairway ascending to private dining, features dark, knotty wood salvaged during the massive renovation as a tribute to the previous inhabitant, Amici’s Italian restaurant. Amici’s bones are still “buried somewhere in the drywall,” a server explained one evening, with the proper tone of reverence for that scrappy neighborhood haunt’s 30-year run.
Then, you’ll be equally awestruck by the style-conscious food. Cunningham put one of its veteran in-house chefs, Layton Roberts, in charge of the menu at what was originally planned as a test kitchen—a lab for one-off dishes under consideration at CRG siblings like Union 50, Mesh, and Bru Burger Bar. By the time Vida opened in February, the concept had morphed into this high-minded dinner spot with its own rotation of showstoppers, like the silkiest puck of quail egg–topped short-rib tartare plated with swooshes of bearnaise and warm, battered wisps of sweetbreads for scooping. Roberts’s interpretation of steak frites involves a rich, red-centered and truffle-crusted New York strip supporting a stack of hollowed-out potato wedges—crisp, puffy exoskeletons that taste like exquisite three-dimensional potato chips. Delicate shrimp dumplings, their pop of flavor intensified with smoked scallops, rest in pork consomme puddled around wilted mushrooms and sweet cloves of black garlic. Even the cured-salmon starter arrives as a gossamer fan of ruby flesh preserved in beet juice. Smoked trout roe and Hendrick’s Gin vinaigrette provide the salty base and herbal undertones.
When the food is this attractive, every bite is preceded by a moment of hesitation, if only to admire all those intentional squiggles of sauce.
Diners who have followed Roberts’s culinary trail around Indianapolis, from 14 West to Mesh to Meridian Restaurant to Union 50 and back to Mesh, know that the former Louisville chef with a penchant for lowcountry excess often goes for big flavors. At Vida, he finds a nice balance. Rich, dramatic dishes have touches of lightness, as in seared scallops moistened with a simple dragon fruit aglio e olio, and a crispy squab resting on spiced carrot mousse, drizzled with huckleberry-habanero gastrique.
Pastry chef Hattie McDaniel, who garnered a sweet-toothed following during her recent tenure at Peterson’s, works some magic with the dessert course, as well. Her fluffy, ricotta-sodden doughnuts (more like tiny fritters covered in bourbon-maple glaze and cut with brown-butter ice cream) are decadent even by fried-dough standards. Just as lovely is her Creamsicle-inspired orb of mascarpone mousse rolled in shortbread dust and garnished with a scoop of super-tart huckleberry sorbet and matcha meringue that looks like gravel. Slip your fork through the ball’s silky center to get at the core of orange gelee—sweet surprise within sweet surprise.
When the food is this attractive, every bite is preceded by a moment of hesitation, if only to admire all those intentional squiggles of sauce and microgreen halos before the plate turns into chaos. There’s beauty in the destruction, though. Butter-poached lobster paired with a crisp-skinned chicken roulade eventually breaks down into a big mess of rich, meaty risotto. And a spare salad consisting of a few broad leaves of Winter Density lettuce slicked with milky, pungent Bolzanese dressing comes to life only when you unleash the yolk of a soft-cooked egg toad-holed in a slice of McDaniel’s housemade brioche.
Sometimes, however, flavor gets lost in the design. A lush pork-belly custard served with several types of sliced hams dried in the onsite curing room (a cubby off the dining room, glassed in to evoke the window of a small-town butcher shop) has so many disjointed parts—a shingle of crostini polka-dotted with pureed sweet potato and creme fraiche, toasted pine nuts caked in harissa, and a random sprig of greenery—that getting one unified bite requires way too much focus. A $27 robuchon-potato tartlet that would not look out of place inside a Plexiglas box at MoMA goes off on so many tangents (grilled leeks and pickled mustard seeds layered over coins of smoked whitefish kielbasa and pockets of kraut and fennel) that even its sturdy choux crust could not contain the confusion.
Servers try hard (maybe a little too hard) to bring the dishes down to earth, meticulously explaining the provenance of every ingredient: bacon cured in-house, apple juice hand-pressed daily, sheep’s milk imported from France. Asking for an honest recommendation turns into a talking tour of the entire menu, as thorough and charmingly meandering as a nature film narrated by David Attenborough. By the time it all wraps up, you’ll be ready for another round of High West double ryes, preferably in the form of the apple-spiced Ifs and Buts, a mellow and sweet Manhattan gateway drink.
But this is part of the experience, too. If Vida asks you to explore food that ventures so far from comfort food—maybe even into that uncharted land of discomfort food—it will also guide you gently into the unknown.