Whatever you think of tea-smoked duck breast stacked like masonry, or aggressively deconstructed Key lime pie, or the novelty of dining inside an Airstream-sized “nest” made of bent birch wood—you probably winced a little bit the day downtown’s stunningly innovative Cerulean closed its doors. It happened a year ago this month, and losing that glass-walled gem inside The Alexander hotel (which still seemed so young, after six years in business) felt like a knock against Indy’s delicate culinary identity. Where would we take out-of-town guests that we wanted to impress? What would become of the cool, boxy location at the corner of Delaware and South streets? More to the point, why couldn’t we have nice things?
But as quickly as Cerulean was gone, Cunningham Restaurant Group moved in to transform the neutral beach-house setting into something a little darker and sexier—and, dare I say, even nicer?
Nesso opened in August, a coastal Italian–themed restaurant from the same Indianapolis company behind fine-dining touchstones like Vida, Mesh, and Livery, as well as low-key favorites Bru Burger Bar, Union 50, and a handful of fieldstone-bedecked establishments with “Creek” in their names. The 6,000-square-foot location received a facelift that introduced a more somber, pulled-together look to match its lusty new menu direction. That meant all of Cerulean’s light blues and pale linens were replaced with a richer color scheme: plenty of espresso and slate-gray tones, and booths covered in soft Coach-purse brown leather. The bar moved from the front of the restaurant to the middle of the room, changing the way people are going to drink at Nesso—more socially, less Zen-like—and the cocktail list went perky and brief to reflect this. A spritzy Tito’s Vodka–based Italian in the Tropics and an Abe’s Sour with three bitters hearts carved into the egg-white foam headline a beverage program that gets more adventurous as it goes deeper into amari, grappa, and cordial territory and downright encyclopedic with its painstakingly categorized-by-region selection of wines.
The nest is gone, of course, because a large wooden installation piece resembling an Ikea tumbleweed just didn’t work with Cunningham’s tight-ship aesthetic. If there is a gimmicky replacement centerpiece in this new iteration, it is the one wall covered entirely in a moody floral mural, pale pink blooms against a charcoal background, practically begging to be Instagrammed behind a woman wearing a floppy brown hat.
In the Cunningham ecosystem, new ventures hit the ground with some traction, aided by slick marketing and a touch of corporate-chef omniscience. Before Nesso’s debut, CRG stock chefs Carl Chambers and Layton Roberts worked to develop a menu around lush primi and secondi offerings while pastry-chef phenom Hattie McDaniel popped over from Vida to take on Nesso’s equally whimsical desserts, including a flight of mini cannoli piped with pistachio ricotta, pumpkin ricotta, and lemon-and-elderflower ricotta.
You could easily forget this dining room’s past life and anything you ever ate there the moment you bite into the scallop crudo listed near the top of Nesso’s coursed-out menu. The flesh is sliced like butter and fanned over a vibrant green herb emulsion. The flavor is clean and briny, the texture so silky. Like many of the items on Nesso’s menu, the scallop could be shared around the table as a starter. But why would you want to do that? In fact, don’t be surprised if you have a hard time stealing a bite of your neighbor’s overloaded white-bean bruschetta (presented alongside wild-mushroom and tomato pomodoro versions) or even a single gnocchi scattered on a busy plate of roasted pears and tiny chicken meatballs with crushed hazelnuts and leaves of fried sage turning simple potato dumplings into something much more complex and dramatic.
Can you believe that this trendy spot with ninja servers and valet parking offers something called prugne secche—prosciutto-wrapped prunes stuffed with soft white chèvre? The combination of textures and flavors is unbelievably delicious, the ham’s salty crunch against the desiccated fruit’s candy-like flesh and the final tart creaminess of the cheese. Roasted branzino with its charred skin and tail intact rests on a bed of tomatoes and vegetables cooked down to something like a chunky Mediterranean stew that plays up the dense meatiness of the sea bass. A 16-ounce New York strip topped with fried garlic chips and herbs gets the royal treatment of butters and reductions but still manages to taste like pure beefiness.
The pasta courses, consisting of intricate carb-based dishes downsized to be eaten before the entrée, is where Nesso pulls ahead of the stylized Italian pack and shows how the food group can be delicate and intentional, something to be savored slowly instead of wolfed down. Lemony linguini in an herb broth with clams and broccolini deserves as much praise as the airy pumpkin-and-ricotta tortelloni sauced with apple jam or the hearty calamarate with its soft pasta tubes flopping over a crush of lamb sausage, oil-cured tomatoes, golden raisins, and pine nuts.
The kitchen is confident and precise in its interpretation of Italian fine dining, even when something misses the mark, like a pitchy pan-seared salmon overburdened with hibiscus mustard and charred cabbage, or a striking but bland tonno crudo consisting of thick, bright red hunks of tuna lost in a jumble of pickled grapes and red onion. Two of the à la carte vegetable sides, broccolini + acciughe (broccolini + anchovy) and funghi + cabolo verde (mushrooms + kale) were identically salted to death and as challenging to eat as they were to order, in a restaurant that insists on calling everything by its Italian name. It’s not salmon but salmone, not tuna but tonno. Struggling through an entire script of clunky pronunciations as the server patiently corrects certainly puts you in your place, and sure, Nesso could lead with English instead of asking us to sound out ostriche con guscio right there in front of everyone. But maybe something would get lost in translation, like the sense of adventure that comes with eating not just a house salad but an insalata della casa.
It keeps us humble, and that’s a good quality to possess if we want to have nice things.