When you bite into Beholder’s “crispy beef tongue pancake,” you really have to focus on what you are tasting. All at once, you’re hit with the meat’s malty sizzle against the pancake’s stealthy sauerkraut infusion, a sliver of dilled turnip giving a pickly, faintly spicy snap. Horseradish mustard adds creaminess, and a feather of frisée merely suggests lettuce. The dish involves so many weird and uncharted flavors, but stuffed into a single mouthful, it triggers one of our most basic food memories. “Tell me that doesn’t taste exactly like a Big Mac,” said our server.
I don’t know how a crispy beef-tongue pancake is supposed to taste—if the tongue should curl up and caramelize so delicately along the edges of its own Gene Simmons–ness, or if the sauerkraut pancake was intentionally designed to squish this softly into the layers of saltiness. I have no basis for comparison as far as crispy beef-tongue dishes go, but this was one of the most delicious, complex, and surprising things I have recently eaten. (And it only appeared briefly as an available-by-request secret menu item at the new near-eastside restaurant from chef Jonathan Brooks and business partner and sommelier Josh Mazanowski, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) Also, it tasted exactly like a Big Mac.
Beholder opened in June, a follow-up to the star chef’s four-year-old brunch disruptor, Milktooth. It repurposed an old auto shop on the edge of the historic Woodruff Place neighborhood into a sexy, under-decorated showcase for the kind of fever-dream cooking that Brooks does best. That includes a salad of warm turnips enhanced with nasturtium leaves, whole grilled quails, and lush, garlicky eggplant tartare to be slathered over hot fry bread. Brooks created a wild-mushroom dish with melted leeks and absinthe cream that was the edible version of a memory from his post–high school years living in Montana, when he and his brother would spend the day foraging for mushrooms and then go home to clean and prepare their bounty over a bottle of anise-flavored Pernod. “I had those flavors in my head, so I went there,” Brooks says.
You get the sense that the restaurateur lauded by Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and Eater.com—the unofficial spokesperson for every envelope-pushing chef who has tattoos and doesn’t live in Brooklyn—is not so much running a rock-solid business at Beholder as he is workshopping some culinary ideas. A little saucer of charred cucumbers, for example, came with tiny metal picks for plucking the warm pickle chunks out of a cranberry-laced vinaigrette. Thick spaghetti threads of rye bigoli were topped with flecks of dried chicken and pale chicken-schmaltz meatballs. During uni’s late-summer heyday, Brooks tipped the trembly sea urchin meat into teaspoons and served them with a touch of wasabi and a snow of citrusy granita. Menu descriptions, by the way, provide little more than rough drafts for what will emerge from the kitchen on muted earth-tone plates.
Sometimes Brooks goes a little too rogue, when he does things like make slippery pad Thai noodles out of pork skin or serve two tentacles of barbecued octopus for $23. But then something equally tricky, like a bowl of Szechuan stir-fried green and yellow beans tossed with duck bacon, dried shrimp, pickled wood-ear mushrooms, and chili flakes so incendiary that our server warned us three times that they had quite a kick, will win us back. We are under its spell even as we gasp like California Reaper–eating YouTubers, unwilling to give up on those intense—almost euphorically tingly—flavors.
Maybe the reason Brooks asks us to take so many risks with this much-anticipated venture (which also sits on uncharted restaurant territory, amid the blue-collar businesses of East 10th Street) is because he is taking risks, too. “I’m not the best businessman, but I feel a pressure to be honest about what I do,” says the 33-year-old chef who tweaks his menus daily, writing them out with a degree of sexy lyricism you expect from a guy who took a few poetry and acting classes in college, favors Latin American magical realism, and reads Gabriel García Márquez, Anne Sexton, and Charles Bukowski. “A lot of people, even in this town, are just cooking the trends. They’re cooking safe foods that they know people are going to understand,” Brooks says. “So I guess part of my goal is to be a little uncomfortable.”
Well then, mission accomplished.
The experimental tone carries through in thoughtfully composed cocktails, like the rum-based Daydream so aromatic with coconut and banana that they could sell a candle version, as well as the bracing but fruity Recurring that contains sherry, white-pepper syrup, and 18.21 Japanese Chili & Lime Bitters. Former Cerulean pastry chef Pete Schmutte’s dessert list is as seasonal and temporary as the mains, with early standouts like a Gjetost (pronounced YAY-tost) custard that turns a caramel-like Norwegian ski cheese into a velvety, dense cream tucked under shingles of oat tuile that are dusted with freeze-dried fruit powder.
Who knows, though, if Brooks is really just doing his own thing or if he feels a bit of (self-imposed, perhaps) pressure to deliver on the recent hubbub about Indianapolis finally becoming a true foodie town. Last year, the Zagat guide included us on its list of the 30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America, holding strong at 22, just behind San Diego. This mention pointed directly at the Brooks brand, along with fellow trailblazers like Bluebeard, Provision, Pizzology, and Bar One Fourteen, as the driving forces.
But one great restaurant (or even a handful of great restaurants) does not a great restaurant town make. What Brooks and his contemporaries are doing right now is creating some momentum. It’s actually up to the diners of Indianapolis to build on that—to follow through with each crispy beef-tongue pancake, to pay a hefty steakhouse price for a couple of tentacles, to have faith in a bowl of green beans with some seriously panic-inducing firepower.
Or just to have faith, in general—and if faith is what we need, then there is no better place to get it than at the Church of Jonathan Brooks.
1844 E. 10th St., 317-419-3471
Mon.–Thurs. 5–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5–11 p.m.
“Violently seasonal” small plates to entrées, artfully plated and paired with expertly mixed cocktails.
Eggplant tartare for the table, sashimi over warm and perfectly compact sushi rice, and local ribeye. Save room for the showstopping desserts.
Small plates $5–$19, large plates $23–$55, desserts $10–$14, cocktails $11–$16