If you had followed Ryan Nelson’s career from the beginning, you might have predicted the scene: Just 10 days after he opened Late Harvest Kitchen in the former Smith & Hawken storefront near The Fashion Mall, Nelson strolled from table to table in the packed, candlelit dining room of his first solo enterprise, talking to customers with the ease of a seasoned restaurant professional. But in many ways, he was still the guy from Minneapolis, the onetime English major and avid hockey fan a tad uncomfortable in his chef’s whites, humbly hoping you enjoyed the food he had cooked for you. Only now he was not answering to the corporate offices of The Oceanaire Seafood Room, where he established himself as both team player and rising star, garnering an invitation to cook at the revered James Beard House in New York City at age 26.
Nearly a decade at one of Indy’s most polished eateries definitely taught Nelson how to run a restaurant. For his own place, he’s taken pains to make every detail matter: the see-through window to the cozy bar tucked inside the foyer, the gently flickering fireplace, the well-lacquered tabletops made from repurposed barn wood from all over the Midwest. Candles cast shadows across silvery taupe walls framed with Douglas fir planks. A south-facing outdoor pergola with its own firepit promises one of the best al fresco dining spaces in the city. Only a soundtrack heavy with indie rockers seems a bit forced, particularly with a mature clientele who might prefer the Sinatra and Tony Bennett ubiquitous at Nelson’s previous employer.
Nelson has always excelled at the edges of “surf,” celebrating lesser-known maritime ingredients like halibut cheeks and sea beans—and often interpolating bacon and pork belly along the way. Here, he breaks out with a whole host of hearty braised-meat dishes, integrating surf and turf in tasty creations. A lusciously golden skate wing came with thick slices of andouille sausage, a light touch of a buttery meuniere sauce, and peppery watercress. Walleye, while a bit modest to be called a “shore lunch,” arrived richly garnished with sweet cippolini and housemade bacon.
Surprisingly, the rare misstep in early dishes came mainly with the seafood. Generous filets of Hawaiian ono seemed cooked to the far side of medium, leaving them slightly dry, though gnocchi and roasted cauliflower made for delectable sides. Small, superfluous clams atop a juicy pork chop with tender butter beans retained all too much of their grit. But where he focuses on the “turf,” Nelson rarely stumbles: pork cheeks fall apart on the fork next to lush wild mushrooms; short ribs show that they have been braised for 12 hours, with textbook risotto soaking up the juices. Small plates and sides run from elegant—a “pie” of American caviars with traditional garnishes of chopped eggs and capers—to rustic: housemade kielbasa with spaetzle and a noticeably buttery brandade of salt cod with toasted brioche.
Thankfully, Nelson didn’t leave everything behind at The Oceanaire. Those irresistible inverted domes of creamy, crispy hash browns are dressed up a la Minneapolis here, with bacon lardons, plenty of sour cream, and chives—a must on any visit. And the sticky toffee pudding, a trumped-up recipe for the British standard Nelson and his wife, Laurie, encountered on a trip to the Cayman Islands, is glorious here with its deep dark sauce, pillowy cake, and crunch of sugar crowned with a cloud of cool whipped cream.
Indeed the desserts, including a super-thick chocolate mousse and an apple tarte Tatin with a buttery crust and vanilla ice cream, were some of the clearest signs Late Harvest Kitchen was ready for prime time. A varied, largely affordable wine list and elegant cocktails such as The Sancho—tequila, sweet agave nectar, and pineapple juice with the vegetal bite of green chiles—also showed good planning. As much as Nelson made a national franchise spot into a restaurant with a local personality, it was only a matter of time before he put his own stamp on Indy’s culinary scene, welcome news in the sea of chains on the northeast side and a win for the city for retaining such a talented, still-evolving chef.
8605 River Crossing Blvd., 663-8063, lateharvestkitchen.com
HOURS Monday–Saturday 5–10 p.m
Photograph by Tony Valainis.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.