Traditional Liège waffles are sold street-side in their native Belgium and bear little resemblance to the distant American cousins that go from freezer to toaster. They have thimble-sized divots and such a solid heft that Western Europeans can eat them from slips of waxed paper while standing outside train stations, wearing all their scarves. Two of Taxman’s owners, Nathan and Leah Huelsebusch, fell in love with these latticed workhorses during the three years they lived in Belgium (where he worked as a corporate tax consultant). So it makes sense that they would obsess a little bit about their Hancock County restaurant’s headline act. “We imported two amazing waffle irons from Belgium,” he says. “They’re super-hot irons that crisp the sugar in the dough so you get these wonderful pockets of crunchiness,” she says.
And I’m onboard the waffle fan bus. Really, I am. But I also think head chef Ryan Kernodle’s Midwestern gastropub menu—equal parts ambitious and understated, smart and approachable—has so many other hits that the waffles seem like a marketing shtick by comparison. Sticky fig jam and candied jalapeños adorn a starter plate of venison meatballs that are appropriately woodsy and intense, the game cooked dark and spiked with sweetness. Kernodle’s take on shrimp cocktail is equally distinctive—a conga line of crustaceans presented in a long, slender olive tray, the cocktail sauce a slurry of tomatillos, jalapeños, and coconut.
Waffles get the people in the door. (Or, more accurately, waffles get people to drive across long stretches of highway, traverse a patchwork of unfamiliar roads named after numbers, bump over the old Bee Line railroad tracks, and find street parking in this suddenly hopping Geist-adjacent town that is also home to FoxGardin Kitchen & Ale and a large statue of a bespectacled pink elephant holding a martini in its trunk.) But the promise of steak tartare that grazed locally, grilled pork with pumpkin risotto, and braised chicken wings ignited with cranberry hot sauce keep them coming back.
The main dining room is a sanctuary of exposed brick walls and polished concrete floors with an open upper-level loft for private events.
No strangers to the hard sell of destination dining, the Huelsebusches and a few other investors opened their original Taxman location in the equally outlying town of Bargersville three and a half years ago. On warm Hoosier evenings, the restaurant and its parking lot–sized patio brim with Dubbel-sipping, Farmhouse Burger–chomping visitors. Sunday brunch is an elaborate spread that involves pork-belly huevos, breakfast frites, and beer cocktails served across the street from a grain elevator. It’s quite a little vignette, as if the set designers for Mayberry R.F.D. and Portlandia combined their resources.
In Fortville, the layout feels more pulled together—or maybe its rough edges just seem so artfully intentional. Three buildings along Main Street were gutted to fit out this 12,000-square-foot space with all of the industrial-glam trappings of a modern brasserie. The main dining room is a sanctuary of exposed brick walls and polished concrete floors with an open upper-level loft for private events. Massive starburst chandeliers hang from the rafters, and one wall features an oversize skull painting by Antwerp graffiti artist Steve Locatelli. (All other artwork is available for purchase, and boy howdy would I love to hang most of it over the mantel in my imaginary Brooklyn walk-up.) In an attached room, a 40-foot concrete bar fronts a row of tap handles and all the pretty bottles a three-way liquor license can accommodate.
Kernodle’s kitchen also received extra attention during the build-out. The owners wanted to give the back of the house plenty of elbow room. That, admittedly, was something they overlooked in Bargersville. “We dramatically underestimated the amount of food we would serve at our first location,” Nathan says. Here, a dozen or so cooks can comfortably send out house-pinched walnut tortellini and whip up a seasonal duck-breast dish, one version served with perfectly burnished skin—sliced and arranged around a bright salad of beets and mushrooms, beside a little mixed-onion tart topped with a scoop of velvety paté.
Chef Kernodle, who hails from the late, great Indigo Duck in Franklin—home of decadent Southern Gothic cuisine, as in low-country shrimp and grits and eggs Benedict draped over fried green tomatoes—makes good use of the space. I couldn’t stop talking about his broths, like the kale soup’s surprisingly rich fennel base, and the liqueur-brined soup left at the bottom of a bowl of mussels and frites. I said I wanted to tip it back and slurp the warm dregs of bourbon, bacon, and shallots. My server said she would look away. I appreciated that.
I also wanted to pin a medal onto another server, on another visit, who knew just by the looks of me that I would need to order the Loophole cocktail, a chilly coupe glass of dark, nutty rum shaken with blackberry liqueur that was perfectly calibrated to my mood at that moment. She was also cross-trained to guide me and a companion in the direction of that face-melting duck breast and to elaborate on the beer list with a degree of detail (and clear-eyed earnestness) that made my hopophile friend whisper as she walked away, “ I love her.”
She recommended that we start with one of those Liège waffles, of course. I’ll give her that, even though she already had me in the door, even though I was already sitting there as giddy as a pink elephant with a martini in its trunk. I just know now that there are so many reasons to go back, and that’s the nice thing about restaurants that don’t get tripped up by their own reputations that precede them. We get to discover their delicious secrets on our own—maybe even before they figure it out themselves.
TAXMAN FORTVILLE – 29 S. Main St., Fortville, 317-482-1272, Tues.–Thurs. 4–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun.
10 a.m.–10 p.m.
VIBE: Corn-fed brasserie
TASTING NOTES: A chef’s take on casual European dining
NEIGHBORHOOD: Downtown Fortville
MUST-ORDER: Mussels and frites, seared duck, and one of the house drafts like Taxman’s refreshing Wit-Held wheat
TAB: Starters $5–$16, sandwiches $13–$16, entrées $14–$38, house beers and cocktails $4–$11
3-STAR RATING: ★★