OF ALL THE spinoffs of the original Taxman Brewing Company concept—far-flung gastropubs, farm-to-table fare, Neapolitan pizza, and, as of late spring, a bakery featuring flaky croissants and house-made gelato—steak was the one we didn’t see coming. It wasn’t exactly in Leah and Nathan Huelsebusch’s crystal ball, either. They had their eyes on other business ventures, including the purchase of an iconic 6,800-square-foot grain elevator within sight of their original operation. But the couple who conceived of a Belgian-inspired brewery in a defunct bolt factory in Bargersville in 2014—and no doubt had a hand in the sleepy burg’s recent population surge—had hoped they might rouse other entrepreneurs to join the southside awakening. When none did, the wheels started turning. “We kept hearing from our customers that what the south side needed was a great steakhouse,” Nathan says, “something a cut above nearby strip mall steak chains.” They were already renovating the historic Masonic lodge that shared a wall with their recently opened Pizza & Libations, which came with a bonus second-floor space with a hidden entrance. The well-documented three-year sojourn they took in Belgium—which inspired Taxman—had also included jaunts to wine regions and bistros in France. Could the old lodge be the place to feature one of their other culinary loves? Why not? they thought. The result is Up Cellar, a speakeasy-style spot for steak and spirits that, matching its unassuming signage and shadowy stairwell entryway, opened with almost no fanfare in May. But that’s what makes it—both for locals in the know and for the intrepid Indy folk who brave the half-hour drive south—so unexpected. At the top of the stairs waits an equally low-lit supper club lined with banquette seating, finished in a subdued palette of gray and taupe. What light there is comes mainly from cut-glass midcentury chandeliers and a row of vintage wall sconces hung from black-and-white graphic paintings, all of which lends a slightly Gatsby-esque aura to the place (belied by a heavy-handed soundtrack of rock classics reinterpreted as jazz). It’s sleek and just out-of-the-box enough to feel like a destination.
A recent retooling under executive chef Cole Padgett standardized the menus across all the Huelsebusches’ brewpub locations, but burgers, frites, hearty salads, and dressed-up Brussels sprouts have long been local standards, making selling beer and pub food a forgiving venture. Getting the formula for wine and steak right is trickier, as the Huelsebusches found out in the five months since they opened Up Cellar.
One thing the Up Cellar kitchen got right at the start is the house crabcake, which alone can garner plenty of reviewers’ stars. A mountain of sweet lump crab meat is held together with a light but sturdy crust of breadcrumbs that acts as a textural counterpoint. Cool shavings of fennel and slices of grapefruit are far from expected garnishes, as are artful dollops of smoky, orange-scented aioli in two colors. The dish is portioned easily enough for four, extravagantly for two. It’s great with your first sip of pinot or perhaps even better with a playful cocktail, such as the earthy, smoked lavender Sazerac, presented with a wooden lid that opens to reveal wisps of aromatic smoke. Salads, though, vary mysteriously—one night you may get a watery chopped salad with scant, chewy toppings and another, a garden-fresh kale Caesar with a refreshingly garlic-forward dressing. Steaks, well-seared but not aggressively so, stand up to those at respected chophouses, but are drenched in bearnaise sauce. Tasting the meat is near impossible. Ordered sans sauce, the full-flavored sirloin is succulent and expertly seasoned. A tender, cooked-to-medium Fischer Farms pork chop is also better without its thick crust of blue cheese and peaches, but the scallops accompanied by maitake mushrooms and the salmon garnished with a bright mango-cucumber salsa show restraint among the seafood offerings. A Maple Leaf Farms duck breast atop a silky sweet potato puree is worth forgoing steak, owing to the juicy pink center and the interplay of coarse salt with fruity blackberry merlot sauce.
Desserts stay in familiar steakhouse territory. A scoop of gelato from the Cellar Market downstairs is a good choice, especially pistachio or salted caramel. By contrast, the nearly obligatory molten chocolate cake is a nice departure, much more an actual cake with a moist crumb than typical liquid-center versions, with a welcome bittersweet edge.
Just when we started pining for the simpler days of a freshly tapped farmhouse ale and a salmon club, we realize the Huelsebusches are on their way to another hit in the bucolic village that first made them famous.
63 N. Baldwin St., Bargersville, 317-533-0845, theupcellar.com
Wed–Sun 5–11 p.m.
Steakhouse standards with hearty sides, solid seafood offerings, and seasonally inspired creations sourced from local producers, such as Fischer Farms and Heirloom Acres
A crispy crabcake pairs with a smoked lavender Sazerac to start. A kale Caesar and well-seared sirloin are great bets. Finish with a not-too-sweet molten chocolate cake.