Our sweet, burgundy-vested server at The Neely House smiled professionally when we lost our minds over a sugar-dusted, hand-painted peach macaron presented on a dainty gold cake circle. She cleared our toile china plates and cut-glass tumblers of blood-orange Palomas with all the grace of a Disneyland employee-of-the-month, while a young June Christy crooned “Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” in the background. We half-expected cartoon birds to flutter into that heavily floral-patterned dining room to tie ribbons in our hair.
It is not by accident that dinner feels this precious and magical at a four-month-old restaurant designed to reflect life in the times of its original resident, Muncie pioneer and prolific diarist Thomas S. Neely. He built the home, a two-story brick Greek Revival, in 1852, and kept a daily journal about the property and gardens until his death in 1901. Those writings guided interior designer and historic preservationist Russell Irving, one of The Neely House owners, in transforming the grand residence into an upscale dining destination in Muncie’s Emily Kimbrough Historic District. After a year of work, taking the structure back down to its bones before (among other things) painting, carpeting, rebuilding a staircase, installing a dumbwaiter, adding elaborate ceiling details, and hanging a Chinese-inspired suite of wallpapers in one of the dining rooms—The Neely House finally looks like the kind of place where Thomas S. would have felt at home in the mid-1800s. But something about the pristine elegance (the chandeliers, the flowery portières, the walls heavy with gold-framed portraits, and all of that brocade wallpaper) brings to mind another era: fine dining’s white-tablecloth heyday, circa 1995. Historically speaking, a restaurant hasn’t fussed over itself or its customers this much since the previous millennium.
But then the food arrives and we are back in our Bourdainian glory days, with so many smart, spot-on flavors and cleverly retooled classics. Ruby trout remains tender and delicate under its cornmeal crust, topped with a lump of melting toasted-pecan compound butter. A bruised kale salad contains grilled asparagus, Marcona almonds, and sweet drop peppers. Most impressively, a Sriracha- and honey-smoked fried chicken is scrupulously juicy, the perfect Southern dish for heat-seekers. The meat sits in a smoked-water brine overnight and is then deep-fried into a crackling hunk of bone-in poultry before the tangy hot sauce goes on, mercilessly. The chicken tops a smoked-corn pudding cake, which registers sweet enough to tamp some of the heat, and shares the plate with lush, just-wilted collard greens full of bacon and pork belly.
Head chef Ian Waid’s repertoire of stylized home cooking shows the appropriate amount of restraint for a restaurant that has a claw-foot tub in its upstairs restroom, and yet his food maintains a certain edge. The crispy flatbread, for instance, is enhanced with ingredients like Point Reyes blue cheese, guanciale, and a 15-year aged sorghum syrup. And the grilled peach cobbler’s à la mode option is a scoop of sweet-corn ice cream.
A New England transplant, Waid moved to Muncie when his then-wife landed a job at Ball State University. He worked at Madison’s in downtown Pendleton before his stint began at the ground level of The Neely House, which he also co-owns. He met Irving through a mutual friend. “I cooked dinner for him and his husband, and after dinner we took a walk [to the restaurant],” Waid recalls. “Russell was like, ‘What do you think?’ I looked at the house in the state that it was in—and let’s just say I have a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and everything else put into this place.” It was hard to resist the opportunity to design from scratch not only a menu, but also a kitchen (because the food prep area was a complete add-on that Waid equipped with modern-day gear).
Something else too tempting to pass up? A good foodie road trip. Indy’s culinary tourists have followed their appetites to distant locales since the birth of Bonge’s Tavern (home of the Perkinsville Pork and the BYO lawn chair policy). We have ventured to the distant lands of Bargersville (Taxman Brewery) and Roanoke (Joseph Decuis) for fine off-the-grid dining. With The Neely House, Muncie earns its own pin in the GPS Hall of Fame.
Waid’s repertoire of stylized home cooking shows the appropriate amount of restraint for a restaurant that has a claw-foot tub in its upstairs restroom.
There are a few missteps—an under-crisped porchetta, some over-floured gnudi, and a heartbreakingly dry Fat Elvis peanut-butter bundt cake with bacon bits and chocolate sauce. While these are mostly technical flubs, the food itself doesn’t lack flavor or heart, which makes The Neely House worth the trip anyway. Or perhaps multiple trips that begin, as you round the I-69 northbound ramp, with thoughts of sea scallops crusted in sesame and coriander and stacked on slivers of pickled beets with candied pistachios and a hint of preserved-lemon vinaigrette, followed by a craving for doily-thin johnnycakes and the Flintstone-portioned braised Persian lamb shank. Waid rubs the
appendages in a variety of Middle Eastern spices—lime, saffron, rosewater, onions, cardamom—and braises them until the meat succumbs to fork tenderness and the stock intensifies to a heady perfume. It eventually becomes a rich and gamey bone-in roast served over couscous with grilled asparagus and a sprinkle of classic Egyptian dukkah spices. Yet this extravagant dish somehow tastes familiar, and that’s exactly what the chef intended. “Believe me, I appreciate froths and foams,” Waid says. “But I wanted to serve food that the average Joe could understand.”
Baked double-cream brie and fragile endive salad will always go over well, even among people who do not pinch-and-zoom their food before the first bite. The same goes for velvety slices of Maple Leaf Farms duck breast glazed with port and tart-cherry sauce, and the two house cuts: a 6-ounce filet and an 18-ounce pan-seared ribeye that is occasionally ordered well-done with a side of A-1. It happens. As for matcha rice pudding with toasted coconut and a sesame-seed tuile? Maybe that’s not for everyone—though it should be. Deliciously glutinous with a slight vegetal sweetness, it’s the perfect dessert at a restaurant that straddles the ages.
Call me old-fashioned.