I don’t get out much anymore. I won’t bore you with the obvious reasons, except to say that when I do venture beyond my own little nest of socially distanced Zoom meetings and Instacart deliveries, the world feels much bigger and more breathtaking than I remember it from before. Whole new businesses have launched during our nine-month-long (and counting) pandemic intermission—hopeful, exciting signs of life.
One of those marvels, Vivante French Eatery, made a quiet debut amid the limestone-and-brick splendor of Carmel City Center in late August (a date that tracks somewhere between Lovecraft Country and The Queen’s Gambit on the official COVID-19 calendar). The restaurant is as big and elegant as a ballroom, with eggshell walls and fine, crown-molded columns—and as pristine as a rich man’s home office, all crisp right angles and dark-wood McMansion accents. Guests are seated at white-marbled tables, each topped with a laminated card that reads, “This table has been sanitized for your protection,” in a dining room that harvests all of the natural light in Hamilton County through floor-to-ceiling windows that fill two walls. The view in one direction is a well-manicured stretch of the Monon Trail and a football arena–sized courtyard shared with The Palladium.
It’s hard to overstate the majesty of this multi-use swath of classical Georgian architecture, fountains, and twinkle-lit storefronts that has already been a decade in the making. Carmel City Center’s signature luxurious aesthetic applies to Vivante’s home base, the 125-room boutique Hotel Carmichael with its grand facade that is equal parts epic and foreboding. Pulling into the six-story hotel’s parking lot feels like the opening scene of a castle-based Netflix series, not quite Hill House but certainly in scale with Bly Manor (as well as, daresay, a hint of Downton Abbey). At the door, a host dressed in a fabulous brocade vest and fitted jacket will direct you across the lobby’s gleaming checkerboard floor, past the tufted red-velvet settee, and down a winding open staircase to the main restaurant. That’s where things get a little more down to earth.
Executive chef Joseph Hsu’s menu of dressed-down classics takes some of the air out of Vivante’s “French Eatery” designation. The steak tartare arrives with crostini and a tiny quail egg to be emptied at the table. There are standard-issue tuna Niçoise and roasted-beet salads, the latter bright and fresh with candied walnuts and soft nibs of goat cheese. And the Wagyu beef medallions, sweetened with Cognac demi-glace, are draped over a mound of potato purée, with everything sitting in a pool of chunky wild-mushroom ragout. These dishes are solid and satisfying—photo-ready but not overly fancy.
“We are not Le Bernardin. We are not The French Laundry. Our concept has always been approachable French,” says Hsu, who was born in Taiwan, moved to the states at the age of 12, and had racked up 25 years in the restaurant industry before getting hired to head up the hotel’s dining wing, from the restaurant and bars (including the upcoming cabaret dinner club, Feinstein’s) to the corporate banquets and sudden procession of rescheduled wedding buffets.
Hsu served as executive chef at the Indianapolis Zoo and ran his own catering and food-truck business, 5280 Bistro. Then, a $40 million luxury hotel offered him this nice corporate gig, where he has the budget to do what he wants to do and a staff of around 15, including former Big Woods head cook Dan Nichols. Most importantly, “we have a lot of freedom to do what we want to do with the menu,” says Hsu. Among his favorite dishes is a no-nonsense roasted breast of Fischer Farms chicken that he gives a quick sear in a sauté pan, flavors with fresh herbs, and then roasts in the oven. It has a Grand Marnier glaze and sits on a crispy potato croquette. “It’s one of the simplest things we do and probably best defines our concept and technique,” Hsu says. “I want to make food that is approachable for everyone who comes through the door.”