The culinary heart of America’s heartland
Libertine's menu features bites like chicken paté and waffles. (Jennifer Heigl)
Centrally located within the heartland of the United States, Indianapolis -- the capital of Indiana -- has long been known as the home of the Indianapolis 500, one of the most important race car events in the world. But as other major US sporting events also choose the Circle City for their crowning moments -- including the 2012 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four tournament and the 2012 Super Bowl -- the city has become more than just a pit stop along the race track, with a burgeoning arts and culinary scene that has revitalized the convention-heavy downtown corridor.
A formerly sleepy city that seemed set in its ways, Indianapolis is filled with new life thanks to the efforts of its culinary community. Restaurants from Washington to Michigan Streets in the city’s downtown -- once dated in their offerings -- have been renewed, both in atmosphere and aliments. Eateries like the historic St Elmo Steakhouse, a fine dining city classic well-known for its nostril-burning, yet oh-so-satisfying shrimp cocktail made with freshly-grated horseradish, have been joined by newcomers like the swanky, art-filled Capital Grille, a steakhouse located in the Conrad Indianapolis hotel. Building on the success of Pizzology, a popular pizzeria and pub in Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis, chef and restaurateur Neal Brown opened the Libertine just in time for the Super Bowl extravaganza. A pioneer in the city’s ambitious culinary scene, the restaurant’s menu features bites like chicken paté and waffles -- a hip take on the classic Southern chicken and waffles -- alongside Prohibition-era craft cocktails like an Old Fashioned, made with bourbon and bitters, or a French 75, made with gin and champagne.
“For years we were teetering on the edge of a full on culinary revival, but to many of us, it seemed as though it would never come,” Brown said. “Farmers markets have blown up, the craft beer scene has taken over and maybe more importantly than all of that, people finally wear it as a badge of honour to say ‘I only eat at local restaurants’. It’s been a huge shift from just five years ago, when Indy was thought to be just another ‘Chain City USA’.”
Throughout Indianapolis, in anticipation of February 2012’s Super Bowl celebration, the 46 by XLVI art program was also developed, commissioning 35 local and national artists to create 46 murals and art installations for the occasion. The program presents visitors with an array of colour around the downtown area and in nearby neighbourhoods like Irvington and Broad Ripple.
The most prominent display of colour is along the growing Massachusetts Avenue Arts District just northeast of downtown. Along the bustling strip, a four-storey mural of Indianapolis native and praised author Kurt Vonnegut oversees the street, which is full of food, drink and shopping opportunities. Restaurants like R Bistro with its ever-changing seasonal menu, craft cocktail bar Ball and Biscuit, and the innovative Black Market, which serves beef tongue and burgers, are interspersed with boutiques and art galleries, offering an urban experience that rivals more tourist-heavy metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Boston.
“There have been many restaurateurs and chefs in this city that have carved the way for the newest batch of us to get our feet grounded,” explained Black Market proprietor Ed Rudisell. “We very much enjoy the gastropubs in Chicago and New York and felt that Indy was ready for something in the same vein.”
The budding art and food scene continues just outside of downtown in neighbourhoods like Broad Ripple, which is home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and a 152-acre outdoor art garden complex. Also in the Broad Ripple neighbourhood, chef Greg Hardesty presents plates of edible art at his acclaimed Recess, illustrating just how refined the Indianapolis food scene has become, with a rotating menu of fresh fish like sable served with a sweetcorn-scallion blini, and an international drinks list of perfect dish pairings, from a French 2009 Domaines Schlumberger pinot gris to a local Sun King Brewery Wee Mac Scottish-style ale.
With the city spread out like spokes of a wheel, another spoke off the downtown corridor leads to the Smoking Goose Meatery, where chef Christopher Eley also creates his own artworks of the edible persuasion. The meat-heavy stop, situated just north of downtown in the industrial Holy Cross area, is home to a full menu of housemade charcuterie from the Spicy Delaware Meatball, a pork salami packed with crushed chili, espelette pepper and garlic, to black truffle bologna. Eley also heads Goose the Market, a specialty food and wine shop in the more residential Meridian Highland neighbourhood.
“I had big dreams of moving to New York or San Francisco, but the more time I spent here, the more I knew that Indy was… a city of immense opportunity,” said Brown. “As I like to say, ‘If there is a heart in the heartland, we are it’.”