2003 in review 

The good, bad and average

The good, bad and average
If a single story has dominated Indy's fine dining scene this past year, it is probably the formation of the Indianapolis Originals. This loose affiliation of 40-plus restaurants, initially brought into being by Peter George of Peter's and John and Sue Schneider of Something Different, was formed in an attempt to emulate the success of similar operations around the country. It brought together former competitors (not to say occasional combatants) into a cohesive unit to fight the growth of chains and corporate eateries.
And as for the best chain restaurant (and, frankly, the best overall restaurant of the year) it's hard to top The Oceanaire at 20 S. Meridian.
Although still not as brash in its self-promotion as in other markets (where members might, for example, advertise half-priced wine on Mondays, two-for-one entrée cards and the like), and despite a number of inexplicable exclusions from the group's membership, the movement appears to be gaining some momentum. It's an uphill battle, to be sure, and I strongly urge readers to visit the Originals' Web site at www.indianapolisoriginals.com for further information about the member restaurants and any upcoming special events. If the rise of certain independents has been on everyone's lips this past year, then so has the decline of others. For whatever reasons, this year has seen the demise of a number of revered establishments, and some not quite so revered, for that matter. Those who appreciate irony or a touch of hubris will recall that, the day after the Indianapolis Originals inaugural dinner at Peter's, the restaurant filed Chapter 11. Peter's other two establishments quickly followed suit and suddenly the city's closest thing to a restaurant empire was no more. A hero to some and an ogre to others, Peter George must be credited with single-handedly raising the level of service and management in this city's independent restaurants. His professional demise, when it came, was a shock, but hardly a surprise. Through a series of timely press releases and e-mails, the impending closures had been anticipated, and the blame apportioned. Peter's story has already been covered quite comprehensively in other places, so we won't go into details here. Suffice to say that I'm sure that the name of this restaurant legend will be the subject of many dinner party conversations for years to come. Also quite suddenly, but with a lot less fanfare, came the closing of The Majestic Oysterhouse on South Pennsylvania. A longtime landmark on the downtown dining scene, there were many who believed that this spectacular location would one day make a great home for a restaurant. Well, it's a steakhouse right now, so whether this particular change is for the better has yet to be seen. In a similar vein, Shaffer's, a delightfully retro fondue house and home to the town's finest wine list, finally gave up the ghost after a valiant effort to keep the old ship afloat after the passing of its founder and owner, Greg Shaffer. Veterans of Indianapolis fine dining will no doubt miss this splendid old establishment. As a sterling lesson to would-be restaurant entrepreneurs about the perils of soaring ambition, the brief history of Gregory's is second to none. This up-market steakhouse and its companion bistro in Fishers proved, in their six-month life, that you need more than a cigar—friendly atmosphere and some fancy wine racks to justify stratospheric pricing. As any restaurateur worth his or her salt will tell you, it's what's on the plate that counts, not what's on the walls. Or is it? Perhaps the new Vizion and Vapour Lounge will prove me wrong. Although not a member of the Indianapolis Originals, the always interesting and sometimes controversial Ju Ping Chi continues to demonstrate how to charge lofty prices and justify them with her excellent Mikado Restaurant and Five Spice Café. Now branching out into Pan-Asian fare at Shanghai Lil's, and expanding her sushi empire with a projected string of Mikado Cafés, Ju Ping is the living embodiment of the "just do it" school of thought. In spite of (or perhaps because of) recent setbacks involving fires and collapsing ceilings, Ju Ping Chi remains a force of nature on the Indianapolis fine dining scene. Saving the best for last, my vote for the most exciting new restaurants (with a chance of actually making it) falls into two categories: the independent and the chain. In the former category, Elements, the new venture from Chef Greg Hardesty of H2O fame, gets my nod and that of many of my acquaintances. Making the best of the abundance of fine ingredients now available, Hardesty works wonders in the kitchen and keeps the prices well within reach. And as for the best chain restaurant (and, frankly, the best overall restaurant of the year) it's hard to top The Oceanaire at 20 S. Meridian. Not that I'm into making predictions or anything, but I would hazard a guess that this is where the future stars of Indy's fine dining scene will receive their culinary baptism. As I've said before about this exemplary restaurant, the quality lies in the details. It may be part of a (very tiny) chain, but I think that all restaurant professionals could and should take a close look, because this is what you're up against. And as for the year in wines and spirits ... we'll save that for a later date. Neil Charles is the former Cuisine editor at NUVO. He will continue to contribute occasional restaurant reviews and regular articles on wines and spirits.

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