Carnegie’s in Greenfield marries seasonal eats with landmark locale Terry Kirts
A simple house salad corralled in a cool sash of cucumber.
There’s a kind of restaurant where the location is almost as tasty as the food. Get out the map, gas up the car and head off on some sparsely traveled highway to one of these storied eateries, and you can pretty much expect to feel like you’re dining somewhere outside the confines of time, channeling the souls of all the people who’ve been there before you. Too often, however, these places are greasy spoons or frilly tearooms, eateries where the locals eye out-of-towners suspiciously and you need a roll of Tums just to get your stomach home in peace. Almost never do they have their own herb garden outfitted with a Roman-style oven for baking breads. Rarely are the chefs trained anywhere but in the school of experience, let alone such a sanctified gastronomic metropolis as Florence. Tucked away in the basement of a former Carnegie library in the heart of Greenfield, the appropriately named Carnegie’s has all of that and a lot more. Approaching the place from the outside, you’re met with a vision of diners illuminated by lights emanating as from some subterranean club. Inside, the sheer history of the place is unmistakable. Local literary saint James Whitcomb Riley purportedly read to schoolchildren on that stage next to your table. While not all the furnishings derive from the days when patrons came here for literary sustenance, instead seasonal dishes, sturdy wooden library chairs and a great Arts & Crafts buffet offer plenty to convince you of the building’s heritage. The night we dined, the quite youthful staff milled about in floor-length aprons, giving this place the formal but slightly unpolished feel of a high school play. The guy who brought our bread doubled as pianist for the evening. Our waitress, who said she wasn’t actually old enough to drink wine, recited the colorful roster of specials with the stiffness of someone delivering a speech in front of a class. To most questions, she replied, “Well, I’m sure the chef would know.” Still, she was ready and able to meet just about every request expeditiously and with a smile. Despite the fact that it was February, the restaurant was still serving its fall menu. Braised meats, root vegetables and red wine sauces dominated, though on such a brisk evening, we weren’t exactly looking for chilled soups and sushi. Opened in 1999 by Chef Ian Harrison, Carnegie’s bills itself as having an Italian-inspired cuisine, but there’s plenty of Hoosier ingredients here to make one feel at home. Unfortunately, a risotto-stuffed quail appetizer with persimmon-brandy sauce wasn’t available. However, Chef Ian substituted a clever duck pâté ($9), a rustic tureen of well-seasoned duck meat encased in duck skin. Slices of toasted bread slathered with a white bean purée provided a tasty base, and briny olives, cornichons and sweet red peppers made tangy garnishes. Perhaps the biggest surprise came with artful, elegant salads. A simple house salad was corralled in a cool sash of cucumber, not exactly a new trick but perfect with buttery lettuces, crunchy homemade croutons, grape tomatoes and a dusting of real parmesan cheese. The spinach salad ($5) went a step beyond this, with pine nuts, supremes of oranges, red onions and a light but tasty bacon dressing. Roasted red pepper soup ($4), also lighter than expected, packed an intense pepper flavor with a touch of heat. A basket of various herbed breads, presumably baked in that garden oven, quickly vanished. Entrées demonstrated the range of the kitchen’s skill and Harrison’s flair for the understated. A pasta special with a creamy smoked salmon sauce was leagues above many restaurant pastas, with sweet bits of carrot and steamed broccoli on al dente penne. Roasted duck with braised duck risotto ($23) seemed redundant but was a perfectly succulent breast of fowl cooked to a juicy medium with delicious, not mushy, risotto and a sauté of crisp root vegetables. Beef tenderloin medallions ($27) weren’t really “medallion” in shape, but the strips of grilled beef were about as tender and flavorful as they get with such little fuss. Only the braised lamb came close to disappointing, too timidly seasoned and swimming in a dark sauce that lacked punch. Bits of parsnip, carrots, even some wee florets of roasted broccoli added a crunchy sweetness, and mashed potatoes were creamy enough. For dessert, our much-relaxed waitress baited us by placing sample sweets on the table before us. How could we resist a raspberry-vanilla cake with white chocolate frosting or a chocolaty ganache cake with a name that sounded almost like “karaoke”? The former was the better of the two, buttery and rich, if a little to the dry side. The latter confection, actually spelled “Carioca,” was almost bracingly un-sweet, though not without undertones of chocolate and coffee with a crunchy bottom crust. It was a guilty end to a library visit in which we took home no books, but Carnegie’s reminds us that the soul is nurtured by more than words alone.