Cerulean: Endless gastronomic fun 

click to enlarge MARK LEE

I don't claim to be much good at arithmetic, but I'll bet that if you were to calculate the number of possible lunch combinations you could create from Cerulean's concise, varied menu, it would run into the hundreds. Eschewing the tedium of more conventional lunchtime menus, Cerulean offers diners the opportunity to create their own dishes by choosing up to three sides (out of eleven) with each (generally protein) main. The possibilities aren't quite limitless, but they might as well be, especially if there are two or more partaking. At dinner the choices are less flexible, which is in part what makes lunch here so exciting.

Situated in the new CityWay development, Cerulean is the latest venture from Caleb and Courtney France, who already own and run a successful establishment in Winona Lake, Ind. Atmospherically, the restaurant is a bit on the sterile side: It clearly doesn't benefit from being situated inside a building which makes Bauhaus look like a rococo fantasy. Much has been made of the scrap wood shack near the front door, a structure which might double as a discreet shelter for clandestine assignations or a safe haven if the natives get restless. Although to be fair, it's not something you encounter every day, so kudos on that front.

As for the food, all fourteen dishes we recently sampled were prepared with imagination, precision and clear love of the subject. There is no faulting the quality of the ingredients, the inspired combinations of flavors and textures, or the thought which has gone into producing so many disparate yet harmonious elements. The standard of cooking is top notch and, best of all, consistently so. Desserts, which I won't have space to discuss, are among the best in town and are prepared in house. Try them all if you can.

Relying heavily on locally-sourced ingredients from by now familiar family farms, preparations often emphasize sweet-savory contrasts with spice or herb highlights. It's a winning approach, especially when you're dealing with heftier fall dishes such as pork, duck, carrots, squash and brussels sprouts. Main courses are served in Japanese-style bento boxes, which might seem a bit fussy or pretentious, but it's a reliable way to keep the ingredients from running into one another, especially when the elements are so seemingly dissonant.

Typically outstanding is the duck breast, the fat perfectly rendered, skin nicely crisp, the flesh an immaculate medium-rare and well-rested, served atop a slightly sweet and subtly spiced pear jelly. A simple exercise in the classic marriage of sweet and savory, perhaps, but it's still uncommon these days to find duck so expertly prepared. Similar principals apply to the brilliant, heavily caramelized Brussels sprouts served with maple syrup and bacon: the definitive winter vegetable dish if there ever was one. And who would have thought of carrot and ginger soup as a side dish? This one is a must try, uncannily capturing the earthy rooty fragrance of a carrot freshly pulled from the earth; if you've ever dug carrots, you'll know what I mean.

With so many combinations available Cerulean seems to beg the question: Is it possible for everything we eat and drink capable of being enjoyed independently of everything else we eat and drink? I think it is. I've long believed that food and wine matching is basically just an excuse to publish books on the subject, and the menu and wine list at Cerulean seems to bear this out. Although the wines are cunningly arranged in loose comparative groups of old and new world, there's no indication of style, sweetness or weight. There is no right or wrong; it's all down to personal taste. Sample, taste, mix and enjoy whatever you prefer to drink with whatever you choose to eat. There's no magic or mystery, just great flavors, textures and sensations. And that, I believe, is a recipe for success, not to mention endless gastronomic fun.

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