When it was announced that the rather popular Southern-style Georgia Reese’s was closing up shop and re-opening as a steakhouse, I consistently heard iterations of the same utterance over and over again:
“Why, there are already so many steakhouses Downtown?”
And I agreed to an extent — there are a lot of steakhouses Downtown, but the change piqued my interest when I saw Ricky Hatfield was coming on as head chef.
Hatfield’s most recent stint at Peterson’s
allowed the steakhouse’s menu to evolve, with diners seeing some options that would have never been there before. And so, with Hatfield running the kitchen at CharBlue
it should come as no surprise that this is ‘not just another steakhouse.’ CharBlue is instead a bridge between two culinary worlds and it may surprisingly be just what Downtown Indianapolis needs.
“Our thing is we’re trying to reach as many people as possible,” Jeremiah Hamman, who cofounded CharBlue with former Colts linebacker Gary Brackett, tells me while I’m seated at one of the comfortable bar stools. “Our menu is diverse. We have a bonafide chef, you know, someone who you would find running a bistro in Fountain Square or on Mass Ave.”
Hamman is undoubtedly correct when evaluating Hatfield’s talent and his ability to curate an intriguing menu for tastes across the board. CharBlue has a superb steak listing which features Chicago’s beloved Allen Brothers choice angus beef.
But as Hamman points out there is much more: “We have fois gras, and we have cured belly, and pork cheek, and beef crudo, and venison, lamb, duck and Ora king salmon, which is a wild salmon. There’s some steakhouse classics on there to keep those people happy and the conventioners coming in, but we also have and are trying to appeal to a diverse consumer — a foodie, if you will.”
Hamman makes a pretty astute point here about the importance of steakhouses in the city.
Indianapolis is a convention town. In fact, according to Visit Indy, conventions brought 27.4 million visitors into the city in 2015 and the conventions will generate nearly $1-billion in future economic impact for Indianapolis. So, as a huge part of the city’s economy, it is important for restaurants to pull in the average tourist.
For Hatfield and his team in the kitchen, this is the goal, to bridge this gap between tourist and local. “I mean what we’re trying to do is be right smack in the middle,” Hatfield says during our quick chat before dinner service. “You know, reach your corporate out-of-town guests and corporate guests around Indy and also reach the up-and-coming foodie, late-twenty-something, thirty-something diners that are looking for something different or something that they haven’t seen before. You know, present something that is kind of a one-off menu item and just getting creative, but still keeping it relatively approachable.”
One look at the menu and you can tell he has the mind of a chef; it has a little something for everyone, but all of the dishes have touches that make them unique. “I don’t want to steer away the tried-and-true Indianapolis, steak and potato crowd, but I’m also trying to keep up with trends and keep up with my peers around the city because Indianapolis, as far as it’s concerned, is like a booming culinary scene right now, including us, but we’re trying to play both sides of the fence because we’re straight Downtown.”
When I’m seated in the dining room on a Thursday night, I get the opportunity to see and taste the way the CharBlue team bridges this gap. I start off my meal with a steakhouse classic: shrimp cocktail. In a city where we serve possibly the most famous shrimp cocktail in the world at St. Elmo, it is necessary to offer the dish on most any steakhouse menu, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to try and emulate that horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. I’m met with a flavor profile that steers far away from the classic.
“We’re using gigantic [this is not an exaggeration] six-to-eight count [Gulf] prawns and chimichurri sauce, which you usually don’t see on a shrimp cocktail, and my recipe on a chile-based cocktail sauce.”
While the shrimp cocktail is to be expected on the menu, my second appetizer is as far from a steakhouse classic as you’ll get. The pork cheek and pumpkin tamale is on the opposite side of the spectrum and yet I can see how they ended up on the same menu.
“There’s a lot of Latino influence around Indianapolis,” Hatfield says, and there’s a lot of it on his menu as well. “It’s not that I was trying to secure that market, but it’s one of those flavor profiles that I love; there’s so many huge and amplified flavors and spices and stuff.”
With most tamales I’ve had around the city the filling is the star, but by deconstructing the tamale Hatfield has allowed the delicious, moist masa to shine. It is a pumpkin tamale, not the sugary, cinnamon-y imposter that people equate with pumpkin, but the slightly sweet squash. The green mole is the perfect accompanying sauce, it is fresh, slightly spicy and the smokiness makes it a sauce that I literally would have used on every dish throughout the night.
When it comes to the quality of a restaurant, the bar program is as important as the kitchen and CharBlue’s bar is in good hands. Zach Bowsher (who has bumped around Indy’s bartending scene for years) came over from Louie’s Wine Dive
, where he was able to further his knowledge of wine.
“Food and drink go hand in hand,” Hatfield says “Zach and I talk on a daily basis about ingredients and stuff, like what cocktails and wines would work with the food and desserts and stuff like that. He’s like a chef with cocktails.
“He has a great cocktail program. He’s great at beer, wine and spirits. He’s been making some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. He truly has a great cocktail program right now. I mean it’s one to be recognized in Indianapolis. I think he’s one of the top mixologists in the city.”
When my cocktails (yes, plural) come to the table I can’t disagree with Hatfield. I first take a sip of one of the more popular offerings from the menu, the Road to Juarez. If you are a fan of tequila, this is the cocktail for you. Bowsher has infused Patron with pineapple and serrano pepper and the sweet, spicy, salty flavor all takes over your tastebuds. The poblano pepper rim is there to intensify those flavors.
My second drink is much more nuanced in its blend of flavors. The barrel-aged Journeyman gin in The First Word is perfectly balanced by the addition a basil mint simple syrup, which Bowsher handcrafts for each cocktail. The flavor truly complements my tamale and also happens to go well with my entree for the evening a hickory roasted venison chop.
I had planned on getting a steak, in order to see how they blended the two worlds together, but I can’t pass up venison, especially with a side as interesting as potato cannolis. This venison doesn’t have the gamey flavor I grew up with, and Hatfield explains why.
“That’s totally farm. I like using game like that, the farmed-game, like elk and bison and all that stuff,” he says. “The farmed stuff tastes totally different. I grew up on it wild and you cook the crap out of it, you don’t serve it rare like that. You maybe make a little summer sausage, jerky, stew or something like that.”
Having it perfectly prepared to medium rare and served with a sauce consisting of items a wild deer would eat — a black walnut and blueberry pesto — makes this dish an instant and simple classic. The potato cannolis are a surprising addition and more intriguing than any potato you’ll find most anywhere.
Hatfield describes how he came up with the idea for these tasty morsels: “It just came to me one day. I just was thinking, ‘How do I integrate a potato into a dish without making it a potato, or it even look like a potato?’ You know, it’s meat and potatoes, but how do I make it mine.
“I follow lots of blogs, I’m sure you’ve heard of Ideas in Food and they had a piece about vegetable glue. And that got me thinking, ‘Well, how do you hold a vegetable together?’
So I went to Steve Oakley’s place, because he and I are friends, and he has this tool that’s like a vegetable lave. So it spins out a flat sheet of vegetable, as long as it’s a round vegetable. And I was like ‘Hey, do you think I can make a potato cannoli, you know, straighten a flat sheet of potatoes?’ And we tried it out and he was like ‘Just use that.’ And so I filled it with a whipped potato puree and there it is. It changes things, it’s got texture, it’s got flavor.”
Despite all of the wonderful food and drink I had throughout the meal the most interesting was the whipped sweet potato soufflé. “That was actually my wife’s idea,” Hatfield admits, before conceding, “Well, it was kind of my idea. I did a plate at Peterson’s that had a sweet potato puree with chipotle in it and she came in to have dinner that night — I think I put it on a fish. And she told me to change my sweet potato recipe to that, and then spring rolled around and I was talking about opening a restaurant and she was like ‘Why don’t you do your sweet potato with chipotle?’”
I’m so glad she said that.
Does Indianapolis need another steakhouse? Who’s to say. But, CharBlue is much more than just another steakhouse. As Hatfield says, “We have to have something that is recognizable, but it’s just outside-of-the-box enough to draw people—foodie-wise—in.