Different name - still the same? 

Danielli adds subtle twists to Canterbury tradition

No local eatery has better represented the old guard of cuisine and turn-of-the-century table service than the restaurant at the Canterbury Hotel. With its dark wood-paneled walls, starched white table cloths and elegant place settings, not to mention the regal treatment afforded diners by the black-clad staff, this place, more than any other, hearkens back to fine-dining restaurants of yore with their flair for “voilà” and “ta-da!” Where else do waiters coordinate the unveiling of entrées steaming under silver domes? Where else can you nibble tea sandwiches and scones every day at 4?

Long known for being Indy’s only four-diamond restaurant, as distinguished by the American Automobile Association, the restaurant at the Canterbury has been one of Indy’s most consistent and top-notch eateries, oft lauded by out-of-towners and local critics alike. So, why would you fix what isn’t broken? The reality is, diners’ tastes have changed significantly since the days when hotel restaurants were cut from the same mold. Restaurant customers want more casual spaces for dining; savvy gastronomes want to see something truly different and new.

Faced with a dwindling clientele, the Canterbury recently did a little house cleaning, changing its restaurant’s name to Danielli in a highly publicized grand reopening in late September. Now the culinary team of Daniel Emerson, food and beverage director; Charles Kaiser, chef de cuisine; and Chef Thomas Melvin are hoping to shepherd the hotel’s restaurant into an exciting new era. For the most part, the buzz that accompanied the name change has subsided all too quickly. A lot of foodie folk stopped in at the kickoff gala to gobble up gratis mini Kobe burgers, but they haven’t returned in droves to a beloved institution reinvented.

Arriving for a 6:30 reservation on a recent blustery Thursday, we were shocked to discover a deserted dining room. A few additional diners trickled in as the evening passed, but Danielli clearly wasn’t drawing the raucous masses to a hip and lively haunt. Service was like always, extremely attentive and skilled, though our waiter/host seemed determined to make our dinner a slow, deliberate one by giving us all too much time for ordering and between courses.

Having dined here several times before, the fun was in recognizing all the new touches. Unfortunately, we often had to strain to tell the difference, as Danielli seems reluctant to let go of time-honored Canterbury tradition. Nonetheless, a few things have changed. Extras, which in the past arrived without ceremony, are now presented with the obvious glint of the amuse bouche. A demitasse of roasted chicken consommé with bits of zucchini and leek warmed our cockles but didn’t exactly pack much flavor. A complimentary popover, a rich and flaky alternative to bread, came with a delectable pear butter and a slice of fig.

Appetizers represent a few of the new twists at Danielli, including a Kobe beef carpaccio and seared medallions of foie gras. Take that, Chicago! Sidestepping controversy, we went for a classic: the Maryland blue crab cake. As if to justify its $17 price tag, this giant cake is almost entirely crab with hardly a lick of filler, so much so we wondered how it stayed together in the pan. While the crab was succulent and sweet, one other element might have excited the palate more. Saucing was quite mild, and a roasted red pepper “essence” added little to the pristine cake. An insalata mista ($10) had a curious mix of fresh greens, olives, yellow squash and bleu cheese with a light dressing that might have been a bit sweeter to cut against the strong cheese.
Entrées drew heavily on Canterbury standards, albeit with a few upgrades, the most noticeable being price. Only one entrée, a vegetarian risotto, fell below $40; surf and turf approached $80. Among more modest mains, osso buco ($46) was a textbook version of a tender, if a bit fatty, braised veal shank.

Accompanying polenta was ultra creamy and luscious, asparagus perfectly crisp and a wine-fortified reduction sauce rich and flavorful. Crunchy pattypan squash were something you wouldn’t likely have seen before. The chicken Danielli ($43) also married skilled tradition with slight innovations. A generous, frenched breast had more of a topping of chèvre than a stuffing and the perfume of truffles. Smoky, slightly bitter sautéed baby arugula provided a nice contrast, and a butternut squash flan, another post-Danielli touch, was a bit soft but delicious nonetheless.

When desserts arrive on a silver tray, it’s hard to say no. A superbly elegant shortcake ($8) brought together a biscuit-like base with strawberry purée, whipped cream and a crumb topping that jazzed up this aseasonal but excellent dessert. An Irish cream panna cotta ($8) slid off its cake base, but it had a deep coffee flavor and a peppery hit with honey and a silky sauce. Lingering in the sparse dining room, our palates buzzing, we wondered why this place is still overlooked by downtown diners. In truth, a name change isn’t enough to draw crowds back to a place still a bit mired in the past. But those who have eschewed this institution ought to try it again. Here’s hoping the new era will balance tradition with even more daring changes — attracting more of the attention this esteemed eatery deserves.

Danielli at the Canterbury
123 S. Illinois St.

Monday-Thursday: 7 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 7 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-11 p.m.
Sunday: 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
(10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. brunch); 5-10 p.m.

Food : Four and a half stars
Atmosphere : Four and a half stars
Service : Four stars

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