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Grille 39: Surprisingly good hotel food 

click to enlarge Photo by - MARK LEE

Hotel restaurants have always had a credibility issue: many travelers don't like to eat in them because to do so carries the appearance of desperation. All too often quality is compromised by the need to provide three meals a day in addition to room service, and ingredients are often sourced at the national level, rather than on a local basis. Although Indianapolis has its share of decent hotel restaurants downtown, Grille 39 is the first I can recall this far from the center of things which deserves to become an attraction for local diners.

On a recent visit at 8:30 on a Saturday evening, we were somewhat dismayed to find that, not only were we the only customers in the entire place, but that the tables had already been set for breakfast service. Dreading a lackluster dinner from a second-string kitchen crew, we were therefore pleasantly surprised when the entire experience considerably surpassed our expectations. Not only did the food come out promptly, hot and impeccably plated, the ingredients were also fresh-tasting and of high quality.

Chef Philip Kromer has arranged his dinner menu in a clear and logical fashion, omitting superfluous flourishes and keeping the number of choices to a manageable few. Meats are grilled on an 1800-degree infra-red broiler, ensuring a wonderful sear and a juicy interior to the steaks. Seafood is either grilled, sautéed or baked. In addition to meat and fish, there's a good selection of sandwiches and salads as well as a couple of soups of the day.

Particularly appealing is the selection of vegetables, embellishments and sauces, effectively allowing the diner to indulge in any number of variations around the protein. With my impeccable sautéed diver scallops ($27), I chose a garlicky aioli with asparagus and a perfectly al dente parmesan risotto. We also enjoyed a superbly flavorful filet steak ($37), with a classically-prepared béarnaise sauce, and the grilled chicken ($24), perfectly scented with sage, and juicily tender but still firm. This latter had all the hallmarks of a free range bird, but I wasn't able to verify this.

Perhaps the standout main course was my wife's delicately sauced lobster spaghetti ($28), which featured a light and richly-flavored alfredo sauce laced with large chunks of obviously real lobster and a touch of basil. This was served in such a generous portion that she was barely able to make a dent in it.

Equally impressive were the appetizers, including a loose and profoundly meaty crab cake ($14.75), artfully served with a dash of key lime mustard sauce. Garnished with julienne vegetables on a plate resembling an artist's palette (complete with thumb hole), this was a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. A trio of pulled pork sliders ($11.50), served on brioche buns, possessed an agreeably vinegary tang and a melting texture. More ordinary, but nonetheless tasty for that, was a handful of barbecued shrimp ($14.75.) Advertised as "wicked," these weren't as fiercely spicy as we had expected; a good thing, perhaps.

The only mild disappointment of the evening was the choice of breads, which included a sweet cinnamon toast that might better have been kept for breakfast.

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