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Hip comforts: Tavern On South 

click to enlarge MARK LEE

The infelicitously named Lucas Oil Stadium (aka The House That Manning Built) is many things to many people. But whether you regard it as a Romanesque symbol of misplaced civic priorities or flagship for our major league aspirations, there is no denying the Luc's potential as a draw for development in a part of downtown that sorely needs it.

A welcome case-in-point is Tavern On South, a new eatery that adroitly blends a feel for its neighborhood's working-class roots with an upscale whiff of spiff.

South Street, as it happens, runs east and west along downtown's southern rim. Tavern On South is located in a vintage brick building to the west of the stadium, in the immediate shadow of our local version of a dark satanic mill — IPL's enormous art deco power plant.

Even though it's only been open a couple of months, lunch time on a recent Wednesday found TOS's elegantly casual interior crowded with folks conveying the impression they'd flown their professional coops in favor of this restaurant's hip take on comfort food.

We started by ordering a Tuscan Salad adorned with three beef tenderloin medallions ($12). The salad itself was a sparking pile of lettuces mixed with chopped Greek olives, pepperoncini, red onions, cucumbers and crumbled feta cheese, judiciously drizzled with a red wine vinaigrette. This would have been fine by itself, but the addition of the three meltingly succulent cuts of beef cooked medium rare, constituted a meal in itself.

TOS's lunch menu includes some intriguing starters, like Crab Ravioli ($9) and Indiana Shagbark Ahi, a seared pepper-crusted Tuna served with Indiana shagbark hickory-soy syrup ($10), not to mention the now ever-present selection of 12-inch pizzas.

But we were drawn to their sandwiches, a genre, it turned out, where TOS really has something to say. I ordered the "Tavern Smoked" Bison Burger ($13), a patty the size of an old-time baseball mitt, topped with charred tomato barbeque glaze, Mariah's Indiana peppered bacon and a sprinkle of blue cheese on a fresh brioche bun. Our server told me the flavor mix involving the sauce, bacon and cheese was amazing, and he was not mistaken. The bacon, in particular, invested each bite with not just the taste, but a grilled aroma that made this burger truly memorable.

I was also curious to see how the kitchen would handle bison, as I've generally found local variants of this meat lacking the juiciness of its beefy cousin. Not this time. The bison burger holds its own with the best beef burgers in town.

My companion put TOS's sandwich chef to a similar test by ordering their version of another local favorite, Tavern Tenderloin Sliders ($9.50). The pork tenderloin is probably Indy's most iconic dish. But it's usually a double handful, an oversized slab of fried meat on a ridiculously underdeveloped bun. TOS offers a civilized alternative by hand-cutting the tenderloin into what they call "minis" and serving them with shredded lettuce and a mustard aioli sauce on fresh, dark brown pretzel buns. The tender meat comes encased in a crispy, almost Oriental-style carapace featuring glints of sea salt and herbs. It's a pleasure sans guilt.

Sandwiches at TOS come with a variety of sides. We ordered French fries that were nicely seasoned, free of grease and fresh at the center and, a real find, a cold curry-inflected salad made with Hurst's lentils with finely chopped carrots, celery and red onion.

As with so many of the dishes here (not to mention an extensive and thoughtfully chosen selection of regional craft beers), the nod toward Hurst's homegrown brand evinced a genuine sense of place. Tavern On South may be a downtown newcomer, but it feels like its been here for generations.

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