Indianapolis City Market 

Fire, fads can't flag this landmark's spirit

Terry Kirts
Fire, fads can’t flag this landmark’s spirit Terry Kirts City Market Strolling down Alabama, turning the corner onto brick-paved Market Street downtown, you can’t help but think of history. You can’t help imagining what this quadrant of our state capital was like in 1821 when a plot of land was set aside for a market, a real market where farmers herded in their bleating sheep and fresh fowl, still wearing their feathers, hung above stands crowded with the riches of Hoosier farmsteads. Anyone who’s traveled to a major city outside the United States has probably had a taste of this style of market commerce. I can hardly grocery shop any more without pining for al fresco bazaars like the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, which I visited last summer, lingering between stalls to taste perfectly ripe peaches and shockingly scarlet strawberries. But with rare exceptions, we here in Indy are forced to get our provisions from supermarket shelves. City Market isn’t the great produce market it once was, nor is it even the thriving concourse of lunch boutiques it was after being renovated in 1977. Businesses are sparse, and a lot of real estate has recently come available. An April 9 fire, most likely caused by arson, has temporarily closed one eatery, Philadelphia Steak & Fries, and left a small section of the west building boarded up. But can an institution this old be brought down by a few structural challenges and fluctuations in taste? With plans for a year-round farmers market in the works, and the 10th year of a very festive annual market starting up Wednesday, May 3, the place is primed to steal back some of its former luster. I, for one, can’t wait. I’ve been in Indianapolis just as long as the farmers market, and if there’s one thing that makes me feel like I live in a city, it’s when Market Street bustles with giddy cosmopolitans filling their larders with everything from just-picked sweet corn to gooseberries and rhubarb. While some have left, a few new merchants have moved in over the last couple of years, confident there’s still a dedicated clientele for their wares. Definitely the most curious of eateries to set up shop recently is Café Olivia, a spiffy little counter in the east wing aiming to bring a “taste of Provence” to Indianapolis. While he’s retained some of the offerings of City Market Deli, which preceded it in this location, owner Chris Lee has upped the ante with expert Cuban and roasted eggplant sandwiches, soups, daily breakfasts and a substantial, freshly stocked salad bar — a onetime trend oddly at home in these environs. A friend said he’d had their coq au vin, which he reported came with a salad and a side for around five bucks. Such a stellar deal right here in Indianapolis? Incroyable! I had to try it out. Woe to this Francophile’s heart, however, the dish Samantha was always whipping up with a twitch in Bewitched isn’t available from April to November. Though it’s not exactly the taste of spring, boeuf bourguigon, another French classic, made an excellent substitute, steaming hot alongside perfectly cooked fettuccine dusted with parmesan. The meat actually did melt in my mouth, and the wine-enriched sauce with sweet onions and carrots wasn’t the least bit greasy. A small, artful salad of bright green peas, threads of carrot and crisp cucumbers under a light dressing accompanied, though Styrofoam offered rather humble presentation. Nonetheless, my lunch showed that City Market could still compete. Celebrating its second anniversary this Friday is The Barking Dog Café, another of the recent, more intriguing eateries in the market. Owners Jeff and Mary Beth Gahimer are donating a portion of their sales that day to a local animal shelter — all out of gratitude for the loyal customers who have come to love their Nantucket eats (chowder, seafood sandwiches and salads) over the last 24 months. Somehow, I wasn’t one of those customers yet, but I’d heard good things and went to try it out. Here, too, however, some seasonal contingencies, as well as my arrival after the lunch rush, meant I couldn’t get what I’d come for. Mary Beth said their signature lobster rolls, scheduled to return that very day, were absent; they couldn’t get good enough lobster. Thursdays are “comfort food” days, however, and she suggested the meatloaf, which did look tempting. But I was bound to get a taste of Maine, so I went for the half-sandwich and clam chowder. Chicken salad on onion-dill bread was tasty enough. But the true star was one of the best clam chowders in town, absolutely swimming with tender clams, potatoes that aren’t merely filler, wee bits of smoky bacon and a silken broth that’s hardly stingy on butter and cream. Two luscious deviled eggs made from local eggs provided an excellent side. While a lunch of over $13 wasn’t exactly a bargain, I made a mental note to stop back for a lobster roll on one of those coming summer Wednesdays when I can again live in a city with an honest-to-goodness market. Indianapolis City Market 222 E. Market St. 317-634-9266 Hours: Monday-Friday: 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (call individual merchants for hours)

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