On Aug. 9, the curtain rose on Indy's most ambitious and eagerly-awaited independent downtown restaurant since Dunaways moved into the Indiana oxygen building some four years ago. The Scholars Inn, for several years now a fixture on the Bloomington dining scene, has opened a second location on fashionable Massachusetts Avenue, where, just a few years ago, restaurants were coming and going at a metronomic rate. The construction and renovation at this location has been a massive undertaking, one that has spanned the significant cultural and economic changes occurring in the past year, but one that seems likely to pay off, if a recent visit is anything to judge by. Lyle Feigenbaum, who, with wife and co-owner Kerry, has spent the past 12 months and an estimated $5 million restoring and equipping the historic Chatham Arch location, has a proven track record in this field. He also appears to be rapidly solidifying his reputation as a restaurateur with a good understanding of location and the needs of his customers.
I hate to use words like eye-popping to describe the interior of a restaurant, but mine were out on stalks the first time I entered this luxurious establishment. Those who know the Scholars Inn in Bloomington will doubtless have been impressed by the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of the upstairs martini lounge, with its high-backed velvet chairs and alabaster bar. All that's here, and more.
For a start, there are no straight lines in the main bar or dining room: All walls and vertical surfaces are curved. The furniture is custom-made, and tables may be grouped with, for example, one high-backed chair and three low-backed chairs of different design and coloration. This gives a sense of hierarchy to each table, as if the most important member of the dining party is supposed to sit in the throne, while the rest huddle round and pay attention. The tables are of decent size, although somewhat closely spaced, given the bulk of the chairs. The designer carpet suppresses a lot of noise, but there's still a pleasant hum to the place, especially when it gets busy. The expansive, curving wine bar is particularly impressive, and wouldn't be out of place in Chicago or even Vegas. In fact, if it weren't for the view of Mass. Ave. through the dining room window, I could easily imagine I was elsewhere.
With an outdoor dining area centered around a vast fireplace, the Scholars Inn offers one of the best alfresco dining spots in town. It's surprisingly quiet back there, and I'm sure that, as gentrification continues in the Chatham Arch area, the view will continue to improve considerably.
In addition to the inspired dÈcor and audacious design, the Scholars Inn exudes good taste in its choice of plates, dishes, flatware and accoutrements. There's a strong sense of harmony here, which demonstrates a clear vision and an ability to follow through. It's the sort of place that makes you want to flip your plate over to see where it came from (a bad habit of mine, I confess). If I were to voice any reservations about the interior, it would be that, in spite of the fabulous and doubtless very expensive sconces, the walls are a little on the drab side. Although there is a limited amount of artwork upstairs, the place could probably do with a few judiciously-placed paintings, lithos or something to break up the monotony. Otherwise, everything is first-rate.
Now to the food. Under the oversight of Executive Chef Richelle Wylie, the Indianapolis restaurant offers more or less the same menu as the original Bloomington location. Featuring a wide range of dishes produced from seasonal ingredients, the menu caters to a variety of tastes. There's a strong emphasis on pasta, polenta and risotto, but the menu is far from being Italian. There's a significant emphasis here on vegetarian dishes, and entrÈes vary in price from the low-teens to the mid-20s, so there's something for just about all but the most finicky of diners.
Last year, the Scholars Inn purchased the Bakehouse in Bloomington, a bakery well-known for producing hearty, authentic European-style breads. Without doubt the best bakery in Indiana, the Bakehouse naturally supplies the Scholars Inn with all its breads, which feature prominently in a number of appetizer dishes. In addition, the restaurant now bottles a number of its signature condiments, including an excellent tomato chutney and a very fine cranberry chutney. The former is used in the brie bites appetizer ($8), a savory offering of bread rounds topped with warmed brie, served with a side of chutney and pureed garlic.
Continuing with appetizers, there's an elegantly prepared seared foie gras ($14) which is served pink in the middle, lightly caramelized on the outside in a light glaze of blackberry and orange. Toasted pine nuts and a nest of deep-fried onion crisps round out this subtle interplay between sweet and savory. Also sampled was an interesting, and very successful, take on salmon croquettes, a Spanish classic. Two golf ball-sized croquettes, golden brown on the outside, are served with a sherry-inflected aioli and garnished with strips of baby corn, roasted red peppers and asparagus. An elegant little tapas dish, this exemplifies the overall quality of the appetizers: I could happily stick to this section of the menu and graze for an evening without even venturing into the entrÈe section.
That, of course, would do a great disservice to the entrÈes, however much fun such grazing might be. EntrÈes at Scholars Inn are generously portioned, and of a high quality. That I find them less interesting than the appetizers or desserts should not be taken as a criticism, merely as an observation that I think holds true at any number of fine dining restaurants. It is often in the first and last courses that a chef is really able to shine, probably because it's easier to take chances or play with flavors when the dish is small and rapidly consumed. There's no risk of sensory overload when there are only two or three bites available. With the entrÈe, the emphasis has to be on a different kind of satisfaction: that of the belly. Shock value, innovation and technique frequently take a back seat to consistency and quantity. At least, that's frequently my experience.
For our main courses, my friend and I enjoyed a very well-prepared pork chop, "The Chop" ($16), and the duck breast ($21). The Chop, a generous bone-in cut, arrived on top of a lavish mound of creamed spinach, topped with the restaurant's signature cranberry chutney. A generous pile of smashed red potatoes rounded out this substantial dish. The pork, tender as filet from its teriyaki marinade, was full of flavor, and perfectly complemented by the sweet/tart chutney. This was a competent, well-made dish produced from good quality ingredients: not haute cuisine by any standards, but sound and satisfying.
Slightly more ambitious in scope was the duck dish: two whole breasts cooked to medium, served with two polenta, cheese and corn cakes and a light citrus-black currant glaze. This dish, although full of flavor and well-thought-out, didn't hit the heights I would have expected. Although the texture and flavor of the breast meat was good, there was still too much fat between the skin and flesh, something that could have been remedied by carefully scoring the skin prior to cooking fat side down. The glaze was too light, bordering on the ethereal. Duck bones make the most wonderful stock, and I was disappointed not to see them used here.
Desserts at Scholar's Inn are worth a review in themselves: The list runs to several pages. On this occasion, my friend and I enjoyed a fresh and crunchy apple crumble that reminded me pleasantly of my grandmother's version. In the past, I have savored the delightful trio of crËme brulÈes, as well as the decadent but more-ish cheesecakes, and can attest to their excellence. The restaurant also offers a few classic tableside desserts like bananas Foster and strawberries jubilee for those who like things the old-fashioned way. It would be remiss of me not to mention the wine list at a restaurant that prides itself on its selection.
More ambitious than many in town, the Scholars Inn wine list offers a limited but well-chosen choice of wines by the glass, as well as several flights of four. There are many good buys by the bottle, and you dont have to spend the big bucks to find something respectable to drink. I"d like to see a few more glass offerings, and a few more obscure little values for those in the know, but that's a minor quibble. A most welcome addition to Indy's independent dining scene, Scholars Inn is a must-visit for anyone who relishes the better things in life. And I didn't even mention the martinis.