Every great chef has had setbacks. Wait, let me rephrase that. Every great person has had setbacks. But, as the old cliché goes, when you fall off the horse, you get back on. So, a year ago, when the popular Nourish shut its doors, Executive Chef Eli Laidlaw had a choice to make. He could have given up on the culinary world, he could have given up on Indianapolis (it’s not his hometown), but instead he took the small defeat and he ran with it. “I took a little vacation to Colorado to just hangout and clear my head and then I came back and went to Recess to be grounded again, I needed to be humbled,” Laidlaw says. He is sitting across from me in the spacious, modern hotel bar and restaurant Plat 99, where he has just been re-appointed as sous chef.
“Recess is a great place to learn about food and how it works. Greg’s food is so simple and yet perfect, down to the sauce, everything has to be cut precisely. There are no shortcuts there. It all helped bring me back down, I went from being sous chef here, to executive chef at Nourish and riding that high for a while, to getting knocked back down to being a cook. It brought me down to Earth a little bit. It was humbling.”
The fact that he took time to look at and evaluate his self and to get back to the basics is a sign of Eli’s character. But, it’s important to point out, the closing of Nourish was not due to his lack of talent. One look at news outlets and the more apt to be negative, Yelp reviews of the restaurant, shows just how stellar the menu was, every single review praises the food (something that rarely happens even for the most popular restaurants in the city). He has the culinary chops, but by taking that step back and refocusing, Eli has been able to now move forward into his position at Plat 99 more poised than ever before.
“That time off of being in charge of anyone was helpful, it was a great experience to re-learn some processes and to remember what food is and how it should taste.” Eli is in an echelon of chefs that started out working under Recess’ executive chef, Greg Hardesty. The list of chefs that have trained under Hardesty, which causes Eli to call him, “the Godfather of Indianapolis’ food scene,” includes: Abbi Merris, Jon Brooks, Neal Brown, and many more of the most well-respected chefs in the city. “It’s an incredible place and I’m happy to be able to bring his style here to Plat 99 and that I can take the many lessons I’ve learned from all of those people and to use them in this kitchen to elevate our menu and what we’re doing here.
Spread out on the table in front of me are three of Eli’s creations that are set to be on Plat 99’s new summer menu. The tzatziki panzanella salad is a vibrant mix of fresh, local tomatoes, cucumbers, castelvetrano olives, and baguette all tossed in a fresh, light tzatziki vinaigrette. Next to that is their house-made Burrata, with a citrusy-twist on the classic dish. Instead of the tomatoes, Eli has opted for oranges, tangerines, and seasonal citrus to accompany the creamy, cheesy ball of goodness. Then, for dessert, Eli whipped up a light, moist pecan financier cake with fresh strawberries, turbinado sugar caramel and a home-made espresso whipped-cream.
It is easy to see Eli is planning on using a simple food concept, and that is — let the ingredients be the key to greatness. He isn’t trying to re-invent or to create, he is simply taking classic dishes, using quality produce, and letting great recipes be just that — great.
“I’m really trying to keep the menu approachable by using classic dishes and just making minor tweaks here and there,” says Laidlaw. “What I’ve learned now is Indiana has great produce, we’re definitely up-and-coming in the world, especially in the Midwest, and I really want to use local farmers and showcase what they have to offer. I won’t be taking a tomato and making it taste like anything but a tomato; it will just be a really, really good tomato.”
Laidlaw and his team are sourcing the majority of their produce from Annabelle’s Garden, they also are getting meat from Fischer and Gunthorp Farms. “I’m really trying to keep it to all local farms. I went to Fruit Loop Acres two years ago and I’m really trying to get back to working with them. It’s just a small little place, house in the middle of nowhere and it’s fantastic,” Eli says, you can tell he is excited when talking about local farms. “The whole yard is a walkthrough garden, everywhere you walk, there’s a tree, there’s a plant,” he points in different directions, “there, there, there.”
I take my first bite of the panzanella, it is so light and refreshing. I can just imagine sitting out on Plat 99’s scenic, wrap-around patio in the warm summer sun and eating my way through this salad. The tomatoes are succulent and slightly acidic, the tzatziki is the perfect texture and packed-with flavor. For its simplicity it is an exceptional dish.
“At Nourish I was doing a lot of fun stuff, but I feel I was getting away from what food really is. We had a lot of inspired and healthier dishes, but I was getting too far detached from the food. I was so focused on managing and numbers that I wasn’t focused on food,” Laidlaw says, showing his discontent with the situation. He quickly changes to a smile when he continues, “Now that I’m back here I’m able to live in both worlds; I’m able to do my best with the food, but I’m also able to bring my team up as well. It’s a nice balance.”
One bite of the house-made burrata and it’s easy to see just how in touch with the food he is. The texture and flavor are spectacular. As I slice through the outer shell of mozzarella, the mix of mozzarella cheese curds and heavy whipping cream that fills the inside bursts open and is wonderfully creamy, the flavor pairs perfectly with the fresh citrus, microgreens, and arugula.
I must admit, I’m surprised to be eating this well in Plat 99. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed many evenings in the place over the past few years, I definitely have (especially their truffle popcorn). The fact is many people (myself included) have the thought that Plat 99 is simply a cocktail lounge, one of the best in the city, and while food has been served here since its opening, it has never been this caliber.
Eli recognizes this and has chosen to embrace the cocktail component of the restaurant. “I want to bring the food side of Plat 99 up to that par,” Eli says when I point out the fact that the place makes some of the best cocktails. “I’m excited to work with the bartenders and to see what they’re doing, to be able to chat with Will (Plat 99’s general manager) and Ryan and get their thoughts and ideas on drinks and food and pairing my dishes with their cocktails. It’s a really cool partnership we have up here.”
The partnership puts Plat 99 on the map as one of the best places for dinner and a cocktail in the city. I know I’ll be back once the summer menu rolls out on June 17. Maybe I’ll bring in some of my vinyl collection for their Thursday evening Vinyl Night and for another go at that tzatziki panzanella and a sip of Will Mohring’s award-winning, bell pepper forward cocktail, the Southern Belle.
“This is my main focus,” Laidlaw says, gesturing to the restaurant around us, “I want to compete with everyone around here. I feel like Plat 99 has never been seen as a real restaurant, we haven’t been seen as separate from the hotel, but Will and I want to set ourselves apart and make this a true standalone restaurant.”