I’m stuffing tender, slightly sweet and savory ribs into my mouth when I realize I’m sitting across the table from Hugh Acheson.
He wrote one of my favorite cookbooks, A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen;
the James Beard people enjoyed it too and gave it Best Cookbook in American Cooking.
I already knew his name is Hugh, but who he really
is clicks in my mind when he mentions appearing on Top Chef.
Oh. That Acheson. If I'd re-read one of the many press releases I'd received in advance of skedaddling over for ribs, yup, I'd know that.
The reason I’m sitting here with Acheson is to learn more about one of his newest endeavors as consulting chef for one of Indy’s newest food and drink spots, Punch Bowl Social.
Punch Bowl Social is going into a prime space just off of Meridian Street and attached to Circle Centre Mall.
Though Acheson has brought a new focus of Southern-style eats to the Denver-based chain’s menu, it is just one highlight of the 23,000 square foot “eatertainment” spot.
The first thing you notice when walking through the doors is the grandiosity of, well, everything. The space is massive, the décor a mix of industrial, Victorian, modern and even mountain lodge, which is evident in the “Holiday Lodge” area, which is replete with ornate leather armchairs, books for days and a comforting fireplace.
Despite the magnitude of the place it is surprisingly inviting and truly offers something for anyone and everyone. Possibly the most noticeable aspects upon first look are the plethora of entertainment options, from eight bowling lanes, to full-length bocce courts to the handcrafted, eight-person, Italian foosball table. There is an ‘80s arcade area for gamers or people who have never played Galaga
and who really need to, like, right now.
If you’re more of a vocalist in your entertainment endeavors, there are three sound-proof karaoke rooms available for you and your friends to rent and throw a karaoke party. A little advice: don’t try "Bohemian Rhapsody." I know everyone knows it and you can totally nail the “Galileo” part, but you’re not Freddy Mercury; in fact, you’re probably closer to Florence Foster Jenkins.
No bout of bowling, bocce or ballads is complete without a few cocktails to loosen you up. The good news is, just like their food program, Punch Bowl Social has taken time to perfect the cocktail game. Beverage Director Patrick Williams spent his time in Indianapolis training the bartenders to craft drinks using the highest quality ingredients without making the recipes too involved.
Williams, who heads up the bar program for all of Punch Bowl’s operations, tells me his goal is to keep the drinks simple enough to come out quickly and yet interesting enough to keep people coming back. While the three bars within the restaurant offer some classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned and a Boulevardier, this is a place to branch out and try something original.
The Van Damme is a drink crafted specifically with the Indianapolis market in mind and it’s a well-balanced, fresh-tasting treat with Pierre Ferrand Cognac, a housemade pear syrup, fresh squeezed lemon and topped with an allspice dram. It accompanies me at the table during my meal and makes for a perfect companion — allowing me not to feel so embarrassed for not recognizing a world-class chef right away.
If you have a sweeter palate and a larger group you could go for one of the Punch Bowl Social’s namesakes, like The King’s Cup punch bowl which comes in serving sizes for one, four or eight people. It’s a modern take on a piña colada with Rumhaven’s coconut rum (which is much less sweet than other flavored rums like Malibu), Bacardi 8-year rum, McClary Bro’s pineapple fennel seed shrub, white pear fuji apple tea and lime juice. It’s sweet, but not cloying and the shrub adds a nice depth to the flavor.
To accompany the cocktail program the bar also has plenty of beer options including local offerings from Taxman, Bier, Mashcraft and many more. If you have a simpler tastes or a lighter wallet, you can always go for a can of Hamm’s or Old Style for a whopping $3.
Perched on a wood and metal stool in the dining room across from Acheson, I have a farmer’s board of charcuterie and pickles resting next to my Van Damme and Beets Me — a PBS Best of the Bowl competition-winning drink (I couldn’t decide which one to put down, so I double fisted my way to the dining area). Another of Acheson’s cookbooks, Pick a Pickle: 50 Recipes for Pickles, Relishes, and Fermented Snacks
, is all about pickles (obviously) and these carrots and cauliflower are some of the best I’ve had. Not to mention the prosciutto, burrata and of course the onion jam.
Acheson is known for his southern-styled food, and while the four restaurants he runs in Athens, Georgia are high-end fine dining, he seems genuinely excited to be working on a more classic “everyman’s” menu.
Moments into creating a bite featuring all of the farmer’s board accompaniments another plate arrives. When describing this dish, I can easily see Hugh is especially a fan. It is a small mason jar filled with pimiento cheese, topped with a bacon marmalade and served with toast points. It’s funny to see a world-renowned chef get excited about such a simple (albeit perfectly executed) bite.
This little tidbit tells more about the menu offerings than any explanation could, it shows with the menu Acheson is sharing food that is is memory-laden, these dishes, especially the pimiento cheese are things he most likely has fond memories of. Chefs, and eaters alike, don’t look at newfangled dishes with this much excitement, it’s always exciting to try something new and interesting, but it’s the dishes we grew up (if we had someone cooking decent food for us) that bring us this heightened enjoyment. This is the exciting part about the menu at Punch Bowl Social: it allows us to venture into the mind of a chef who is re-creating food from his past.
The menu is the perfect insight into the heart of this restaurant's whole concept. The entire place allows us to forego our adultness and simply have a good time, play games with friends and enjoy good food and drinks (they even have monkey bread and adult milkshakes).
The most notable aspect about Punch Bowl Social is the fact that it has something for everyone and no pretensions. Want a fancy cocktail? You’re covered. Want something healthy to eat or a even a fresh juice? No problem. Feel more like fried chicken, ribs and a milkshake? You bet. Simply want a PBR and a couple rounds of ping pong? Come on in.
It’s said you can’t please everyone all the time, which is true, but Punch Bowl Social is about as close as it gets.
If you go
Grand Opening Party Punch Bowl Social
September 24, 7 – 9 p.m.