The Libertine: Second to none 

click to enlarge The heirloom tomato terrine ($8.00), topped with a sweetly savory tomato aspic. - PHOTO BY MARK LEE
  • The heirloom tomato terrine ($8.00), topped with a sweetly savory tomato aspic.
  • Photo by Mark Lee

An elegant brick building from the 1820s, the facade painted a muted dove grey. The long and narrow interior, subtly lit, decked out in greys and earth tones, full of angles and edges, the back wall dominated by an array of department store display nooks.

We could be in Barcelona or San Francisco, but we're not. Instead we're on a historically crummy stretch of Washington Street, the bit that time has, until recently, passed blithely by. For a genuine taste of old Indy before entering the ultra-modern environs of The Libertine, try parking across the street, but make sure you bring $5 in quarters to stuff into tiny slots in the old metal cash box.

It's a weird little section of town, and owner Neal Brown has taken a bit of a gamble moving here, but not too much of a gamble, I believe, because The Libertine provides precisely the kind of liquid shot in the arm that downtown south of the Circle has been sorely lacking for years.

This is not your father's cocktail bar, and it's not the kind of place you come to drink eight-ounce Cosmopolitans and dance on the bar in four-inch heels. Everything here is measured, from the agreeable volume of the music to the meticulous proportions of the drinks prepared by stylishly-clad mixologists. The attention to detail is a source of satisfaction in itself: I spent almost as much time admiring the serving dishes and glassware as I spent enjoying what was in them. There's an unforced elegance here that seems timeless: none of that post-modern frippery which dooms so many themed establishments to premature redundancy.

First off, the drinks. These are second to none, and easily as imaginative as almost any to be found in major cities. The ingredients are exclusively from small producers: Cocchi and Dolin Vermouth, Blue Coat gin, Death's Door vodka, Willett's whiskey, Luxardo maraschino; the list goes on. The people at the big corporate wholesale companies must be kicking their own butts that they can't get a look-in here. But of course they're the same people who for decades have been trying to eradicate artisan distillers and family producers. So tough luck, guys. Cocktail prices may seem a little high, but bear in mind you're drinking hand-crafted products and house-made tinctures: in short, works of art in a glass.

Similarly the wine list is expertly thought out, and contains a number of thrilling bottlings from lesser-known regions of Europe, with a strong emphasis on Spain. Prices are reasonable, and well below downtown's customary 300-percent markup.

The food menu is short and expertly executed, but bear in mind that these are small plates, not nose-in-the-feedbag-sized servings. Try the succulent lamb neck rillettes ($9), meltingly tender, very lamby and slightly fatty, served with spicy mustard and pickled shallots. Or the wonderful deviled eggs ($8), six halves to a serving, with savory, intense preparations such as smoked whitefish with paddlefish caviar, or the egg pickled with a horseradish filling. Then there's the heirloom tomato terrine ($8.00), topped with a sweetly savory tomato aspic. Escoffier himself would have been proud of this last dish.

The Libertine is exactly the kind of place that deserves support from anyone who puts value on independence, local produce and creativity. Visit soon, and visit often.

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