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Our city’s culinary past and future — and a critic’s farewell

Around four years ago, when I was just getting my feet wet as one of several cuisine writers at NUVO, ours was still a city of isolated international eateries and fledgling innovative chefs betting that menus of largely local eats could actually draw crowds. Back then, we were just becoming familiar with regional Mexican cuisine and Asian food you didn’t take home in little paper containers. Could we have imagined that in less than half a decade ours would become a city of such diversity that the ethnic eateries could be referred to in districts? That we’d be able to get Egyptian, Iraqi, Belgian, Cuban, Brazilian, Spanish and Guatemalan food without driving to Chicago? That chefs trained in some of the nation’s most prestigious culinary schools would return to set up kitchens featuring superior, innovative technique, even elements of molecular gastronomy supposedly only found in bigger cities? That we’d have several prospering options of culinary schools for our own interested students right here?

No doubt about it, those four years have seen unprecedented change in the Indianapolis food scene, and things are getting better all the time. And not just where you sit and get waited on. If you haven’t stopped in at Goose the Market (2503 N. Delaware St., 317-924-4944) for duck salami, smoky lamb bacon, gourmet gelatos or artisan cheese, wines and craft beers, well, you’re missing out on what’s clearly ushering in a new era for the local food-loving populace. That Christopher and Mollie Eleys’s market and charcuterie already has a healthy clientele of not just culinary geeks but people who care about the quality and origin of what they put on their own tables signals we’re no longer just gobbling up the latest corporate concept to truck into town.

Another very promising sign of where we’ve come as a city of taste and discernment is going on right now in the form of Taste the Difference, a mini-festival of six days and nights of prix fixe meals at 16 restaurants in the Lafayette Square area. Taking a cue from downtown restaurants, whose summer Downtown Restaurant Weeks (and another Winterfest planned for late January of 2008) continue to grow in popularity, these Westside restaurants are letting folks know that the corridor around the intersection of West 38th Street and Lafayette Road isn’t just a district of spotty, spooky restaurants only the most daring would ever darken the doors of. From pupusas and tamales at La Tipica Salvadorena and Costa Del Sol to the very diverse cuisines of India and Pakistan at Mughal Cuisine, Tadkaa, Village Restaurant, India Palace and Udupi Café, you could dine on a new restaurant’s cuisine for lunch and dinner every day of the event (which runs through Sunday, Nov. 18) and you still wouldn’t get to all of the restaurants. But you’re going to try, right?

Hearing about this event got me thinking about all of the great meals I’ve had on Lafayette Road and how the area has become almost sacred ground for me as a restaurant critic. More than just filling up on national dishes, I’ve been able to get some of my best lessons about the great cuisines of the world at these eateries. I’ve learned about Peru’s love of all things starchy, especially in tuber form, at Machu Picchu, where I’ve dined on various delicious dishes with potatoes, yucca and rice. At Abyssinia, I’ve learned important lessons about the need in Ethiopian households for slow, conversation-centered meals among family and friends. I’ve also shopped myself silly at Saraga International Grocery, Lee Market and Saigon Market, as well as Patel Brothers and International Bazaar. Could I have tasted so many indigenous ingredients if these markets weren’t in business?

Indianapolis’ great restaurants and markets have taught me so much in my four years as a critic. While it didn’t take long to find myself as the sole restaurant reviewer for NUVO, a role I had never planned for but which has reaped untold rewards, it is with gratitude and no small sorrow that I am moving on from my duties as NUVO’s culinary writer. Starting in December, I will become the restaurant critic for Indianapolis Monthly, where I will continue to advocate for the best local food Indy can cook up. My hope is that by writing reviews only once a month, I’ll both be able to devote more time to my own creative writing, as well as spending more time getting to know individual restaurants before I review them.

When I went back to consider how many restaurants I’d reviewed at NUVO, I lost count at 200. Even the most enthusiastic of eaters needs a lightening of the load now and then. But you can bet that I’ll continue to seek out all of the new and innovative restaurants of this city, and I’ll be letting people know about them. To my readers, I urge you to support those restaurants with your dining dollars. To NUVO, I offer my heartfelt thanks. It’s been a delicious ride!

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