How can you tell a great restaurant town? Anyone who loves eating out probably has a personal list of markers. For me, it has to do with breakfast. A town can't come into its own restaurant-wise until it includes a batch of places that make it possible for you to start your day in a variety of ways - and whenever you want.
For the longest time, Indianapolis was pretty basic on the breakfast scale. In other words, like something out of an early Tom Waits song.
Things are a lot more interesting now. One reason is Zest!, a café located in the burgeoning Monon Shops strip on the north side of 54th Street by the Monon Trail. Valerie Vanderpool has created an extensive upscale menu with a wide array of dishes to see you through lunch and dinner, too, all of which fit her "Downhome Goes Uptown" motto. Zest!'s menu runs to 12 pages and includes a gamut including an Asian slaw salad ($8.75) made with a spicy peanut dressing to baja tacos ($13.75) mixing corn meal-crusted basa with white cheddar on white corn tortillas with cilantro-lime rice, black beans and lime sour cream.
We arrived at Zest! at midday. I was initially drawn to the shredded beef sandwich ($8.95) - slow-roasted in red wine stock and topped with onion jam and bleu cheese mousse. But they serve breakfast all day at Zest!, and my companion couldn't resist the rustic scrambled omelet ($10.65), a combination of orange bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts and feta cheese. When I heard him adding a half order of double sausage-sausage gravy over sour dough biscuits ($4.95), well, suddenly breakfast sounded great to me, as well.
I ordered the stuffed tortilla ($7.95), scrambled eggs, sausage, white cheddar and lime sour cream rolled in a flour tortilla and topped with fresh salsa. I added a side of whole grain toast and jam ($1.95). In the interest of science, I also asked for a serving of crème brûlée french toast ($6.95) - more on that in a moment.
Both our egg dishes were scrambled light and creamy. The mix of bite-size tomatoes, feta and orange bell peppers made a great blend. As for the biscuits and gravy - this was not like any gravy we'd seen before. It was a tasty, slightly sweet and brightly barbeque colored brew. It didn't smother the biscuits, but topped them with flavor.
The same qualities applied to the stuffed tortilla. The sausage was tasty and in right proportion to the other, unfailingly fresh, ingredients. The whole grain toast turned out to be anything but an afterthought. It consisted of perfectly balanced artisanal bread served with a whole jar of fruit jam - a really nice touch.
As for that crème brûlée french toast ... the menu lists it as a dessert; I won't quibble. It really is a kind of bread pudding, served as a square that's more than an inch thick with a faint drizzle of maple syrup and a couple slices of bacon. Like the aforementioned gravy, this is a dish you're not likely to find anywhere else. It's rich, but not overly sweet, robust but somehow subtle.
Zest! has two brightly lit dining rooms and, now that it's summer, there's outdoor dining, too. The pace is leisurely, so if you're pressed for time, you better say so.