Tarkington's is city's best kept secret Just over a year ago, in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 atrocities, a friend and I were the solitary diners at Tarkington's on a weekday evening. I remember looking out over a deserted Illinois Street, wondering if an establishment like this could survive for long in such financially straitened times, let alone ride out the damage already done by the construction going on outside for a neighboring restaurant's new brick sidewalk. Solitary diners or not, on that occasion we had an exceptional meal, prepared with great care and attention by relative newcomer, Chef Todd Kennedy.

In the intervening year and a bit, the crowds have come back, and once again you need a reservation to get into Tarkington's. Little has changed in terms of quality, however, despite the increased business, and what changes there have been are mostly for the good. Chef Todd has matured considerably, and is now turning out meals that don't look so much as if they came out of a recipe book, even though there is still a slightly stiff and fussy quality to the presentation. But with food that tastes this good, who's keeping score?

Tarkington's began life as a tiny gourmet store back in 1995. Under the enthusiastic and focused guidance of owners Ed and Bianca Chambers, it has steadily grown into something of a destination, and has moved into larger, somewhat more elegant quarters overlooking Illinois Street. On warm days you can dine outside at a sidewalk table, although with the traffic fumes and occasional construction, I'm not sure if this qualifies as dining al fresco.

In recent years, the focus of Tarkington's and its tiny, neatly appointed cafÈ, has been the exploration and practice of the principles of Slow Food, a movement of like-minded gourmets and gourmands that originated in Italy in 1986. Slow Food was originally intended to be a celebration of wine, but now it encompasses all aspects of gastronomy. (For more information about Slow Food, and its wine publication counterpart, Gambero Rosso, go to www.slowfood.com.) Not only a rebellion against fast food, Slow Food celebrates organic produce, artisanal cheeses, pasture-raised meats and unprocessed foodstuffs in general.

Its appearance on the culinary scene could hardly be more timely, although the uphill struggle towards more responsible farming techniques, let alone more responsible consumption, is still very much in its infancy in this country. The principles of Slow Food, admirable as they are, will probably continue to fall on deaf ears for many years to come. Bravo, therefore, to the Chambers for carrying forward the noble fight.

In keeping with its philosophy of fresher is better, Tarkington's offers a short menu of either three or five courses. The three course meal ($26.95), called the pre-theatre or pre-event supper, is served from 5:30 to 6:30. The five course meal ($33.95) is served all evening. On the occasion of my most recent visit, I was with two friends, which enabled us to try pretty much everything on the menu. There is a short wine list, but for an additional $12, you can pick a wine from the retail section and have it opened at your table. This brings most wines to just under regular restaurant prices, so that a bottle that might normally cost $20 at retail ends up at $35 on the table. Not a bad deal at all, and the selection is quite impressive. On this evening we enjoyed an excellent Livio Felluga Tocai Friulano and a superb Gigondas from Mas des Collines, a perennial favorite of mine.

Trying our hardest to choose different dishes, my friends and I began with the French onion soup (proclaimed proudly as "Indy's Best"), the collcannon (an Irish potato, cabbage and bacon cake) and the seafood crËpe mornay. The soup lives up to its own hype: paler than most and clearly made with real stock, it is delightfully sweet and rich, with only a hint of saltiness. I wasn't allowed to try any of the colcannon, but my friend Becky assured me it was first-rate. As for the crËpe, it was expertly made, thin, light and moist. The fish and shellfish were tender, properly cooked: just right, in fact. The sauce, rich, velvety and creamy, was a dream, and I wiped the plate religiously clean with chunks of crusty house-made bread.

The main courses were equally impressive, with one exception. I was eager to try the steak again, which comes from Marblehill farm in Bloomington. Raised without hormones or antibiotics, pasture fed and dry aged, this is everything that steak should be. The last filet I had at Tarkington's was easily the best steak I've ever had in Indy. I couldn"t wait to get my teeth into another one, but unfortunately, they were sold out. Ah, such is the downside of freshness and quality. Instead I ordered the Coq au Vin, a traditional Burgundian dish, in which chicken is cooked in red wine with mushrooms and pearl onions. Although my dish was eminently edible, and the quality of the free-range chicken thigh and leg admirable, I could have used a little more sauce (well, any sauce at all) and perhaps some breast meat. For an ý-la-carte price of $18.50, I felt that this dish did not represent particularly good value.

My friends fared considerably better. Brian enjoyed a succulent veal chop from a small farm in Rockford, Illinois, that was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Tender and juicy, this was as good a piece of veal as I can remember. The other dish, a cider brined pork chop, again from a family farm, was quite brilliant. The process of brining breaks down, or at least unravels, tougher proteins in meat, and keeps the meat fleshy and moist during the cooking process. The result is astonishingly tender and juicy, even cuts that require longer cooking at higher temperatures. Served with leeks and apples, this pork dish was the star of the evening. After a somewhat indifferent salad of mixed greens, we moved swiftly on to a trio of excellent cheeses, followed by desserts, a specialty here. Particularly impressive was the cinnamon raisin bread pudding with an Irish whiskey cream sauce. I seem to remember having something similar about a year ago. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

Tarkington's CafÈ is still a well-kept secret, but the word"s gradually getting out. If you care about quality, authenticity and the origins of your food, you would be well advised to take a trip here. The prices are good, the food is honest and unpretentious, and the service informed and friendly. What more can a gastronaut ask for?

Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.

Tarkington's CafÈCircle Centre 635-4635

Lunch 11 a.m.. - 2 p.m. Mon-Sat 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sun Dinner 6-9 p.m. Tues-Thursday 6-10 p.m. Fri, Sat Food : 4 stars

Atmosphere : 3 stars

Service : 3 1/2 stars

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