The 936 cooks up surprises in familiar locale

Just a few months ago, the once burgeoning culinary scene in Fountain Square seemed to be falling on hard times. Formerly vibrant storefront restaurants stood empty, leaving locals to wonder if they'd ever open again. This was particularly disappointing in one of Indianapolis' funkiest neighborhoods that, unlike other districts, has participated in the larger urban renaissance in fits and starts. Lobster and shrimp tostada

But a few recent signs indicate things are looking up. Deano's Vino has opened a wine bar across from Fountain Square Theatre with nightly dinners and a much-needed renovation of prime real estate at the neighborhood's heart. Faten Munger, who lit a fire under the Indy dining scene last year when she opened Café Trevi, now serves up the specialties of her native Egypt at The Luxor around the corner on Virginia. Decadent by Design has moved up to the Murphy Building in a more visible space that still draws a troupe of faithful regulars to this cozy café.

One promising bit of news this summer was that the landmark location that once housed Bistro 936 was stirring with signs of life. Of course, this sparked some speculation about what would be coming in and what plans the new proprietors would have for this beloved dining locale.

After a trial run with lunch this summer, The 936 opened for dinner Aug. 18. The menu is still quite small but includes some interesting twists that show executive chef and owner Charles Davis and managing chef Matthew Thomas understand just what they're getting into. Given the stately nature of the building, however, the décor inside is a bit in search of a theme. Tropical plants in oversized plastic planters would be more at home on a patio than on fancy wire stands. A cacophony of bric-a-brac clutters a windowsill above the main dining room. Perhaps most inexplicable are cream-colored vinyl tablecloths that in just a few months are already torn and nicked in places.

Despite this, the staff is a refreshingly cheery lot, all of them attentive and chatty fans of their own establishment. Our enthusiastic waiter, also the general manager, James Scheer, was quite forthcoming with recommendations. Among appetizers, he raved about the duck bruschetta ($8.95), which provided a tasty start to our meal. The bread came nicely charred with thick slices of deeply pink applewood smoked duck. A base of the chef's "special cream cheese blend" was flavorful but quite heavily applied, especially with additional gorgonzola on top. A garnish of finely diced tomatoes and orange marmalade seemed odd, but the flavors actually married quite nicely. A 936 house salad ($3.95), however, was a humble pile of greens, heavy on iceberg, with unadorned slices of roma tomato and cucumber on the side. A sweet mango vinaigrette lacked the tang that might have woken up such simple greens.

Only a few dinner entrées are offered right now, including a few seafood dishes, pastas, dinner salads and lamb. We decided to head in opposite directions with the lamb ($17.95) and a lobster and shrimp tostada ($18.95), pictured impressively on the menu. The former was a generous, nicely seasoned portion of roasted lamb cooked to order. But the meat, requested medium, fell to the tough side with plenty of gristle that impeded easy sawing with a knife. Accompanying couscous was a little plain, but green beans were crisp and fresh.

The tostada, in contrast, was a dish with all the right intentions, but some missteps in execution left it lifeless. Fried tortilla shells retained a lot of grease from the fryer, which, along with avocado, overgenerous saucing and plenty of melted cheese, made it almost too rich to eat. The seafood got lost in so much sauce and cheese, and black beans could have served more purpose than garnish. A less heavy-handed approach and more spice could have lightened and roused the flavor quotient substantially.

More raves from our waiter, along with a list of just three desserts, left choosing a sweet finish easy. The fried banana cheesecake ($7.95), while flavorful, was a quite heavy, well-fried item that, with ice cream and a sauce with banana liqueur, added yet more weight to the meal. Inside the pastry crust were bananas, cream cheese and tasty morsels of caramel. We'd guessed brown sugar, but our waiter let us in on the secret. As far as the pastry, however, he said, playfully, that it was something we'd "never guess." This gave us hope that, over time and with some streamlining of menu and décor, the chef and the restaurant in general would reveal more of its mysteries to an eager neighborhood.

The 936

936 Virginia Ave.

635-0936

Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5 to 9 p.m.

Friday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m.

Saturday: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m.

Food: 3 Stars

Atmosphere: 2.5 Stars

Service: 3.5 Stars

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