Eat rich on the cheap at Downtown Restaurant Week
Halfway through my fourth preview meal for Indy Restaurant Week, when I was facing yet another dessert choice — key lime pie or white chocolate cheesecake on McCormick & Schmick’s three-course menu — it finally began to sink in. Sure, I was the big shot restaurant critic who got to go in early to sample tasting menus at four of the 25 restaurants participating. But for someone who eats multicourse meals on a regular basis, doing it four times in just under a week was, well, all part of the job.
For Indianapolis diners, however, this is something big. To think that all of these chefs and restaurateurs, all these people who live and breathe food, have put together menus that represent their best stuff at, in many cases, ridiculously reduced prices, says a lot about where we’ve arrived as a city. It says that, beyond, or perhaps despite its auto racing, basketball and homey Midwestern charm, Indy is a food city. Believe it, New York. Take notice, Chicago.
Unlike most festivals and conventions, this one isn’t primarily for tourists. It’s for you, Indianapolis. It’s for the hard-working folks with a love of the good life, who, given a typical Tuesday or Wednesday, wouldn’t take the family out to St. Elmo or Elements or R Bistro. It’s for those who want to feel proud of the diversity and quality of cuisine at our city’s heart, who are wearied of suburban strip mall chains, who want to set aside rustic summertime grub on the grill and linger over a luxurious meal in well-appointed, well-air conditioned environs.
“Everyone embraced it,” says Richard Edwards, proprietor of The Oceanaire, talking about the event, which he was instrumental in organizing for the first time last year. “I made the suggestion, and people just went with it. The response was amazing.” Strolling from table to table last year, Edwards would ask people if it was their first night out. “No, it’s our fifth,” he often got in response. “Some people dined out all seven nights.”
At $30 for three courses, you could go out all week and still pay less than you would for most weekend vacations. A week without dishes — imagine it. With so many options, there’s no reason not to. Therefore, I challenge diners to try out as many of the restaurants as possible — to face, as I did, choices between organic salmon and flatiron steak, steelhead trout and cashew-crusted tilapia. Take your friends. Compare notes. Argue for your favorites. Relish our city’s moment in food.
Should you take that challenge, you’ll be surprised at the variety of restaurants participating, everywhere from old-school institutions to recent additions to humble pubs. For my first meal, I tucked into Circle City Bar & Grille at the Marriott downtown. Barbershop quartets from all over the globe were milling about the lobby. But in the stylish solace of the hotel restaurant, we could enjoy an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella made on site in a creamy herb vinaigrette. Here was that flatiron steak, sliced thin over a light treatment of sautéed spinach and sweet butternut squash. A rich filet of organic Alaskan salmon could have fed two, also atop the same spinach and squash. Peach cobbler was warm and homey, but a multilayer carrot cake was even better, taking this $30 meal over the edge.
From haute hotel eats, I next dined at Iaria’s, where a meal in the bar almost makes you feel like you’ve stepped into that red sauce-soaked Italian-American trattoria your grandparents called “their” favorite. Here were a few more choices — all classics off the menu. Highlights included the antipasto salad, with almost more meat and cheese than greens. Meat lovers will also want to go for the meat tortellini, served in plenty of Iaria’s famous sweet sauce, with your choice of Italian sausage or meatballs (or one of each). Strawberry shortcake or a hollowed out lemon with tart sorbet complete the meal, and your choice of wine is included.
Skeptics may scoff at a double-digit meal at a wing joint. But Mike DeWeese at Buffalo Wild Wings has turned his love of Belgian and microbrewed beers into an instructive supper. You get a beer with every course! A bare-bones salad takes on new life with a summer Bell’s Oberon, and a meltingly tender New York strip (no wings!) gets its jerk rub tempered with a Scottish Ale from Munster, Ind.’s Three Floyd’s Brewery. The real surprise occurs when a Piraat Belgian tripel ale makes a plain cheesecake come alive or when a chocolate fudge cake sparkles next to a sweet but well-balanced framboise lambic — also Belgian. The food comes on plastic — but you’ll be thinking $30 is a bargain.
Which brings me back to those revelatory desserts at McCormick & Schmick’s. Thankfully, I was able to try a bite of each. White chocolate was not just an afterthought in a lighter than usual cheesecake, which trumped an almost too fluffy key lime pie. These sweets capped a meal with chunky, clam-hearty chowder, a quite fresh treatment of seared ahi tuna with a crunchy wakame salad, the aforementioned tilapia — quite spicy with a vanilla-rum sauce only a sweet tooth can appreciate — and a nicely butter-broiled trout filet. After putting that all away, I didn’t think I could face another three-course meal, but you can bet I’ll be out there in the trenches with you next week, celebrating Indy’s most delicious week.
Downtown Indy Restaurant Week July 17-23
Three-course meals for $30 at 25 restaurants www.indyrestaurantweek.com