Leftovers from a year of culinary highs and lows

How can you sum up a year? Even in such an ostensibly narrow realm as cuisine, how can you suss a theme out of all of the various happenings during a 12-month period? Indeed, what can you say about a year that saw the passing of America's most beloved culinary icon and the imprisonment of another not so beloved by all? While Julia Child's well-used gadgets and cookbooks, enshrined now at the Smithsonian, will continue to inspire home chefs to cook boeuf bourguignon and sole meunière, Martha seems poised for even more media exposure, this time with a live audience. Who knows what this new era holds in store for television audiences? Dancers are part of the ambiance at Cafe Trevi.

Closer to home, things were just as mixed. Trying to keep on top of the food scene - all of the closings and openings - was a deliciously difficult, though sometimes disappointing, task. Shepherding people toward the most exciting and original dining experiences in the city took a lot of leg work, and a mere 52 weeks of restaurant reviews and Indy Eats notes could hardly cover all of the culinary goings-on in such a sprawling city.

No doubt, the news that shook local foodies the most this year was the sudden - and seemingly inexplicable - closing of both Something Different and Snax, two stalwartly chic eateries that in 1989 first gave hope that cutting-edge cuisine could find a following in landlocked Indiana.

However you felt about the sky-high presentations, flights of wine and desserts in many parts, if you ate there, once or often, you wouldn't soon forget your meal. Given that the typical restaurant, by most estimates, folds within the first three years, Something Different's 15-year run was, indeed, impressive.

Just as sad was the closing of Kabul, one of the best restaurants of any kind in Indy but certainly one of the best Middle Eastern establishments in the area. It's still possible to get some of the lamb stews, shish kebabs and the utterly sublime soup "aush" at Garam Masala Indian Grill, which took over Kabul with hardly a change in the décor. But things will never be the same.

Unfortunately, a reviewer can't stop restaurants from closing, no matter how much he champions such uniquely authentic and delicious vegetarian eateries as Indian Chaat House on Lafayette Road. Hoosiers will, after all, have their meat.

A closing was thankfully averted when one of Indy's longest running restaurants, Harold's Steer-In, reopened just three weeks after it was closed, assuring startled Eastsiders that they could, indeed, still get their Twin Steers.

Among news that may just put Indy on the culinary map, Wolfgang Puck swung into town in May to promote his new restaurants and culinary collaborations with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, due to open in conjunction with IMA renovations sometime mid-year. Oceanaire Chef Ryan Nelson also made his second appearance at the James Beard House in New York City, reminding the culinary elite that we eat more than tenderloins and corndogs here in the Hoosier state.

This year also saw some pretty significant restaurant openings, though many of them flew under the radar. Taiwanese trio Juping Chi, Yu Mei Lee and Vivian Chi expanded their dynasty with the opening, doomed as it seemed, of Shanghai Lil, and the reopening of Mikado. If anyone doubted the possibility of world-class Asian food in Indiana, one need just take one bite of the basil ginger chicken or the beef rolls at Shanghai Lil or the utterly fresh, day-boat seafood offerings at Mikado.

The oft-maligned culinary treats of the British Isles came to us compliments of Rob 'n' Jay's Chippy and MacNiven's, at least a half dozen Middle Eastern and Persian restaurants opened to good reviews, and Pauly's brought some truly respectable Italian food to the Southside. In the realm of gourmet merchandizing, home chefs and gourmands have much to be happy about. Sur La Table has opened in Carmel, Taste Café and Marketplace promises more unique ingredients and bakery items, and Marsh will finally be bringing life back to the old Atlas site on College, though mourners of the late supermarket will take some warming up before they'll make Arthur's Fresh Market their corner grocery. Farmers' markets continue to thrive and sprang up in all corners of the city in 2004, even taking the form of "rent-a-farmers" who would do the gardening for you.

What's on the menu for 2005? Plenty. Maria Hutson has finally realized her dream of bringing the Cuban food of her youth to, of all places, Noblesville, opening Pitukas, which promises black bean soup, yucca and Cuban espresso. Greek Islands has opened a new café and Greek market. Moroccan teas and spices have arrived at Boulevard Place and 42nd Street. Mediterrano Café has remodeled and reminded us how good it is. Asia One Café is back to its old tricks, serving up Malaysian and Southeast Asian favorites. And a veritable treasure trove of funky, high-concept chains have arrived at the Clay Terrace Mall, bringing everything from bison burgers to clam chowder to the hungry shoppers of Hamilton County. So, just when you think more time on the treadmill should top your resolutions for 2005, don't forget to resolve to eat at some local eateries. One more meal couldn't hurt.