The year in review for gastronomy2002 has been a solid, but by no means banner, year for Indianapolis dining. A couple of old favorites have gone, and a couple of new, potential favorites have arrived on the scene. The depressed economy has largely kept a lid on change, although the inexorable growth of the chains and the corresponding weakening of the independents have been abundantly evident. In a recent conversation with Peter George, the founder of Indy Originals, the city's newly formed independent restaurateurs' association, Peter said to me, quite simply, "I wish we'd done this 15 years ago. It might be too late now." Sadly, he may be right and this observation seems more and more glaring as new chain monstrosities spring up all around town. We need to support the independents ...
Among the new ethnic eateries in town is the Saigon Kitchen, 3103 Lafayette Road, specializing in Vietnamese food.
But enough of my preaching to the converted. More of this later. Let me begin our roundup of the year's gastronomy by presenting a couple of personal observations and/or wishes before proceeding with the meat of the article. (Spoiler Alert: The meat of this article concerns supporting the independents.)
Recently, I moved to Bloomington to be closer to my day job. At first, it seemed like a good idea. Now it seems like a great idea. I still get to spend three evenings a week in Indianapolis, but have a slightly different perspective. Indy is a big city, without a real focus or center, so it's illuminating to live at its fringes and to experience its cultural scene as a bit of an outsider. I no longer have to live with the ambivalent qualification of being a Southsider: Now the whole city is my oyster, as it were, and I feel somewhat liberated for that.
Those who know me well will not be surprised when I mention that I am a fairly messy eater. Despite a solid bourgeois upbringing, I still manage, without fail, to provide my laundry service with a parade of indelible spots and stains across innumerable ties and shirts. The expenses incurred in the removal of such are not covered in any way by my compensation package at NUVO, and have to be borne by myself alone. I just want to point this out.
In addition to this, I must confess to enjoying, in the privacy of my own bedroom, the pleasures of sushi and, on occasion, chocolate, much of which seems to end up in inconvenient and potentially embarrassing spots on my 350 count Egyptian cotton sheets. Let's not forget wasabi, one of the worst offenders, especially when mixed with soy sauce. These stains are there for all to see when I deliver bedding for thorough cleaning and disinfection. I don't usually review restaurants from bed, so I'm not claiming compensatory reimbursement for this inconvenience, merely stating a fact.
Incidentally, it should be noted here that, despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary, white wine does not always get red wine out of white cotton materials. Neither does salt. Sake, however, seldom stains and therefore makes for excellent bedtime drinking. I modestly propose to manufacturers of business attire, especially purveyors of clothing to the honorable profession of journalists, that they treat their fabrics with Scotchguard or some similar stain-preventing treatment prior to sale. This might raise the cost of an average journalistic shirt to around $8, but to decry that would be simply nitpicking.
Restaurants in general need to reevaluate their musical selections. Miles Davis is dead, folks, so let's stop avoiding royalty payments by playing music that"s lapsed from copyright, and start playing music by some living musicians. If I hear "Kind Of Blue" once more in a restaurant I"m reviewing, I"m going to induce my guest du jour to projectile vomit by telling her tasteless stories about "the good old days." It won't be exactly the Birth of the Cool, but it should be well-worth watching. And while on the subject of music, playing Bob Marley in pseudo-Caribbean restaurants or '70s porno compositions in any other kind of establishment simply won't cut it. That includes the playing of any and all "music" by Kenny G. Let's show some respect for the customer, please.
This last comment only applies to potentially tasteful, independent restaurants. It's perfectly OK for chains to play whatever crap they want, because they probably think that their clientele expects nothing better or more imaginative. This includes fat bearded white guys doing Mick Jagger, or, for that matter, thin bearded white guys doing Bob Marley. I think we have enough "bistros" in town. At least for now. This includes, especially, the likes of P.F. Chang, which probably wouldn't recognize a real bistro if it flew up its corporate garbage disposal and built a nest. Bistros seldom seat 200 and almost never employ a waitstaff well into double digits. No more corporate bistros, please. Or independents, for that matter, unless you really mean it. The concept of bistros must remain intact if the word is to continue to have any meaning at all.
On a positive note, I'm delighted by the explosion of ethnic restaurants on the scene in the past couple of years. We now have almost 20 (count them) Japanese restaurants, dozens of real, authentic Mexican joints and a generous smattering of Vietnamese, Korean, Greek and you name it. It"s great to see these establishments populated not only by diners of the same race, but also by an increasingly intrepid breed of Anglo-Gastronaut, whose culinary horizons are not limited to sizzle-platter strip steaks, asparagus spears "Dirk Diggler" and spuds au gratin ý la carte. Certainly, there are many for whom those are the only recognizable food groups, but my hearty congratulations to those who think outside of the meat and two veg box. This is the kind of dining that makes for a real city, a real culinary community.
Perhaps this is where the backlash against the chains is going to occur: in the holes in the wall and the mom and pop operations that recall the diners and steakhouses of yesteryear. Who knows? Brutal as it may sound, if independent restaurants are to survive, especially white tablecloth, Western-European style establishments, they need to be able to compete with the big boys at every level. This is difficult, arduous and incredibly time-consuming. Excellence doesn"t come easily and, once achieved, it can never be taken for granted. Let me rephrase that. It MUST never be taken for granted.
A good friend of mine in Bloomington has owned a successful restaurant for over 25 years. When I ask him about his success, he answers, "You need to be consistent and reliable. It also helps if you can cook worth a shit." In the past year '"ve written almost 78,000 words on the subject of food in this town. That's a short novel. Many of you probably wish I hadn"t bothered, but this Bud"s not for you. To those who support the locals, who believe in independence and who have a degree of faith in David's odds over Goliath, I applaud you. Sorry it took so long to get to the meat and potatoes, but I think you know what I'm talking about.
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