A tough job, but someone has to eat it "Best Of" issues provide a once-a-year opportunity for restaurant critics to throw caution to the wind or to wax philosophic about the nature of the job. To be a critic on a weekly basis, to pass judgment on one restaurant’s cold waffles or another’s foie gras, requires more than a little audacity. To declare one restaurant the “best,” even in some small category like pizza or Chinese, is a hazardous enterprise, one that cannot avoid excluding some of the most innovative and lively local eateries. Best New Culinary District: 52nd & CollegeIn my first year reviewing restaurants for NUVO, I have enjoyed some truly transcendent meals, unearthed some surprising gastronomic gems and suffered through some ho-hum, lackluster suppers at joints that just weren’t trying hard enough. But mostly I have eaten well, both at some of Indy’s most interesting international institutions and places serving up traditional American burgers and steaks. The experience has been humbling, to say the least, but has proven to me that our small city is fairly limitless in the kinds and qualities of food it can put before hungry diners. Here, then, are a few “bests,” gleaned from my year of observing a truly vibrant culinary metropolis.
Best New Culinary District: 52nd & CollegeIn just over a few months, a row of darkened storefronts quickly came alive, turning a somewhat sedate block into a thriving borough of eateries. Led by Rob ’n’ Jay’s Chippy, fish and chips mecca and ground zero for soccer fans, the block includes Oasis, serving Greek and Middle Eastern specialties, and Taste Café and Marketplace, filling the gourmet gap left by Atlas with epicurean products and a brunch menu that rivals any in town. Their scones alone would convince any skeptics. All that next door to Indy’s beloved Red Key, where you can still get a beer and a braunschweiger sandwich for a song. Just don’t rock back on your chair. If anyone wondered if Indy could support another neighborhood, just check out the bustling sidewalks at lunchtime.
Best Newly Thriving Ethnic Cuisine: Middle Eastern When I moved to town almost 10 years ago, you couldn’t find a falafel in this city to save your life. In just the past year, however, the number of Greek and Middle Eastern eateries in the area has at least doubled. Now there’s Oasis, Café Trevi, Sam’s Gyros and Holyland Halal Meats, as well as a renovated Mediterrano, recently expanded Khoury’s and even Sultani’s Kabob in Fishers. From baklava to baba ghanouj, diners want for little of the region’s tasty standards. Second place has to go to African food, which, in the months since Queen of Sheba closed has added African Palace, Addis Ababa Bahelie, Abyssinia and a new spot for Touba Cuisine on Michigan Road. Not to mention the multi-course meals at El Morocco.
Best Revitalized Dining Space: Shanghai Lil One of the worst trends of recent years has been the demise of independents. No news fell so hard on foodies’ hearts than the closing of Peter George’s trio of restaurants, including his eponymous Peter’s, which lingered at the top of “best” lists for most of the ’90s. But after a few false starts, Shanghai Lil has proven that the location at 8505 Keystone Crossing can still support world-class cuisine. Chef and owner Yu Mei Lee has equipped the location’s two kitchens with imperially-trained Taiwanese chefs making some of the best Asian food in the Midwest. Honorable mention goes to Juping Chi, Lee’s sister, for all she’s done to raise her own restaurant Mikado from the ashes of a kitchen fire to its regal status as downtown’s Japanese jewel. Best Reason to Eat in Courses: R Bistro The art of eating, of lingering over appetizers and soups and drinking coffee and cordials with dessert, has been lost in the age of fast-food drive-thrus and $3.99 buffets. But R Bistro still believes that meals should be more than a protein and a starch, and they’ve been proving that week after week with one of the most interesting, if compact, selections of well-chosen items on any menu around town. Unlike most restaurants, the portions here are just the right size. With a new menu every week, you could eat just about every item and still get an entirely new dining experience the next time you dropped in. Regina Mehallick and her crew also get a special mention for providing perhaps the most consistently satisfactory dining experience in town. Other great spots to eat from every page of the menu are Elements, where “seasonal” and “local” come close to declarations of faith, and Oakley’s Bistro, where starters include everything from suckling pig to a shrimp “corndog” with honey mustard. Best Excuse to Drink Wine with Dinner: The Bosphorous If you want to impress your dinner companions, dip into your wine cellar for a favorite vintage and head down to Bosphorous, where they’ll rush glasses to your table and uncork your bottle for you without charging you a cent. So, given your own good taste, you’re guaranteed to enjoy your dinner drinks. While you’re there, you’ll just have to order the garlicky eggplant salsa, the refreshing navy bean salad and the most decadent milk custard served anywhere in the city. Better make that two bottles. Best Local Foodie Web site: IndyEthnicFood.org You might not realize that Indianapolis has over 690 ethnic eateries. Or that Indiana hosts over 60 food festivals each year. But you would if you logged onto IndyEthnicFood.org, one of the most comprehensive databases about eating all things ethnic in Central Indiana. The brainchild of IUPUI psychology professor Drew Appleby and Riley Children’s Foundation database manager John Baldwin, the site is pushing 8,000 hits for the year and has almost 200 registered users. With maps to restaurants, links to restaurant rumors and recipes for everything from Armenian nutmeg cake to Argentinean stew in a pumpkin shell, it’s the Indy diner’s sure bet for keeping abreast of food news. They even have their own “Top 10” list, letting users decide on their own “Best Of” among area restaurants.