120 West Market Fresh Grill redefines "local"

Slow food - first coined and codified in 1986 by Italy's Carlo Petrini - implies the use of regionally and ethically derived foodstuffs in traditional cooking processes. Extreme advocates have organized into local "arks of taste" to protect their "ecoregions" from encroaching industry and agribusiness. In layman's terms, they motivate folks in an area to eat things grown right there, instead of driving through a global chain for something prepared in a factory, frozen and transported across multiple borders. "Flash grilled" hearts of romaine ($6) provided a light twist on the ubiquitous Caesar.

The idea might smack a little unnecessary to Midwesterners who grew up eating tomatoes and corn from local gardens in July and August. After all, if it's delicious and fresh, do we need to know it came from an "ecoregion"? But now a host of Indy restaurateurs and chefs have made the tenets of the slow food movement their creed. These foodie fundamentalists hope not only to provide great meals for their patrons but to inspire area diners to think about how they sustain themselves.

120 West Market Fresh Grill in the Hilton Hotel, certainly one of the more intriguing restaurants to come along recently in downtown Indy, takes the idea of slow food to an extreme. A flipbook of flashcards lets diners get to know the people who supplied the staples for their meal. Here's the woman who milked the goat for the cheese in your salad. Here's the guy who let his chicken run free so it would be tender on your plate. A postscript to the menu reads like a mission statement full of phrases like "agricultural community" and "culinary team." This commitment to the local isn't something you'd expect at the most universally recognized hotel chain.

Even the décor strains to remind you how dedicated this place is to the fields and farms from whence your food sprang. A vibrant mural above the viewer-friendly kitchen depicts an almost psychedelic Hoosier harvest, including milk bottles from Traders Point Creamery and a gargantuan coffee cup emblazoned with the Hilton logo. Having inherited the high-ceilinged, big-sky dining room from the hotel's former tenant, Adams Mark, the Hilton hasn't done much to make the space more intimate.

Lightweight, low-backed chairs made it hard to sit upright while we dined. China rimmed in yellow and blue and checkered napkins seemed pretty homey for a meal that for two ran over $100. Thankfully, a tripod in one corner previewed some coming attractions - including a much-needed renovation more in keeping with Hilton style.

Beyond the gimmick and atmosphere, however, 120 West Market does put its dishes where its mouth is. The lesson to learn about our ecoregion is that there are some tasty eats around these parts, especially when handled by a clearly talented kitchen staff. For a "hot start," the smoked duck and mushroom dumplings ($8) were rich bundles of duck and chopped mushrooms in flaky, pan-fried wonton skins. A butternut squash "bisque" around the plate was a little watery, but wilted greens added a bit of contrast to a somewhat salty appetizer.

Salads provided the most over-the-top course. The field salad ($6) contained some familiar elements, but greens were fresh, raspberries were plump and sweet, and Capriole goat cheese added a pristine, creamy richness. Unfortunately, a deluge of wild berry-mint vinaigrette made the salad almost cloyingly sweet. In contrast, "flash grilled" hearts of romaine ($6) provided a light twist on the ubiquitous Caesar. Here, however, the quite large hearts weren't really charred enough, and a delicious, creamy dressing had been drizzled so lightly we had to ask for more.

"Main Plates" tended to be heavy, more the fare you'd expect in December instead of July. Elk loin ($24) was a great alternative to beef, only slightly chewy with an earthy undertone that paired well with an expert wild mushroom risotto. A compote of dried Michigan cherries and Gold Rush apples was a little overpowering but worked well with the meat. A surprisingly tender wood-grilled pork chop ($16) came atop a hearty stew of white beans and Klemm's smoked sausage. This was a dish perhaps better for colder weather. But the flavors worked well together, though the chop could have derived more flavor from the promised coating of whole-grain mustard.

Desserts were heavy on chocolate, but a strawberry-rhubarb pie seemed a nice way to celebrate the season. Unfortunately, the pastry on an individual tart was somewhat mushy, and the tang of rhubarb was lost under a scoop of grocery store-quality ice cream. A fluorescent red strawberry sauce, the kind you'd get on a sundae, swamped the plate, sending this sweet dessert over the edge.

120 West Market may be heading down a trail already blazed by a few local chefs. But it's certainly not dishing up typical hotel fare. If it can fine tune some dishes and balance Hoosier ingredients with Hilton sophistication, it has the potential to become not just another restaurant but a culinary destination in the heart of a very fertile ecoregion.


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