Facelift, name change make 14 West a tasty address

Terry Kirts

By Terry Kirts The lamb reuben ($10) These days, it seems everyone is getting a makeover. Cable networks from Style to TLC have glutted the airwaves with shows like Ambush Makeover and the ubiquitous Trading Spaces, suggesting that with just a few hours, some advice from a Hollywood designer and a little cold cash, the homeliest of bedrooms or bodies can be made suitable for a magazine cover. Even the Food Network has cashed in with Restaurant Makeover, a show where “two industry top guns overhaul a struggling restaurant.” It’s a gimmick, for sure, but who wouldn’t like to spruce up their neighborhood eatery or offer some suggestions to the kitchen? When the restaurant is on the scale of Malibu on Maryland, by all estimations one of downtown’s most exclusive culinary destinations, you wonder what a makeover could accomplish. Joe’s Diner needs a facelift, for sure, just like your Aunt Matilda could use a new hairdo and some clothes from the 21st century. But why would someone like Angelina Jolie need a makeover, and how much worse would the rest of us look if she did? After just six years as one of Indy’s supermodel restaurants, did Malibu really need fixing up? Owner Edward Locke thought it did, and he rocked the Indy restaurant community in July by locking the doors of his institution. Foodies breathed a sigh of relief to know legendary Chef Tony Hanslits, a recent addition, would be staying on to shepherd the menu, with perhaps even more creative control. After the initial shock, however, a few questions arose. What would the new place look like? What edge would it have over the old? Was this just a stunt to create new buzz and bring more diners in? For this restaurant critic, it gave me pause to reflect on my experiences at the old place. In all honesty, I liked the Malibu space, and I loved the bar, which I had sipped at several times. But I never warmed up to the place as a whole, and the meals I had there didn’t exactly launch me into the culinary ether. This place seemed more married to its status as “upscale restaurant” than really pushing the edge in the kitchen. Hanslits helped change that, but I still considered this restaurant more a place where visitors from out of town ate, especially ones with expense accounts. The new 14 West has, at least for now, sloughed off a bit of that, along with the rather outdated clothes of the Malibu name, which smacked too much of the ’80s. Even just making the address the restaurant’s name shows it’s not relying on some mythologized place miles away for prestige. Indianapolis can have elite addresses, too. The décor changes are subtle. The ceiling to the downstairs dining room has been sealed, making the place quieter, more intimate. A colorful collage of art glass lights draws the eye upward. Stylish, indeed. But sitting across from your dining companion, you don’t really notice an appreciably different atmosphere, and many things seem, well, about the same. The menu, however, is definitely better, something that appeals both to gastronomes and elbow rubbers. Hanslits, who frequently visits the dining room, has reached a veteran’s apex, and little touches show just how much the years have taught him. While the dinner menu includes such clever concoctions as a smoked bacon emulsion and a gorgonzola glaze, no other dish shows where Hanslits has arrived than the lamb reuben ($10), a lunchtime revelation. A dish several years in the making, in which Hanslits perfected the spicing for “corning” the lamb, this is textbook subtlety with a delicate touch of slaw and minted mustard on rye. Excellent fries complete the feat. For dinner, veal sweetbreads ($10), though cut a little small and slightly gummy, are delicious with the perfume of fennel. Salads range from a small Caesar ($4) with a heavy treatment of a quite creamy dressing to a generous mixed greens salad with a white cheddar dressing that lacks bite. A double-cut pork chop ($21) is perfectly seared and juicy, a rarity with pork, accompanied by creamy potatoes, warm pears and a luscious glaze for dipping. Grouper basted in butter ($27) is a rich indulgence on a base of equally buttery creamed corn. But a shower of super-thin potato crisps seems almost too heavy for the fish to accommodate. Service at lunch was attentive and swift. At dinner, our waiter, who admitted few other responsibilities, either hovered or ignored. A bit uninformed about wines, he answered other questions with aplomb. Desserts aren’t made in house, and ours seemed more “Malibu” than “14 West”: an all-too-whimsical affair called the “Calypso” ($7), a super-light, peach-flavored chocolate “cake” with an “exotic fruit” mousse. Technicolor squiggles over-accessorized the plate. Perhaps this makeover is a work in progress. Better than any cable TV show, however, this is one that’s definitely worth watching. 14 West 351 S. East St. 638-7663 HOURS: Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Food : 4 Stars Atmosphere : 4 Stars Service : 4 Stars

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