"New downtown restaurant has improvements to make
I came to Indianapolis late, as far as the opening of Buggs Temple is concerned. But NUVO hadn’t reviewed the critically acclaimed restaurant yet, so I decided to adopt an angle for partygoers: review the bar menu.
Problem is, there wasn’t much to review.
Buggs had been open over two months by the time I placed my caboose at one of the church-cum-eateries’ bar stools at The Tavern, the Temple’s upstairs fine dining restaurant. My waitress informed me that The Grille is a completely different restaurant from The Tavern after I asked about the Atlantic salmon and avocado crème fraiche nachos. These are on The Tavern’s bar menu in cyberspace, but not, apparently, in real life.
A later phone conversation with co-owner Vicky Mack unraveled the mystery. The Atlantic salmon nachos are not on either menu. Pork nachos are served at The Grille. The Web site needs updating. And Chef Brad Gates is the chef for both The Grille and Tavern, making that waitress a bit uninformed.
Some background on the venue that houses these restaurants: It had been several incarnations of churches from 1918, and named for the Rev. James C. Buggs in ’69, until the ’90s. Developers then saw its proximity to the canal as an asset for commercial development.
The Tavern’s chef, Brad Gates, has almost two decades of big-name restaurant experience, including at the Union Square Café and Britney Spears’ NYLA in New York, and The Blue Ridge Grill in Atlanta. Local food writer Terry Kirts had mentioned that Gates brought the Café’s famous fried calamari with anchovy mayonnaise to his new digs at Buggs. So I ordered it. They were out. At 8:45 on a Tuesday night, they were out of their star bar menu bite.
Granted, both my bartender and waitress had informed me that pickins were slim: One slip up would have been forgivable. But the disappointments just kept coming: I ordered Buggs’ by-the-glass Riesling. Out. Chimay red. Out. My cohort and I were lucky enough to snag, literally, the last two Newcastle beers.
What we did have: beef and chicken satay ($7) with scallions and peanuts in Thai Masuman curry. Seven or eight little skewers of interspersed proteins, like little corndogs smothered in brown. We tried the chicken — good. But the beef was amazing. It tasted like the best Middle Eastern shawarma, a beef/lamb mixture. This beef had an almost crispy skin. I could imagine the hands that had pressed the raw ground beef around this stick before baking it; the inside was almost as tender as at that stage.
So maybe we could overlook Buggs’ blunders if the food were this good. To me, that’s the most important thing about a restaurant: Food that’s so good it’s magical. Inexplicable. Service and price point can be more easily worked on.
But then we got the greasy potato “fingerlings.”
The mussels ($8) came piled generously high in a bowl, with smoked tomatoes and slivers of garlic. The tomatoes were a bit strong, and didn’t really complement the delicate oysters. I didn’t taste the Riesling mentioned in the dish description. I ate the whole bowl … because I was hungry.
By the time 9:45 rolled around, our waitress asked us if we wanted anything else, because the kitchen was closing. I thought 9:45 an oddly early hour for a bar menu to adjourn, but had a more pressing thought on my mind: What had become of the Royers’ Farm lamb chops ($36) we had ordered at least 30 minutes prior? The waitress apologized for having forgotten to put in our order. But there was nothing she could do to remedy it now, she said. Apparently not even by slashing our food bill a bit. Our bartender, however, had comped a round of our drinks earlier due to lack of offerings. The clientele for a restaurant with this price point demands such appeasement.
New York’s Union Square Café had received a James Beard award for outstanding service around 1998, when Chef Brad Gates was its chef de cuisine. Most chefs are more managers than cooks. Bring back that outstanding service, Brad.
337 W. 11th St.
Tuesday-Saturday: 4 p.m. – “close” (approximately 10 p.m.)
Food: Two and a half stars
Atmosphere: Four stars
Service: Two stars
Recommended dish: beef satay