Kaiseki is a Japanese style of dining where the dinner comes as multiple pre-set courses, all presented in a meticulously artful plating. Each dish is an homage to nature and the season, with the seasonal ingredients prepared exactingly but simply, and jet-setting foodies shell out several hundred dollars to enjoy these meals. It’s kind of the OG of seasonal tasting menus. Molecular gastronomy, on the other hand, a greying-at-the-temples bag of neat chemical tricks popularized stateside famously by chefs like Wylie Dufresne, has been the reigning philosophy for “modern” high-concept dining, where mango puree is reverse-spherified to look like an egg yolk, bleu cheese is turned into foam or snow, blah-blah, we get it.
Yet, somewhere between these two philosophies—between kaiseki’s rainwater-sprayed plate of three peas and molecular gastronomy’s cheese foam bullshit—there is, in fact, a point on the sophisticated food continuum, when paired with a healthy dose of Hoosier pragmatism, that yields a thought-provoking, pleasantly meandering tour of seasonal ingredients by way of the fork. And after years of struggling with consistency and establishing a clear definition of what the Indianapolis arm of Cerulean’s identity should be, head chef Alan Sternberg and sous chef Jessica Selkirk have finalized a menu and staff capable of turning out consistently well-executed dishes worthy of the price point and the location.
Usually, I tend to get really eye-rolley in the presence of gels and foams and other such trappings of molecular gastronomy; it’s not because I don’t appreciate the forward progression that MG has brought or the technique involved, but I feel some younger chefs get really into it as a way to add something more “edgy” to their dishes. I see it employed more and more as a trick—an easy way to get written up in a lifestyle magazine because your dishes look cool. But not everyone can differentiate between gels for gels’ sake and a gel that actually adds something to a dish other than artistic flair.
And that was one of my favorite things about the new Cerulean menu. From the first course, the use of the MG flourishes were consistently done with a restrained hand in a way that actually added to the dishes. In the first course, pomegranate gel was employed to get the flavor of the fruit on the plate, but without dissolving the [surprising, delightful] bruleed ginger meringues with too much liquid. The pumpkin itself was barely softened and left alone, so you got to experience the clean crunch of pumpkin outside of its usual applications as a cooked-down mush, a refreshing take on pumpkin.
The fourth course, a piece of wild-caught black striped sea bass was accompanied by a variety of preparations of beets and a paper-thin shave of a black radish. If you’ve never had black radish before, it’s an uber-intense earthy flavor with a pretty powerful “root burn” (caused by allyl isothiocyanate, the same thing that’s in garlic and horseradish), and it lingered on the palate long after the plate was back in the kitchen. Pastry chef Peter Schmutte prepared a reverse-spherified yuzu palate cleanser (Remise en bouche if you want to impress your date), a process by which food-safe chemicals are added to the solution, which reacts when poured into another solution, creating a suspended liquid “bubble” of yuzu juice that bursts in the mouth. The electric-citrus flavor of yuzu coated my whole mouth in an instant, and was gone—along with the lingering black radish. That’s not a food trick, but an example of MG used well to accomplish a specific goal with that dish.
Gnudi, a kind of gnocchi made with ricotta, came third, and frankly, was just good. Not groundbreaking or mind-blowing—and that’s, again, not a bad thing. In fact, it was great: a comforting, familiar face in a line of more experimental dishes, and I loved it. We have lost sight of the value of things that are just plain good—well-prepared, flavorful, faithful to its traditional preparation, and plated beautifully with complimentary flavors. It came in a pool of smoked olive oil, fruity and neon green. It was served with mushrooms and pesto. It melted in my mouth. I’d order it again, but not before the lamb or scallops, the menu’s second and last course, respectively.
Those two dishes showed a faithfulness to the simple goodness of ingredients—something seemingly lost as diners search for the next cronut, bacon-flavored fuck-all, or other trendy “food epiphany.” The former was extremely mild in its seasoning, with the smoke from the black tea and the simple salt left in the scallop from the ocean. It was paired with simple smoked oyster mushrooms, a sweet cipollini onion, potato chips, and a spinach puree. The strongest flavor on the plate were the scallops—two fat, white, juicy scallops that would have been a tragedy to smother in bossy bright citrus or drown in butter. Similarly, the lamb was sous-vide to a perfect medium for 26 hours, seasoned simply, and served with two preparations of carrots, 1-hour butter-basted and pureed. It was so simple and accessible—”just lamb and carrots” as Sternberg described—but executed with the thought and precision you’d expect from a restaurant attached to a high-end hotel. That dish, Sternberg said, was “about as rustic as I get.”
Last, we were served two dishes from Schmutte, who we have covered in these pages for his win in a recent chocolate recipe, and for making a bang-up dessert for Chefs’ Night Off’s first vegetarian dinner. You really don’t want to hear me describe Schmutte’s dishes and the thoughts I think when I eat pickled concord grapes at the end of a fabulous meal. It’ll get graphic. He also served his “Mauna Loa,” a complete switch-up with pineapple, passion fruit, macadamia, lime and coconut. Suffice it to say that Schmutte’s own accolades speak more volumes than I could. He will no doubt continue to garner awards and praise, and it’s all deserved. If there was ever a dessert worth hiding a ring in, it’s pretty much anything that comes out of Schmutte’s section of the kitchen.
In terms of differentiating itself from its Winona Lake flagship, Sternberg calls the two restaurants “black and white,” with the Indianapolis location taking up the role of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan sibling to contrast Winona Lake’s somewhat more rustic atmosphere and menu. He’s also taking on the menu in a collaborative effort with sous chef Jessica Selkirk, with whom he is more or less constantly texting ideas for dishes and additions to pre-existing dishes, like the gnudi, which Selkirk and Sternberg decided, earlier in the day, needed a shave of salt-cured egg yolk. I didn’t get to taste it, but it was refreshing to see the process being continually refined through such a collaboration.
One last noteworthy part of the meal, which was pointed out to me by my pescatarian dining companion, is that there’s still something on the menu for you if you’re vegetarian, pescatarian, or have a gluten allergy. I doubt it’s even intentional, but it’s a nice bit of proof that creative chefs using high-quality ingredients shouldn’t feel like they need to “bend” to guests with dietary restrictions; good quality vegetables prepared well taste really good on their own as well as with proteins and glutinous carbs.
At the end of the day, Cerulean is getting back to the old-fashioned kind of good: exceptionally high-quality ingredients, careful, thoughtful preparation and artful plating. They’re employing molecular gastronomy without using it as a gimmick or crutch, and their efforts to turn Cerulean into a reliable spot to get a high-end dining experience are showing through in pretty much every dish. While the location and decor has always been impressive, the food now rightfully trumps the rest of the package, from beginning to end. The tasting menu is just a fun way to let the chefs guide the experience so you can work your way up through the flavors, from the earthborn lightness of the pumpkin, all the way to the dense, warming richness of the lamb and carrots. Think of the tasting menu (about $100 for 9 courses) like reading an abridged collection of Shakespeare: you’ll definitely have a favorite, but if you’re a true “foodie,” you’ll really enjoy tasting the menu through the palate of the chefs.