"Wolfgang Puck may have been the last chef lured to Indy by the revving of engines and the roar of racing fans. But while Indianapolis in the early ’70s wasn’t the glitzy, celebrity-rich Monte Carlo of the Midwest Puck had dreamed of, our city’s racing scene has definitely come of age in the last three decades. So has its night life — and its cuisine. Unfortunately, the name Michelin resonates more these days with fans upset about last year’s pullout of 14 drivers over a tire safety issue than it does with the prestigious guide to the world’s finest restaurants.
Still, you don’t welcome close to 200,000 fans without some top-notch eats, and you don’t feed fans of Ferrari, Porsche and Renault tenderloins and sugar cream pie. You may be tempted to flee to your backyard barbecues rather than fight for reservations at area steakhouses and five-star haunts, but it’s actually the perfect time to dress up, join the cosmopolitan throngs and enjoy a meal the way so much of the rest of the world does. When was the last time you actually ordered a salad and an appetizer or finished your meal with an espresso?
“It’s definitely a more festive time,” reports Kim Hooie, a manager at The Oceanaire Seafood Rood at 30 S. Meridian St. “F1 customers are more appreciative of the whole experience and entertainment value of dining. And they’re a lot more affectionate.”
“We sell a lot more bone-in steaks than filets and more quality wines,” says Ryan Craig, general manager of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse at 45 S. Illinois St. “The fans definitely change the atmosphere. These people travel from one F1 race to the next, and they know good food.”
Good food, the kind that would draw the eyes of the world the way a racetrack could draw a Schumacher or a Villeneuve, is a lot easier to come by in Indianapolis these days. Local foodies may be mourning the swift exit of Executive Chef Jonathan Wright from the Conrad’s Restaurant du Soleil, even before the service had risen to the level of Wright’s cuisine, but his influence will continue to put Indy on the gastronomic map for some time. If anything, his menu reminds us that foie gras is far from banned in this city, as it is in Chicago. It finds its apotheosis here with gingerbread and a rhubarb gelée. A crawfish étouffé with a parmesan foam is nothing to scoff at either.
Visitors may be surprised that landlocked Indianapolis now has some excellent seafood options in the form of The Oceanaire, a constant atop “Best Restaurant” lists after just three years in business, and Portland’s McCormick & Schmick’s, 110 N. Illinois St., which besides offering innovative takes on the fruits of the sea has elevated bar to an art — without gallery prices.
Sushi still finds its best form in its most edifying atmosphere at Mikado, 148 S. Illinois St., but now it also comes in funkier digs at Sushi on the Rocks, 235 S. Meridian St., just below Ice Ultra Lounge.
Those willing to venture away from the track or their downtown hotels can find “Kick his ass Sea Bass!” and other playful innovations at Neal Brown’s L’Explorateur, 6523 Ferguson St. in Broad Ripple; elegant Chinese and Japanese cuisine at Yu-Mei Lee’s Shanghai Lil, 8505 Keystone Crossing, still one of Indy’s unsung gems; and leisurely multicourse meals at Peterson’s Restaurant at 7690 E. 96th St., where Karl Benko’s steaks and chops almost take a back seat to his aggressively flavorful sides. While the wait may be a little longer this weekend, there’s no doubt that Indy can offer its international visitors more than just sustenance but some world-class meals.
More than Freedom Fries?
The pursuit of a great meal wasn’t one of the unalienable rights our forefathers inscribed into the Declaration of Independence. But surely the enjoyment of delicious victuals would be part of anyone’s definition of “happiness,” no matter how that concept is defined. Thus, it’s appropriate that any celebration of America’s freedom should focus on food, and that’s exactly what organizers of the Taste of Freedom had in mind when renaming the Taste of Indiana and moving it to July 4. In truth, this festival was never a catch-all foodie fest on par with the Taste of Chicago. But now it’s a great way to celebrate American independence while saving your seat for the fireworks downtown.
Held at White River State Park’s Celebration Plaza, the Taste of Freedom runs from noon to the end of the fireworks, which, with daylight-saving time, means your celebrating can go on a little longer than it did last year.
Not surprisingly, barbecued items headline the food offerings. You can hold your own mini “smoke-off” while trying rib tips and pulled pork provided by Brickyard BBQ, Uncle Artie’s and Big G’s. Big G’s will even supply you such outdoor friendly items as smoked turkey legs and a pickle-on-a-stick.
Greenwood’s Stone Creek Dining Co. will offer applewood chicken salad and cranberry-raisin bread pudding, and Almost Home Tea Room of Greencastle will provide more demure eats in the form of veggie wraps, mini chicken salad croissants and strawberry pizza.
Adventurous eaters can try alligator and spicy jambalaya from Cobb’s Cajun Cookin’, and local Indian favorite Shalimar will also be on site. Local chefs will demonstrate cooking techniques from 1 to 3 p.m., and Indy musical acts such as Stereo Deluxe and Jennie DeVoe will entertain the family into the night. So, leave your picnic basket behind and let the Taste of Freedom feed your patriotic heart — and stomach.