"L’Explorateur as much a journey for mind as for mouth
Neal Brown, chef/owner of Broad Ripple’s dazzling new bistro L’Explorateur, would like to step aside for the duration of this review. He’d rather I talk about the food. No mention of his years honing his skill at Tavola di Tosa and H2O Sushi, nor his masterminding of the beer-friendly Belgian menu at Brugge Brasserie. Not even how he’s introducing Indy diners to the wonders of molecular gastronomy. None of those silly accolades tossed about by other critics.
Ours being the post-Wolfgang culinary era, however, the best restaurant food can no longer be dissociated from the Marios and Alains and Jean-Georgeses who’ve made cuisine akin to couture. The buzz Brown’s first solo enterprise has engendered does strum a rock star chord, but there’s no harm in that in a city where people hardly know where their food comes from, let alone the names of the people who put it on their plates. That Brown, the man, is inextricable from his cuisine illuminates his genius. Just catch him before he goes “Vegas.”
Underscoring every bite at L’Explorateur is Brown’s wit, affection for his home state and inexhaustible zeal for cooking. Never are dishes so conceptual they negate good taste. Sure, he calls his kitchen “le laboratoire,” and you’ll spot a few gelées and foams. But the gastroscience is kept in check by Hoosier sensibilities, making every course edifying and instructive, not goofy. In fact, tongue-in-cheek monikers like “Kick his ass Sea Bass” have diminished over bimonthly menu revisions in favor of prim classical terms: consommé, carpaccio, coq au vin.
Still, only foodies — maybe Adam Sandler fans — will understand winks on the lunch menu like “Thomas Keller’s Midnight Snack” or “potage du jour du laboratoire,” indicating the day’s soup. Do you have to get the jokes to enjoy the food? Absolutely not. Will these dishes make even the most complacent of diners actually think about what they’re consuming? Yes, and that’s exactly what this city, besieged by franchises, ignorant to Indiana’s agricultural heritage, needs.
So, to the food, which almost always marries ambition with skill. Two things seem hallmarks of Brown’s talents: mastery of technique and unexpected flavor pairing. The former almost never misses; the latter is his occasional Achilles heel. Take veal scallopini ($24), as good as any around, in Brown’s hands gilded with not merely a silken, perfectly balanced Madeira sauce but lacy fried pancetta “chips,” as well as semolina pasta rolled extremely thin, cut and stacked into “cakes” tasty as they are artful. Involved? A bit. Delicious? No question.
Equally successful are appetizers like a delectable chèvre and Vidalia tart ($8) “modèle classique,” with an enriched wine sauce called “Chivry” dating to Escoffier. Salads can be “obligatory,” like one of tomatoes, herbs and parmesan ($10), or unexpected: warm beets, potatoes and lightly wilted cabbage ($9) with a delicate horseradish dressing — clearly a glance east of France. Closer to home, a harvest-inspired trio of dishes entitled “There’s more than corn in Indiana, but ...” ($19) included two crunchy, pepper-studded corn fritters and a refreshing corn salad in a sherry vinaigrette. Unfortunately, a tamal with black bean foam fell flat by comparison — the foam contributing little flavor to this traditionally hearty snack.
Among recent entrées, meaty braised short ribs ($28) made rich and complex with bitter chocolate topped an earthy cauliflower risotto perfect for a cool late-summer day. Not to mention an entire deconstructed lobster (market price — come early for this one) lounging in a pristine corn consommé with a judicious hit of jalapeño oil. Or lake trout ($29) braced on a smear of golden raisin purée and crowned with zucchini flowers (mothers attached) filled with a scallop mousse. One squash was a tad bitter, the rest exquisite.
An aside: Much has been made about the location and service at L’Explorateur. Sure, the place needs more visibility, a paint job, a better sign. But the interior has been transformed into a soothing retreat just colorful enough and dressed with simple, thought-provoking art that it doesn’t distract from the food. L’Explorateur could be flashier, but I like the found quality about it and would hate to see lines out the door. Service, on the other hand, while extremely accommodating and informed, needs to settle down. On my first visit, the waiter was so nervous reciting his memorized script that we felt on edge every time he approached. Subsequent visits brought more confident table assistants, who made dead-on recommendations of quite affordable wines from a very imaginative list. But sometimes an excess of troops milled about refilling water glasses or waiting to be called up for the coordinated delivery of plates far more service à la Russe than the laid-back eatery portends.
Which leaves just 68 words to talk about the food. Imagine sugar-caramelized tuna from the raw bar with a citrusy gelled sumac and a delicate (and successful!) pomegranate foam. Think buttery hamachi with a scatter of grated horseradish, curious corn sprouts, chili oil, crunchy sea salt. Still hungry? Desserts derive from daily whims. How about a lightly sweet watermelon and champagne float? Lemon curd lightened with whipped cream, topped with blueberry compote? How about one last word? Go!
6523 Ferguson St.
Tuesday: 5-9:30 p.m.
Wednesday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-9:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-11:30 p.m.
Food: 5 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars
Service: 3.5 stars