LongBranch is truly unlike any neighborhood bar I’ve ever been in. It’s also unlike any Asian restaurant I’ve ever been in. But that’s exactly what it is: a neighborhood bar that serves East Asian-inspired dishes. Fall Creek Place’s newest addition, at the corner of 22nd and Delaware, is tucked into the first floor of a brand-spanking-new apartment building called The Delaware.
Walking through the doors, I’m greeted by a wide open room with high ceilings and concrete floors. The tables have place mats with Chinese dragons on them and dishes with chopsticks in the middle. The burnt red walls bring to mind many of the modern Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean joints I’ve been in all around the country. The bar is like many of the "mixology" spots you’ll see Downtown in most any city — a vast array of liquors lining shelves with a decent amount of taps on display and a row of comfortable seats. But, something I immediately notice that sets this in a different realm is the TVs on the walls. You don’t see those in high-end bars. You see books. You see sewing machines. You see meat cleavers, for whatever reason.
“I wanted to kind of integrate a neighborhood feel with some classic cocktails, but I also wanted people to feel comfortable enough to come in here and not buy an $11 cocktail. If they want to buy a Jack and Coke, they can get a Jack and Coke and watch a game or something like that,” Scott Lowe, managing partner of LongBranch, tells me while I’m seated at the bar.
Lowe knows quite a bit about making $11 cocktails, having been in the restaurant industry for 30 years and having helped open both Ball and Biscuit and Bluebeard. It’s strange to see him behind a bar other than Bluebeard’s, where he has served me an overabundance of Boulevardiers and Sanctuaries. But he seems at ease behind his own bar.
When he left Bluebeard he brought Chef Adam Ditter with him. Ditter served as the sous chef under the incredibly talented Abbi Merriss. Lowe says, “It was time for him [Ditter] to kind of go out on his own; he was looking for an opportunity. I approached him and he was down with it. Admittedly, he said Asian wasn’t really his strong point, but he dove in and researched and tested and immersed himself in it and he’s done a hell of a job.”
A look at the menu and it’s easy to see Ditter’s mindset and some of his influences. There are a few out-of-the-ordinary options like wakame salad, pork belly and tonkatsu. But a lot of it honestly looks like a Chinese takeout menu — like Americanized Chinese takeout. Rangoon. Fried rice. Egg rolls. Even the purely American, General Tso.
On further examination, it’s also easy to see this ain’t your average Chinese takeout, folks. That General Tso's — typically served with low-quality, rubbery, often questionably-safe chicken — comes with one of my all-time favorite meats, sweetbreads. The egg rolls are filled with tender, delicious monkfish instead of whatever they normally are stuffed with. Now if we can just get some of those monkfish’s livers on the menu.
“The menu will change and progress over time,” Lowe says, “but we’re starting out with the Chinese takeout theme.
“Adam designed the entire food menu; we wanted to keep that really approachable too. In my opinion there is a lack of really good Asian food in this city, especially in this area. We didn’t want to be Rook. We didn’t want to be Marrow. We didn’t want anything like that, we wanted to kind of do our own thing.”
Chatting with Chef Ditter takes me further into the idea behind the menu. He’s a busy man, so I happily get to interview him in the back while he is prepping — well — everything for the evening. He is running the kitchen on a minimalist staff, eight people including dishwashers, and so he gets to do a lot of the prep himself. “It’s a small staff, but I wanted it that way, I wanted to start with really solid guys in the kitchen and then we can grow as we need,” he explains — this is a trend I’ve heard happening in a lot of kitchens lately.
“I really just looked at and cooked through some popular cookbooks,” he tells me while running the KitchenAid mixer. He mentions the best-selling Momofuku cookbook by David Chang and Peter Meehan and Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker. Anyone who knows Asian cuisine knows these are two of the most important modern books on the food of Asia and are written by people who are running possibly the best Asian restaurants in North America.
So with a little inspiration from these books and obviously using his own culinary chops, which he gained by working in one of the best kitchens in Indianapolis, Ditter got to work creating a worthwhile menu. And thus far it’s been surprisingly popular, even with some of the more divisive menu options, like the sweetbreads. “We were trying something, but we didn’t expect it to be as popular as it is,” Ditter says. “We’ve been open two weeks and have gone through 40 pounds of sweetbreads.”
Sweetbreads, in case you didn’t know, are not bread. They also aren’t sweet. They are actually the thymus glands of animals, or sometimes the pancreas. And, like most offal, they are some of the most delicious and most tender parts of an animal.
“It’s funny, so many people have been like, ‘This chicken is so tender,’” Ditter says with a light chuckle, while showing me the sweetbreads cooking in vacuum-sealed bags via sous vide.
A little later on, with a hefty bowl of the vibrant, otherworldly red General Tso's sitting in front of me, I can tell you, it’s fucking phenomenal. The best. And the people weren’t lying, these sweetbreads are so incredibly tender. Oh, and it’s spicy, especially when you get some tasty chilies in your bite.
Back at the bar with Lowe, he explains how LongBranch came about. “I approached Kait and Craig [Mariutto], the owners of Shoefly, with a concept and the concept kind of changed a little bit over time; things happened.
“We were originally going to be a really legitimate cocktail bar, like Libertine, or something you’d see in Chicago, but we kind of had to change our course a little bit. I really wanted a neighborhood restaurant, and this is actually the original spot Shoefly was going to be in.” While the direction changed, the place is still 21 and up, which makes sense with the menu offerings. If you have kiddos though and can’t get a babysitter for the night, you can always order to go; they have a walk-up takeout area complete with dog hooks so you can bring your pup with you — just another added benefit. Pretty soon you’ll be able to walk in next door and get a growler to go when MashCraft opens in early 2017.
Though they changed the idea to make it more approachable for the everyman, the bar program hasn’t suffered at all. While I’m munching on some of their wings, which are dry-rubbed with the remnants from making their house-made Sriracha sauce, Lowe is whipping up their House Old Fashioned. Much like everything in this place, the drink is surprising. I’ve had my fair share of Old Fashioneds in my life and this is truly different, mainly because of Lowe’s trail mix syrup, which he makes himself. “I make all of our syrups in-house,” he says as he finishes pouring my cocktail. He then places a piece of brittle in it that he made from the remnants from creating the syrup — not much goes to waste in LongBranch.
“We’re not really splitting the atoms with our cocktails, we’re making them really fresh, we’re making them go along with the food, some kind of Asian influence with a sort of seasonality to them, just kinda having fun. You know, I just want people to be relaxed and get whatever they want.” As I sip my way through the Old Fashioned, I’m definitely feeling relaxed, and up next is the cocktail I can’t get out of my head.
It’s called All Apologies, like the Nirvana song, and I’m happy to have it alongside the green beans Chef Ditter has brought out for me — they have a creeping heat; I just happened to get the three spicy things on the menu.
The cocktail is a masterpiece. “It has a relatively light smoked mezcal, which is nice to use in cocktails because it doesn’t really overpower the drink, whereas a lot of mezcal is really, really smoky and not very cocktail-friendly,” Lowe explains as he is mixing up the cocktail. “I use a little Aperol, which is an Italian bitter. I use a house-made falernum, which is a syrup consisting of overproof rum, cloves, lime, ginger juice, it’s kind of boozy. And then we add fresh lime juice and hellfire habanero bitters. Then we do an egg white to give it a nice froth.” It’s light and easy on the palate, and that’s dangerous with the amount of booze in here, which is where its name stems from, because the bartender may have to apologize for it sneaking up on you and knocking you on your ass.
As I fill up on food, drink and conversation it’s easy to see myself coming back here time and time again — which is the point. “The price point, as you can see, is a lot lower than other places,” Lowe points out, with menu items running from around $5 to $15. “We want people to come back two and three times a week, instead of making it a special occasion and only coming back once a month. We want to keep prices low, but we’re still putting out a really fresh product. We’re using local produce, we’re using Indiana meats and poultry like Gunthorp Farms.
“We’re trying to create a neighborhood. Watering holes are essentially the anchor of a neighborhood. It’s going to be a lot of trying to feel out if there is a need; in the spring and summer our hours will expand.
“If there are still people out walking around at 11, 12 or 1 o’clock, I’ll stay open ‘til then. In Chicago you can’t go like two blocks without stumbling into a local neighborhood bar. And I’d like to see some portions of Indy get to that point.
“I think once places like this can succeed, I think it will show other people that it’s going to be a vibrant neighborhood in the next three to five years.”
See the menu, hours and more at longbranchindy.com