It's Friday night and you're looking for a break from your usual weekend routine. The problem is, you're hungry. Food needs to be part of the solution. If a small voice at the back of your skull begins whispering, "IMA, IMA, IMA," there's a good chance your problem is solved.
Earlier this year, the Indianapolis Museum of Art revamped its dining service, breaking ties with the peckish Puck's, which had offered two-tiered fine dining and cafeteria options, in favor of a casual approach emphasizing locally sourced ingredients.
Under the direction of Executive Chef Ty Hunt, the IMA's Nourish Café writes its commitment to "Fresh, Seasonal, Local, Nutritious" on the wall where you enter. The restaurant is open during museum hours, which means daytime, for the most part. But you can get dinner there on Thursday and Friday nights, when the museum opens its collection to the After Dark crowd.
The museum uses the old cafeteria space as staging ground for Nourish. A small, regularly updated, selection of soups, salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes and pizza, along with a limited selection of red and white wines, beer and cocktails are posted. You order at the counter, are given a beeper and find yourself a table. The night we were there, a holiday party had booked the Fountain Room, the handsome, high-ceilinged space once reserved for fine dining, so we settled on the upper level, Nourish's none-too-subtle equivalent of tourist class.
Indeed, there's been a general lack of attention to feng shui at Nourish. Lighting is harsh or dim and people tend to mill about the counter area like a school of distracted fish. The beepers, while efficient, seem more suited to an airport than an arts venue.
But then you get the food.
We ordered the 3 Mushroom and Thyme soup ($4); a Mixed Greens and Marinated Portobello Mushroom Salad ($6); and two pasta dishes — Cavatappi, featuring roasted sweet corn, northern beans, red peppers and spinach ($9) and Mushroom Portobello Ravioli ($9). To drink: a glass of Chardonnay and a pint of Upland's woodsy tasting Dragonfly IPA.
Hunt has done an ingenious job of coming up with recipes that give local ingredients (mushrooms, at this time of year, for example, and no tomatoes) a chance to shine in cosmopolitan settings, for an affordable price. The Mushroom and Thyme soup was a generous serving in a deep bowl — a meal in itself — with a dark, Spanish accent and loaded with fresh vegetables. It came with a block of cornbread that was a wee bit dry, but flavorful, nonetheless.
The Cavatappi was a study in subtleties. The corn and peppers lent this lightly seasoned pasta a pleasant sweetness that might have been more appropriate for a midday meal. Tender bites of chicken and a creamy sauce made the Ravioli a heartier selection. Fresh-cut blades of fresh herbs added liveliness.
The salad, a creative winter blend, was also capable of standing on its own. In addition to marinated mushrooms, it featured dried cranberries, slivers of squash and an apple-inflected slaw on a bed of fresh greens, served with a mustard vinaigrette that seemed imbued with a hint of Mandarin orange.
Whatever its design shortcomings, Nourish proved a convivial place to start the evening. The atmosphere was clubby in the best possible way — since the IMA is free, everyone's included. And where else can you find yourself sharing a balcony after dinner with a majestic piece of sculpture like May Lin's "Above Below?"