"New chef, new menu at Conrad’s Restaurant du Soleil

If you’re someone who cares about food in Indianapolis, who tries new restaurants almost as soon as they open, you probably shared in a similar half-transcendent, half-baffling experience earlier this year: dinner at Restaurant du Soleil. Sure, you gave them a week or two, but you were eager to see what the planet’s biggest name in hotels would add to the local dining scene at one of only five Conrad hotels in the U.S. So you made a reservation. You invited those friends you trust most to go along. Then you made your way downtown, hoping upon hope this would be a watershed meal like you’d enjoyed in other cities, only this time in your own hometown.

Trumpeted by local media as the restaurant that would elevate little ol’ Indianapolis from culinary obscurity, Restaurant du Soleil would not only have the Hilton name behind it, it would have Jonathan Wright, one of the most talented and acclaimed chefs who’d ever set foot in Indianapolis (move over, Puck!), at its helm. Big things were on the horizon. Rumors abounded about New York Times critic Frank Bruni planning a visit. Foie gras was all over the menu! No expense had been spared! Then you ate there, and the wildly inconsistent service and sometimes uneven food left you scratching your head about all of those early promises.

My first meal at du Soleil was a bizarre comedy of extremes. Arriving with my parents to celebrate their 43rd anniversary, we were greeted graciously, asked to wait a few minutes in the vestibule and finally shown to our table — right between the bathrooms and the kitchen. In a modestly crowded restaurant, service crawled. After 30 minutes, we had no wine, no bread, no amuse bouche to appease our palates. Our waitress hadn’t even taken our full orders. After 45 minutes, I still had no napkin, no bread plate, no fork. Was this service worthy of the Hiltons?

Others I’ve talked to have reported comparably frustrating experiences.

Here’s where my story likely diverges from theirs. For the first and only time in my career as a critic, I was found out. Did they have my picture in the kitchen? Whatever the case, things suddenly changed. Bread plates, napkins, wine and a stream of complimentary appetizers appeared out of nowhere at the hands of suddenly very efficient and formal servers. My father’s eyes widened. My mother’s jaw couldn’t close. When the waitress came by much later to say, “Seems someone here writes for a paper …” I didn’t think things could get much worse.

What saved the experience — and subsequent ones — was the quality of the most successful dishes. From a stunning gazpacho amuse bouche with lime-cilantro cream to the luscious foie gras with geléed rhubarb and wafer-thin gingerbread to a gorgeously light pistachio soufflé with a kir royale shot (albeit switched in harried haste by the pastry chef), the culinary highlights were many. One dish in particular assured me of Wright’s talents: a pan-seared grouper atop a perfect chorizo risotto wrapped in pancetta like a little package. A tender squid salad and an immaculately pure chorizo broth showered over the whole dish made this one of the most flavorful yet restrained entrées I’ve ever consumed. But Wright left in early June, landing in northern California’s picturesque Lark Creek Inn.

Today, Restaurant du Soleil is entering a new phase, though it’s strange to think so at less than a year. Chef Douglas Knopp, formerly of Charlottesville, Va.’s Boar’s Head Inn, has been tapped to add his considerable experience with hotel cuisine and culinary education to the Conrad’s food and beverage endeavors. His new menu at du Soleil is just days old, and it has almost as much foie gras as the Wright menu, fewer but more practical twists and perhaps more nods to Indiana. Unfortunately, the menu itself is quite sloppily edited. “Neige,” French for snow, became “neigh,” provoking plenty of equestrian jokes come dessert time.

Service, thankfully, has improved somewhat. Both hostess and waiter seemed ready to accommodate and inform. Wine service was excellent; all tableware was at hand. Unfortunately, the kitchen still took its sweet time, and excuses came as often as apologies. Entrées arrived a good 20 minutes after our waiter said they’d be “right up.” Still, some dishes did rise to the quality of a five-star hotel.

Despite intriguing hints of quince and pomegranate, the current foie gras appetizer ($12) lacked the subtlety of the former; a muscular slab of pâté nearly toppled a delicate round of toasted brioche. A lobster and corn bisque ($9) was delicious but quite heavy with butter and cream. The pork chop, when it did arrive, was excellent, meaty and exceedingly juicy despite being cooked medium well. But the pomme croquette the waiter talked up, as well as a whipped cauliflower cream, mysteriously became wilted spinach with broccoli and cauliflower florets in a cream sauce. Duck was perfectly pink though almost too subtly flavored with cardamom. Yet more foie gras on the side, however, came superbly seared.

Desserts ($8.50), now prepared by Pastry Chef de Partie Sandra Burns, are flashier and a tad higher in pretense, though they do have their moments. In one, a brown, overly poached pear sagged atop a phyllo popover stuffed with goat cheese. That spiced-wine “snow” was more curious than anything, but tarragon ice cream was revelatory in its deep licorice flavor. In the most esoteric of sweets, “Thoughts on Citrus,” a row of sunny circles on a plate shaped like a smile, included such exceedingly refreshing items as an orange “creameaux” and mandarin sorbet. A lemonade foam, however, was almost too sticky to lift off the plate.

Housed in gorgeous environs with buttery walls, dark woods and exquisite tile floors, du Soleil clearly merits the attention not just of hotel visitors but locals who can cut through the static to the high notes. Knopp and his restaurant are still taking risks, though an ambitious lunch menu in the past has given way to a somewhat humdrum buffet. For such a restaurant to be still working out the kinks after so long into operation is disconcerting. Here’s hoping a few more months in the sun will help this restaurant ripen into a world-class eatery Indianapolis can call its own.

Restaurant du Soleil

50 W. Washington St.

317-524-2552

Hours

Monday-Sunday 6:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.

Sunday Brunch

10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Food : Four stars

Atmosphere : Four and a half stars

Service : Three and a half stars 

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