"Eat up, just don’t try to do it all in one night

Critic’s log, Jan. 18, 5:02 p.m.: I arrive at Palomino to begin what seems like a culinary daredevil’s stunt: visit four restaurants participating in next week’s $30 three-course dinner festival, Devour Downtown Winterfest, in a single night. I haven’t even packed a roll of Tums. Luckily, I have some fun folks along, including Radio Now 93.1 VJ Kisha Keeney, who’s filming some footage for her Web site.

Of all the participating restaurants, Palomino definitely has one of the widest varieties of dinner options with five choices for both starters and entrees. Garlic seems a common theme among appetizers — from the ever-popular tomato bruschetta to tasty, if a bit unwieldy, beef souvlaki lettuce cups with tangy marinated cucumbers, feta and a refreshing, creamy sauce.

Entrées come mostly from the regular menu, though with some modifications: rich tilapia crusted with parmesan and Greek-marinated steak frites with a sweet homemade ketchup. Desserts especially shine here, trumped up with touches you won’t find elsewhere, like crumbled biscotti atop an especially chocolaty, rum-soaked tiramisu. I take one bite of a super-rich brûléed cheesecake with strawberries, and I know it’s going to be a long night.

Shula’s Steakhouse, 5:59 p.m.: We blow in from the cold into the lobby of one of Indy’s most bustling hotels. Low lighting and soothing music remind us of the Westin’s new promise of a Zen-like spa experience.

Is it the stuffy, clubby atmosphere of steakhouses or their prices that set me on edge? Maybe I just don’t see anything that interesting about unadorned hunks of beef. The omnipresent football paraphernalia at Shula’s, down to menus printed on actual footballs, can be a little distracting. But stepping into a back dining room crammed with vintage Miami Dolphins photos, I suddenly find myself getting an education on what this steakhouse can do.

The beefsteak tomato salad with gorgonzola would likely be better with garden-ripe tomatoes in August, but a tangy vinaigrette has plenty of summery basil. We don’t linger long over the salad, as a perfectly medium-rare 8-ounce filet gives evidence that the kitchen at Shula’s isn’t fooling around. Tender and succulent, rich and beefy and melting on the tongue, this really does make me rethink my prejudices about steak. It doesn’t need the béarnaise sauce, but it’s a nice touch, as are sautéed peppers and mushrooms and a dish of creamed spinach. Vanilla cheesecake can’t quite compare to the previous one, but when you’re buzzing from such a great steak, does it really matter?

Hot Tuna, 6:38 p.m.: Do yourself a favor between now and Feb. 4. Divorce yourself from the goofy name of the Omni’s signature eatery, and realize that one of Indy’s most talented and creative chefs, Dan Noble, will feed you a perfectly hearty hotel meal to chase away the winter chill.

We start with a wee buckle of seared tuna over sweet tropical fruits on a sexy spoon with a bent handle. Kisha sighs, “It’s just like a summer picnic!” Next up is a hearty winter salad, a riff on German potato salad with excellent smoked bacon lardoons, perfectly cooked Yukon golds and a dressing with just the right smack of sherry vinegar. This sets the tone for a delectably tender lamb shank braised for three hours and served over a barley “risotto” with root vegetables. Asparagus is a bit wan, but a quite pure jus with a hint of rosemary brings the dish together perfectly.

Then the dessert! We get not one but three preparations of crème brûlée: classic vanilla, raspberry Chambord and one flavored with Bailey’s Irish cream. Hot Tuna is doing some truly interesting things these days, and you owe it to yourself to check it out over the next week.

Alcatraz Brewing Co., 7:29 p.m.: Swooning, stumbling, a little slaphappy from all we’ve consumed, we find a table in the windows of downtown’s oldest brewpub. Alcatraz is gearing up for a major menu renovation, reducing its somewhat large pub menu to one featuring mostly gourmet, signature burgers, though keeping the famous calzone and Thai chicken lettuce wraps. For Winterfest, however, you can still get heartier dinner fare: grilled Atlantic salmon with grapefruit salsa over chipotle mashed potatoes or a 10-ounce filet with a demiglace made from the brewery’s own dark stout. Yet more cheesecake inspired by crème brûlée. Of course, we have to order a beer sampler to go along with the food, which helps us drift even farther into the spell that downtown Indy’s restaurants have put us in. You’ll want to get caught up in the magic of Devour Downtown Winterfest, too. But please, eat a little more responsibly than we did.

Devour Downtown Winterfest

$30 three-course dinners at 31 downtown Indy restaurants.

Visit www.indyrestaurantweek.com/winterfest/ for a full list of participating restaurants.



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