Aspen Times Weekly: On the Scene in Indy
November 30, 2015
"Indianapolis." Admittedly, this answer to the question, "Where are you off to next?" didn't garnish the oohs and aahs of say Paris or a warm Caribbean island. Instead questioners' heads tilted, like a puppy trying to understand its master's voice speaking English.
Indianapolis has not been on the travel or dining agendas for many, except for those there for work or sporting events. But that's about to change. Indianapolis, home of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kurt Vonnegut and John Green, is as unexpected as it is up-and-coming. It's affordable, clean and friendly. This is also what attracts exciting, young chefs to the city.
I spent most of my time in Indy on a bike — either on the Pacers Bikeshare (more than 50,000) or with a two-wheeled tour of the city with Active Indy Tours. Indianapolis is an incredibly bike-friendly city, with hundreds of miles of trail in city boundaries and on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is dotted with public art installations along the way. In addition to new biking routes and lanes, the city has invested millions into 500 cars across 200 stations of Blue Indy, its electric car-sharing program — which the city hopes will one day be the largest in the country. Both the bike share and electric-car share have made it easier for visitors and residents to be car-free while visiting Indy and getting, in my case, from one great restaurant to another.
This past June, the Indy culinary scene was elevated to a national audience when Milktooth, the year-old restaurant focusing on, surprisingly, brunch, was recognized for its owner and chef Jonathan Brooks, who was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs in 2015.
Milktooth shook things up in Indy, not just because the food was so forward thinking, but that it refused to look back. No substitutions, not salt and pepper or damn ketchup packets — just eat it as the chef, who is almost always there behind the old school counter, intended. So eat it I did, including a complex and delicious roasted shitake and smoked Swiss cheese Dutch baby with shaved fennel, radish salad and pickled mustard seeds. With Brooks behind the kitchen, and servers who are engaged and know every last thing about each dish, it was a casual, exciting and surprising gas-station-turned restaurant. Hey, if you don't like eating this way, there's a lot of other places to go in Indy that are traditional eggs and toast. Speaking of toast, the bread served here, as just about everywhere else, is expertly baked at Amelia's, down the street from Milktooth on Virginia Avenue, where two more of Indy's best new restaurants — Bluebeard and Rook — are located, with more on the way. (Rook actually reopens in January 2016 in a new, larger space on Virginia Avenue; its old space on Virginia has been taken over by The Spice Box.)
I could go on and on with the seriously cool food scene on Virginia Avenue and through this neighborhood called Fletcher Place (which borders another up-and-coming 'hood called Fountain Square), but the culinary and youthful energy of Indy actually permeates throughout.
From new Mass Avenue hangouts to a century-old German beer hall, I can't over-emphasize how nice it was to be in a place where restaurateurs, distillers, brewers and chefs where creating from within their own communities. Most of them grew up in here, moved away to places like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, only to find that when the time came and they felt the urge to start their own thing, the prices, the produce and the people beckoned them home. And so I followed, from Tinker Street for pan-roasted walleye with roasted root veggies, spinach and cider beurre-blanc, to Public Greens situated delightfully on the Monon Trail in Broad Ripple for a variety of vegan salads (although the cheddar chive waffle, fried chicken thighs, maple syrup and grilled pear will be on my next order) and to the overly indulgent, straight out of a girl's dream The Cake-Bake Shop for Parisian-inspired desserts, cakes and of course, Champagne.
Did I mention I was, thankfully, on a bike for all — well, most — of this trip?
The rest of my time in Indy was spent visiting the Indy Hall of Fame Racing Museum, throwing duckpin bowling balls in a restored hall, and enjoying nearby bucolic farms and creameries that open their doors (and onsite restaurants) for tastings.
Of course, I couldn't leave Indy without a Sunday afternoon football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was warm enough for the retractable roof to open, adding to the downdraft that so notoriously ruffles the feathers of opposing quarterbacks — in this case Peyton Manning.
As the stadium sang the national anthem in unison, belting out their loyalty in the "Crossroads of America," where dreams of chefs, of farmers and of the people who have come here from around the country and the world to make this their home, it was hard not to fall for and believe in Indy.
Amiee White Beazley writes about travel for the Aspen Times Weekly. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @awbeazley1.