Thursday, April 4, 2013

Twenty Tap

As the number of breweries in Indianapolis has ballooned over the past few years, pubs like Twenty Tap have (thankfully) sprung up so beer aficionados can sample many local and regional brands in one place.

For my money, Twenty Tap is a cut above the rest. First off, the name is a misnomer; the restaurant actually offers 38 local and regional beers on tap. Way to undersell yourself, Twenty Tap! With such an embarrassment of riches, it can be hard to know where to start drinking. Perhaps that's why Twenty Tap offers a beer of the day for just $3.50. (On Tuesdays, all beers are $3.50, so you've got to find your own starting point on those days.) Or, if you feel like maximizing your sampling opportunity, you can always order a flight of three beers instead.

On my recent lunch visit, the daily beer special was New Holland Mad Hatter (a Michigan brewery). An IPA didn't sound appealing to me on that day, though, so I chose a Belgium blonde from Indy's own Bier Brewery instead, which hit the spot.

So, Twenty Tap's selection of beer is good! But how's the food?

Well, it's good, too! The menu isn't particularly flashy (consisting of pub favorites such as burgers, sandwiches, salads, and so on), but what they do, they do well. For example, they offer a variety of gourmet burgers with creative names like "Wrath," "French Breakfast," and "Bonfire"—all made from locally raised Fischer Farms' beef.

For my meal, I decided to keep it simple and go with their "Classic" burger, which comes dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheddar cheese. For my side, I chose fries. My friend (a regular at the place) selected the pressed Cuban sandwich (ham, pulled pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, mayo, and pickles) also with a side of fries. Twenty Tap makes a variety of aiolis for dipping, so my dining partner suggested we try a couple of those as well; I chose blue cheese and she got chipotle.

Neither of us were disappointed with our meals. My burger was great, cooked medium and not overly salty (which I find to be a problem at many burger places). The fries were crispy and well seasoned, and the blue-cheese aioli really pushed them over the top into scrumptiousville.

As my friend scarfed down the last of her Cuban, she mentioned that Twenty Tap is also a surprisingly good place to take kids (she has two). She said the restaurant has a full kids' menu and provides crayons and coloring sheets to keep the little ones occupied. Plus, she added, if her kids get a little rowdy when she's there, she doesn't particularly care because she's been drinking. Now that's responsible parenting!

Twenty Tap on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 25, 2013

Mama Irma's Peruvian Restaurant

I don't know why I had resisted eating at Mama Irma's, the Fountain Square restaurant that prides itself on serving authentic Peruvian food, until last week. As someone who loves food and lives nearby, I should have been there on opening weekend a year and a half ago. I think memories of the past "Peruvian" food I'd tried held me back. I'd just never had a good experience with the cuisine. Well, that's all changed now, and I really wish I had tried Mama Irma's earlier!

As soon as my friend and I entered the small but brightly painted restaurant, we felt right at home. The owner of the place, Hilda Cano, greeted us and then showed us to our table, laughing and joking along the way. Hilda is friendly and warm, and the enthusiasm she has for her Peruvian culture and the recipes she learned from her mother (the titular Mama Irma) is infectious. I felt like I had just stepped into her house as a welcome guest.

After scanning the menu—which includes appetizers such as potato cakes and stuffed avocados, a variety of salads, lots of seafood (including ceviches), plus quite a few steak and chicken dishes—I felt spoiled for choice. Of course, Hilda was happy to give me a few suggestions! She went into great detail on the many delicious ways the kitchen could prepare the fresh flounder, the special fish of the day. She was even open to adjusting any of the dishes to my taste.

Ultimately, I ordered the seco de res, a cilantro-base beef stew served with white rice, beans, and onion salad (although I was intrigued by a pasta dish that was described as "chicken lo mein Peruvian style").  To really get into the Peruvian spirit, I decided to pair it with an Inca Kola, a bright yellow drink that tasted like a lemony cream soda.

My friend ordered the ceviche mixto with shrimp for his meal. Having ordered the ceviche at Mama Irma's in the past, he requested it mildly spiced; he had ordered it hot before, and it was a little too hot for his taste. He also ordered a glass of the homemade chicha, a drink made from purple corn, pineapple juice, and spices.

Let's cut to the chase: I loved every single thing I tried.

My seco de res was amazing! The stewed beef was incredibly tender and perfectly seasoned. I hate to write that it "melted in my mouth," but, well, it kind of did. Hilda even took the time to show me the proper way to eat the dish (you've got to get a little bit of each thing—the beef, the onions, and the beans—on the fork all at the same time for each bite). The ceviche was the best I've had in ages, fresh and citrusy as ceviche should be. It was served with hominy, yucca, potato, and some pan-roasted corn (basically homemade corn nuts). Even the chicha, which was a slightly off-putting shade of purple, was surprisingly tasty, sweet but not overpoweringly so. I kind of wish I had ordered it to drink instead of my Inca Kola, actually.

Just as I was sitting back to rub my full belly, Hilda mentioned dessert. I didn't even notice the dessert list on the menu, but as soon as she described her world-famous, made-in-house alfajores cookies, I was sold. She said that customers have driven from as far away as Toledo just to get them. When she brought out my cookie, I was not disappointed. It was basically a light sandwich cookie that tasted like two very delicate shortbread cookies with dulce de leche in between and dusted with powdered sugar. If only I'd had a glass of milk with it.

Just thinking about Mama Irma's has got my mouth watering. Let's see, I don't think I have any dinner plans...

Mama Irma Peruvian on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 20, 2012


As a resident of Fletcher Place and an advisory board member for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, I was doubly excited to see a new restaurant called Bluebeard (after the Vonnegut novel of the same name) open last month just a couple of blocks from my house. Because Bluebeard bills itself as serving "Italian-inspired cuisine," I was a little afraid it would be a redundant addition to a neighborhood that already has two Italian places—Iaria's and The Milano Inn. Thankfully, Bluebeard is not your typical Italian restaurant. You won't find pasta in heavy red sauce here; instead, the restaurant prides itself on serving innovative, contemporary fine dining.

Bluebeard has three distinct seating areas: an outdoor patio (which, fortunately, is on the shady side of the building), a front dining room, and a back bar. The building also houses a commercial bakery called Amelia's, so all the bread is freshly baked. You can even buy Amelia’s bread at the counter in Bluebeard's front room to take home.

My friends and I chose to sit in the bar, which features huge, industrial-style windows, exposed I-beams, and handmade wood tables. (We sat at a table designed for five made from the fork of tree.) Book shelves line the walls, nestling machinery, typewriters, and classic novels. The bar itself (which serves 10 kinds of draft beers, about half of which come from local breweries) is furnished with mismatched, vintage stools.

The food is served family-style in the center of the table, so our server advised us to order a snack or two, a charcuterie plate, a cheese plate, a couple of salads, and a few mains (which come in small, medium, and large). I liked this set-up because it allowed me to try a wide variety of dishes. As snacks, for example, we ordered some house bread (accompanied by whipped lardo, anchovy butter, and roasted garlic oil) and radishes covered with butter and sea salt. The bread was good, especially with the bacon-y lardo on top. The radishes were fine, but they were just as advertised; it’s hard to get too excited about buttered radishes.

For the cheese course (which also came with some bread, an assortment of preserves, and pickled watermelon) we chose the truffled quark, marinated mozzarella, and fleur de terre. The fleur de terre was my favorite then the marinated mozzarella. I was not a huge fan of the quark, which was just too soft for me. We all enjoyed the cheese plate, although it definitely could have used more bread to go with it; we ended up eating quite a bit of cheese on its own.

Next came the salads. We tried the tomato and peach panzanella (with mozzarella, basil, balsamic and herb oil) and the greek beet salad (with green beans, cucumbers, lettuce, feta, and tzatziki). Both were delicious, fresh and refreshing. I preferred the tomato and peach one, which I could have ordered just for myself as eaten as my meal.

We only ordered one small dish—the beef tongue and cheese pappardelle. I liked this one a lot! The beef was super-tender and the sauce was yummy. We got two medium dishes, the white pizza (with braised lamb, kale, oregano, roasted garlic, goat cheese, and arugula) and the roasted bone marrow (with grated tomato, radishes, arugula, capers, and parmesan). The pizza was nice, although I don't think I'd get it again because it just wasn't that exciting. I mean, it was a pizza. The bone marrow looked rather unappetizing, but tasted good. As expected, it came still inside the bones. After you shoved it out of the bone, it looked sort of like meat Jell-O and tasted like the fattiest part of a ribeye steak. (That's a good thing, by the way.) As our large dish, we tried the grilled filet of snapper with ratatouille and fennel tapenade. I'm not a big fish guy, but the snapper was tasty. None of the desserts really appealed to us (plus, we were full), although I was intrigued by the sweet corn ice cream.

Eating at Bluebeard is definitely an experience, not a quick meal. Come expecting to stay for two to three hours. We went on a Monday, and it got surprisingly busy around 7:00. Our server seemed a little overworked as the evening wore on, forgetting some of our items and promising to bring the drink menu but then never returning. It's a new place, though, still finding its feet, so those kinds of slip-ups are to be expected.

As for the price, it was fairly reasonable for a fine-dining place. The total bill for 5 of us to eat dinner was around $200. Looking back over my thoughts, it doesn't sound like I loved the place. I suppose that's true, but I definitely did enjoy my dinner. The menu is interesting and I intend to go back, so that says something.

Bluebeard on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Rathskeller

The Rathskeller, located on Michigan St. just off Massachusetts Avenue, is a downtown Indianapolis landmark. The restaurant, housed in the historic Athenaeum Building (which was originally called Das Deutsche Haus and partially designed by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s grandfather), has been serving up German food since around 1894. Frankly, the restaurant’s lucky it’s got tradition on its side; the atmosphere and sense of history here are truly amazing, but the food is rather lackluster.

My most recent visit was at lunch. After being seated by our friendly and good-natured server, I sat back to study the menu, which is fairly similar to the more expansive dinner one. Whether lunch or dinner you’ll find many of the standard German dishes such as sauerbraten, German potato salad, schnitzel, potato pancakes, bratwurst, and so on. For those who don’t like German food, there are also a surprising number of other options such as chicken salad sandwiches, tuna melts, pork tenderloins (a Hoosier tradition), French bread pizzas, and pasta dishes as well as an assortment of soups and salads. At lunch, they bring you a complimentary pretzel with a side of really spicy mustard. This was delicious—and my friends and I had fun daring each other to eat large amounts of the mustard.

Before we ordered food, I decided to give their beer a try. Being a German restaurant and a bar, naturally they have an impressive selection of beers from all over the world. The list really is staggering! Because I couldn’t decide on just one, I ordered draught samples of the restaurant’s “Original Six” varieties: Rathskeller Amber, Spaten Lager, Spaten Optimator, Warsteiner Pilsner, Warsteiner Isenbeck, and Weihenstephaner Hefe Weisse.

As for the food, the four of us decided we’d all order something different so we could try a bit of everything. The four dishes we ordered were kassler ripchen (a pork chop topped with a sauce made of apples, raisins, walnuts, and herbs), rouladen (a beef rollup filled with bacon, onions, mustard, and a pickle wedge topped with brown gravy), schnitzel (a breaded pork cutlet topped with lemon slices and served with a lemon dipping sauce), and—so we could try something non-German—fish and chips. The German dishes all came with sauerkraut and German potato salad (although I substituted spätzle noodles for my sauerkraut).

So how was it? Well, the beer was excellent! As usual, though, the food was just okay. The rouladen was everyone’s favorite because it was nice and flavorful. How could it not be? It contains a pickle, bacon, and mustard! The kassler ripchen was fine, although it was basically just a pork chop. Nothing too special. The schnitzel was shockingly bland, rather tasteless for a breaded and fried piece of pork. The spätzle noodles were tasty, though. As for the fish and chips, it was fish and chips. ’Nuff said.

Even though I’m never blown away by the food at the Rathskeller, I find myself going back a few times a year to soak in the atmosphere and drink some good beer. If you’re in Indianapolis for a short time, the restaurant is certainly worth a visit—to see what the city was like at the turn of the 19th century and raise a pint, if nothing else. In nice weather they even have an awesome outdoor biergarten that includes two bars and a band shell that often hosts live entertainment in the summer.

The Rathskeller on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 28, 2011

Chef Mike's Charcoal Grill

Both inside and outside, Chef Mike’s Charcoal Grill looks pretty much like your typical American pub complete with gigantic TVs showing sports, an expansive bar, lots of booths, and a smattering of tables. What sets Chef Mike’s apart from other bars, however, is the food. All the meat is fresh, never frozen, and everything is prepared on a large charcoal grill. In addition, they make all the food from scratch—even the fries and the buns.

As you’d expect from a place with the words “charcoal grill” in its name, the menu consists mainly of burgers, steaks, chops, and seafood. There are some interesting choices, however, including a Joseph Decuis Wagyu burger, a red devil burger (with jalapeños, Havarti cheese, and hot sauce), a pizza burger, and the Big Burger (a 3-lb burger that serves 8-12 people and must be ordered 8 hours in advance). They also offer grilled pizzas and an assortment of non-burger sandwiches (including a Philly cheese steak, a Reuben, and a grilled Portobello mushroom).

The full bar has an extensive assortment of craft beers on tap (Fat Tire and the like) including quite a few options from the Midwest and even some local brews (mainly Sun King). I ordered a New Holland Dragon’s Milk with my dinner, which I liked very much. It was thick, dark, and oak-y—and also packed quite a wallop. They also make mixed drinks, of course; I saw someone with a margarita.

As an appetizer, my friend and I decided to try the firecracker shrimp cocktail. When it came out, I was surprised to see that the shrimp were grilled, which is not what I usually expect from a shrimp cocktail. Still, I have to admit that it was delicious; the grilling really added a lot of flavor to the shrimp. The cocktail sauce was fine as well, although not quite as spicy as I like it.
For my entrée, I opted for the bar-b-q burger with potato salad while my friend went with the bacon, mushroom, and Swiss burger with fries. We were both quite pleased. My burger was excellent, perfectly cooked medium-rare with a splash of tangy bar-b-q sauce on top. I could have used a bit more of the sauce, actually. The potato salad was good as well and seemed lighter than potato salads at many places. My bud dug his burger, too, although he said his could have used just a touch more seasoning salt. He said the fries, which seemed coated or batter-dipped or something, were really tasty.

Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Chef Mike’s. And the staff was friendly and welcoming, too; I don’t know if they actually are one big family, but they certainly seemed like it.

One more thing, even though Chef Mike’s is set up like a bar, they do have an area designated for families, so you can definitely bring kids. As a matter of fact, kids under 6 eat free every day. Bonus!

Chef Mike's Charcoal Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

La Margarita (in Fountain Square)

Those of us who live near Fountain Square have become spoiled for choice over the past several years when it comes to delicious local eateries—especially those with an ethnic flavor. (I’m looking at you Naisa Pan-Asian Café, Santorini Greek Kitchen, and Siam Square.) So, when I heard that La Margarita Mexican restaurant was opening its second Indianapolis-area location in the Murphy Building, I started looking forward to welcoming another great restaurant to the neighborhood. I’ve never eaten at the La Margarita up north, but I’ve heard and read good things.

Which makes me sad to report that I didn’t really care for the place. I wish I had. Maybe they’re still finding their feet at this location? (They did just open last Thursday.) I don’t know. I just know I wasn’t impressed.

The exterior of the building isn’t yet complete (partially because of the ongoing Cultural Trail construction, I’m sure), so I’ll just talk about the inside. The decor’s not bad. The interior is spacious and open with some nice woodwork, and the well-stocked tequila bar—which comes complete with a giant, wooden agave sculpture—is neat-o. But then you come to the purple paint and the wall of gilt mirrors, which seemed a little too Pier 1 for my taste. Still, overall, the dining room is fine. Like the outside, the interior has kind of an unfinished quality, something I imagine will go away as they settle in to the new digs.

Right out the gate, our server was quite good, friendly and attentive. He told us about the beers they had on tap (all local stuff, which is fantastic) and brought us three different kinds of salsa: a tomato-y red, a watery verde, and an oddly creamy pico de gallo. I didn’t love any of them. None of them were particularly spicy or flavorful. The brews from Fountain Square Brewing Co. made it all good, though! I had the amber and my friend had the porter. We liked both of those.

As an appetizer, we decided to order some guacamole. The dish came out almost immediately after we ordered it, which made me think that it might not be made to order. Even the presentation of the dip left something to be desired; the guacamole was just smeared across a white plate with a ring of tortilla chips stuck in it. The guacamole was okay at best, although it was kind of stringy like baba ghanoush. (Edit: Jon, the owner of La Margarita, assures me that the guacamole is fresh made. Mea culpa. And the tomatillos are what made the dip stringy.) I’ve had worse guacamole—usually from a plastic bag—but it didn’t hold a candle to the guac you can get at El Sol de Tala or Tex-Mex Taqueria.

As for La Margarita’s menu, it features many of the old Mexican mainstays such as fajitas, tacos, burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas, and so on. In an effort to try something a little different, I ordered the shrimp tequila (shrimp sautéed with jalapeños, avocados, cream, and spices in a tequila-based sauce) while my buddy went with the nopalitos (nopales in salsa verde with chunks of potato and pork carnitas).

Thankfully, the main part of my meal (the part with the shrimp and the peppers) was pretty dang good. It had flavor and even a little bit of heat. Unfortunately, the stuff that accompanied the shrimp on my plate was not so great. The Spanish rice was bland and mushy and the potatoes left me underwhelmed. And there was another blob of that stringy guacamole!
My friend liked the main part of his meal, too. His was supposed to come with tortillas, which, technically, it did; it came with two. And they were flour instead of corn. Overall, he said his meal was just okay, although it was far too wet and watery for his taste. As someone who is not usually a fan of nopales (too snotty), I gave his dish a try. Like he said, it was okay; surprisingly, the texture of the nopales didn’t bother me.

For dessert, our server told us that they could make either ice cream nachos (which don’t sound appealing to me) or fried ice cream. We declined and left the restaurant, more than half of our guacamole uneaten.

Look, I don’t want to sound too negative here. As someone with a vested interest in the Fountain Square area, I wanted to like La Margarita. I’ll have to give it another try in a couple of months when they’ve had time to settle in. At the very least, I want to go back to try a margarita or some tequila. I have faith in the management and staff that the restaurant will get better.

La Margarita on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sakura Japanese Restaurant

Sakura Japanese Restaurant has long been my favorite sushi place in the city, although it's too far north for me to get to very often. Luckily, I got there this past weekend, which made me realize how much I’d missed it.

If you’ve never been to Sakura before, you should know one thing—it is tiny. And it gets very busy on weekends. Okay, two things, then—it is tiny and it gets very busy on the weekends. Three things: it is tiny, it gets very busy on the weekends, and they do take reservations. So, if you’re planning to go for dinner on a Friday night, call ahead.

When we decided to stop in late last Friday, we had not called ahead; thankfully, there were just four or five people ahead of us, so we only had to stand around for 15-20 minutes for a table. Not bad. When we finally did take our seats, the server brought us some warm, moist towels to wipe our hands—a ritual I always find relaxing.

Sakura has a full menu (including a lunch section) featuring Japanese dishes such as kabayaki (broiled eel in a special sauce), yakiniku (thinly sliced beef and onions sautéed in soy sauce), and chicken teriyaki on top of their fairly extensive list of sushi rolls and nigiri. For this meal, my friend and I decided to start with an appetizer of spinach gomaae (boiled spinach topped with a sesame dressing). What a great way to start your meal, light and flavorful! Of course, I love spinach and sesame seeds, so I’m an easy mark here. We also each had a bowl of miso soup, which was umami-licious. After we finished our appetizer and our soup, we decided to order sushi, opting for two soft shell crab rolls, one shrimp tempura roll, a Hoosier roll (tuna, avocado, and spicy sauce), and a New York roll (crab and avocado). Yeah, we ordered a couple of rolls too many. But that’s okay because the food was so good that I asked our server to pack the leftovers in a to-go box, took them home, and then had them as a midnight snack! Sakura twice in one day. What could be better?

One final note, the servers here can sometimes seem a little... severe to me. They’re not rude or anything, just not particularly friendly. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, I don’t know. In any case, I never take their occasional brusqueness personally.

Sakura Japanese on Urbanspoon