Monday, October 25, 2010

No need to dye these Rootz.

Square Rootz Deli, the latest eatery to open in Fountain Square, has been serving lunch and dinner for a few months, which means it's ripe for reviewing! Located directly across Prospect St. from the Fountain Square Theatre Building in the space formerly occupied by Pulse Magazine, the deli is easy to find. Just look for the yellow sign sandwiched between Maria's Pizza and The Hero House. See what I did there? "Sandwiched"? Because it's a sandwich shop? Yeah, moving on....

Stepping inside Square Rootz will probably make you feel like you've been invited to a backyard tiki party at one of your cooler friends' houses. The tables are covered with mismatched plastic tablecloths featuring flamingos and mai tais, and the ceiling is draped with strings of clear party bulbs. The walls are painted with retro-style diamonds, overlapping in a variety of bright colors, and vintage vinyl albums are for sale along one wall. The overall feel of the deli is vibrant and funky. Plus there's local art on display. What could be better than that?

But I'm not here (just) for the decor. What about the food, baby? If you were a fan of either of the previous restaurants with which owner Jeff Reuter was involved (Joe Reuzar’s Deli and J.S. Reutz Cafe), you'll see some similarities at Square Rootz - and that' a good thing. The deli serves a wide variety of sandwiches (with names like "Uncle Larry" and "Grahamwich") all made from high quality ingredients and served with your choice of a side dish or potato chips. You can create your own sandwiches any way you want them, too, of course. There are also hot lunches/dinners on order plus house-made desserts. And, of course, Jeff's famous meatloaf is always available. If you're waxing nostalgic for grade school, you can even get a "school meal" served on a lunchroom tray with white or chocolate milk.

I've been to Square Rootz twice for lunch now. The first time, I ordered "Dustin's BLT" wrap, which was stuffed to the gills with thick strips of bacon, fresh tomatoes, and crisp lettuce, and then held together by spinach dip. It was delicious. On my most recent trip, I couldn't resist ordering the "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses" sandwich (mozzarella cheese, provolone cheese, apple slices, and honey mustard dressing grilled on whole wheat bread), mainly because of the name. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a good play on words. I was an English major! As for the sandwich, I'm not usually a fan of combining apples with cheese, but it really worked for me here. The apples were sliced nice and thin, which made them almost taste like another kind of (sweet) cheese. I'm also not a big dressing-on-sandwiches guy, but I was okay with the tangy honey mustard; still, next time I order the cheese and apple sandwich, I'll probably ask them to hold the dressing. The highlight of my second visit was the slice of house-made almond cake that I scarfed down in about 10 seconds flat. The cake was super-moist with just the right amount of icing. It went well with the bottle of Boylans Black Cherry Soda I ordered, too.

I'll definitely be heading back to Square Rootz to eat my way through the lunch menu. Jeff says that he will hosting evenings of live music as well, so I guess I'm going to have to stop in for dinner, too. He also hints that he may be bringing back the infamous "Nancy Drew" sandwich, the ingredients of which change on a daily basis. I always love a good mystery.

Square Rootz Deli on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 18, 2010

I've found my Niche. It's in St. Louis.

Even though it was over a year ago now, my meal at Niche in St. Louis still ranks as one of the best dining experiences of my life. Everything just came together perfectly, providing me with a meal I’ll never forget.

Located along cozy Sidney Street in the historic Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis, Niche presents itself well right from the word “go.” The ambiance in the restaurant itself is warm and surprisingly unpretentious (given that it’s a “fine dining” sort of place), and the staff is friendly and welcoming. I had made reservations through OpenTable, and the hostess was ready for my friend and me as soon as we arrived, showing us to our table promptly.

We managed to sample a wide variety of dishes over the evening, and not a single one disappointed. We started with a snack of cheese bread, which was the least glamorous thing we ate all evening. But what can you expect? It’s cheese bread! We then moved on to the appetizers themselves, ordering pan-fried pig’s head and sweetbreads. A pig’s head and calf glands may not sound particularly appetizing to less-adventurous eaters, but I can assure you that both appetizers were delicious. I had never had sweetbreads before, and they were melt-in-your-mouth amazing. As we were finishing our dishes, our server informed us that the chef was going to send us an extra appetizer of Vitello tonnato as well and some palate-cleansing lemongrass-chamomile sorbet as a way of saying thanks for making the trip from Indy. We were floored by his generosity and happily scarfed down both treats.

For our mains, my friend ordered the pork duo with crispy pork belly and I ordered the seared scallops. My scallops were great, but I ended up being a little jealous of the pork. The one bite of crispy pork belly that I sampled made me want more! For desert, I ordered a scoop of the house-made horchata ice cream and a scoop of the house-made vanilla malt ice cream, both of which rocked my world. My friend had the liquid chocolate cake with house-made “Orange Julius” ice cream topped with Pop Rocks. The cake was rich and moist and the Pop Rocks helped enliven the tasty orange ice cream by sizzling in your mouth with each bite.

Basically, everything was awesome. Every dish came out perfectly timed and prepared with little wait between the courses. Our waitress was on-the-ball and quick-with-the-banter, which I always like. The chef even came out to our table at the end of our meal to ask us how we had enjoyed our food.

When the bill arrived, we were surprised at how reasonable the price was, given the artistry of the food. According to Niche’s website, it looks like they are currently running a special where you can get a three-course meal for just $40. I really must think of a reason to visit St. Louis soon…. Heck, I suppose eating at Niche is reason enough!

Niche on Urbanspoon

Wishing the best for Santorini Greek Kitchen!

Given last week’s devastating fire at Santorini Greek Kitchen, one of my favorite places to eat in Fountain Square, this might seem like a bad time to review the restaurant. Au contraire, mon frère! This is the perfect time to show my appreciation to the years of fattening food I’ve enjoyed at Santorini and to wish the owners, Jeanette and Taki, a speedy rebuild.

The first time I ever ate at Santorini was in 2001 or 2002, back when the restaurant was still in its “quaint” Shelby Street location. Since that first taste of their delicious gyro, I have found myself compelled to stop in once a month or so, which means that I’ve now sampled most of the menu. But let’s talk about their gyros first, since that is what drew me in 'lo those many years ago. They are – in a word shamelessly stolen from Will Ferrell/James Lipton’s interview of Alec Baldwin/Charles Nelson Riley – scrumtrulescent. The gyro meat (a combination of lamb and beef) is flavorful and never dry and is served atop a golden-brown, warm pita, lightly toasty on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside. They top the gyro with tomato, onions, and a tangy tzaziki sauce. You can get a Greek salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, onions, olives, and feta cheese dressed with oil and vinegar) with it, if you like, but I usually choose the fries. Now, I’m not a French fry guy, in general, so it’s really saying something that I pick the fries over the salad. Santorini’s fries are excellent, crispy and cooked to perfection.

After you’ve eaten the gyro a few times, you’ll probably want to broaden your Greek horizons a bit. As far as I can tell, you can’t go wrong at Santorini. The “half and half,” which consists of half a spanakopita (spinach pie) and half a tiropita (cheese pie) is great because you get to try both of their delicious pies without being totally overwhelmed by the ultra-rich cheese one. The pasticchio is an excellent choice as well, especially if you’re really hungry. It’s basically a Greek-style lasagna made with layers of pasta, seasoned ground beef, tomato sauce, and cheese. If you don’t mind dealing with chicken bones, chicken oregano is awesome, too. Even the spaghetti, which is topped with a red sauce and slices of their gyro meat, is worth a go; I’ve ordered it more than once.

As for appetizers, I will admit that the hummus here is not my favorite in Indy, but their baba ganoush more than makes up for that one deficit. Eggplant dishes can sometimes be, well, snotty, but the baba ganoush here has an excellent texture and is nicely spiced. And, of course, you can’t get away without ordering at least one plate of saganaki, the famous flaming goat cheese. Kids, especially, will love seeing the server light the cheese on fire, sending a fountain of flame toward the ceiling and prompting a hearty “Opa!” from the other diners.

I always like to end my meal at Santorini by sharing a warm plate of galaktabouriko (a desert that consists of sweet custard sandwiched between layers of phyllo dough and dusted with cinnamon) with my friends. Their baklava is tasty, too, of course, but I just can’t get away from the galaktabouriko. It tastes like the Greek version of good ole Hoosier sugar cream pie!

Writing this review has made me very hungry for Santorini’s brand of Greek food. I wish I could go there today for lunch, but, alas, it will be a few months before they’re up and running again. Let’s hope they’ve got the place back in shape before their annual Christmas Eve dinner!

UPDATE: Yay! Santorini Greek Kitchen is up and running again in their original Fountain Square location (rebuilt and refurbished, obviously). I went for dinner on their first week back, and I am happy to report that the reworked space is much brighter and seems more open. The food is as delicious as ever, of course.

Santorini Greek Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 11, 2010

Naisa Pan-Asian Café

I never thought that I liked Chinese food. Oh, I can choke down some Beef and Broccoli or Moo Shu Pork when forced to by friends (some friends), but I’ve never really enjoyed or craved the stuff. And don’t even get me started on the canned La Choy “Chicken Chow Mein” that my mom used to make us eat. I still have nightmares about those water chestnuts….

A little over a year ago, though, my perception of Chinese food changed. That’s when I first visited Naisa Pan-Asian Café shortly after it opened in Fountain Square. I’ve been a regular ever since. What keeps me coming back? Three things. The food, the people, and the atmosphere.

First, the food. Every dish is made from scratch and cooked to order. You won’t find any nasty day-old food kept warm under a heat lamp here. And Naisa offers quite a few dishes that you just can’t get at most Chinese places. Their Golden Sunrise, for example, is a combination of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, and scallions cooked together in a light sauce and then served in a lidded clay bowl with a side of rice. It is amazing. Seasonal dishes like the Dry Sautéed String Beans with Shrimp really pop, too, although I fear I’ve seen the last of the string beans for this year. If you like the old stand-by dishes, you can get most of them here as well, freshly made and tasty. General Tso’s Chicken, Garlic-Chili Chicken, Spring Rolls, and Seafood Cheese Wontons (Crab Rangoons) are all on the menu and delicious. My personal favorite appetizer is the Vegetable Dumplings. The spinach-infused dough is made fresh in house and then stuffed with a mix of carrots, cabbage, and other veggies. They are great fried, but steamed is good, too, if you’re trying to be healthy.

As for the people, well, they’re just good folks. Christina and her husband Andy are the heart and soul of the place. Christina is almost always out front greeting diners while Andy is usually in the back. They are Fountain Square residents, and Christina is always ready to swap a tale or two. They primarily employee students from Herron School of Art as their servers, which means there’s never a lack of personality from the waiters and waitresses, either. I’ve had quite a few excellent conversations about art history or indie rock while downing a bowl of Wonton Soup.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is stylish and laid back. If you remember the restaurant that occupied the building before, you’ll be shocked to find that the space is completely unrecognizable. Tall, dark, wooden furniture and red/orange walls set the tone, and the stained concrete floor carries the warmth downward. It’s clear that someone spent some time thinking about the overall design up front before a can of paint was opened. You can always count of seeing some interesting art from Herron students too, some from the servers themselves. I think it’s great that Christina gives the students a chance to have their work viewed by the public. In the not-too-distant future, Christina tells me that she has plans to build a raised, wooden area in the front window where diners will be able to sit on the floor while they eat. Sounds cool!

Naisa serves carry-out, but they no longer delivery. If you live reasonably close by and don’t feel like eating in, it is definitely worth it to call in your order and pick it up.

Let me leave you with two words: “bubble” and “tea.” I’ve been trying to convince Christina to serve bubble tea since the first week she opened, but she’s afraid there’s no market for it here in Indy. I recently discovered that there is a bubble tea shop at the Opry Mills Shopping Mall in Nashville, TN. If Nashville can support a bubble tea place, I’m sure we can as well! Once thirsty bikers, runners, and rollerbladers start whizzing by Naisa’s storefront on the Cultural Trail, they’re going to need refreshing beverages. I’m just sayin’.

Naisa Pan-Asian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito: The name’s a mouthful – and so are the sandwiches!

As a resident of the Fletcher Place neighborhood in downtown Indy, I make it my business to check out any and all restaurants that open in my neck of the woods. Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito, located at the intersection of College and Virginia, has been open for just around a month now, and I finally got around to giving it a spin last week. (By the way, for those of you not in the know, a torta is a Mexican-style sandwich.) All I can say is, “Welcome to Fletcher Place, Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito!”

As soon as you see this restaurant, you know it’s going to be fun. The exterior is painted with bright yellows and oranges, making it stand out against the rest of the red building. The colors carry through to the inside as well, where dance-y Spanish-language tunes greet you. The restaurant itself is small. Some might say cramped, but I prefer cozy. The owners are friendly and make you feel right at home, like one of the family. When you sit down they bring you a dish of spicy peanuts to snack on. They also bring bowls of salsa verde and pickled jalapeños, but those are to be used as condiments for whatever tortas or tacos (yes, they have tacos, too) you order.

Half of the tortas on the menu are named for famous people and the other half for countries. From the famous people’s side of the menu, we tried the Shakira (breaded steak, chorizo, and mozzarella cheese) and the Luis Miguel (ham, chorizo, and mozzarella cheese). I had heard of Shakira, but I had no idea who Luis Miguel was. (A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that he is a Mexican singer, producer, and songwriter.) From the countries’ side we tried the Cubana, which contains basically every item on the menu including a fried egg, a hot dog, and three kinds of cheese.

All three were delicious. All tortas include tomato, avocado, and jalapeños, unless you don't want any or all of those things. They are served on huge buns that are baked fresh every morning at a bakery on Washington St. As I said, they were all awesome, but the Cubana was my favorite. One of these suckers is more than enough! The melty cheese combined with the various meats and the egg and the avocado was simply amazing. I’m craving one right now! Even the hot dog (which is split down the middle and grilled) added to the deliciousness of the sandwich.

A cold beer would have been awesome with one of these spicy tortas, but the owner told me that they have no plans to serve alcohol. She said that some diners actually order their sandwiches, run next door to the Dugout tavern for a beer, and then come back to eat. Speaking of beverages, there is one other bonus to eating here – they serve bottled Mexican Cokes that are made with real sugar instead of corn syrup. Yum.

When I asked about the menu and why they decided to name some of the sandwiches after famous people, the owner explained that she and her husband used to own a torta shop in Chicago where famous folks actually used to eat. She hopes to cultivate that clientele here as well. Her first target is Helio Castroneves. If Helio knows a good sandwich from a Dancing with the Stars reunion show, then he’ll get his butt to Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito ASAP! C'mon, Helio. Do it for the children.

Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito on Urbanspoon