Monday, November 29, 2010

Hoaglin to stay, please.

There are a lot of places to eat on Mass Ave, but I’ve only tried about half of them thanks to Hoaglin To Go Café & Marketplace; whenever I’m within a three block radius of this place I am nearly always lured inside by its siren song (otherwise known as “the promise of a bacon-and-egg salad sandwich”).

But let’s start with breakfast. First off, Hoaglin To Go has the best bacon in town, hands-down. It is thick-cut and applewood-smoked. Yum. Best of all, if you order it crispy, it actually comes crispy! My favorite breakfast dish, though, is the homestyle bruléed oatmeal served with sweet cream butter and brown sugar. “Homestyle?” My mom never made oatmeal like that! The pancakes here are good, too, although eating a full stack is just too much for my poor belly. The daily breakfast specials are usually quite tasty. They almost always offer the country scramble (which consists of buttermilk biscuits and scrambled eggs buried under sausage gravy and cheddar cheese), which is awesome, even if it does kind of look like something you’d get at Le Peep. The “Big O” (their name for the omelette of the day) is quite often filled with good stuff; I especially like it when chili is involved. A rotating variety of quiches are available as well, so if you’re a quiche fan, you can’t go wrong here. One breakfast downside – the coffee at Hoaglin To Go is kind of disappointing. Oh, it’s alright, I suppose, but their Wild Horse Creek coffee pales in comparison to Hubbard & Cravens. I always specify the Earth & Sky variety (the milder blend) because the Black Lightning is way too dark for me. Also, it would be nice if the restaurant kept a couple copies of The Indianapolis Star lying around for breakfast patrons to share. As it is, if you want to read anything besides Up Down Town or The Word with your morning meal (and I can’t say I’d recommend reading either of those), you’ll have to remember to carry it in yourself.

Which brings us to lunchtime and my favorite item on the menu, the rather dramatically named “Bacon & Eggs - The Sandwich.” I feel like it needs an exclamation point after its name. “Bacon & Eggs - The Sandwich!” As I mentioned above, the bacon here really is good. When you pair that bacon with “Indy’s best egg salad,” you get culinary alchemy undreamt of since peanut butter met jelly. And the chicken salads are all good, too. There are usually three available, although the curried one is probably my favorite. (Its neon yellow color is just a bonus.) They used to have an autumn chicken salad that had walnuts and dried cranberries in it that I loved, but they did away with that variety. The bread here is quality, but it can sometimes be a little jagged for my mouth (I’m so sensitive), so I usually order my sandwiches as wraps. The sole exception to that rule is the BMLT (bacon, mozzarella, lettuce, and tomato), another of my favorites. Eating the BMLT as a wrap just seems somehow… wrong. So, on the days when I order that sandwich, I willingly face the terror of sharp bread. As for the side dishes, I tend to stick with the potato chips. I know, I know, potato chips as a side seems kind of “meh” at a place like this, but the other sides haven’t wowed me either. I tried their asparagus-tomato-blue cheese salad once, and really didn’t care for it. It was bitter and bland and certainly not worth the $2.75 up-charge.

Do be advised that the café is pretty small – and sometimes there are quite a few people walking around ordering to-go dishes from the deli area. I’d say the dining area is cozy on the best of days and cramped on the worst. Don’t even bother to come here on a football Sunday (unless you eat breakfast early) because you’ll invariably have to wait in line behind a crowd of people in blue shirts. The interior design of the place is trendy and contemporary – it reminds me of places I’ve eaten in New York and Chicago – although the owner's taste in art tends toward the elongated-stick-figures-painted-over-floral-patterns variety. Those paintings are not really my thing, although a lot of people in Indy seem to dig on stuff like that. The servers are hit and miss as well. They have several who are excellent and on-the-ball, but there are one or two who (although very nice people, I’m sure) are just not very good at their jobs. Also, as alluded to earlier, prices are a bit on the steep side.

Hoaglin To Go Cafe & Marketplace on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are all gardens in Italy this tasty?

Iozzo’s Garden of Italy has become one of my favorite lunch spots over the past year or so. Located just south of Shapiro’s in the same historic building that used to house the late, lamented Café at Ray, this Italian restaurant already had quite a bit of history behind it’s name when it opened in 2009. The original Iozzo’s restaurant (a downtown hotspot in the 1930s) was owned and operated by the owner of the current iteration’s great grandfather. Iozzo’s Garden of Italy seeks to honor the original restaurant by taking inspirations and recipes from it. Based on the quality of the food served at Iozzo’s Garden of Italy, I would imagine that the original is, indeed, honored.

Having eaten lunch at Iozzo’s Garden of Italy more times than I can count, I think I’ve achieved my goal of sampling every dish on the menu. I can die happy now. My favorites are the lasagna (topped with both a red and a white sauce), the orzo portabella (stuffed with mushroom-y goodness), the chicken Parmesan sandwich (thick and juicy), and the fettuccini Alfredo with shrimp (simply delicious). A few dishes have disappointed me, although they’re in the minority. I didn’t care for the cheese ravioli, for instance, because it’s stuffed with smoked mozzarella and I don’t like the flavor of smoke. I’m also not overly fond of the pizzas here (I think it’s the crust I don’t like), although judging by the number of them that I usually see dotting the tables of my fellow diners, I think I’m in the minority on that one. Most dishes come with a small house salad, which is fresh and tasty, especially when paired with the house balsamic vinaigrette. The daily specials are almost always a hit as well, helping to expand the menu for regulars like me. On my last visit, the special was a crab risotto that was creamy, cheesy, crabby, and perfectly cooked. Iozzo’s Garden of Italy also features a full bar for all of you drunkards out there. The bar serves a wide variety of wine and beer, of course, as a well as a selection of specialty mixed drinks.

Thankfully, the appeal of the restaurant doesn’t begin and end with the delicious food. The service is uniformly good and the staff friendly. The dining room is upscale and classy with exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, white tablecloths, blown-glass light fixtures, candles on the tables, and so forth. The walls are decorated with oversized black-and-white vintage images of members of the Iozzo family as well as the original Iozzo’s restaurant. It’s a cozy and welcoming environment that makes me want to curl up and eat a bowl of spaghetti. When the weather’s nice, there are also two options for al fresco dining – on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant or in the beautiful, walled-in garden behind the restaurant. The garden is choice number 1, obviously, but the sidewalk tables do have their appeal as well. In fact, on a couple of occasions I’ve stopped by just to sit out in front of the restaurant and sip a cappuccino. It’s very Soprano’s. Without the killing and cussing, of course.

Iozzo's Garden of Italy on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 15, 2010

Patachou (Gesundheit!) on the Park

When a foolish former mayor of Indianapolis gave Simon Property Group half of one of the city's most beautiful public parks as a spot for their corporate headquarters a few years back, I was ticked. Still, at least Simon’s monument to Americans’ love of cheesy shopping malls provided a spot for a downtown Patachou. That makes the sacrifice of Indy green space on the altar of Corporate America hurt a little less, doesn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t, but Patachou on the Park serves up one hell of a breakfast anyway. In fact, going to the restaurant and getting an omelette and some coffee has become something of a Sunday morning ritual for me. So, what keeps me coming back to Patachou despite my lingering irritation about losing a large chunk of our public park to Simon? Three things: the food, the staff, and the atmosphere.

For me, the food at Patachou is all about breakfast, specifically the omelettes. All five of their Patachou namesake omelettes are good, although the Hippie with a Benz is far-and-away my favorite. Stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and feta cheese, the Hippie with a Benz is my omelette dream come true (even if I did think it was called the “Hippie with the Bends” for the first year or so that I ate here). One word of warning regarding the omelettes – a couple of my friends really dislike the omelettes here, saying that they are thin and watery. I disagree, obviously, but because I’ve heard this complaint from more than one person, I suppose it bears mentioning. The kitchen also offers a specially priced omelette of the day each day, but those are very rarely appealing, nearly always featuring the most tasteless turkey sausage that I’ve ever had the misfortune to put into my mouth. Stay away from the turkey sausage! Stick to the namesake omelettes! I did recently discover the broken yolk sandwich with bacon and avocado, which is challenging the Hippie with a Benz’s hold on my stomach. The self-serve coffee at Patachou is delicious as well. I tend to try whatever crazy flavored kind is on offer (cinnadoodle, banana cream pie, chocolate fudge, etc.), but most of my friends stick to the non-flavored stuff, which they say is quite good. As a sweet counterpoint to my omelette, I always choose the cinnamon toast as my side. Yes, I know that cinnamon toast is something I can make at home, but the way Patachou does it – topping thick, pillowy slices of bread with loads of melty butter, cinnamon, and sugar – is exceptional. One of my friends actually asks for extra cinnamon/sugar, which is brought to him in a bowl so he can really go crazy. Unfortunately, the lunch menu here isn’t really my bag. Their chicken salad is kind of bland and their egg salad pales in comparison to Hoaglin To Go’s. My default lunch order has become the ham and brie wrap, which is pretty tasty. Thankfully, they serve breakfast all day, so it’s not as if I’m ever forced to eat off their lunch menu. If you do go for lunch, steer clear of the side of lightly dressed field greens. I ordered the salad once and felt like I was eating a pile of bitter grass. They do have a delicious tomato artichoke soup, though, and their deserts are uniformly good – especially the carrot cake.

The wait staff here is great from top to bottom. In the years that I’ve been eating here, I’ve never had a complaint about a host or server. On the one or two times that there has been a mistake with my order, my server has always taken care of it immediately and with no attitude. Now that I’m a regular, I know most of the servers by name and always enjoy catching up with them – when they have time for small talk, that is! They're often too busy.

As for the atmosphere, it’s sophisticated but not stuffy. The walls are all painted in warm colors and the modern furniture is comfy. The tables feature real flowers in bud vases – always a nice touch for a Sunday morning. Best of all, the restaurant rotates the art along the back wall, featuring the work of a variety of local artists. In general, my fellow diners are a mellow bunch of downtowners just chilling out/recovering from their Saturday night. Things can get a little tricky in the autumn, though, thanks to the Colts. On home football game days, the clientele at the restaurant is entirely different and the place gets crowded very early (don’t bother coming after 10:00). Parking, always a problem, is impossible on home game days, too.

So, good food, great staff, nice atmosphere. What more could you want from a breakfast spot? Well, I suppose you could want your public park back, but I think that ship has sailed.

UPDATE: The interior of Patachou on the Park has been changed. Gone are the warm colors that I liked so well, replaced by grays and blacks. It looks more like a night club now and less like a cozy restaurant. They also seem to have stopped displaying local art, opting instead for generic prints and dozens and dozens of "reviews" all framed and hung side by side in rows - kind of like the proclamations by that mean Head Mistress lady in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Obviously, I'm not a fan of the updates. The food is still pretty much the same, but the new Corporate look has really turned me off.

Patachou on the Park on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Loft Restaurant at Trader’s Point Creamery

Having grown up in a small town surrounded by farmland, I sometimes get an urge to ditch Indianapolis’ semi-bustling downtown area and return to the quieter parts of Indiana. To get to any real rural scenery, however, you’ve got to drive for 45 minutes to an hour away from the city on an interstate highway. Fortunately, the area surrounding Trader’s Point Creamery presents a reasonable facsimile of the country – and it’s just 15 to 20 minutes northwest of downtown.

Hidden down a quiet, shady road just minutes from I-465, Trader’s Point Creamery’s rustic setting is the first thing you’ll appreciate about the Loft Restaurant, although it probably won’t be the last. The restaurant is housed in a converted three-story barn surrounded by acres of pastures and mooing cows. After heading through the little milk/cheese shop on the first floor, you climb up a set of rough-hewn stairs to reach the dining room, which is located, appropriately enough, in the loft of the barn. The white table clothes on the tables contrast with the exposed wooden beams and soaring ceiling, making you wonder what, exactly, you’re in for.

Upon being seated, my friends and I ordered iced teas, which were served to us in Ball jars. I’m a sucker for that…. Our server was pleasant and attentive, checking on us a couple of times to see if we were ready to order our lunches or if we needed more time with the menu. The lunch menu was not that extensive (made up mainly of salads and sandwiches), so it didn’t take us long to make our choices. I ordered the lunch special, which was a 100% grass-fed beef burger topped with blue cheese and bacon. One of my friends ordered a burger as well, although he chose to have avocado on it, and my other friend ordered the grilled cheese sandwich which was composed of whole-wheat bread grilled with raw milk Cheddar cheese. All three of us chose fresh cottage cheese as our side. Hey, we were at a creamery! What were we going to get? Potato chips?

After we ordered, we waited. And waited. It was kind of a long wait, to be honest. But we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be, so we just chilled out, sipped our teas, and examined the wheels of cheese stacked behind glass. When the food finally did come, we all agreed that it was worth the delay. I had ordered my burger medium-rare, and I was glad I did. It was delicious! And the blue cheese was generous and tasty. My compatriots scarfed their sandwiches down as well. The grilled cheese looked amazing, toasted to a golden brown with loads of Cheddar oozing out the side. The cottage cheese side dish was good, too, but its richness was a bit much. A little dab’ll do ya. None of us were able to finish his/her portion. In the future, it would be wiser to only have one person at the table order the cottage cheese and then share with the others.

Having finished our lunches, we decided that we could not leave the restaurant without first visiting the dairy bar for milkshakes. Two of us ordered chocolate shakes made with white milk and one of us ordered the sickly indulgent chocolate/chocolate shake. As always, the milkshakes were fantastic. One of my friends described the flavor of his shake as tasting “like grass and fat,” which is pretty apt. That description was a compliment, by the way! While I was slurping my shake, I even sucked up a couple of chunks of milk fat. Mmmmm…. Chewy milkshakes….

As a whole, I enjoyed my meal at the Loft Restaurant. The food was good, albeit a little expensive, and the server for our meal was fine. No complaints there. And of course the ambiance was nice. There’s nothing like eating in a big old barn to bring you back to your roots. My only complaint would be the kids who work at the dairy bar. I say “kids” because they all looked like they were in high school to me. Although the milkshakes they made were fantastic, their demeanor was a little too “youthful” for me. I felt like I was being served by teenage girls at a Dairy Queen instead of employees of a nice restaurant. Also, the prices for the milkshakes are completely outrageous. Don’t get me wrong, though – they are certainly worth the high price for an occasional splurge.

The restaurant is open for lunch every day, but they also serve dinner, Saturday breakfast, and Sunday brunch. I’ve only been there for lunch, but I would like to try the dinner menu soon.

Loft Restaurant at Traders Point Creamery on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 1, 2010

Stick this in your Boca.

On a recent visit to Cincinnati, one of my friends and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Boca, which we had heard was one of the best restaurants in the city. The restuarant has valet parking out front, but being the can-do sort of people we are (not to mention a little cheap), we parked a few blocks away in the surrounding neighborhood and walked. Because we had reservations, we were seated almost immediately, despite the fact that it was a busy night. The restaurant itself is very nice, classy and warm, but I won’t lie – there is a little bit of a “snoot factor” going on with some of the clientele. It seemed like a lot of the other folks there were trying a bit too hard to look and act rich, which can be a turn-off. And it’s not a young place. Most of the diners were over 50 with the face lift scars to prove it.

Thankfully, the snoot factor fell to zero when our server showed up. He was very down-to-earth, not to mention extremely knowledgeable about the food. After he explained to us what dishes were on the 7-course tasting menu that evening, my friend and I decided to splurge and go with that, although we did mention that we were a little disappointed that Boca’s signature grilled Caesar salad was missing from the tasting menu that night. Our server gave us a wink and said he’d see what he could do. A few minutes later he showed up with two small plates of the grilled Caesar salads, making our 7-course meal into an 8-course one.

So, the 8 course in order, then!

Bonus course: Grilled Caesar salad consisting of whole romaine lettuce fire-grilled with a balsamic garlic/anchovy emulsion and parmigiano reggiano cheese served with a side of grilled bread and olive oil. Boy, am I glad we mentioned to our server that wanted to try this because it was delicious! The entire, rectangular salad was actually grilled over an open flame, giving the outside layer of lettuce a slight char. The balsamic garlic/anchovy emulsion was light, but gave the salad that salty/anchovy-y bite that every good Caesar salad needs. The bread served alongside the salad was fine, but the olive oil was really outstanding, fresh and flavorful with a bit of a fruity aftertaste. We asked the waiter what brand it was and he told us Divina. We told him we loved it, and he laughed and said that everyone loved it.

1st course: Yellowtail crudo with diced avocado and cucumber brunoise, topped with micro wasabi sprouts. I’m usually not much of a raw fish fan, but this crudo was quite nice. The texture, one of the things that can put me off on raw fish, was good, the fish fresh and firm.

2nd course: Pan-seared scallops on a bed of caramelized Brussels sprouts and greens drizzled with brown butter truffle vinaigrette and topped with parmigiano reggiano. I love scallops, but in this dish, those little mollusks played second fiddle to the Brussels sprouts. The Brussels sprouts, one of Boca’s signature dishes, were simply amazing. They were sweet but not too sweet and melted in your mouth like butter. What’s a scallop?

3rd course: Quail, rabbit, and pistachio mortadella-filled tortellini with mushroom and boar ragout. Having grown up in rural Indiana, I am quite used to eating fresh, wild game (including rabbits and quail), so I was really looking forward to discovering how a gourmet restaurant would dress up those rather rustic ingredients. I was disappointed with this dish. The flavor was okay, but I found the dish a little bland overall. I actually had to add salt, which is unusual for me. This was easily my least favorite of the courses.

4th course: Seared wild striped bass served with sautéed spinach and leeks, pommes anna with piccata sauce, and caper fruit. I tend to be an easy mark for anything served with a piccata sauce. Having said that, this wasn’t my favorite dish on the menu. Maybe I’m just not a fish guy? Anyway, I believe this was the first time I’ve eaten caper fruit rather than pickled caper buds. I kind of missed the salty little buds, to be honest.

5th course: Crisped pork belly on bianco risotto with bordelaise sauce. I think I’m starting to love pork belly. It’s just so flavorful! And nice and crispy is my favorite way to eat it. This pork belly was cooked well and the risotto was delicious, not too firm but not too mushy.

6th course: Wood-grilled lamb shank on greens and lamb cassoulet. The lamb was good, but I’m just not a huge lamb fan. Oh, and for those not in the know, “cassoulet” is just a fancy word for cooked beans. Not too exciting.

7th course: Ah, dessert! I was quite pleased that a dessert trio of mascarpone cheesecake, flourless chocolate torte, and soup-spoon crème brûlée was on the menu that night. The more sweet stuff to try, the better. The stand-out dessert for me was the mascarpone cheesecake, which was rich but not heavy. The flourless chocolate torte was good, too, but I’ve had cakes like it at many other restaurants. As for the crème brûlée, it was fairly typical as well, but the presentation (it was served in a large soup spoon) was interesting.

At the end of the meal, our server brought us a little container of olive oil to go because we had been such fans of the Divina brand. He explained that you could buy Divina at Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati, but that we might not be able to find it in Indy, so it was his gift to us.

Overall, I really enjoyed my evening at Boca. The food was delicious, the waiter was great, and the ambiance was nice. It’s not the kind of place that I’ll be rushing back to, simply because the price is a bit steep, but if you want to celebrate a special night or if you’re just passing through Cincinnati and are looking for a really good meal, you can’t go wrong at Boca.

Boca on Urbanspoon