restaurant reviews for enRoute magazine
THE JAZZ COOKER, Indianapolis, Indiana.
There is a person behind this restaurant. She is fictional but strong: a showy Southern Belle whose bloom is waning. She doesn't take herself, or anything, too seriously; smokes long cigarettes in longer holders, and hims to herself. She is widowed, and got rich that way. Her laughter is smoky and infectious.
Somehow she got from New Orleans to Indianapolis. Arrived, she discovered Broadripple Village. This is the closest Indiana gets to Europe, dotted with cafes and curios. A white clapboard house within was clearly meant for her, boasting a big sunny patio, a broad veranda, and cozy visiting rooms.
This is where she holds court now, in rooms swaying to live jazz and the buzz of streamer-bedecked ceiling fans. Not all of the chairs match, but the linen is clean, and the atmosphere is ethereal and unusual enough to be the setting for a lot of Cajun dreams.
This Belle clearly loves to eat. The food, draped with shiny, colourful plastic jewels, is rich and hot. The gumbo is thick, smoky and damn good, rolling its parts of sausage, chicken, vegetables and rice together into one lusty whole. The blackened chicken is tender and friendly, and its mustard sauce does it justice with a nose-widening kick. Bring along an appetite or two - the main courses are almost laughable in size. Or pick something you'll enjoy again, and just say yes when the waitress asks if you want to take the rest home.
We ate Jambalaya, Cajun pasta and Panéed Catfish for days, quite literally. We hardly suffered though: the Jambalaya is tangy and sharp, and even the mild version has, as the waitress put it, 'personality'. The pasta, the least colourful of the dishes, is far from bland, and makes a nice chaser for that character.
Dirty rice here is served swimming in a pool of clarified butter - this one's for those with buttercup-yellow chins only. Beans and rice are very simply that, no costumes. One might be tempted to order the beans or rice as filler; one is likely to find oneself fuller. Besides, one can only carry home so many styrofoam containers without guilt.
The Belle stocks a good bar, and hides it behind a painted screen during the day, so that one is left to guess at the debauchery that goes on at night. I imagine wavering sing-alongs, wild laughter and pure adult fun. The wine list id good, but this food calls more for cold frothy beer. More imagery, living vicariously the hot life of New Orleans, appreciating a good sweat brought on by spice and life.
Dinner for two is $30-$40 US, drinks and tips included. (925 East Westfield Blvd, in Broadripple Village, Indianapolis, Indiana. (317) 253-2883. Open Mon - Thurs 5 to 10; Fri 5 to 11; Sat 12-3, 5-11; Sunday Brunch 11-3, and supper 5-9. Live bands most nights. No non-smoking section. Wheelchairs can easily be accommodated. Reservations are a good idea.)
THE UPTOWN, Louisville, Kentucky.
Nice, nice, nice. Not boring or syrupy nice, but nobody is asking much of you here. You don't have to have a really fantastic time, or absolutely adore your food. The pressure is off. You don't even have to talk much - the tables are arranged to facilitate eavesdropping. (...she's pregnant with her seventh baby. Her what?... may cause cancer if ... well, I heard her say that she liked me ... but what doesn't these days...)
There is a subtle brasserie style sneaking around here, quiet enough that you don't need to put on a loud French accent. The wine list supports this theme well, with a wide variety of good wines by the glass or bottle. The food, however, strays all across Europe, and even down south a-ways.
The menu, on first glance, seems surprisingly assertive for such a demure little place. So much so that you wonder if they'll go all the way. Chipotle Rellenos? Do they even know how to pronounce that? And yet they arrive, aggressive peppers stuffed with even more aggressive ones, decorated simply with cheese, and attractively with green and red salsas. Each has a distinctive and complementary flavour, one sweet, one tart, and both satisfying, if slightly electrifying.
Duck ravioli sounds a bit ambitious, but is actually not drowned in its own cleverness. The pasta is tender, and crammed full of duck meat and cheese; the sauce is delicate and clean. The Honey Pecan Chicken is rich, copious, rich, accompanied by unassuming vegetables, rich and tasty.
If you want a spinach salad, and you probably do, just ask them to tone down the soy sauce a bit. And if you want any other substitutions, don't be afraid to ask. In fact, it somehow seems to endear one. And, as always in America, remember that taking the food you couldn't possibly finish home with you isn't a crime - in fact, they're trying to make it a law.
For the cocktail or barstool set, the Uptown is well-equipped. Long, wooden, well-stocked and dimly lit, this bar is a great place to hang out, flit through or use as therapy: the bartender just looks like a good listener. There are also deep, puffy booths to snuggle or squish into.
Dinner for two is $30 - $40 US, with wine. (1624 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, Kentucky. (502) 458-4212. Open Mon - Thurs 11:30 - 11:00. Fri & Sat 11:30 - 12:00. No non-smoking section. Wheelchair access. Reservations don't exist.)