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A new kind of proving ground


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Indianapolis is still shaking off some of the shrapnel of being the nation's number-one market for chain restaurant testing. It had the effect of painting the whole city as one where the citizens love sameness, both in their lives and on their plates. The truth is far from the myth, as we've experienced with the explosion of chefs serving up complex flavors in Fletcher Place and around the city.

As a Chefs' Night Off event, noted Boston chef Brandon Baltzley, most famous for his love of foraged and fermented foods, immensely complex flavor layering and an appetite for post-service self-destruction, came to town to judge a cooking competition held at Dig IN. The winner was Restaurant Tallent's Michael Blagg, which is no surprise given the caliber of food and talent that comes out of their kitchen.

The bonus in all this, though, was that Baltzley stayed to cook a dinner with three of Indianapolis's best chefs, Jonathan Brooks, Abbi Merriss and Carlos Salazar. Each chef did a course of their own, and then they paired up for a final two courses. Nourish provided the setting and Eli Laidlaw provided the hors d'oeuvres. As you'd expect, it was outstanding. The range of dishes played like a really great record, each leaving a unique impression but playing nice with the one before and after. Somehow, things got even better when the chefs paired up. Brooks' and Baltzley's cheese course presented as a Twinkie was the perfect mix of Brooks high/low thing and Baltzley's gift for harmonizing funky foods. Merriss and Salazar's foie torchon-topped peach cake is now in my top 5 death row desserts.

What surprised me, though, was seeing a more finished version of Baltzley's dish on the Ribelle menu a few days later, the huitlacoche linguine, fermented clam, and a broth made of roasted melons and kombu dashi, with just a sprinkle of basil on top. This dish was a bit transcendent for me, a recent Orthodox convert to the church of fermented foods. There was some magic in the interplay between the gentle sweetness of the warm, roasted watermelon broth, the salty, pillowy texture and taste of the clam, the comforting bite of the noodle and the subtle green sweetness of the basil. In the "finished" version, the huitlacoche had been transformed into a tortellini with the corn fungus smoothly incorporated. But there it was in bold print on the Ribelle menu.

It got me thinking: why can't Indianapolis become a hub for experimental and fine dining "testing"? After all, if Hoosiers will like your bowl of fungus-infected corn noodles and rotten clam, the clientele of your East- or West-coast restaurant probably will, too. We're still small and developing enough that this current atmosphere of friendly competition could continue well into the future. In the meantime, Indiana diners could get a taste of trends and ideas long before they crash on our landlocked shores two years after the coasts, as is our Midwest tradition.

We have one of the lowest costs of living here with some of the best produce, meat and poultry in the nation. There's no reason not to become to the food industry what Iowa City is to the world of writers: a temporary proving ground where big names come to bounce around ideas and little guys get plenty of exposure to different styles and personalities of chef.

Now we have an opportunity to become to the food world what we always have been to sports: a collection of gleaming courts and fields just waiting for the next genius play.


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