Peter George is in the forefront of a culinary trend that is sweeping this heartland city like a summer thunderstorm.
"We're beginning to define a Midwestern cuisine," says George, owner and manager of Peter's restaurant in Indianapolis. "This area of the country has wonderful fruits and vegetables, great beef and excellent poultry, and we're developing a cuisine featuring these local ingredients in innovative recipes."
In August, Indianapolis will become the focus of international attention when it hosts the Pan American Games, the second-largest amateur sporting event in the world next to the Olympics. Visitors will find an array of good restaurants offering a new version of Hoosier cooking.
Pieces of modern art adorn the plain white walls of Peter's, a few blocks southeast of the city's revitalized downtown.
In the fall of 1985 George opened the restaurant and recruited young Hoosier chef Tony Hanslits to create exciting menus using local ingredients.
No. 1 in Ducks
"We use fish from the Great Lakes," George says, "along with local Angus beef and Indiana-raised duck. Most people don't realize that Indiana raises more duck than any other state, and it's third in the country in the sale of veal."
In the summer months George hand-selects fresh produce from the Farmer's Market two blocks away, and during the winter he buys from a hothouse farm near Cleveland.
Dinner began with cold chicken tossed with a peanut butter sauce and sesame seeds and served with incredibly fresh, crisp julienne vegetables. Then came a light, puffy gourmet pizza with yellow tomatoes, Iowa white Cheddar cheese and fresh chives, thyme, and rosemary.
Salads featured vine-ripened tomatoes, arugula, radicchio , romaine lettuce and goat cheese, with a raspberry vinaigrette.
For the main course we chose walleye pike (from Lake Superior) with a super-light coating of freshly toasted bread crumbs, feta cheese and lemon, and rabbit tenderloin grilled with rosemary and red pepper sauce. Baby summer squash in yellow and green were crisp and delicious.
Homemade Ice Cream
Dessert was homemade ice cream--peanut butter/banana and black walnut--and a creamy, smooth, upside-down apple pie prepared by pastry chef Cathy Duvall.
George serves the wines, from his extensive wine cellar. He features domestic wines almost exclusively, with particular emphasis on California vineyards.
The total bill came to about $30 per person, not including wine.
Like Peter's, Fletcher's American Grill & Cafe features regional cuisine imaginatively prepared. Fletcher Boyd and his wife, Gloria, began the trend here when they opened their two-tier restaurant downtown in the summer of 1985.
At street level is the informal, medium-priced grill where mesquite-cooked steaks and chicken, freshly baked dill rolls and Gloria's garlic/cheese potatoes are served in a sleek, modern setting. Entrees run $4 to $6 for lunch and $8 to $18 for dinner.
The more expensive and formal cafe downstairs is one of the loveliest dining rooms anywhere. The serene, candlelit room was done in pastels by local designer Amy Henderson and seems bathed in a soft, pink glow. The prix fixe menu includes appetizers, salad and entree for $29.50. Desserts are extra, at $3 to $5.
Surprises in Store
"I call our cuisine 'contemporary Hoosier eclectic,' " says Boyd, who coordinates menus with 33-year-old chef Ted Delay. "We try to surprise our customers by taking a familiar frame of reference and doing something a little different with it. For instance, we wrap our Beef Wellington in filo leaves instead of puff pastry."
Our meal began with a seafood sausage served in a cream sauce and angel hair spinach pasta with escargot. A salad of Belgian endive, enoki mushrooms and artichoke hearts in a sherry wine vinaigrette followed.
For the main course we chose blackened red snapper in a lime marinade and Moulard duck breast served with poached apples in a Calvados brown sauce. The flavors were intense and the preparations excellent.
Dessert was a Harlequin souffle--rich chocolate with vanilla sauce.
Another culinary treat is in the restaurant of the Canterbury Hotel, an enclave of Edwardian elegance in the center of Indianapolis. The wood-paneled dining room is a favorite place for business breakfasts and the fresh blueberry muffins are exceptional.
At lunch the house specialty is an angel hair pasta with smoked salmon, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and caviar in a sour cream sauce ($8.95).
Yorkshire Ham Medley
The British ambiance of the hotel is reflected in such menu items as a Yorkshire ham medley with pea pods, cucumbers, Belgian endive and Stilton ($6.50), and a Wiltshire porkpie with baked ham, fresh sage, pearl onions and potatoes ($6.50).
Dinner specialties include veal chop Lockerbie, with Canadian bacon and morels ($21); medallions of venison in a Cumberland sauce, with chanterelles and a chestnut puree ($22), and Hunter's quails with a Burgundy glaze ($16).
Next door to the Canterbury is an Indianapolis institution, St. Elmo's Steak House. The long, ornately carved bar, wooden tables and chairs and black-and-white checked flooring look much the way they did when St. Elmo opened its doors in 1902 and began serving the best steak in town. No nouvelle cuisine here.
As you enter the restaurant you walk past fine cuts of raw beef, freshly carved for the broiler. It may be one of the few restaurants in the country to still offer a choice of tomato juice or soup as an appetizer. The steaks are thick and flavorful--sirloin is $17.50, filet mignon $18.50 and porterhouse $25. Price includes main course and appetizers. St. Elmo's doesn't serve dessert.
Union Station Revival
There are myriad dining choices in the newly renovated Union Station. The first union railway station in the country, this Romanesque revival structure dates from 1888, and its former waiting rooms, promenades and platforms are lined with restaurants, shops, snack bars and entertainment areas.
Dining options include such full-service restaurants as Bob and Norm's Great American Steak House, Norman's Family Tavern and Gathering Place, which serves an eclectic mix of burgers, Mexican dishes and Cajun specialties, and Salvatore Scallopini, an Italian restaurant that offers homemade pasta dishes.
Entrees in these restaurants run $5 to $15. On the upper platforms are a range of high-quality, fast-food outlets where you can find everything from potatoes stuffed 18 ways to Greek specialties and fresh fruits whipped into exotic concoctions.
Indianapolis has its share of ethnic restaurants as well. The best Italian restaurant in town is Leo LaGrotte's Milano Inn, where locals start lining up for lunch at 11:30 a.m. to sample chef Vicki Dragoo's fettuccine alfredo with homemade egg noodles or her rich pasta e fagioli (entrees $8 to $15).
Since 1905 Shapiro's Delicatessen and Cafeteria has been serving huge portions of corned beef, cabbage borscht and cheesecake at moderate prices.
Acapulco Joe's, founded 30 years ago when owner Joe Rangel left Mexico for Minneapolis and landed here by mistake, is a moderately priced (entrees $3 to $6) Mexican restaurant that has business executives lining up every weekday.
Old-Time Iron Skillet
But for real old-fashioned Hoosier cooking, there's the Iron Skillet north and west of downtown. Set in a graceful 19th-Century farmhouse that overlooks a rolling expanse of lawn, this restaurant offers a glimpse into old Indiana.
Waitresses in period costume greet customers, and all the food is served family-style--plates heaped with fried chicken, bowls of fresh green beans that have been simmered with bacon, and dishes of creamy mashed potatoes drenched in butter.
The biscuits are homemade and dessert is a simple ice cream sundae with an assortment of toppings ($8.95 to $11.75 for complete dinners).
"This is the kind of food our customers have grown up with," owner Chuck Kelso says, "and they like to come back to it. Kids that I used to serve in highchairs are now coming back with their own kids."
Acapulco Joe's, 365 N. Illinois, (317) 637-5160; Bob and Norm's Great American Steak House, Union Station, (317) 631-9504; Canterbury Hotel restaurant, 123 S. Illinois, (317) 634-3000; Fletcher's American Grill & Cafe, 107 S. Pennsylvania, (317) 632-2500.
The Iron Skillet, 2489 West 30th St., (317) 923-6353; Milano Inn, 231 S. College, (317) 632-8834; Norman's, Union Station, (317) 635-6676; Peter's, 936 Virginia Ave., (317) 637-9333.
Salvatore Scallopini, Union Station, (317) 632-6600; Shapiro's, 808 S. Meridian, (317) 631-4041; St. Elmo's Steak House, 127 S. Illinois, (317) 635-0636.