Northeast indiana stands at winter’s doorstep. Miles of dried corn leaves rustle in fields left colorless by the autumn harvest. But at Joseph Decuis Farm just outside Roanoke (16 miles southwest of Fort Wayne), flares of color draw the eye.
First red barns, then a yellow tongue of campfire warming people huddled together as a chef talks. In turn, others speak up. Asking questions. Trading stories of great meals past. Raising plastic cups to sip expensive wines.
This is Hog Fest, Joseph Decuis’ annual celebration of the farm-to-fork process, and a final chance to dine outdoors near the fields that produced the meal. It’s a celebration of hard work and community. Of the kind of fare that makes people proud to say they’re from here. And across the nation, the culinary intelligentsia has taken notice of not only Joseph Decuis but also Indiana food.
The locavore movement took shape in 2008 with the creation of Indiana Artisan, an initiative promoting the efforts of local artists—whether they work in clay and glass or cheese and meat. Both formal programs and enthusiastic word of mouth (Decuis ranks among the nation’s top 50 restaurants, based on consumer reviews at opentable.com) have drawn attention to the Hoosier state’s unique addition to the region’s thriving culinary centers. “We are an untapped market,” says food artisan Tim Burton. “Indiana has a wholesomeness that’s recognized in Chicago.”
Indianapolis is well-known as the state’s beacon for discerning diners (there are more than 250 restaurants in the downtown district alone), but dining beyond the urban center at restaurants like those listed here reveals that the state operates in good taste.
Culver In many ways, the heart of this northern Indiana restaurant (100 miles southeast of Chicago) has the beat of a small-town steak house. The staff knows customers by name, and classics like a 12-ounce ribeye are among the favorites. But that doesn’t mean it’s a typical steak house. To wit: copper-clad menus, a copper-topped bar (hammered into place by chef-owner George Pesek) and specials like Brazilian bison ribeye, veal roulade and balsamic-glazed duck. Once patrons taste chef Stephen Suthard’s bison-stuffed quail on whipped potatoes and in a sweet bourbon-shallot demiglace, it’s pretty clear that there’s something special happening here. (574) 842-3220; corndance.com
Roanoke Four AAA diamonds will put any restaurant on foodies’ travel plans, but Joseph Decuis’ rural location adds to the road-trip fun. The farm that raises much of the restaurant’s food sits a few miles away. (And if you spend a little too much time with a bottle of wine, there’s an on-site bed-and-breakfast that’s as luxe as the dining room.) The calendar dictates the menu; winter dishes burst with calabaza squash, Brussels sprouts, fennel, cauliflower and shallots. Critics yearn for the right adjectives to describe the decadent Decuis Wagyu beef or duck breast from Indiana’s Gunthorpe Farms. And the Mangalitza pork? It comes from snuffling pigs that feast for months on hickory nuts, walnuts and mushrooms, enhancing their own future flavor. Dinners can top $100 per person, putting this well into dinner-as-a-gift territory. But memories of the meal are sure to last. (260) 672-1715; josephdecuis.com/restaurant
Madeleine’s—A Fusion Restaurant
Evansville The decor offers the first hints of fusion: jazz music, a mural-size homage to Van Gogh’s Starry Night and a bamboo-plank floor tacking across the dining room at a jaunty angle. There’s even a Segway that chef-owner Tim Mills uses to tool through Evansville’s riverfront district of restored Victorian homes (180 miles southwest of Indianapolis). Madeleine’s menu shares the same playful impulse, changing often and mixing unexpected elements. The bakuchiku (Japanese for firecracker) alligator morsels bathed in a spicy-citrusy yuzu aioli are firm-fleshed but yielding, mellow until they hit the back of the palate with a spicy bite. Mild Indiana bone-in rabbit in a creamy pepper gravy echoes traditional hasenpfeffer recipes, but the meat comes dusted with flour; spiked with garlic, paprika and cayenne; and fried. “The cayenne will open your taste buds,” Tim says. Open taste buds in a place that encourages an open mind? It makes perfect sense. (812) 491-8611; madeleinesfusion.com
Sinclair’s Fine Dining
West Baden Springs In southern Indiana, the dining room of the iconic West Baden Springs Hotel goes all in on comfort food. The Christmas dinner menu touts a giant Amish-sourced chicken breast plump with sage stuffing, wrapped in prosciutto, nestled in a savory thicket of creamed haricots vert and drenched in a port reduction. “We want people to get full with our comfort food,” says executive chef Ethan Smith. This French Lick Resort property is known for its huge domed atrium, which lords over an enormous Christmas tree, Victorian decorations and kids romping joyously like they were in the world’s largest living room. Diners at Sinclair’s gather under a 25-foot-high ceiling for braised lamb shank, another holiday specialty. A lingonberry demiglace envelops the fall-off-the-bone meat with sweet-tart flavor. For dessert? A crisp-shell Pavlova that sweeps across the palate with a wintry peppermint chill, the only nip of cold amid these warm family gatherings. (812) 936-5579; frenchlick.com
Millstone Dining Room
Mitchell On a wooded bluff above Spring Mill State Park’s working gristmill, the Millstone Dining Room at Spring Mill Inn prepares for a crush of holiday diners. The corn bread is made with corn ground on-site, but it’s the persimmon pudding that draws people to this town in the heart of persimmon country, 80 miles southwest of Indianapolis. They mean pudding in the British sense: a moist, sweet, smooth brownie infused with persimmons (a fruit that resembles an apricot). It’s a dish home cooks have made around here for generations. “My mom and her mom and her mom always made persimmon pudding,” says Rick Chapman, topping his with a big helping of whipped cream. He and wife Marsha started with the inn’s buffet of crisp fried chicken, ham in a sweet brown sugar and mustard glaze, pillowy mashed potatoes and green beans with a summer-fresh snap despite the frigid temps outside. But they always end dinner on the same sweet note—persimmon pudding. (812) 849-4508; springmillinn.com
Goose the Market
Indianapolis Chris and Mollie Eley acknowledged three things when they moved back to their hometown of Indianapolis. “We love food, we love the people who enjoy it, and we love our neighborhood,” Chris says.
That was in 2007, when the young innovators decided to open Goose the Market, a market-eatery similar in style to Chicago’s upscale delicatessens and groceries. Walking in today, guests peruse chalkboard menus and order artfully displayed cheeses and meats for holiday entertaining, including the Christmas Stagberry salami, made with elk and pork, alongside traditional sausage and salami. An enoteca (wine bar) occupies the stone-arched cellar, where visitors at communal tables pair small plates and charcuterie with vino by the glass or bottle, including hard-to-find vintages like a South African Bukettraube white wine. Heartier lunch options include sandwiches like The Batali, a salute to Midwest chef Mario Batali made with housemade salami, cheese, spicy giardiniera, mayo, marinated red onion and tomato jam.
“I think people are surprised at how much we have to offer in a small space,” Chris says. “People often come in and say, ‘I haven’t seen that since I visited Europe.’”
It’s been seven years since inception, and the demand for Chris and Mollie’s market items keeps growing. They’ve recently created their own line of charcuterie under the name Smoking Goose, which they sell locally. “The scene here continues to improve,” Chris says. “I don’t think we are the ones that made it happen, but we did show people it could be done.” (317) 924-4944; goosethemarket.com