“I’m kind of nervous.”
Tim said, as we drove the mile and a half down College Avenue to arrive on time for our reservation at Recess. He’d surprised me by planning the dinner out in celebration of our 9th anniversary, and as he drove we were both realizing that this wasn’t just a short trip to a restaurant — wasn’t just a night out to commemorate sticking it out together through 9 years; we were driving to a revelation. We were about to have a definitive answer to the monumental 10-month question: could we have a dining experience in Indy that rivaled what we had in Georgia?
For some reason, I wasn’t feeling his anticipatory dread of having our final answer (with the knowledge it could be disappointing); I wasn’t exactly confident, but perhaps more willing to give the city a longer grace period — after all, even our historically favorite restaurants in Athens could have a bad night. It probably helped,too, that we were finally eating a meal concocted by the famous Greg Hardesty. But dropping that name requires a bit of back-story.
About a year ago, Tim and I made a trip to Indianapolis — with the purpose of deciding whether or not he would take the job offer at Butler and therefore pack up and move 700 miles. We were hosted on that trip by friends of friends — and I think a little birdie must’ve told them that we were “into food.” They made sure to take us to places like Goose the Market, to assure us that this was a city where love of food could thrive. And we had conversations at some length about an amazing restaurant downtown — called Elements — and the creative mind behind the food: Greg Hardesty. There was just that one tiny problem: Greg had sold Elements, and soon after the quality suffered, with the end being closed doors. So, where is the chef now? we wondered. We hear that he’s planning a new project, but don’t know much other than that, was the vague answer. Since we liked so many other things about the city, we decided to move, even though we had to return to the South and describe the food scene as “chain-ish.”
As the months progressed, so did the rumors about Hardesty, and the plan up his sleeve. Slowly rumors became assumed facts; and since College Avenue is our main corridor for traveling about the city, we were even able to watch as Recess physically unfolded. Tim would come home from work and share progress: “The sign’s up!” or “Can you believe someone already tagged the side of the building where Recess is going in?”
We’d read reviews, and lived vicariously through the friends of ours who’d already dined there — we just hadn’t managed to splurge on a night out ourselves. But combine the acquisition of some Recess gift certificates from a silent auction with a husband who knows how to round up babysitters, and the plans were finally set.
The concept of Recess is simple: Hardesty (and company) cook, and you pay to eat what they serve you. It’s a fixed menu every night — no choices there. While you can look up the night’s offerings on the website each day (they say the new menu is usually up by noon), you can’t pick and choose like a traditional menu — each night offers anywhere from three to five courses, and prices change accordingly. When we sat down, we were handed a wine list, and left wondering aloud what the job of the server might be; there are no specials to spout, no recommendations to request. But when she arrived, she did her job well by selling us on purchasing wine pairings for four of the five courses. I heartily recommend shelling out extra cash for this luxury — although, if you’re like me (an unbelievable lightweight), and can’t hold that much wine without needing help to the bathroom at the end of the night, then you might consider sharing one round of pairings; that will give you plenty to drink with your courses, and still leave you able to drive yourself home, satisfied but sober. Not to mention save you 20 bucks.
When I think about what we ate last night, one word keeps coming to mind: balanced. Hardesty is clear that he’s utilizing local and seasonal ingredients — and while we were exposed to more than one new culinary ingredient (oxtail and sunchoke), the offerings were surprisingly and refreshingly straight-forward. Our first course was a chopped spring vegetable salad with parmesan cheese and citrus vinaigrette: this was not molecular gastronomy, not foam served in an obscure vessel, no surprise secret ingredient. But it was texturally delightful — in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. What was so special about finely chopped spring vegetables, tossed with equally-finely chopped parmesan? It seemed so simple, and easy — yet it was fresh and light without a hint of boredom. It was a bright first course without being brash — perfectly paired with a sparkling white wine. It was a salad that caused us to both raise a cautious eyebrow. Dare we hope?
The second offering was the favorite of the night for both of us: a Columbia river salmon with smoked salmon sunchoke brandade, bordeaux spinach and piquillo pepper vinaigrette. The small salmon fillet sat unassumingly on the bed of sunchoke and smoked salmon emulsion, with a small ribbon of the pepper vinaigrette circling. The salmon was perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned. Tender, with not a hint of dryness, supported fully by the smokey brandade (have I ever had salmon served with smoked salmon?) and brightened by the sweet roasted pepper vinaigrette. The spinach lent texture and an equalizing bitterness, not to mention visual interest as the deep green complement to the pink salmon. This dish was also delightfully paired: a don’t-knock-it-till-you-try-it rosé — a wine I wouldn’t reach for unless someone paired it for me; and last night, it was indeed paired right.
As we attempted to scrape our plates clean without actually picking them up and licking them, we gleefully realized Hardesty was two for two.
The next two dinner courses were characterized by more surprising simplicity: stir-fried chicken thigh with coconut jasmine rice salad, and finally oxtail in salsa verde with scallion tamale and avocado grape tomato salsa. The chicken thigh stir-fry both sounded and looked like something I’ve made at home; but the first bite told me that once again, the chef was able to take something seemingly everyday and turn it into something quite unique. Like the salad in the first course, I was confused in my vain attempts to decipher what made the dish so good. It was chicken. And coconut rice. Right? But closer examination allowed that a not-too-heavyhanded addition of toasted sesame and peanuts brought life to an at-home ordinary dish. And the oxtail — while I’ve never cooked the tail of a cow, it was basically fall-apart tender beef with green salsa served over a tamale — a classic south-of-the-border combination, but delicately balanced with one important detail: the peeling (via shocking) of whole grape tomatoes, which allowed for a less fussy texture and an explosion of juice and fresh acidity.
At this point, I must confess: due to the aforementioned decision to drink a flight of wine pairings all by my lonesome, I wasn’t in the greatest position to judge the dessert. But from what I remember, the rhubarb upside down cake with brown-sugar crushed pineapple and cherry whipped cream was utterly delightful. We had a mere two complaints for the evening: first, the service pace was a bit fast. It felt like the minute you scraped the last morsel from your dish, a server was scooping up the empties and within a minute your next course arrived. To be fair, we never asked for the pace to be slowed — but it would’ve been nice to linger a bit more between plates, between glasses of good wine. The other mild disappointment was the coffee press we ordered with dessert: even in my accidentally drunken mildly-inebriated state, I knew we were drinking weak coffee. This could’ve been avoided if the server had not plunged the press before bringing it to our table — but we poured first, then tasted, and it was too late to put it back for longer brewing.
But when it’s all said and done, for the night of eating we had, I’ll take some weak coffee and room-spinning. It was a hit out of the park — a reassuring promise that we might not have to travel back to Georgia to be fed really well. More evidence that the phrase great local food scene and the word Indianapolis don’t have to be uttered in different sentences. So as new Hoosier (what the heck is that, anyway?), I implore you locals to go, and enjoy Recess — our family fair city needs a place like this to stick around.