Big flavors in a Big Ten town
Chef Bob Atkins reaches in the cooler for Indiana peaches at FARMBloomington, 108 E. Kirkwood Ave., Tuesday Aug. 16, 2011 in Bloomington, Ind. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / August 27, 2011)
All it takes is a stop in Bloomington, population 80,000, but home to the 40,000-student Indiana University, whose presence has had the collateral advantage of inspiring or sustaining a virtual United Nations of ethnic and otherwise eclectic dining options. You can find Tibetan, Indian, Turkish, Ethiopian, Korean and Burmese along with the more predictable Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Thai and Italian. Especially memorable among the ethnic offerings are Anyetsang's Little Tibet (anyetsangs.com, 812-331-0122), Anatolia (restaurantanatolia.com, 812-334-2991) for Turkish fare and Shanti (812-333-0303) for Indian specialties.
Among the nonethnic offerings, one of my favorites is FARMbloomington (farm-bloomington.com, 812-323-0002), opened in 2008, where internationally trained chef and owner Daniel Orr infuses his restaurant with a passion for local food and flavors.
The dinner menu, with entree prices in the $25 range, includes options such as Maplewood Farm baby back ribs and Gunthorp Farm double thick bone-in pork chop. There's also roasted chicken, broiled trout, jerk salmon, pasta and vegetarian plates. Several burgers are on the menu as well as the gourmet pizzas known as FARMpies ($13.50), including the Wild Bianca, topped with green herb pesto, ricotta, shiitake and oyster mushrooms and white truffle oil, and named for Orr's high school girlfriend.
On a recent Sunday night, I ordered redbud salad as an entree. It arrived with the petals sprinkled atop greens and asparagus spears — fresh and delicious. The blossoms, it turns out, were among the edible items that Orr had foraged from a neighbor's wooded land near his home in Columbus, Ind., about 40 miles from Bloomington.
Orr is not the only one doing the harvesting. Restaurant employees tend gardens at their homes and bring in provisions. And Orr has been known to trade meals to customers who come in with peaches from their backyard trees.
"We're not organic. We're not vegetarian. But we are a sustainable restaurant. … We support our local farmers," Orr said, ticking off a list of locals who supply pork, beef, eggs and bread. But he notes that not everything is local: "We haven't found a way to raise salmon and tuna in Indiana yet."
Some don't-miss items are the garlic fries, flavored with Parmesan, chili flakes and turmeric aioli and the Lugar burger, named for the Indiana senator and declared the best burger in Indiana in 2009 by Food Network magazine. The Lugar is made with bison meat from two southern Indiana ranches, flavored with Columbus Cowboy Espresso Chili Rub and topped with artisanal cheese.
My daughter and I shared a remarkable dessert: red berry cobbler bursting with a sweet-tart mix of raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and cherries. It was served warm with a topping made from Orr's great-grandmother's biscuit recipe and a scoop of locally made vanilla ice cream.
Around the corner and just past Bloomington's quaint downtown square from FARM is another standout: Restaurant Tallent (restauranttallent.com, 812-330-9801), probably Bloomington's most upscale restaurant.
Chef David Tallent and his wife, Kristen Tallent, are locals who studied at the Culinary Institute of America. Kristen Tallent is the general manager and pastry chef and develops the wine list, which has a nice selection in the affordable category. For the past four years, David Tallent has been a James Beard Foundation nominee for best chef in the region, and the restaurant carries a four-diamond designation from AAA.
I had my first taste of rabbit — Hoosier rabbit ($28), as a matter of fact — during a memorable meal at Restaurant Tallent. And no, rabbit doesn't taste like chicken. It does, however, taste a bit like pork, but more tender. Also on our table that night were Gulf shrimp and grits ($18), and Viking Farm's lamb ($27). Each was very good, but the lamb was definitely the standout, falling-off-the-bone tender and served over goat cheese polenta with root vegetables and a spritz of tangerine.
Desserts were notable for their combinations: ganache tart with mint whipped cream and chocolate espresso sauce ($8), carrot cake French toast with cardamom cream cheese ice cream ($9) and rhubarb galette ($10). The rhubarb dish was topped with rosewater black pepper ice cream, and it was like nothing I've ever tasted — light and creamy but with the lingering hint of pepper that mixed surprisingly well with the rosewater.
Gotta love that small-town dining.