CARMEL, IN. – This affluent Indianapolis suburb certainly raises the connotation, and rightfully so, of an affluent and growing community. Its progressive Republican mayor is constantly grabbing the headlines with big ideas.
Carmel conjures up a lot of images – but as a foodie destination? Indianapolis’ dining scene has claimed all the headlines in recent years but Carmel wants to step out of the big city’s shadow with its own eclectic dining options.
Hamilton County’s Tourism office sponsored a foodie tour for Midwest food writers, and one wine writer Thursday evening. The tour was hosted by Small Potatoes Catering. The company not only caters but leads private foodie tours of Carmel, Indy, Mass Ave, and soon Fountain Square.
I was joined by two area Chicago food writers, the Indy Star food writer, and Cincinnati’s Food Hussy. Heather, aka the Food Hussy, is one of Cincy’s top food writers and was lots of fun. It helps when your press contingent has an adventurous and congenial attitude.
We made four stops Thursday night – Peace Water Winery, Divvy Restaurant, Uplands Brewery, and Chocolate for the Spirit. Most of us stayed over for breakfast at Eggshell the next morning. Each of the fives stops helped the tourism pros illustrate how unique and local can make any suburb or small town a food/beverage destination.
Peace Water is certainly the most unique of Indiana’s 80 wineries. Owner Scott Burton owns a winery in California, buys his grapes from California vineyards, and employs a winemaker in California. His tasting room is in Carmel. His wines are not even sold in California.
For Burton, it’s all about giving back to community after an obviously successful career as a corporate lawyer. He has a unique approach to giving back – when you buy a bottle of wine in the downtown Carmel tasting room you are given a token. Then you decide which of seven charities shares in Burton’s philanthropy. The winery earmarks 50 percent of all profits to the seven charities.
The wines were pretty solid too! He poured four of his several wines during our brief visit. His Sauvignon Blanc was pleasant enough, crisp, but definitely on the acidic side. A Sonoma County Rose had pronounced strawberry flavors and was an easy sipper. His red blend and Cabernet were the really quality winners for my palate. While both saw substantial time in oak, the tannins on the reds were smooth. The wine is definitely in the ‘fruit-forward’ style popular with so many consumers.
His price points range $20-$40. Through his winemaker’s family winery on Howell Mountain, Burton acquires a limited amount of fruit from one of the regions considered holy grail in wine circles. His Howell Mountain cab, which we did not taste, sells for $120 for the real wine aficionado.
Divvy restaurant was our second stop inside Carmel’s City Center Complex on Rangeline Road. The best way to explain the concept is the old adage “divvy it up.” The staff explained that we not think of their restaurant as “appetizer, entrée, and dessert” but that everything on the menu was an appetizer, entrée and dessert.
It’s a fascinating concept that is essentially small bites as a meal. I loved the beer cheese with an assortment of breads and the bacon bites which was pork belly, maple bourbon gastrique with Applewood smoked sea salt. The porterhouse steak bites were tender and juicy.
According to staff, their most popular dish is a corn crème brulee with romano, jalapenos and red sea salt. I am adverse to heat/spice and took just a small bite of the corn which was yummy. The bites range from $6 to $16. Our Small Potatoes’ staff hosts said an order for two people is usually 4-5 of the bites.
Owner Woody Rider joined us briefly to talk about the restaurant. He also owns the popular Woody’s Library in downtown Carmel on Main Street.
Uplands Tap House Brewery, which has several Indiana locations, was our third stop for a taste of some Hoosier brewed beer.
Our hosts served up their historic Champagne Velvet and popular Dragon Fly IPA. I’m a wine guy and seldom a beer drinker but really enjoyed the Champagne Velvet.
The Uplands staff soffered some creamy Mac-n-Cheese made with wheat beer. That was accompanied by one of the best, rich-tasting pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever had.
Our final stop of Thursday night was with old friend Julie Bolejack and her Carmel Chocolate for the Spirit location on Carmel Dr., just off Rangeline.
Julie educated and entertained as always. She talked about the different chocolates she uses in her creations and gave us a taste of three different chocolates. Julie has access to the world’s rarest chocolate – Pure Nacional.
We toured the kitchen where Julie makes her beautiful creations and bought some take-home chocolate as well. Julie sent each of us on our way with a box of three truffles.
Eggshell Bistro, also in City Center, was our Friday morning and final stop of the foodie tour. Chef Larry Hanes wowed us with his breakfast creations. Now I’ve read the word “wowed” in far too many food/restaurant reviews for years. I can honestly say this might be the first time I felt confident using the jargon.
Hanes is not just a chef at all. He designed the small bistro space, picked out the art, collected numerous kitchen antiques and pieces with interesting history to stock his café. Click on the restaurant link above and go to the “About” section to read more about this remarkable man.
Our brunch started with Blue Bottle coffee that was one of the best cups I’ve had in years. I have to admit that I had never heard of Blue Bottle but a couple of the food writers were quite impressed.
Chef Hanes wowed us with dish after dish he served up family style so we could get a taste of many different breakfast entree’s. We had frittata’s, quiche, a Morocan inspired dish, and more.
My two favorites were a rosemary/ham frittata and fish and grits with a soft boiled egg on top.
This restaurant has received accolades but remains a bit of a hidden gem in my estimation. The small dining room was only half full on a Friday morning at about 10 a.m. It’s one of the most remarkable dining experiences you’ll find in the city.
It should also be noted that Chef Hanes cooks everything. He is the only person in the kitchen and does it all himself. The antique equipment, art, and atmosphere are worth the drive if you’re elsewhere in the city.
Don’t be in a rush at Eggshell, the service can be a bit slow based on our experience and a few Yelp reviews I read after visiting. Go anyway, Eggshell is a treasure.
NOTE: I plan on writing more on a couple of these businesses. Those posts will go up in the coming week or two. We didn’t have the time on a tour to stop and interview the owners. Our hosts did provide some notes that I will use to tell you more about a couple of these businesses. And I’ll note appropriately that the material was provided.