Wednesday, January 03, 2007

L'uxurious L'Explorateur for New Year's Eve

This year for New Year's Eve, I had my heart set on something different, something other than the endless round of parties and obligatory countdowns. With all the local restaurants announcing plans, I decided the perfect New Year's Eve would involve a terrific meal and a table full of my favorite friends. Lucky for me, I got just what I wanted -- the perfect group came together, and Neal Brown's dinner at L'Explorateur looked like it had the best potential for a party. Together with some of my best foodie friends, two I see often and two I haven't seen in a while, we made reservations for the late seating. Anticpating great food and freely flowing champagne, we had a hunch it was going to be a great meal -- and we hoped a grand evening. But Neal and his team exceeded even my expectations. It was, in short, one of the top 10 meals of 2006 for me.

Good meals are made up of several components. Not only does the food have to be stellar but the wine interesting, the service smooth, and the format and environment complimentary to everything else. The company has to be right and the diners even have to be in a festive mood. And for New Year's Eve, the stars just aligned. It started with the Colts win. Everyone (including our dinner companions who'd rushed home from the game) was in a good mood.

As the late seating for dinner filled up the large dining room, I saw a few familiar faces including the Democrat we all love to hate every week on Jim Shella's Indiana Week in Review, Ann Delaney. (She looks much better in person.) Seated at a festivly decorated New Year's Table in silver and black, we started with a bottle of the Gruet sparkling (from New Mexico which always cracks me up). With folks trickling in between 8:30 and 8:45, soon after, Neal came out and announced the format. Instead of a multi-course dinner, he was doing 15-20 tasting menu style courses. Servers would be bringing them around to each table and there were also a couple of stations in the rest of the restaurant. He encouraged everyone to enjoy, mingle, and eat as much as they wanted since there was plenty of food. (We had every intention of mingling but the food was so damn good we just kept eating!)

Hot on his heels, the first courses came out. Now, I didn't take notes, so I will botch these and I know I missed a few, but over the course of the next three hours there were oysters, hamachi (a take on his carpaccio), toro on a hot rock (in the raw bar), sushi made from golden beets, an endive leaf with something delicious in it that was immediately replaced in my mind by something else, octopus with cilantro in a French-style sauce, a tube of twice baked potatoes, shimp balls on chopstick skewers, venison carpaccio with fresh horseradish, a desert plate with at least three tiny deserts including truffles, and the star of the evening - the braised shortrib bao, or, as our server called them "miniature beef Wellingtons". For those who don't go through Chinatown withdrawal every winter like I do, bao are the slightly sweet, yeasty buns filled with meaty goodness like barbecue pork or beef. No matter the filling, the savoury flavors only work if the bun dough is perfect -- slightly sweet, yeasty, and smooth. And in this case, it was perfect. (Neal says he just used a plain brioche dough but it worked.) We gorged on them -- and finally had to turn the servers away when the brought more.

The other star of the evening? The wine list. I get so tired of seeing the same old stuff on every wine list in town, but we had a blast with Neal's list. There were so many we wanted to try -- and will go back to try in the future. We stuck to two -- the David Bruce Pinot Noir followed by the Vinum Cabernet Franc. Both were excellent choices and priced reasonably as well.

Servers efficiently brought plate after plate to our table timing the courses perfectly. We were never rushed but also never waiting on food. They were quick to offer "seconds" which let us pick and choose how much to eat. (I love a great meal when I'm satisfied but not so stuffed I can't move.) The time passed without a notice as we ate, drank, talked, laughed, and generally had a fantastic evening. The checks came just in time for us to settle up and move into the bar with a complimentary glass to champagne to enjoy the countdown for the New Year.

It's no secret that dishes at L'Explorateur can be hit or miss from time to time, but Neal seems to be building up a solid following of regulars just like at every other restaurant he's helmed. And as he continues to tweak his format and do more innovative and inventive dinners like New Year's Eve, he can count me on his list. I know any good chef pushing the limits will have a miss from time to time. What counts is that when he has a hit, he knocks it out of the park. Great work, Neal!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I am trying to contact you for an upcoming food event. If you could, please email me at for more information. Thank you.