Thursday, November 01, 2007

Tavern at the Temple: First Impressions

I'll admit it, I liked Bugg's Temple: Tavern at the Temple more than I expected. The main menu theme? Meat and more meat. Aside from the food, which was surprisingly sorted out, and the dining room, which looks good, there were also a few opening issues which one hopes they're working on. (I mean, who takes three years to open a restaurant, keeps the chef on salary for a year, a chef who spent 9 years at Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe, no less, and still has, well, bugs?) While the food is good, a restaurant is more than just a menu and the whole picture just doesn't feel completely put together quite yet, but I have a feeling Chef Brad Gates and his crew can pull it off. And don't let my notes here put you off of giving this place a try. I don't say this about every new place, but this one is definitely worth a trip to check it out for yourself.

After you stress over parking (which no matter what the owners may say is going to be a huge problem for them), you have to figure out how to enter the building (no signs.) It's clear the building was the driving factor in the delays -- it still "feels" unfinished. There are also no signs (other than laser-printed flyers) telling you how to navigate the stairs and find the coffee house and Grille. There was a pointer sign on an upper level landing impossible to see from the main door. The street entry feels unwelcoming -- like an office building or dormitory with a bit of a coin toss required if you don't know where you're going. First impressions count and a lousy entryway can set a tone. But those are all improvements they can -- and I hope they will -- make based on launch.

Compared to the rest of the building, Tavern on the Temple, the fine dining restaurant on the top floor, feels surprisingly finished. This renovated 1918 building is the star so don't expect an overly designed restaurant, but it is comfortable and warm with an open kitchen overlooking but not dominating the main dining space. The metal grates are striking with the high ceilings and grand windows. The formal white-tablecloth style lends an elegance to dining with nods to old Indianapolis like the green leather captain's chairs that will look familiar to former members of the Indianapolis Athletic Club. The booths are pews (hopefully more comfortable), the iron grates came from the original church, and many of the lights and fixtures are also from IAC or original to the building. Service is new and a little overzealous. When I arrived, I was bombarded with questions by the inexperienced bartender, and our server was a little over-enthusiastic and needed wine training. But those issues tend to sort themselves out with time and customers. (The bartender was flummoxed by my friends' gin-and-tonic order unfamiliar with the gins in stock and unaware there was a gin called "Hendricks" which they clearly didn't carry. And our attentive server, oddly, kept handing us our wine glasses after he'd poured.)

The menu? Meat, meat, and more meat. Seriously, you have no options here if you don't want meat or seafood including quail, lamb, suckling pig, beef, or duck. The menu is expanding little by little, I'm told. (There were about 10 entrees the night we were there -- all meat or fish -- up from the six or so on the opening menu). But with a "bar menu" featuring mussels and calamari, specials, and a few other random items, there were too many add-ons to keep track of. It took the waiter 10 full minutes to explain all the unlisted items as well as running through the menu.

As food arrived, we knew the evening would be fine. The meal was very good -- I wouldn't say "off the charts" great -- but with lots of potential to eventually be really terrific. I snuck a bite and really liked the trout cakes, a meaty alternative to the hackneyed restaurant crab cake. (Yes, if you eat with me, I *will* eat off your plate.) We enjoyed the poached pear salad with goat cheese, port reduction, and caramelized pecans over greens. Not too sweet for a starter and the only option (as I recall) if you wanted a salad. With this much meat on the menu, you'd think they'd expand the salad and vegetable options a bit. The suckling pig was delicious -- tender, fatty, rich, and a huge portion -- along with excellent roasted fingerling potatoes, a rich savory sauce, and some weirdly spicy -- but good -- mustard greens. The desserts were tasty managed by pastry chef Cindy Hawkins (who some regulars will remember from Oakleys Bistro years ago.) My favorite of the night? The hazelnut chocolate mousse torte cake. (Yum!) The people I was with had already tried the banana tart which may well be this restaurant's signature dessert. We also tried a tasty shortbread with raspberry filling and sabayon.

The wine list is small and surprisingly limited considering the quality of the menu. We were able to find a few reliable favorites (the Cherry Hill Pinot Noir and the Au Bon Climate Santa Barbara Pinot were our choices) as well as a few new names I was happy to see (like Vinum and Kokomo -- a Sonoma house with a local name.) They've opted for grouping wines into 7 or 8 categories like "smooth", "rich", and "fruity", which was all the rage in wine lists a few years ago but turns out is tougher to navigate, especially for people who know wine. They have one by-the-glass choice in each category priced reasonably.

All-in-all, I suspect Tavern at the Temple will do fine. I suspect Brad Gates will get past the rush of opening and make smart menu and service adjustments as he goes. At some point, I suspect they'll have to make some decisions like whether to stay with the heavy smoked meat menu or present a more well-rounded offering to appeal to broader clientele. And they're going to need to bring the wine list up to the level of the food -- and clientele. (They don't need many more expensive options, just broader options. And come on, who's honestly going to order the Easley red with their $30 entree?) They're in the right price range to be sustainable, and if they can polish up the service and get past the perception of a difficult to reach location, they appear to have every chance of becoming a long-running addition to fine dining downtown.

Other notes:

1) Please, Chef Gates, add a pasta, risotto or entree salad to the menu. After a weekend of rich food, I just wanted something that wasn't meat last night -- and I was getting no love from you guys. I know you do all your smoking on site, which is great, but I would have loved a fresh, seasonal pomodoro as an alternative to the richness and fat of the meat on the menu. (And I wasn't in mood for seafood.) You can put smoked chicken it it, I don't care.

2) I'm so *over* the smoky smell that permeates buildings that do their own smoking and grilling. It's not a requirement or necessary side-effect. I can still smell it in my clothes from last night -- and it hits you the moment you open the door. OK, you smoke your own meat, I get it.

3) I've seen some notes from various folks on how parking isn't supposed to be a problem, but guess what, it's already a problem! I considered myself lucky to get a street space and it was a slow night. Please, Bugg's, add signs up the street telling customers what lots are OK and what lots are not. The Clarian lot is not "right across the street". It's actually a good half a block up the street and if you don't park there and can't find a metered space, you're stuck. It's a six-block loop to go "around the block" if you don't accidently end up on the freeway. And while I saw a note from someone recently at Bugg's saying it was OK to park in the Clarian lot, the Clarian policeman parked there last night was making diners nervous that they'd be towed.

Updates: Popped in for a drink with friends last night. I'm pleased to report the heavy smoke smell is now largely limited to the stairwell when you enter the building. If you can hold your breath for two flights, the restaurant smells much better.

Also, I paid special attention to the Clarian lot up the block. A portion of it is marked for "Public Parking" but I didn't have the courage to try it out.

Tried the calamari (crunchy and good but a little fishy with the anchovy mayo), the shrimp (loved the horseradish creme fraiche), and the gingery glazed nut bar snacks (very good). Bartenders were spot on last night. I kept an eye on the lonely champagne flute. Alas, no one called for his services last night. (A late supply order is the culprit.)


Anonymous said...

The mass email Buggs sent out last week with menu and coupon attachments contained spelling and grammar errors left and right. Plus it was over-punctuated with exclamation points. It was really unprofessional. (!!!!)

That same email promised Cornerstone Coffee was open at 6:30 AM sharp...but when I drove past for work at 8 AM that very morning, there were a dozen or so employees (and customers?) waiting outside in the cold for someone to show up and unlock the place.

Both are indicative of a really disorganized start-up effort.

And I agree - a lighter vegetarian item on the menu is a necessity. Something more inspired than an expensive vegetable plate (which they don't even currently offer at the Tavern). When we schedule restaurants for dinners of visiting faculty, a diverse menu is a must, so Buggs isn't being added to our repetoire here anytime soon.

CorrND said...

My god, the smoker smell is too much. I've only been in there once and only for about 30 minutes but I smelled like it the rest of the night. It permeates every pore of your body.

Agreed regarding Easley. I can understand supporting local -- and appreciate that they offer a Chateau Thomas -- but that's just a little silly.

As I mentioned on my blog, the beer selection is very lacking. They only had one truly interesting option in Delirium Tremens. I wish fine-dining restaurants would get over the notion that you can only have wine with an expensive meal. Sure, I love wine with food as much as the next person, but beer can pair with food just as well and in some cases better.

R Bistro is one of the few upscale places in town that has a half-way decent beer selection (and even then, it's not much). Considering that every time I've ordered a bottle of red there, it seems to come out above room temperature, I only go with beer now.

Anonymous said...

Is it really fair to review a place right on it's opening???

CoutureAnne said...

I had the roasted chicken at Buggs and thought it was excellent. We also received a tour of the whole building and they are still trying to close a few projects, but I really hope it works out. The canal is such a beautiful place and I look forward to eating on the deck next summer!

Anonymous said...

>>Is it really fair to review a place on it's opening???

Well, Tavern has been open for nearly two weeks now. They haven't been comping customers for the last two weeks, so why should I not consider them "open" and ready to go? Yes, it's fair that I give my thoughts.

I'm not trying to be snarky, but my feeling is a) paying customers are coming in the door of the restaurant. If they have a bad experience, they won't be back. I clearly didn't have a bad experience even though I think there are bugs to be worked out. Everyone of those paying customers is "reviewing".

b) Whether Bugg's knows it or not, every major foodie/restaurant hound in town has been there in the last two weeks. (I saw two of them the night I was there and I was with two others.) Everyone else I've talked to has been or was going last night or tonight. The restaurant is already being "reviewed" by all their potentially best customers. And some of them are much more critical and less forgiving than me. They talk and they write places off very early.

c) With the huge interest, the late opening, the chef, and the number of queries I get looking for info, yes, it's completely fair to offer my thoughts -- and first impressions -- this early. Some people will remain eager to check it out and others will decide to wait, which is good, too. First impressions are just that -- and while they're important, they're also not the only thing we'll ever know about this restaurant.

For a place that's been open for two weeks, I think they're doing pretty well. The food is surprisingly dialed in (certainly compared to the first few weeks Harry and Izzy's was open when my notes reflect a lot of their food was really terrible.) A few service, menu, and signage issues are fixable. How they're fixed is a sign of how the restaurant progresses. This is life in the restaurant business -- and I suspect Chef Gates know it, too.

Why do you think he was ready with the food?

Anonymous said...

I agree with braingirl - it's definitely fair to review a newly opened place, especially if you're paying $36 an entree.

When we dined there, I ordered a glass of champagne. Great. Once I received it, one of my dining companions decided she would like a glass of champagne as well. They brought it out in a big red wine goblet because they had run out of champagne glasses. (We were the only patrons in the whole establishment, including the bar and the Grille downstairs [which wasn't open]).

I will say the fingerling potato soup was divine, as was the pumpkin cheesecake.

Anonymous said...

Ahaha! Same thing here! I ordered the Sofia (which is a smart choice for by the glass bubbly) but asked for it in a glass rather than in the can. (In the can, it's just ass.) The bartender seemed confused. I asked for a champagne flute and she said she had *one*!

Heh -- good thing we didn't order the $245 bottle of Dom.

You can get a dozen champagne flutes for $9.99 at Linens and Things. Use those until your restaurant supply order comes in. Do *something* but there's no world where it's acceptable to serve sparkling wine in a bowl-shaped glass.

Anonymous said...

I love the stemless champagne flutes from Crate & Barrel that are $2 each. I seem to break one every time I use them, so I'm always replacing them. Maybe I'll take some when I go here next week!

Anonymous said...

It's sad that we may resort to BYOS (bring your own stemware)...I was drinking the Sofia champagne when we had the flute shortage. I love that stuff (but definitely NOT out of the can)!

Friends Cook said...

Does anyone have a soft copy of the menu they can post?

braingirl said...

I saw their opening menu in an email early on, but it's expanded quite a bit since then. Haven't seen it online. (Their web site is out of date.)

CorrND said...

I posted the original menu on my blog a week or so ago. As braingirl said, it's outdated and small, but it'll still give you an idea.

? said...

Today Clarian employees received the following message - "Parking spaces at the Clarian Pathology Lab haven't yet been finalized for diners at Buggs Temple. So, please don't park at the Path Lab when visiting Buggs."

Anonymous said...

I hold a high position in the community and decided to take my business associated in for dinner the other night. It was absolutely amazing! I ordered the ribeye special and it was so good I heard they ran out in 45 minutes. The restaurant was packed and there was a holiday party in the private dining room. I found out they don't charge room fees if you book during off hours and based on the look and feel of the's a steal! The chef is out of this world and he came over to our table to talk about the food. I spoke with their event coordinator and apparently they also lease out the canal space from 11th Street to Ohio Street. I believe this business is going to do great and I just ask everyone, including brain girl, to give it a chance. If you don't know anything about fine dining please realize that any new fine dining restaurant needs some time to get their feet wet. Looking forward to many more drinks at the bar with the famous view.

Anonymous said...

Finally, new ownership of the lower level "the grille" is showing great potential. I was amazed at the new changes that have been made since my last visit into Buggs. I am very excited to see the possibiities of this level given the changes in place. I had a chance to meet two of the three new female owners. Their enthusiasm is going to make this place great! I can't wait for the patio to open when the weather breaks. This floor needed a change and is getting one!

Anonymous said...

I was there on Friday night and they ran out of steak knives! People in my group had to cut their steaks with butter knives. Kinda pathetic if you ask me. The food was good, but the service was terrible.