Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Meridian on Meridian: First Impressions

It's 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night and we're a bit surprised when we pull into the parking lot of the week-old Meridian on Meridian and it's jammed full! Pretty good for a place open only a week, but we wondered if we'd encounter an overwhelmed staff and a kitchen in the weeds. We should have known better. Everything was running smoothly with no sign of stress. Executive chef Dan Dunville says they've been doing well over 100 covers a night (which looks to be about two turns for the medium-sized room.) He may have been hoping for a soft launch but with no luck. "Soft, schmoft," Dunville tells us as he looks around a full dining room. "We've been this busy from our first night."

For most chefs, early crowds might be a problem, but it's clear that Dunville, who seems quiet and a bit reserved to customers, has this operation under control. The menu is polished, food is dialed in, servers are trained and sharp, busboys are efficient, and later in the evening, Dunville even had time to make the rounds in the dining room. If I didn't know better, I'd say this place had been open for months already. (A sharp contrast to a certain other new restaurant in town with great food but still struggling from a poorly run front of house and untrained service.) There is, clearly, an art to not only running a restaurant, but opening one.

While they were hoping to open earlier in the fall so diners could take advantage of their large deck and fireplace (which adds 28 additional seats), their timing was accidentally perfect. With winter coming on, the dark wood interior, much of it the original two-story log cabin of the Seven Mile Inn, is warm and inviting. The updated lodge theme moves into the bar area with a friendly counter for socializing and high tables for more private dining. I foresee many warm, winter bar dinners in my future.

The menu is more diverse than one thinks at first glance. Mirroring the neighborhood and likely clientele, it's a good mix of upscale basics (risotto, salads and soup), conservative classics (steaks and lamb), and new treats (a Thai lime barramundi, and save room for coffee and doughnuts). Most importantly, it left me wanting to come back to try a few items we missed. The standout appetizer was the order of chicken-fried oysters with hollandaise and a sweet chili sauce. These little nuggets of crunchy goodness were light, delicious, and smartly sitting on little beds of creamed spinach so they didn't roll around on the plate. (The menu lists these as oysters Rockefeller and we would have missed them if the waiter hadn't drawn them to our attention.) We left the shrimp risotto and tuna poke for another night and tried the roasted corn puree soup (delicious with dark hints of smoke, bacon, and tiny diced croutons) and warm spinach salad. Dunville has brought his former sous chef with him from his days at Broad Ripple Steak House so if you remember this signature salad, it's very similar.

Entrees are meat-heavy with steaks, pork, lamb, and chicken. You'll find a couple of pasta options as well as salmon and a barramundi. He seems to do a good job walking the line between safe and steady (steak and mashed potatoes even with a chili kick) and different and fun (our barramundi had warm soba noodles and a tangy Thai lime broth.) We debated the lamb with Greek accents of mint and tzatziki but were so full we left it for another night. The only mis-step of the evening was the macaroni and cheese, simply tube pasta in a truffled cheese sauce. It was tasty, but unbaked with no crumbs or crust, lackluster in this environment of made-over classics. Even so, it's clear that Dunville's strategy of integrating tried and true dishes with updated preparations is a winning one for his location and diners.

The theme carries through to desserts. As the waiter rattled off the list (panna cotta, butterscotch pudding, pie) we were uninspired until he got to the doughnuts and coffee! They arrived hot and crispy (although only for a second) in a paper bag tossed with cinnamon and sugar and served with a small pot au feu of a thick espresso creme anglaise. The doughnuts -- like small beignets -- were perfect for dipping although we had to tear them in half to get them into the narrow sauce pot. (To be fair, I'd ding any other chef for a great idea and mediocre execution. Maybe try an espresso cup or small mocha bowl?)

The wine list is well put together with lots of reasonably priced bottles worth drinking and a few higher end options to try. Good by-the-glass choices with some names one doesn't often see on Indianapolis lists but are old and dear favorites. (We had a hard to find Chapellet cabernet blend, a reliable glass of NZ sauv blanc that was everything I want one to be -- grapefruity and acidic -- and the Qupe syrah. I'm a big fan of all things Qupe.)

Is it eerily strange that they're running this smoothly this early? Yes! But it's a welcome surprise. They'll have free valet parking by the end of this week that should help with parking issues especially as the weather gets messy. Prices weren't as high as I expected (two of us had three glasses of wine, two appetizers, a soup, a salad, one entree, a side, and a dessert for about $50 each.)

I already have a feeling this will be one restaurant where anyone in the Meridian-Kessler/Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods can come for a weeknight dinner and see half of their neighbors. (The open dining room was already a small meet and greet scene as lots of diners coming and going ran into people they knew.) It's certainly a welcome addition for former Dodd's Townhouse regulars already used to the location and new folks looking for a more upscale regular haunt. Don't forget they serve Sunday brunch as well. I may have just found a new place to read the Sunday New York Times without the Patachou (or Petit Chou) wait. Meridian, welcome to the neighborhood. We're glad to have you!


K said...

I love restaurants that offer creative desserts! I'm so tired of molten chocolate cake, creme brulee, cheesecake etc. Even Scholars Inn, with their laundry list of desserts, lacks creativity. The one dessert that was special - baked Alaska - is long gone.

The doughnuts sound fantastic.

Anonymous said...

This is great news! I can't wait to try the Meridian. It is definitely a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

So upon hearing that the Meridian was "very good" from more than 5 people I decided it wasn't too early to give it a shot.

Braingirls recommendation is waaaayyy off.

I should start by saying that I am in "the industry" and have certain expectations when I spend $110 on dinner for two. Most importantly I require that my meal have flavor, flavor that is at least a notch above mediocre.

Flavor is achieved when a skilled cook uses a combination of ingredients and techniques that enhance said ingredients to make them better than they were before. This is cooking 101. Use fresh ingredients and treat them with dignity. Someone (Chef Dunville) needs to demonstrate that simple lesson to the kitchen staff of Meridian. So here is the rundown.

We started with their house salad. It was a salad of Mesclun, some dried cranberries and a few teardrop tomatoes. I don't think there were herbs in the salad although it did have small peices of spoiled mesclun greens that had adhered themselves onto larger and only slightly more fresh greens. My wife was really craving a salad (she always does) but after a few bites, said she would rather have a salad at home. I would not have served these greens in my home. And I would just like to point out, MESCLUN GREENS DON"T REALLY TASTE THAT GREAT TO BEGIN WITH! I had the French onion soup which I am a HUGE fan of. While I did not care for Meridians version, I felt as though it was technically correct. The only fundamental problem with the dish was that it is served with a sourdough crouton. Doesn't sound that bad I know, but the yeast in the sourdough adversely reacted (from an aromatic standpoint) with the broth making the soup seem not like french onion at all. Again, I think this was just a case of me not liking someone else's interpretation of a classic.
Next we had the Tuna Poke. the only good thing about this dish was the quality of the tuna. This dish was a disaster from a technical perspective because it had nothing in common with poke whatsoever. The chef is clearly using some creative license with the wording here but poke is one of those things that is so good when it is done right that it just needs to be left alone. No onion, no tomato (thank god, it's december), no roe, no sea vegetable= no poke.
The crab cake was all crab and huge. A good thing unless it is completely cold on the inside from not being finished in an oven. The flavor was pretty good though and was the only dish in all that was seasoned properly.
For dinner my wife had the Baramundi with Soba and Bok Choy. Just ok. The fish was not seasoned (a reoccurring theme fro the night) and the broth that the noodles and soba were in did not have enough essential flavor (achieved through reduction) to make up for the fact that the noodles were just a simply just a little nest of noodles with whole heads of baby bok choy on top. Had the soba even been cooked in the broth it would have made a huge difference. Again, just very bland.
For my entree I had the lamb. What I am about to tell you is true. While eating this, I actually though to myself whether or not the chefs in the kitchen knew that a little lamb was slaughtered so that they could show no respect for its life whatsoever. While perfectly cooked, it had ZERO flavor. A hard task to achieve for lamb. The obviously middle eastern inspired dish had several flaws. The "taziki (sp)" did not have the viscosity to use as a sauce. When I tried to dip the meat into the sauce, the sauce would not adhere because it was not thick enough. The eggplant puree was simply horrible. The worst part of the dinner for sure. I just could not stop thinking about that poor lamb.
As sides we had Mashed potatoes and Mac and cheese. Neither had ever seen a single grain of salt. Anyone who make mashed potatoes knows that you can season the hell out of them and that they will still need more salt. As for the mac and cheese? Woeful. Aside from the fact that it was rigatoni (which if the dish were good would have been overlooked completely), it was just not a very tasty dish. I love truffle, but this was maybe the only dish that I have ever had that had truffle oil blatantly misused. The cheese is unrecognizable. I dare someone to tell me what kind of cheese was used in the making of this dish.
Anyway, I went hungry, I left hungry for answers. The space is beautiful. Really. It is really cold today and the environment was very comforting. Unfortunately, the food, as heartwarming as it is meant to be left us very cold all over again.

Anonymous said...

^^^Thank you for the in depth review. It definitely makes me think twice before ever going to Meridian, when there are other fine restaurants in this city.

The Professor said...

To the hypercritical "Anonymous": I have a few suggestions and comments for you. To begin with, you state that you are "in the industry." Given your uneducated critique of Chef Dunville, I would love to see your culinary credentials because it is obvious that they are lacking. Your review of Dunville's restaurant and menu are so far off that I don't even know where to begin. I myself have extensive experience in the restaurant industry and would love nothing more than to counter your obtuse argument. I live in the neighborhood and have been in to have dinner at Meridian six times since they opened less than four weeks ago. Your critique of his restaurant could not be more off target. Shall I start from the begining?

You began your blog with the comment "flavor a notch above mediocre." You obviously don't have an experienced palate because flavors aren't there to overwhelm, they are there to compliment and enhance. Certainly anyone with culinary experience would know that.

Beginning with the house salad, it is one of the best salads I have ever had. The maple vinaigrette coupled with the dried fruit is simply fantastic, and the mesculin lettuce I've eaten four times was some of the best I've seen in this city. And the knock on mesculin? I would challenge you to find another house salad in Indianapolis that doesn't use mesculin. Perhaps you could have lunch at the Meridian and enjoy their Bibb Salad?

On to the French Onion Soup. I don't know what dish you had, but that was certainly not sourdough garnishing my soup. I smelled no yeast, and it was obviously a baguette, not sourdough. I thought this soup was a delicious modern interpretation of a classic dish.

The Tuna Poke: I love this dish. Mr. Anonymous shows his culinary shortcomings perfectly with his opinion of Chef Dunville's Tuna Poke. A poke is like a salsa; there are 100 different interpretations. Poke is a style, not a set recipe, and while there were no onions or tomatoes in Dunville's, the ponzu, wasabi, sesame, and cucumber shined to drive home his version of this classic style. I have also had the crab cake, and mine have always been perfectly seasoned and warm on the inside.

My server turned me on to the Barramundi (sp for your research my friend) and it was incredibly enjoyable. With a wonderful flavor that had a brown sear to perfection, this dish hit on all cylinders. Mr. Anonymous, one flavor from the dish isn't supposed to overwhelm all the ingredients contained within. The broth with the barramundi was a perfect compliment to the seperately-cooked soba noodles and fish, taking the quality of three different flavors and turning them into a menage-a-tois of goodness only enhanced by the fresh bok choy.

I have had the lamb as well: And this is an area in which your clearly lack knowledge. Lamb loin is just that: loin. It is extremely lean and your immature palate probably doesn't recognize that as you are probably used to a simple chop. It also doesn't come from baby lambs...I have no idea where you got that information. Your phantom culinary school perhaps? The Tzadziki (do your research)was fantastic and the dish was very enjoyable.

As for the claims of underseasoned food, I couldn't disagree more. Chef Dunville gave me a tour of the kitchen and I witnessed firsthand that every dish in the kitchen gets salt: Even the Salads! But certainly you would have picked up on that...I think that you just forgot to mention it.

Mr. Anonymous, you are obviously no Thomas Keller nor are you even close to a Dan Dunville! Braingirl's take on Meridian was a bull's eye. Meridian's food has been fantastic and each experience has left me more inspired than when I walked in to the beautiful restaurant. Kudos and thanks go to Dunville for his pleasant addition to our neighborhood. I couldn't think of a better way to spend $110 dollars.

Keith said...

We ate at Meridian for the first time last evening. We live in the neighborhood and really want Meridian to be a huge success. Unfortunately, we were very disappointed with the food. I completely agree with Anonymous in regard to the lack of seasoning. Every dish, except the gnocchi, lacked salt. The gnocchi was the star of the night. A delightful well seasoned combination of flavour and texture that was a real treat. A near WOW dish. The oysters lacked seasoning and were too heavily battered, but otherwise a decent dish. I had a fillet for a main. It was woefully under seasoned and very unsatisfying. My wife had the barramundi. This was one of the worst dishes I have come across at this level. The fish was overcooked to the point it was dry and 'crumbled' when the fork touched it. The seasoning was really awful and had nothing to do with Thai flavours. We sent the dish back, it was inedible. At this point we waited for the chicken and biscuits as a replacement dish. We waited, and we waited, and we waited...a full 25 minutes with nary an apology or recognition that the entire table had finished their meals. The chicken and biscuits, once again, were also under seasoned. However, it was a nice piece chicken that did stay quite moist for a breast. The 'biscuits' on the plate tasted like three day old hunks of paste. Desserts were quite good. We had the donuts and the butterscotch pudding. I loved the pudding!

So, there was some good and some bad. The place is new, let's not forget, so we'll give it another shot down the road.

On a side note, food is subjective and everyone has a right to his or her opinion. Professor, I was really turned off by your adhominim attack. Debate the points, but do not attack the person. While I thought Anonymous was a little heavy handed in his review, I mainly agreed with his assessment of the food just not the way in which he delivered it.

Anonymous said...

Alright professor (or should we say Chef Dunville?), relax.

This was simply a review of our meal on that particular evening. There really is no need to call my culinary credentials into question because I never said that I was "Thomas Keller". For all you know, I could be a front of the house chick.

Let me take this opportunity to defend some of my remarks.

The only reason that I mentioned that I am in the restaurant industry was to demonstrate that I may indeed be hypercritical. It was a disclaimer of sorts. But the fact remains. That night I was a patron of a restaurant that charged me $110 for a meal that wasn't anywhere near *my* expectations.
AND, this is a blog about food, restaurants and other things culinary. Therefore it is an appropriate forum for a review. Regardless of what I do for a living, I am entitled to write about *my* experience so that others can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to patronize that restaurant.

As a longtime restaurant employee, I can tell you professor that it is common knowledge that every guest should be looked at as a potential food critic. I have worked in restaurants that have actually trained the entire front of the house staff to think like this.

I won't rebut my points on Poke, or on the fact that I never said anything about the lamb being advertised as "baby" or the fact that I never said anything about culinary school or about the intricacies of Tsatziki, Tsadziki or tsatsiki (for your research)or my lack of time to go to wikipedia every time I post.

I am glad you have had great experiences at
Meridian and that you have written about them so passionately. I respect your opinion because as a restaurant person that is what I am trained to do. And as I said, I have spoken with more people that have had pleasant experiences than not.

I am by no means bashing chef because I don't know him nor have I ever met him. I only know that my food was really bad on that night. And as someone who loves to eat in great restaurants, I really hope that my experience was isolated. However, see above ^^^^^^^^^^^.

So take it easy professor, you and Gilligan will surely get off that culinary island you've been trapped on since 1986.

Anonymous said...

For your research;

From the USDA website.

"Lamb is meat from sheep less than 1 year old"
"Lamb are taken to market between the ages of
6 to 8 months."

Of course, don't believe everything you read.

braingirl said...

Had dinner at Meridian again tonight and tried some new things including my friend's French onion soup with this conversation in mind. The soup was to my palatte very technically correct, so dark and intense. Really delicious if a bit overwhelming -- in a good way. I think the intensity was also heightened by the fact that we're so used to the sweeter cheese melting in the dish. Here the cheese was on a baquette slice served separately. (Ours was definitely not sourdough which I don't care for. Lived in SF for too long.) Still very good and she said she actually preferred the cheese on the crouton.

I love the creamy and mild ceasar especially with the super sweet oven roasted, herbed tomato. My friend's house salad was swimming in dressing, but to our waiter's credit, he immediately and cheerfully acknowledged it and was delighted to help when she asked if more greens could be added to counteract the effect. (That maple dressing is good but very tangy.) She was thrilled.

I had the shrimp risotto finally -- have been meaning to try it for ages. I'm very picky about risotto whether out or at home. I'm still perfecting my own technique and know when I get it wrong more often than really right. So, I am not kissing Chef Dunville's ass when I say this risotto was really perfect. Still a tiny bit of crunch, creamy, and not overwhelmed by the sage and roasted red pepper sauce. (A combo I'm more convinced works especially after the ham/sage ravioli we had in DC last weekened with the red pepper sauce.) Additionally, I get so sick of overcooked shrimp when it comes on top of risotto but these were not stringy or tough at all -- just perfectly tender -- not bad for sitting on top of steaming risotto even for a couple of minutes.

So, still a few bugs, but overall, my goodness, still so much better than lots of other options in this city, and an independent. Plus, I've rarely seen such great service so polished this early in a young restaurant's life. Really a pleasure to visit. (Although we ran into so many people we knew, it was a full 10 minutes into my salad before I actually got to take a bite. What a full room!)

Full bill was thrown off by the bottle of Veuve Cliquot we had, but damage was about $25 each in food.

Anonymous said...

Side note: is offering 50% off certs for Buggs Temple. Thought some here might be interested.

Anonymous said...

We had dinner at the Meridian last night for the first time, and we were surprised to find it so packed. The good reviews must be paying off. The food was fantastic, especially the gnocchi and the hummus platter.

I also had brunch at Meridian last Sunday, and I think it might actually rival Cafe Patachou. I ordered the home fries and griddle cakes, and both were fantastic.

braingirl said...

Heh -- not necessarily great news that Bugg's is already offering coupon specials although it's hard to tell if it's normal strategy or if they're already hurting for customers. These owners still seem to be trying to figure out what they're doing which is *nuts* when they've got such an experienced and good chef.

keith said...

Well...our thoughts exactly. For us, Buggs food is better than that of Meridian. The service and complete dining experience is however a different story.

Another side note: A new Japanese fish market has opened in Castleton. It is really fantastic! We lived in Asia for three years and are very accustomed to Japanese markets. This one is identical to those half a world away, just on a smaller scale. They get fish in on Tuesdays and Fridays. Finally a place to get great whole fish in Indy! They also carry beautiful cuts of Ahi, Big Eye, and Yellow Tail. They also have Monkfish, whole Flounder, whole Black Bass, GIANT clams and etc. Please pay them a visit and share your thoughts. I really need them to succeed!

Anonymous said...

^^^Keith, where exactly in Castleton is this located? I'll have to stop by after the Holiday madness has subsided in Castleton.

Anonymous said...

Chef Dunville for President!

Anonymous said...

We took my sister and her husband to Meridian this past weekend. We were unpleasantly surprised by changes. The high ceiling in the mail dining room ensured we would shout our way through dinner. The noise was so great we rarely talked at all so as not to compete with the diners around us who were shouting to be heard over the din. The food was mediocre at best. I have a food allergy and the server assured me the dish I ordered would be fine, but when it was time to bring the main course, she comes out and says the dish does in fact have ingredients I cannot eat and do I want to wait 20 minutes for them to prepare something else. I thought I could pick around, but to no avail. The service, quality of food and ambiance were a disappointment for sure. We will not be going back anytime soon.

patience2001 said...

Wow! You need to get a life with a dash of salt in it.
Please tell us about your favorite restaurants in the city (besides your own kitchen).
Front of the House Girl