Saturday, March 15, 2008

SI -- Sexy and Intimate: First Look

Popped in to the new Scholar's Inn or SI -- for dinner last night, the opening night of their relaunch as Sexy and Intimate. At the prime 8:00 p.m., they looked to be 1/2 to 3/4 full. It's hard to judge this one since a) it's a relaunch not a whole new place and b) I remember when they opened the first time. The downhill slide was gradual. So, only time will tell when it comes to food and staying power. However, the improvements are undeniable, the concept is completely different, and the overall effect of the design is a nice one.

When you walk in, reserve judgement. The first things you see are the same curvy banister on the stairs, just repainted, and the same hostess stand in a new position. It's unfortunate that these are two such recognizable pieces from the restaurant's swirly green and blue past, but once you see the rest of the place, you get over it.

The bar is now a real lounge-style bar. Separated from the entry by curtains, it has low lights, small seating areas, but no dining tables. A smart move, really, but you can hear the crowd noise and its draw. If we hadn't had reservations, I would have wanted to go have a drink first, but it's very dark and not the best place for a pre-dinner cocktail. (Upstairs is now better for that sort of thing.) As you walk back to the dining room, you'll see they've rearranged seating for what was their most visible area the front and side hallways. Those are now odd open spaces with a few very tall, very private, round booths separated by flowing curtains. The large back dining room that was one open space is now two long dining rooms with long banquettes, tables, and tall booths. Again with the curtains. It gives the overall effect of great isolation from other diners promoting the whole idea that you can, I suppose, have a private dinner with your "peeps" and then roam around if you want to see-and-be-seen. (This place has "date night" written all over it.) Perhaps the best change is upstairs though, utlizing what was a boring and unused open space. It's now a completed room with tall booths and tables and a large communal table (lit from underneath) with a huge LCD panel at the end. If I was more of a neighborhood regular, this would be the place to gather. It's just a great use of space.

Throughout the restaurant, you'll see deep reds and browns with off-white flowing drapes and candle-style can lights around the cornices to create a soft, indirect glow. Call it a drastic change or a complete overhaul, it's a change and one that will play well with some of their clientele and not with others. I don't know enough about their business goals and target audience to assess some of their other decisions -- like creating waiting areas, dimmer lighting, and a space where diners aren't likely to recognize other diners they know. (Before, even with reservations you were likely to wait a few minutes.) A few other notes:

* 10 new cocktails: They all sounded a bit odd but most tasted fine. Look for absinthe, green tea liquor, lychee, and some other new flavors. One is the old "flirtini" -- champagne with raspberries. Skip the one with the green tea.

* Same good wine list: Sometimes it's good when they don't tinker with everything.

* Trimmed down menu: Very smart move for a new chef. Look for 7 or so starters, three salads, a soup, and 10 or so entrees. Jake Brenchley is up from the Bloomington restaurant and we could taste some signature Scholar's Inn flavors. (This chef loves the savory and sweet together.) Best starters were the mushroom pastry with cranberries and a vanilla-cardamom yogurt. (Tasty, but the yogurt was like melted vanilla ice cream on the plate and a bit sweet.) Scallops with endive (well put together and prepared dish.) And the star, the cured calamari with ginger, seaweed, and radicchio. Don't go expecting your normal breaded and fried calamari here (thank the gods), this was an Asian preparation a little heavy on the ginger but ultimately came together with freshness, herbs, spice -- and the bitterness of the radicchio. Nice dish. One warning -- these appetizers are not great for sharing and make for messy plate passing. Just pick one and go with it.

** Salads and the carrot soup were basic and well presented. Best was the frissee with a savory "Tri-frommage" dressing and mushrooms parked on an intense sweet balsamic dressing.

** We'd been eating all day so we skipped individual entrees and split the beef short ribs with a cauliflower "fondue" that was really a gratin but still very good. The bone-in beef rib was perfectly cooked with that cravable texture and flavor you get from well-braised meat. Served topped with a pile of fresh herbs which really made the dish. I really hope the garnishis on this menu don't go by the wayside. In all of our dishes they really added a freshness to bring the flavors together. (And no one wants to see the old "short-cut" Scholar's menu return.) Portions are nicely sized and entrees go in the $18-30 range.

** Yes, they will be continuing the fine tradition of 1/2 price martini Thursdays.

It's good to see another upscale restaurant downtown and I suspect this redesign will put Scholar's back on all of our radar screens for a while. It's too early to tell long term, but I think I can safely say "Welcome back to the neighborhood!"


Kristy said...

Great review! Maybe I'll get to go there soon.

John said...

My wife and I ate there Sunday night right at 5:30. Overall, a really enjoyable meal.

There was a nervous but fun energy to the place; everyone was really eager to show everything off, our waitress hadn't quite nailed her pitch yet (she said the chef was trying to combine flavors in unique ways - isn't that what chefs do anyway?), and our water guy seemed to wait in the wings any time we took a sip to refill our glass.

Still, everyone was really friendly.

I had doubts initially about the decor when walking in. The scrims both add and detract in the sense that they do provide barriers but in a semi-cheap way. The lighting is excellent on both floors. It felt labyrinthian really, which I think is the idea. It was hard for me to recall the exact size of Scholars Inn, which means they accomplished something with this design.

Background music was hip if stereotypical, and at a good level.

Food was great. My wife is pregnant, and perhaps it was for this reason that she thought the carrot soup and beef short ribs were slightly over-salted. I wouldn't go that far, but it was pretty close to an overbearing saltiness on both. Still, the frisee salad, soup, and ribs were all delicious. You're right about the presentation of the soup, but I like it when the pretense is kept to a minimum so I hope it doesn't get out of hand.

On the other hand, one problem I had with the beef ribs was not so much the taste, but rather the plate, which was a deep dish bowl. With the greens on the side, I kept clumsily having to either navigate my knife underneath my fork, or hold the plate to stop from clanking it against the table. That was not well-thought out.

And by the time I was half-way through the ribs, everything was kind of a big mush in the bottom of the bowl - albeit a warm, meaty, delicious mush.

We split the plate as well - seems like we inadvertnatly ordered everything you did - and it was more than enough for both. I almost think a full entree would be too much food.

We closed with the lemon cake, which was really nice in taste and presentation but probably too big for one person to finish.

I opted out of the abinsthe cocktails, having had the pleasure of tasting Jade absinthe a year ago and knowing that its now legal variant, Lucid, is even barely available in NYC and New Orleans. I'm sure the abinsthe at SI is fine in cocktails but I'd doubt its quality on its own.

I went instead for the Wilohm grove, a nice mix of Hendricks gin with a cucumber/mint puree. Not gritty, and neither stodgy or overbearing on the usually potent Hendricks.

Overall, the drink menu needs some refinement, probably the kind that comes over time when the place closes and the staff retires to bar. If they can keep some good bartenders on staff, I hope they'll drop some of the now mostly disparate and trendy cocktail menu for something with imagination that makes more of a statement, much like their food menu and wine list.

Oh yes, I was happy to see that they at least are still using their bakehouse bread.

It seemed a bit large for a higher end restaurant in Indianapolis, even for the crowd that traditionally hits Mass Ave, so it'll be interesting to see how busy they stay. On the other hand, it'll be just as interesting to see how the typically loud and obnoxious 1/2 price martini Thursday nights hold, both in quality of the martinis (which I always thought were much worse anyway), and just the general noise level. The volume worked fine for something as casual as Scholars Inn, but I could see how disruptive it would be for a place as intimately designed as SI. Might be nice to squeeze into 1/2 price martini night early now and again.

I was never really a huge fan of Scholars Inn. The drinks, especially on Thursdays, were subpar for their price, and the food just seemed correspondingly overpriced and uninspired. I would always walk out confused as to why it was so busy. But I definitely like SI, and expect I'll be back.

ps: If the head bartender at SI reads this blog, next time you're in NYC go to East Village and arrive early or wait in line for non-descript Death & Co on 6th Street. You'll be ditching your green tea liquor (blah!) and "absinthe" cocktails for similarly priced ($10-13), fresh-made, high-end, classy but creative drinks very quickly.

Anonymous said...

I just received an email saying that every night at S.I. is now half price martini night. I don't know how long this will run.