By Michelle Railey
Ten First Impressions: The Tap, Mass Ave, Indianapolis (2016)
1. Sorta swank. Ok, Indiana swank. Faux leather, faux mahogany. Very large space with industrial ceiling, exposed brick, ophthalmologist office colors (butter, sage, wood). Faux fireplaces indoors (am I at the spa? She bats her eyelashes.) and two of the real thing (gaslit but, still, real fire) outdoors. Small servings, smaller tables; very large space with high ceilings. Medium prices (aka: Indiana high). And you have to park in an actual multi-story garage. Citified sorta place, country mouse, so now you know.
2. Sorta swank? I already mentioned the faux fire, faux leather, faux tropical wood. Astonishingly bad artwork, sparsely placed. The restrooms feature very excitable automatic everythings (read for that a faucet that would not turn off, a dryer that ditto, and a toilet that three times while seated on it). The light is dim but not inspiring. The atmosphere says its trying…quite hard. I’d prefer more of a welcome and less obvious effort. Maybe I’m picky.
3. Tiny tables. I’m not going to let this one go. One human at a table for four equals crowded. And we/I haven’t pulled out our cell phone/s or ordered food. And the teeny, tiny table wobbles. So does the backless (faux) leather-covered stool on which I’m teetering. Most humans in the modern era, even in Indiana, carry stuff. Or order drinks and eat things and require utensils. Tiny tables do not accommodate actual people. And, without room for it, there is no caddy of Sweet n’ Lows with which to steady the wobbly furniture (packets are helpful, Tap, just so you know). But at least there are the following things to distract: wide open, nearly Smithsonian Air and Space Museum type space, free wifi, a fake and weirdly soothing if too orange “fireplace” and plenty of TVs. And the bad art, which is starting to grow on me because they all have placards indicating they’re “handmade.” (In which our heroine wonders why a wintergreen Lifesaver has been placed on a rainbow cross and why that has been placed next to a motley arrangement of tempera onions, wheat, and inexplicably pointy and/or bulbous things.
4. Good Service. So far. Twenty minutes in this weird space. But Megan has been friendly and quick and not the least obtrusive. And for other potentially socially-awkward folk, you know what I mean here, this is critical. Megan’s good. Ask for her. The space is too large to quite tell if anyone else is working. But if they are, they’re not dusting the light fixtures in the women’s bathroom, because “sorta swank.” Apparently.
5. Lots of echoes. The faux hard surfaces, tall ceilings, and total lack of fabric and softness equals an echo chamber. It’s like being in a cavern here. But with less exercise and, um, nature. It’s possible no one responsible for The Tap’s existence has sat in this space with actual other people or multiples thereof.
6. They brew their own beer. Perhaps shockingly for a place called The Tap, they tap their own craft beer. A flight will set you back $7.00. They have one Porter, a couple pales, a couple lagers. Names range from Trying Very Hard (“Experimental” and “Enchantment”) to Mundane (“Social” and “Brickyard”) and All Right (“Bluebeard” and “Bionic Dragon.”) I’m actually not sure what I think of the name “Nefarious Nectar.” I mean, if it were lipstick, I bet it would be orange-pink; as beer goes? Well, it sounds a little Boone’s Farm plus Lip Smacker and I’m not sure I want to drink that.
7. They brew their own beer and the servers don’t seem excited about it. I had clearly never been here before and Megan, while still awesome, asked what I wanted. Not realizing they were themselves actually brewing beer here, I asked for a Bell’s Two Hearted. She said she thought they had that. It would have been a good time for her to mention that The Tap brews an American Pale Ale and an American IPA and maybe told me about the hop content in each and asked if perhaps I would care to try…because of course I would. High ceilings not withstanding, why brew one’s own beer if one’s not going to be excited about it?
8. The patio. Is truly wonderful. Big green living wall of planters, plus fire pits, plenty of seating and bulb lights. Wrong season to enjoy it but it’s lovely.
9. The front room and the side room have more space and room to breathe than the back room, despite the back room having way more TVs (if you care about that sort of thing).
10. Food. There’s an autumn and pear salad, which sounds pretty but isn’t Cheap Nachos. They have tater tots (hipster!). And calamari and pizza and random things between $7 and the mid $20s. Tiny tables, though, so order with care (your plate might be larger than your table).
Caveat: First impressions only here, obviously. This is an interesting if cavernous spot that is definitely vying for the anonymous metropolitan millennial customer. It might win (with larger tables and less dust in the ladies’ room). Megan’s a keeper. The fireplaces are keepers. Fabric might be considered. And larger tables.
I sure hope they validate parking. (Critics are notoriously the cheapest of skates.)
(Note: They most certainly do NOT validate parking.)
Ten Things About the Claim Jumper at the Golden Nugget, Las Vegas (2016)
1. The basics: you’ll find it in the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street. It’s open 24 hours and breakfast is served all day. Like the Trevi at the Forum Shops (Caesar’s Palace), Claim Jumper is a member of the Landry’s chain of restaurants.
2. They have fountain Diet Coke. Plus, free refills. This is not a trivial thing. The Strip has been taken over, essentially, by PepsiCo, which means your Las Vegas trip is going to be somewhat compromised by the super-expensive Diet Coke drought on the Strip. Luckily for you, while the crowds and the Fremont Street Experience are sort of, erm, crazy and claustrophobic and not-the-Strip-ish, while you’re there gawking at the old-fashioned-y charm of the neon lights and the distinctly Western Sizzlin’ “charm” of Binion’s, you can also drop in to the Claim Jumper, grab a table, eat something, and drink all the Diet Freaking Coke you can hold.
3. After you order your food, your friendly Claim Jumper server is going to bring a large boule of bread to the table. Firstly, this is garlic bread and it is warm, soft, and delicious. Enjoy it. Secondly, yes, it is roughly the same size as the individual serving of biscuit served at Hash House a Go-Go, but do not reach for it and pull it towards yourself like it is your very own. It’s not. The beautiful garlic bread boule is for the entire table. Not just for you. (Just saving you some embarrassment here.)
4. (See middle image, column 2) The Claim Jumper, as has been mentioned, serves breakfast 24 hours a day. One of your options is “The Scrambler,” ($15.99): “a bed of hash browns, smothered with ham and scrambled eggs, topped with Cheddar and Jack cheese, served with country gravy and toast.” One of my favorite frequent dining companions ordered this: his family hails from Kentucky and he has always sworn that gravy is a beverage, not a condiment. His verdict on the country gravy was that it was good (this is high praise in frequent-dining-companion-speak). His report on The Scrambler was that the whole thing was worth ordering: a hearty portion, velvety scrambled eggs, salty ham, and crispy hash browns. Frequent Dining Companion had zero complaints.
5. The menu, aside from breakfast favorites, includes light fare like wraps and salads and even some Asian-inspired fare, plus (on the heavier side) burgers, pasta, and seafood. One of our group gave the Chicken Club Wrap a thumbs up (grilled chicken in a wrap, nothing life-changing, $12.99, served with choice of side). Another amongst our happy band enjoyed some of the pasta (can’t remember which: verdict was similar— good, really good, made him happy, but not superlatively outstanding). And, for what it’s worth, there are vegetarian and gluten-free options on the menu, too. You should still, maybe, ask to get a side of the gravy. Because gravy.
6. (Bottom image, column 2) Chicken fried steak. “Certified Angus Beef seasoned, breaded, then lightly crisped and topped with country gravy. Served with mashed potatoes.” ($17.99) I was trying to think if I had ever actually eaten a bad chicken fried steak in my life. I haven’t. But truly good ones don’t happen every time. Claim Jumper’s is a truly good one. The worst thing I can say about it is that the breading doesn’t adhere to the steak, so you’re constantly having to do the fork tricks where you stab some breading, reapply it to the meat, and then eat it. Truthfully, though, I’ve never eaten a country fried steak that did not have this problem (although Alton Brown says its possible). Namby-pamby, highly fit, so-called “nutritionists” will say that a reasonable dinner portion of meat should be roughly the size of a deck of cards or a fist. Claim Jumper chicken fried steak appears as two and a half or maybe three decks of cards (the fist measurement will depend on the fist, of course; it’s, like, ten baby fists): my five-feet-two-and-a-half-inches tall, very hungry person ate the whole thing plus half the potatoes. And some of that garlic bread. And slept well at night. There is no such thing as bad chicken fried steak. This one was worth the $17.99: and, frankly, for me to say that is really something because I’m notoriously cheap. It was hearty; it was thick and substantial; the breading was just right, peppered in the right way and crisp. The potatoes were good; the gravy was good. There was nothing avant-grade here; no religious experiences through food (it’s a chain, people), but honestly, I can’t think of a better chicken fried steak I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve eaten some chicken fried steaks in my life, in full disclosure.
7. The service is good. (The Claim Jumper seems to inspire adjectives in the “good” range. This is more, ahem, good than bad but it does tell you that off-the-charts and Claim Jumper are not, maybe, the same thing.) Our party had five people in it and none of us starved to death, waited too long, went without refills or napkins, or felt slighted. We all received our food at the same time. The server didn’t seem to mind separating our checks out, which was a definite bonus.
8. If you’re visiting Las Vegas on a Sunday, you can have a Breakfast Brunch at Claim Jumper for only $19.99. Sadly, though, mimosas and Bloody Marys are an additional $4.00 each. (Which makes Sunday Claim Jumper one of the worst deals in Vegas, frankly.)
9. The decor: on the Claim Jumper’s website it is described as an “atmosphere that makes you feel right at home.” Well, there’s no laundry to be folded or random shoes on the stairs, so I don’t know about that. But, for myself, I didn’t visit Las Vegas and/or Claim Jumper to feel like I was at home. (I would have visited home for that.) Claim Jumper is a chain: and there is nothing in its decorative scheme to offend anyone. Now, frequently with chains, there is also nothing to impress anyone. Claim Jumper at the Golden Nugget is a little different in that respect. From the antler chandelier in the entry to the antique mining equipment on the walls, all the way through the really, unexpectedly good “art” throughout the restaurant (1840s-1860s photographs, reimagined and coaxed into desert pastel modern art pieces), Claim Jumper doesn’t revolutionize restaurant design. But as a modern take on “The West,” it works really, really well. Formal enough not to be a Qdoba; casual enough that you don’t feel bad for wearing flip flops. This is a chain restaurant that does not feel like a chain. (And seriously, the graphic designer who made their old-photograph-mash-up art is a genius. It really adds a lot to the theme, the restaurant, the Nevada experience.)
10. For what it’s worth, Claim Jumper receives a 4 out of 5 on Trip Advisor, 3.5 out of 5 stars on Yelp and 4.6 stars out of 5 on Facebook
Ten Things About the Stacked Pickle, Southport, Indianapolis Location. (2016)
1.) The Stacked Pickle has nine locations in Indiana. The Southport one is still new. How new? You can still smell a faint hint of paint and drywall. Also, it’s cold inside. Bring a sweater.
2.) This location features a beautiful firepit and outdoor seating on the patio. Super-duper-inviting.
3.) The men’s room is centrally-located (says my friend who was dining with me: “that’s always nice. I like not having to walk through the whole dining room.”) and contains, so I’m told, “two stalls and one urinal.” The ladies’ room was exceptionally clean and even though I know it’s just SYSCO’s finest air freshener, it smells unusually great (seriously, like hiking in the Adirondacks on a misty summer morning or something). Someone chose well.
4.) They host Live Trivia on Monday nights at 7:30 p.m. Super fun, of course, and the top prize is a very generous $50 gift card for the winning team.
5.) Specials of note at the Stacked Pickle: Mondays feature most burgers for $5. There are $2 pints and $7 tacos on Tuesdays. Most importantly, Bloody Marys are only $3.58 on Saturdays and Sundays.
6.) Let’s discuss the Bloody Marys. The fact that it arrived to me served in a little jar was adorable and made me inexplicably happy, like I was drinking a cocktail served up straight from Pinterest’s own little veranda. It was garnished with lime and olive. Initially, I was all “where is the pickle? This place is named after pickles!” But then, I took a sip and discovered a not-very-spicy but really fresh-tasting Bloody Mary that incorporates pickle juice in it. Turns out, that’s an even brighter way to get that acidic wonderful garden-ness into the drink than just chucking a pickle in it. The Bloody Mary is worth going to the Stacked Pickle for— especially on Saturdays and Sundays.
7.) The friends I was with ordered a burger and a teriyaki chicken salad (I settled for the garnish in my Bloody Marys Mary). The burger looked okay but like a pre-made patty and I thought it seemed gray but maybe that was the lighting. The salad, similarly, looked okay: a mound of iceberg lettuce with grilled chicken, a couple almond slivers, and some mandarin orange wedges. I asked my friends how their food was. Both answered “good.” There was no raving and there were no specifics. Take from that what you will.
8.) I’ve visited the Stacked Pickle on the IUPUI campus and the location found in Greenwood, Indiana. At both of those, I have actually eaten the fried pickles. I’m going to guess that the Southport location’s fried pickle app tastes basically the same. Now, much like the scent in the ladies’ room, I’m guessing the pickles are also SYSCO’s finest. But, on the occasions I’ve tasted that appetizer, the pickles have always tasted homemade and fresh. The breading has been somewhat between cracker crumb and tempura, which is a good balance to strike, I think. Next time I visit the Southport Stacked Pickle, I’ll grab some fried pickles to accompany my Bloody Mary. You’ll find me lounging by that firepit.
9.) The service? Good enough. Very similar to the burgers and salad: no raves and about what you’d expect. No more and no less.
10.) Overall? The experience was a very pleasant one (helped along by the Bloody Marys, I suppose). There’s something just kind of nice about this Stacked Pickle. It is infinitely more welcoming and enjoyable than the Greenwood location and preferable to the IUPUI location for ease of parking, if nothing else. Worth a trip: (a) Bloody Mary in a jar with pickle juice, (b) firepit, and (c) trivia Mondays. Hell, maybe one of these days they’ll put the Bloody Mary special on trivia days. Then, well, everyone wins.
(Update: It no longer smells new. The Bloody Marys are now served in old can-mule hybrid things and have utterly lost everything good about them. Also? Less than six ounces, so, not the best deal on the planet. And it’s possible they’ve changed the recipe. You’re better off ordering a different drink. On the plus side, they do still offer live trivia on Mondays.)
A Tale of Two Tastings (2016)
It was the best of tastings, it was the worst of tastings. It was the age of high-end, artisanal vinegars. It was the age of locally-crafted and distilled spirits. It was Front Street in Traverse City, Michigan and two food and drink adventures were lived, experienced, tasted, and fully embraced. But only one of these was pleasant.
Fustini’s (141 E. Front St.) is an emporium of beautiful, high-quality vinegars and olive oils, infused with a wide range of delicate flavors. They carry spreads, and salts, and jams. It’s a lovely shop, open and airy. The service is outstanding, making it clear that they are more than happy to converse or assist but otherwise letting the guest explore. Everything is easy to sample and to smell. For my own part, I’m not generally a fan of vinegars, but my traveling companion (GR) loves vinegar and would gladly put it on every edible thing he can find (and some inedible things). But we both enjoyed the sensory experience of wandering around and discussing the intricacies of the tastes of these so-carefully made and packaged vinegars. I was astonished by the richness and the lack of astringency of some of them: the unexpectedly full-bodied and warm maple-infused vinegar had very little bite and some of the bitterness of a really great cup of coffee. Had I been in charge, we would have exited with a bottle of that (can you imagine how outstanding that would be drizzled on a spice cake? Or, better, chicken and waffles?). But GR was ensorceled by so many of the flavors, we walked out with four little bitty bottles ($32.00): Cara Cara Cream Vanilla, Pomegranate, Cinnamon Pear, and the 18-Year Traditional. The vanilla is buttery with a hint of malt over the vinegar taste: sweet but not too and very rich. The pomegranate is a bit jammy but in the manner of a nice Merlot or Cabernet. Cinnamon Pear is a tiny miracle. And the 18-Year Traditional is, well, not your grocery story balsamic.
Fustini’s has locations in Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Maui (that one is not in Michigan). They offer cooking classes as well. If you’re near one, go wander and taste. It’s a sort of unexpectedly delightful experience.
Speaking of unexpectedly delightful experiences, a couple doors down from Fustini’s in Traverse City is the downtown tasting room for the Grand Traverse Distillery (215 E. Front Street). This tasting room provided an unexpectedly and decidedly un-delightful experience. It started out okay. Lots of beautiful bottles, and a lovely interior: Traverse City’s shops have mastered the art of visual appeal and the distillery’s tasting room is no exception. They had pineapple steeping in a large glass jar of vodka; glossy bottles prettily labeled of craft chocolate vodkas and locally made bourbon-style whiskeys; all things distilled and wonderful, in short. So GR and I began with a sample of the 100% straight Bourbon Whiskey. Well, don’t let the environment or the tasteful packaging fool you on this one. Rubbing alcohol has less fire. Wolves have less bite. And any one of the vinegars or oils at Fustini’s had more roundness on the tongue, more depth, more richness than this rather sad little whiskey. If Weller’s had me at hello (see here), Grand Traverse’s bourbon begged for good-bye.
Now, it was not the bourbon that made this tasting a poor experience: the act and scene and company made even the minor tragedy of that drink a pleasure. But the attendant hovered, hawkishly and obtrusively; her nose wrinkled unpleasantly when we didn’t immediately say how great it was. In fact, we had to wait until we left before we could even compare tasting notes. Because she was on top of us. So, GR ordered a sample of the Ole George 100% Rye Whiskey. I sipped a bit of his (if nothing else, it would presumably remove the lingering scald from the bourbon). The Rye was genuinely nice. Grand Traverse Distillery’s website for the Rye states that it has “notes of rye bread, spiciness, vanilla, and caramel.” True. The attendant didn’t tell us anything about it. Before we’d finished swallowing, she was asking which bottle we were going to buy (never mind that we’d only sampled two and that we weren’t even allowed to enjoy the experience or discuss trying more or how we felt about what we were tasting).
You could be forgiven for assuming that the attendant was busy, with vacationing couples falling over themselves trying to sample the delights of the local distillery. Nope. GR and I were the only two people in the place. And we left, rather quickly, after paying for our samples and experiencing the rudest, snootiest, judgiest bit of “well, it’s a dollar per sample” and “don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
If Miss Grand Traverse Distillery had not been so very vile, GR and I might have purchased the Rye, or something else. In fact, we might have stopped back later in the day for a cocktail (and another possible purchase). Or, it being a two-day trip, we might have stopped in on the next day. Instead, Miss Grand Traverse Distillery made sure we did none of these things and, also, that in “A Tale of Two Tastings,” that tasting room on Front Street is, basically, the French Revolution. (Actually, maybe Miss Grand Traverse Distillery was Madame Defarge.)
At any rate, Fustini’s is an excellent experience, offering fantastic products. Don’t miss it. If we go back to Traverse City, we’ll visit the actual Distillery, but I can guarantee we’ll probably steer clear of the Front Street tasting room. Madame Defarge just wasn’t very nice.
And, while not a tasting, in between Fustini’s and Grand Traverse Distillery, there’s a little shop called the Spice Merchants (145 E. Front Street). While it’s not so much a tasting spot, it’s filled with millions of exotic bottles and pouches of beautiful teas, salts, and spices from all over the world. It’s a gorgeous shop and a fragrant, inspiring little room filled with warmth and invitation. So, if you’re in Traverse City, check that one out.