Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Falafels is a small Middle Eastern eatery on Kirkwood. They opened in March of 2003, and have been a downtown staple ever since. The decor is quirky and authentic at the same time, with bright whimsical colors and an exceptionally comfortable atmosphere.

The menu at Falafels is defined by simple rustic food in the $6-12 dollar range. They are probably best known for their pita sandwiches. The meats are either cooked to order, or constantly cooked on a spit, and basted with traditional seasonings. The sandwiches range in price from the $3.45 Halfalafel to the $7.99 lamb kabob sandwich. These offerings are ideal for a quick lunch, and often come with a free side if you catch the right weekly lunch special. There are also several appetizers and entrees appropriate to a full sit down dinner experience.

The ambiance in Falafels is delightfully pleasant and comfortable. The chairs and tables are all solid wood, and everything is brightly colored without clashing. The decorations are simple authentic pieces from Israel, and if you have any questions about the origins of the menu you only have to look at the photograph of the original owner hanging up as you walk into the establishment. It is a black and white photo of him as a child in Israel. You can't get any closer to the roots of Jerusalem in Bloomington that this restaurant (Unless you know a nice Israeli grandmother, and if you can hook me up with some of that schwarma I can make it worth your while).

I went to Falafels on the last day before the Thanksgiving holiday with a friend and they were offering all of their sandwiches at half price in order to clean out their stock of perishables before having to close for the holiday. Due to the exceptionally good pricing we decided to splurge and each ordered a schwarma sandwich, split a plate of grilled asparagus, and had baklava for dessert. It was the most extravagant and affordable lunch I've had in months. First they brought us 2 grilled pitas with herbed olive oil and a slightly spicy red sauce to dip the bread in. This is pure empty carbs, an affront to any diet, and I have never cared. Sadly the pita does not come as delectably charred as it once did. The original owner was also the main cook, now there are several cooks that work the restaurant at different times, and many of them don't push the pita as far on the grill as I would like. That said it's impossible to messup this starter. The sauces are delightful and the fresh pita, even if not crisp around the edges has a special kind of warmth, as they make their bread in house, and let me tell you the quality shows in the final product.

Next the waitress brought us the grilled asparagus. I have never been a big fan of asparagus. My parents tended to boil all vegetables when I was young, and asparagus just never sat well with me boiled and buttered. This asparagus was grilled, and coated in a delicate layer of olive oil, herbs, and goodness. There was no astringent after taste, and the char was just enough to make the food feel well treated, but not so much that it tasted burned. It was fun to eat, and just enough to satisfy two. The only reservation I have about this particular dish is that they obviously did not cut off the bottom of the stalks, so while munching on a spear you would randomly find yourself eating something that tasted a bit like it was cut off the bottom branch of a bush, and you certainly couldn't bite through it. It was easy enough to discard this part of the vegetable, and given the incredibly quality of the edible part of the plant I didn't really mind, but I would have preferred it if the bottoms of the asparagus had been properly trimmed before grilling.

The sandwiches were delightful. I had the chicken schwarma which is cooked on a spit and then carved off as sandwiches are ordered. I do not know what is used to season the meat, but I have a horrid addiction to it. The meat is carefully browned, to develop the height of chicken flavor, while still being succulent. This is no small feat as I believe the use all white meat for this dish. The lettuce is crisp, but thankfully not iceberg. The sandwich also includes hummus, spread along the side of the pita, and it makes the entire experience. I always ask for extra tahini and hot sauce when I order any sandwich there, and they completely re-define the experience. While the toppings are an amazing touch, and I highly recommend experimenting with them on Wednesdays when they come free with the lunch special the hot sauce and tahini on any of the sandwiches make for an amazing food experience.

We finished the meal with a couple small pieces of baklava. This came to us free because they were out of the other desserts we wanted to order. Normally I would think very poorly of a restaurant that had critical menu items out of stock, but they were trying to clear out food before break, so it is to be expected, and they took steps to make sure we were satisfied as customers. The waitress was very accommodating and the fact that she was empowered to offer us the baklava for free says a lot about the management's relationship with their servers, their trust in their employees on the whole, and the sorts of customer service focused choices they encourage. The baklava itself was delightful. It was tender, moist, and flavorful. The perfect bite or two of sweetness to end a meal, though the top could have been slightly more browned. Really though, this part of the meal won Falafels far more service points than food points.

On the whole Falafels is an excellent restaurant, with very reasonable prices. The decor is slightly rough around the edges and feels very real and lived in when so much of Bloomington has begun to feel terribly plastic. I would recommend Falafels as a lunch joint, as a comfortable place to get together with a study group over dinner, as a casual date spot, or as a uniquely Bloomington spot to take your family when they come into town. The menu is approachable and authentic all at once, and you will feel right at home as soon as you are taken to your seat.

Ambiance: 4.5 of 5
Service: 5 of 5
Food Quality: 4 of 5
Flavor Quality: 5 of 5
Cost/Value: 5 of 5

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bloomington Food Culture and Flavor Variations

So I know this is a restaurant review blog. I know that you all come here (in my imagination anyway) to find out about all the great spots to eat in this town. That said, it's my soapbox, and I will occasionally jump out and just drop a rant about food in this town on the unsuspecting internet. This is one of those days. (Fair warning. I'm about to wax VERY nostalgic. If you've been in Bloomington for under a decade this article is probably going to be meaningless to you. Let's just say I've been missing some things lately)

When I was a kid growing up in this town the west side was Bob Evan's, you could watch a movie at the Von Lee, and across the street was the video game cesspool of Bloomington, so alluringly named Space Port. (I was 5, I wasn't allowed inside, it was alluring). My childhood food memories are of being served ice cream upside down at the Penguin and getting to see my father work on trays of baklava in the kitchen underneath the Trojan Horse. The best part about the Ice Cream was the dirty video game room in the back of the Penguin, and the best part about the Baklava was that I wasn't supposed to be down there.

Bloomington had grit back then. Anyone who remembers the White Rabbit, or People's Park before it was rebuilt knows that. Anyone who remembers the wrought iron monstrosity that used to sit in the middle of College Mall ready to receive pennies thrown by children remembers that Bloomington used to have a delightful patina finish.

I have long been aware how much that finish was being buffed away, and for a long time I was very happy about it. Seeing long empty buildings being torn down fills me with elation (I'm looking at you Royal Dog), and watching a high class restaurant succeed here is a marker of how far we have come.

I remember when I was just out of high school my parents went to an up scale Italian restaurant on the west side of town that has since closed. I sadly cannot remember it's name. We went for their anniversary and the experience was delightful. I purchased Frutii di Mare, and it was spectacular. We looked at the prices and and decor and knew the place wouldn't be open in 6 months. No one could charge over $20 for dinner in Bloomington. It just didn't happen. Now, FARM charges much more than that, for much more eccentric dishes, Finch's maintains a very similar price profile with about the same level of expense, and there are other examples of fine dinning in this town that never used to exist. I am ecstatic about this development, and have been since I realized FARM was actually going to succeed.

Something happened recently though that made me wonder if something has been lost. For the last year or two I have noticed "quality" changes in places I wasn't expecting them. High class square white plates at Nick's, Bulwinkle's closing, and Uncle Elizabeth's moving out of their trailer, etc. etc. Little bits and pieces of "grunge" were being scrubbed clean all over Bloomington. I have had a niggling sense of discomfort with many of these changes. Something about sitting in a pub with dirty pictures of Bob Knight on the wall, and eating a burger with carefully plated fries on a contemporary chef's plate felt very wrong.

I couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me about these changes in Bloomington until two things happened. Once Kilroy's on Kirkwood remodeled. My friends and I go there for lunch every Tuesday for $2 cheeseburger day. Before they remodeled the burgers were awful. I mean really terrible greasy obviously pre-frozen patties, and we loved them. Food isn't just about being gourmet. Food is about a social experience and on some level it was really nice to go sit down and eat something and revel in how much you really shouldn't necessarily enjoy it. A little junk every now and then is surprisingly good for the soul. I allow myself so little that a trashy local cheeseburger once a week seemed a healthy portioned amount. When we walked back into Kilroy's after the renovation happened it felt terribly awkward. The restaurant was filled with stools out of a Target contemporary collection. The servers were all still wearing their frat shirts, and the culture of the employees had obviously not changed. Everyone seemed a bit disoriented by the changes. The food was definitely improved, and still had that pub grub flair, but it came on much nicer plates, and everything felt like it was trying desperately to be upscale, but no one there knew how to be upscale.

A few weeks after Kilroy's remodel my partners and I went to San Francisco for a week on vacation. We crashed in a friend's guest room and spent the week tooling around night clubs, and making a point of never going to the same restaurant twice. The food was amazing, and the experience was uplifting. Two restaurants stand out in my mind as being leagues above the rest. They were both in a Latin neighborhood maybe 7 blocks east of our friend's house. (San Francisco the land of micro climates, for weather and culture). This neighborhood was off the tourist trap trail, and it was obvious. The first place we hit there was a taco and burrito restaurant our friend was fond of. We walked the 15 some block to get there, got in line and ordered our food. The place was kind of dark, everyone was exceptionally abrupt, because let me tell you they had a line to get through. Nothing felt dirty really, but there was no attempt to maintain any kind of fake aesthetic clean either. The tables were worn, the kitchen, which you could see all of had a thick layer of age lining the walls. It was a layer that only great greasy spoons can develop. After navigating a posted menu that really required just a little bit of Spanish to really get through we placed our orders and waited outside for our food to be ready. We drank home made horchata out of generic soft drink cups and I awoke to whole new understanding of rice and cinnamon as a result. When I bit into my burrito it oozed seasoned grease. The kind of thick yellow red grease that can only come from authentic Mexican kitchens. Normally such a display would turn my stomach, but I didn't notice till the bite of burrito was in my mouth and by then it was all over. I was a convert, and the evidence dripping down my hand of the coronary I was going to suffer because of this meal couldn't even begin to dissuade me from finishing what I had started. I was in heaven.

The second dive we hit there was a breakfast diner we stopped at on our last full day in San Francisco. There was nothing descript about the ambiance. It could have been taken out of a Normal Rockwell painting if not for the complete lack of midwest, middle aged white men. The menu was what you would expect from any diner, eggs, omelets, pancakes, french toast, coffee. Here and there something stood out. There were two obvious things that stood out. One you could buy plantains, fried as a side dish. Second there was no fake attempt at a Mexican breakfast omelet, that you so obligatorily find in every standard American breakfast joint. My husband loves them, so I have stolen bites from plenty of these dishes. They're tasty, but are about as authentic as a Taco Bell Gordita. This little diner had the best basic cup of coffee I drank the whole weekend. The plantains were a religious experience, and the eggs were so fresh, so wonderful that I wish I could send the cooks from the brunch joints around here to study with the cooks in that little greasy spoon in San Francisco.

Neither of these restaurants attempted to be anything other than a reasonable comfortable place to come and consume food. They weren't overtly concerned with their appearance, just the quality of their food. Nothing was carefully plated, though everything was clean. The real difference was the food didn't feel "intentional". When a chef, or even a fine cook makes a meal there are details to be considered, flavors to be carefully balanced, plating to be carefully arranged. It is an art, a dance, a performance. When a grandmother makes food, it is hearty, and rich. It isn't so much an art as a warm embrace.

Bloomington is rapidly loosing it's warm embraces, it's "awful" dives. Once upon a time you could go downtown to a little diner named Ladyman's, and get simple breakfast dishes that were incredibly made for very reasonable prices. They refused to take credit cards long after it was a requirement of all sit down establishments. They didn't make fancy omelets, they didn't have unexpected twists on flavors and textures. They had eggs and bacon, and toast. It could have been any roadside diner, except for the Kirkwood view. The food was amazing, and the service was matter of fact.

Once upon a time bar and grills in this town served casual food on casual plates, and if you really wanted to just get away from all pretension you had somewhere to go. There are still a couple spots that feel that way, a couple places that feel organic. Beer and pizza at Mother Bears, home made mazto ball soup and BBC when the season comes around. (Original only, the newer stores just feel too "decorated" for me). The seeds of soul are there, I just hope Bloomington turns around eventually as a city and stops associating "high class" with good everywhere.

This was a hippy town in the 70's. Hell it was a hippy town when I was in high school in the late 90's, so while the reference might be trite, I can't help it. To every thing a season and a time. A time to sow and a time to reap. There is a time to go out in a tux or a dress and have a dinner of elegance and adventure, a time to go on a first date at a trendy coffee shop with quiet secluded corners, and a time to go out drinking with your friends at that place where the beer is always cold, and the drunk food is always delicious, but everyone knows the sturdiness of the furniture is more important than how well it matches because god knows what's going to happen if we loose the game, or heaven help us if we win it. There is a time to grab that greasy burrito to go, and a time to walk into the diner you're parents have been taking you to since you were 7 and have the waitress look at your dreaded blue hair with the same sort of loving disdain your mother does as she takes your order. There is also a time for upscale eateries, with fancy named dishes that bear no resemblance to their namesakes. Bloomington is a cleaner town today than it was a decade ago, and a much cleaner town than it was two decades ago. This has brought in new opportunities, and possibilities for everyone. Some day though, I'd like to come back to Bloomington and see a little bit more of her roots showing. When you meet that perfectly manicured pretty boy in the bar you know he's going to be high maintenance, no matter how perfect he looks. I'm a moppy headed hipster who never really knew he was pretty in the first place kind of guy. I guess that's what I look for in a town and it's food as well.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finch's Brasserie

Finch's Brasserie is a small elegant restaurant on the east side of Kirkwood Ave basking in the view of IU's sample gates. It was established in 2008 by Jeff Finch and his wife. The space is warm and inviting, and includes a gallery space upstairs.

As soon as you walk in the door you immediately realize that you are in an upscale establishment. The casual familiar fare so common to Kirkwood is not what you will find here. The lunch menu has wood fire oven pizzas ($9-$10.25), Rabbit Cacciatore ($10), and Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($12.50). The dinner menu highlights include everything from a Duck Wing Appetizer ($7) to Wood Roasted Half Amish Chicken ($24). The prices and ambiance are obviously designed for an upscale eating experience, while allowing for more modest choices.

I recently went to Finch's for my husband's going away lunch thrown by his boss. He has moved on to the exciting world of professional massage therapy, so the occasion was slightly bittersweet for his previous co-workers, but ultimately celebratory about this new accomplishment in his life.

When I walked into the main dining room I was impressed by the clean consistent decor. Several restaurants that try to be upscale end up creating an ambiance that is entirely too cluttered and concerned with impressing. There is a large wood oven and a little bit of exposed kitchen environment, which I personally think is a must in any gourmet eatery. People who care about their food enough to pay a premium price for it are tantalized by the sights and sounds of a working kitchen. Of course the real chaos happens behind closed doors, but the bit of open counter space provides just the right amount of tease.

MaƮtre d' was prompt and friendly and we were shown to our reservation with no wait whatsoever. Our waitress arrived shortly and took our drink orders. Unfortunately when she returned with our drinks she did not take our meal orders, and a substantial amount of time passed before someone finally flagged her down so we could put in our orders. This is a minor service point normally, but it is something of a pet peeve for me as I have waited tables and understand not only the stresses of a full dining room, but how to minimize those stresses. We were there for lunch, and when situated in the middle of the de facto business district that is everything in walking distance of university administrative buildings it is not only safe, but necessary to assume your patrons have no more than an hour for lunch. If when you check they indicate no urgency you can adjust your approach, but it always frustrates me when I have to flag a waitress to place my order on a lunch hour. Our waitress could have easily taken our orders when she brought our drinks to avoid loosing track of our table in her other duties, but in what I can only assume was an attempt to not seem intrusive given our lively conversation did not.

Thankfully once our orders were placed the wait on our food was very modest, and the quality was quite fantastic. I ordered the Rabbit Cacciatore. It was a modest portion of luscious
papperdelle pasta smothered in a exceptionally well balanced cream tomato sauce. There were small wood roasted mushrooms that packed a great deal of flavor. The balance of sauce to noodle was just right, and the flavor of the ingredients was carefully crafted. The menu listed bacon as one of the ingredients, though for the life of me I wasn't aware of its presence, but I did not really mind as I felt the flavors that were present melded quite beautifully.

My one and only reservation about this dish was the lack of a real rabbit presence. There were a couple small pieces of rabbit buried deep in the dish under layers of tomato and cream. The mushrooms were ultimately more memorable than the meat. Cacciatore means hunter in Italian, and the traditional star of this dish is the meat itself. The uniquely gamey flavor of rabbit was completely missing from the dish because the tomato sauce was such a dominant (if excellent) player.

I am a huge proponent of playing with our conceptions of food. Taking a dish that has a strong traditional history and changing the expected. It is the backbone of new experience, which is a requirement for true enjoyment of food. While we may return to comfort food when we are tired, and lonely, and sad it is excitement and exploration that fuels true gastronomical experience. That said I am also of the opinion that the soul of a dish must be maintained. Change flavors, and cooking technique. A dessert risotto for example must still balance moisture and al dente rice, even if you experience it entirely unlike a savory risotto. Similarly cacciatore must be about the meat. It must be the Italian hunter preparing his catch on his long trek home, even if you play with the flavors of tomato and cream. The dish at Finch's was aromatic, and flavorful, and carefully balanced. Sadly it invoked more memories of Vodka alla Pasta than of the game that the dish was born from.

I tried some of the other fare on the table and it was without exception quite excellent. The highlight of my stolen food escapades were the french fries and truffle aiole that came with my husband's burger. The fries were dark and crisp in a way I have never seen at a restaurant before. The aiole was a delicate and affordable way to bring a decadent expensive flavor into an impressively approachable food. I would have preferred some meaningful garlic experience during its consumption, but I have harped on my issues with the spirit of foods enough already and the quality was exceptional.

Ultimately my experience at Finch's was excellent. The quality of the ingredients was unquestionable, and the technical skill of the chef was without a doubt among the best in Bloomington. The service was friendly, but unfortunately not as attentive as I would have liked, and the ambiance was warm and pleasant, while being polished enough to allow for a truly fine dining experience. The prices are reasonable for the experience and quality of food, but it is important to be aware of what you are purchasing. I heartily recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for something a little different, and a little more elegant than they have found elsewhere in Bloomington, but I would also recommend a leisurely dinner experience as opposed to trying to fit Finch's into your lunch hour.

Ambiance: 4.5 of 5
Service: 3.5 of 5
Food Quality: 4.5 of 5
Flavor Quality: 4 of 5
Cost/Value: 4 of 5