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NUVO - March 2003

Indy's Top 10 Chefs

R-Bistro spans many continents

When Chef Regina Mehallick and husband David opened their tasteful new bistro on the fringes of downtown just over two years ago, it was to a hungry local clientele desperate for non-corporate dining. In the intervening period, plenty of new independents have opened in the city, but you can still count downtown's non-chain eateries on the fingers of two hands. It's a sad state of affairs, and one that puts a huge responsibility on the shoulders of a few restaurateurs in the area: to consistently equal or beat the chains at their own game in an increasingly competitive market.

If there should have been any doubt initially that Mehallick's skilled culinary output might have been a mere flash in the pan, nothing could be further from the truth. With a menu that changes weekly and relies considerably on the use of local ingredients, R-Bistro steadily turns out a succinct but intriguing range of dishes that span the cultures of many continents.

If there is a single factor that unifies Mehallick's cooking, however, it's her use of fresh ingredients. Her years spent in kitchens in England and Ireland have instilled a respect for what is fresh and seasonal: to paraphrase the chef "you can't get a decent tomato in February."

Located in the fashionable Arts District at the northeast end of Mass. Ave, R-Bistro occupies the wedge-shaped end of a building, giving the interior an angular appearance, one which is emphasized by the sharp lines of the tables, chairs and bar. With a preponderance of exposed brick, wood and tile, this bistro almost feels more like an art gallery than a restaurant. In another context, this might be a cue to write about the artfully-presented food and the cutting-edge nature of the flavor combinations. Fortunately for lovers of good food, however, the cooking here is about harmony, balance and flavor.

There's nothing pretentious about this place. Take a recent lunch menu, for example. There's a fabulous sandwich, served on fresh, crisp French bread, of Campbell Family Farm bacon, watercress, avocado and tomato chutney ($8.95.) The bacon is quite simply some of the best I've ever tasted: thick, cut from the back, not too crisp and very gently smoky. The watercress is fresh and crunchy: it's a delicious addition to a sandwich, and not one you're likely to find in a chain. As for the chutney, it's rich, sweet, tangy and vibrant. This is just a great sandwich.

Further down the menu, there's a dish of Campbell Family Canadian bacon, Phelps Farm free-range eggs and sautéed potatoes ($8.50.) Hang on ... isn't that bacon, eggs and hash browns? It's this delightful, understated, sense of humor that makes R-Bistro worth a visit, then another and another. To pursue the ingredients, a quick look down the menu reveals Indiana tomatoes, Indiana corn, Jeff Dunaway's pig, the aforementioned local meats and eggs, and that's just the menu for this week.

R-Bistro does a sterling job of supporting local producers, and we should all in turn be supportive of that. With most dinner entrees in the $14 to $20 range, and the spectacular housemade desserts (the sticky toffee pudding is to murder for) running $5 to 7, a visit to R-Bistro is unlikely to break the bank. The wine list is fairly priced and well-chosen. In addition, and much to this restaurant's credit, you won't find any hidden extras: no a la carte vegetables, no $5 potatoes. What you see is what you get.

If, over the past couple of years, you haven't been made a convert to Chef Regina's refined simplicity, then I suggest that you pick up the phone and make a reservation as soon as is humanly possible.

The Cork Dork's wine picks

R-Bistro's wine list is short, but well-chosen. Although the emphasis is predominantly Californian, several other countries get a look in. Here are a few of the more interesting offerings.

Bajoz Crianza, Toro, Spain

Situated in the high plains just south and west of the famous Rioja region, Toro produces ripe, full-bodied wines with soft tannins and deep, complex fruit flavors. Reasonably priced at $27, this is the sort of red you can happily drink with just about anything; its firm acid and fleshy, generous mouthfeel make it an almost perfect food wine. Subtle notes of vanilla and spice merely add to the pleasure.

Hedges Three Vineyards, Washington

Produced from a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, this broad and full-bodied red offers a brilliantly balanced mouthful of dark fruits, toasty oak and dancing, lively acidity. The palate is forward, with an almost creamy texture, yet there's a concentration and depth to the finish that tells you this will age nicely. This is one of those rare wines that can be drunk now or in a decade's time with equal pleasure.

Pascal Jolivet Sancerre, France

Producing wines that are traditional in style, yet clean and graceful, Jolivet is a big favorite in French restaurants. The 2001 is a sound, solid offering, made from 100% sauvignon blanc, with a nose of blackcurrants and limes set against a stony, minerally background. On the palate, it is typically lean and racy, not overtly fruity, with a very slight touch of sweetness taking the edge off the acidity. Because of its tart, somewhat herbal edge, this is a perfect summer white to be enjoyed with fish, shellfish and cheese dishes.

Regaleali Rosato, Sicily

What summer wine list would be complete without a crisp and refreshing rosé to wash down just about anything? Bursting with flowers and soft red fruits, this deep pink beauty is superbly balanced, and boasts a depth of flavor seldom found in wines of this price or hue (it's $22 on the list.) If you're looking for that elusive gulper, give this one a whirl.

R Bistro
888 Massachusetts Avenue 423-0312
Lunch Mon-Fri 11-2:30 Dinner Wed-Sat 5-10
Food: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars
Service: 4 stars