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Business Week - November 2003

A Heartening Trend for Heartland Food

The Old Days Of Red Meat, Male Chefs, And More Red Meat Are Fading, As I Discovered At A Trio Of The Midwest's Newest And Best Eateries

When I was growing up in the Midwest in the '50s and '60s, gourmet restaurants were about as common as tractors in Tribeca. The other night as I tucked into my bianco mangiare at Andiamo!, an impressive new eatery that has just opened in Cincinnati, I was thinking how much things have changed. The exquisitely light, eggless Italian custard capped off a delicious meal of homemade ravioli with poached lobster and basil and a wonderful frisee salad of fresh sliced apples, crispy prosciutto, and fried fresh oysters. This meal was a big improvement over the iceberg lettuce, prime rib, and baked potatoes I ate in restaurants as a youth.

I spent last week driving around the Midwest and took the opportunity to do a quick, unscientific study of the quality of restaurant cuisine in the Heartland. Judging by the new restaurants I tried in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Chicago, the food is astonishingly good. And in the male-dominated gourmet restaurant scene, the executive chefs at all three restaurants happen to be women. If more women chefs are opening their own restaurants -- as my tour would seem to indicate -- it can only be a good thing for food lovers.

HIGH-FLYING CHEF. Beth Partridge, 39, the executive chef at Andiamo! is a case in point. She grew up in Cincinnati but left town right after graduating from a local cooking school to do apprenticeships in big-city restaurants. She earned a second cooking degree at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in 1994 and has spent the years since then paying her dues in the kitchens at Ambria and Spiaggia, two of Chicago's best restaurants.

Partridge's aim is to introduce her hometown to Spiaggia's style of delicate, high-end Italian cuisine. For her, the key is using only the freshest of fish and seafood, local fruits and vegetables, and the finest Italian olive oils. "A lot of what we do is very rustic, basic food -- but done with a little elegance and finesse," she says. "Just a few good ingredients on the plate are all you need if you treat them well." She is using many of the suppliers she got to know at Spiaggia and is already building relationships with local farmers so she can get the best produce available.

Partridge is the first to admit that Andiamo! is still a work in progress. She and sous chef Dan Pancake, her partner and significant other, took over from a previous chef and had to hit the ground running, reopening the main dining room before they had even found a place to live. Still, the food at Andiamo! is wonderful -- and likely to get even better as the chef settles in. I'm still salivating at the memory of the risotto with wild mushrooms, white truffles, and parmagiano reggiano ordered by my mother, Helen Peterson (my dining partner). It was one of the more memorable dishes I'd tasted all week.

CAREER CHANGE. R Bistro in Indianapolis is almost as ambitious. It takes its name from executive chef Regina Mehallick, 49, who co-owns the restaurant with husband Jim, an engineer at nearby Cummins. Mehallick is one of those brave souls who switched careers to become a chef after 15 years managing doctors' offices. She did her initial training at the Charleston (S.C.) campus of Johnson & Wales University and then spent much of the 1990s cooking in Ireland, England, and Scotland after Jim was transferred to Britain. The Mehallicks opened R Bistro two years ago, after Jim was transferred back to Cummins' headquarters, in Columbus, Ind.

For starters, their restaurant has wonderful ambiance. It's set in a high-ceilinged, brick-walled loft in the gritty warehouse neighborhood where many of Indianapolis' art galleries are located. On the rainy Saturday evening we ate there, it was an oasis of warmth, with both the restaurant and the bar packed. CDs by Italian lounge singer Paolo Conte played quietly in the background.

Mehallick's cooking is extremely eclectic. She completely redoes the menu every week, with an eye toward using the best ingredients available. At the front of the menu, she proudly lists the many local farmers and food suppliers she uses. I detected her British influences in my main course, a slow-braised duck leg served with Beggerman's stew and onion-ginger chutney. There were hints of the American Southwest in the black bean and sweet potato enchilada my mother ordered. I couldn't place the origins of the delicious, curry-spiced coleslaw that came with the enchilada, but the delicate homemade pistachio and dried cranberry ice cream I had for dessert was pure American inventiveness.

WITH CONVIVIALITY. Chicago's Avec is arguably the hottest new eatery in the city, which has a well-deserved reputation for great restaurants. The chef is South African born-Koren Grieveson, 32. Avec (French for "with"), is an offshoot of Blackbird, the restaurant next door, which Gourmet has ranked among the nation's top 50 (see BW Online, 11/06/01, "And America's Best Restaurant Is..."). Greiveson spent four-and-a-half years working as a sous chef under Blackbird's chef Paul Kahan, who is backing her restaurant. Greiveson is an exuberant lover of hearty food, fine wine, and good company, and she wants diners to share her enthusiasms.

The Mediterranean-style Avec is set in a long room sparely furnished in blond wood. You can eat at a bar that runs the length of the room or at long tables along the opposite wall where several parties are seated together shoulder to shoulder, European-style. The idea is to foster a convivial atmosphere in which people from different parties talk to one another and try each other's food.

The menu and the wine list are also designed to encourage experimentation. You can choose from either a half-dozen conventional, full-size entrees, or from a 18 "small" dishes, as you might in a tapas restaurant. The difference is that at Avec the food is a melange of French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese cuisines. Similarly, Avec has a huge and wonderful wine list consisting of offerings from small, little-known French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish producers. To encourage sampling, many of the wines are available by the glass.

HOMEMADE SAUSAGE. We ordered seven small dishes for three people, which was more than enough food. The variety of tastes and smells is spectacular. I loved the heartier dishes, including pan-fried sardines in an olive tapenade, and spicy homemade meatballs with chard and chickpeas. One of Avec's specialities is that it makes its own sausage (Grieveson was busily stuffing sausage casings as I interviewed her over the phone). To finish the meal, we had a plate of tiny portions of French and Italian cheeses served with quince paste, a little date cake, and almonds.

Avec's hardwood seats and high decibel level are tough going for me -- an aging baby boomer with a bad back and less-than-perfect hearing. But if you get into the spirit of things, the food is wonderful. Our waiter did a great job helping us choose the wines and shaping our choices into a three-course meal. The twenty- and thirtysomething diners at the tables around me all seemed to love the whole experience.

None of these restaurants is hugely expensive. Our tab was only about $120 for three people (before tip) at Avec and about $100 for two at R Bistro. Andiamo!, which is a much more formal restaurant, was upward of $150 for two before tip.

This trio of ambitious newcomers proves my theory that the quality of U.S. cooking is dramatically higher than it was 15 years ago and that you can now find terrific restaurants in just about any American city you visit.

Contact information for the restaurants:

- Andiamo!: 3235 Madison Rd., Cincinnati, 513 321-4155
- R Bistro: 888 Massachusetts Av., Indianapolis 317 423-0312
- Avec: 615 W. Randolph, Chicago 312 377-2002

Copyright 2003, by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. All rights reserved.