Elevating Palates in Indianapolis
WHEN Peter George decided to open an upscale restaurant in Indianapolis, people said he wouldn't last 90 days.Upscale restaurant here? In Fountain Square? Across from the White Castle regional headquarters? Six years later, Mr. George is smiling. "I always love a challenge," he said during an interview at his restaurant, called Peter's. "This used to be Flo's Cardinal Tavern - it was one of the worst honky-tonk bars in the whole city and had been here for about 50 years," George explains. "I had people from the winos that used to come in here to carpenters to other restaurateurs who said I wouldn't last 90 days." "But we're here to stay," says George, a snazzy dresser and jazzy talker who is out to "elevate the palates of Indianapolis." Until recently, Peter's took a narrow approach in defining Midwest cuisine. That meant offering only Midwestern products such as fresh-water fish and locally grown produce. But George and his chefs found that purist attitude a bit too limiting. Now, although still considered a pioneer of Midwest cuisine, Peter's offers a variety of what George calls American-Midwestern cuisine on the monthly menu. The head chef, David Foegley, "totally understands what my goals are with respect to food," says George. A sampling of appetizers includes: Alaskan Salmon marinated and cured in Indiana maple syrup with house-made crackers, and Midwestern Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, Wisconsin Parmesan cheese, essence of Great Lakes herring, and a smoked garlic dressing. For entrees: Duckling strudel with peaches, ancho chilies, julienne of vegetables, and a Damson plum sauce; stuffed and roasted farm-raised Brook Trout with pancetta, shallots, grain, fried potatoes, and a sage-chive butter sauce. Desserts: Chocolate Raspberry Fudge Cake, Ginger and Honey dew Sorbet. The menu is designed as three courses. "We don't want people to be overwhelmed with our food," says George. Peter's is open Mondays through Saturdays for dinner only. Main entrees run about $18. But as George knows well, the survival - and success - of a restaurant isn't in satiation, but in service. "Personal treatment is what more and more people are looking for. Sometimes service is more important than food. It grows more and more [day] by day." As a restaurant owner, "you are truly worried about those things that separate you from other restaurants," says George, who says Peter's has triumphed in the midst of a mass exodus of restaurants in Indianapolis. "We've had the best year we've ever had," says George. "What we've done is really attached ourselves to our local solid customers." He has initiated such things as a dining club, offering house charge privileges, and has targeted customers through advertising. Planting a restaurant near a Fortu ne 500 company (Eli Lilly and Company) was no mistake either. "You always hear about it, but you don't necessarily believe the fact when people tell you that in recessionary times things that are really good will do better. The reason is because John Q. Public doesn't want to risk his money.... When he's coming out for dinner, he knows he can count on the consistency, the service, the quality of the food, the ambiance, the whole nine yards from this restaurant." What's Peter George's philosophy of running a restaurant? "I try to impress my staff with five things which will trickle down to guests," he says: quality, freshness, consistency, service, and a meticulous sense of cleanliness. EORGE is a native Hoosier who has been in the restaurant business for 14 years. After graduating from Purdue University School of Restaurant, Hotel, and Institutional mangagement, he worked with his mother, Evelyn C. George, who owns the Carriage House Dining Room in South Bend, Ind. When he decided to go on his own, he considered Chicago, but settled on Indianapolis. Peter's is a big-city restaurant with Midwestern hospitality. "Intimate. Not Intimidating," reads a brochure about the duplex restaurant. Just as Peter's cuisine highlights the Midwest, so does the restaurant's decor. The interior, designed by George's brother, is simple with mirrors, square tables, and a spacious feel. George points out a painting that represents an aerial view of southern Indiana by artist Rod Bradfield. Also on prominent display is a race-car helmet worn by Mario Andretti. "He's a goo d customer," says George of Andretti, noting that May (the month of the Indianapolis 500) "is an incredible month in Indianapolis." George gets himself involved in all aspects of his restaurant, from interior decorating to the details of a certain dish. One can easily sense his appetite for perfection. "There are four items on the menu that I told my chef today that absolutely, totally had to be worked on. I'm not getting that 'Wow, this was just sensational! He says the duckling strudel was an overwhelming favorite on the menu, but he changed the recipe anyway. "It didn't have enough impact. I wanted more... [I'm] still searching for that perfection," he says. Specifically, he says he wanted to taste the cumin and ancho chiles a little more. "I really like it now. I liked it before, but I really like it more. The customer may not like it as much as I do right now, but my feeling is that the customer should like it as much as I do. I know more than the customer when it comes to food. I might not know more about their tastebuds, but I know more about food and how it should taste."