Restaurant Review: L’Explorateur
My friend, Kate, was soon moving to Washington, D.C., so before she flew the coop, she and I decided to try something new with a trip to this four-months-old restaurant that sits quietly at 62nd and Ferguson, the former Broad Ripple home of Tavola di Tosa and Thai One On. Both of those eateries went out of business, and I worry that the same fate will befall L’Explorateur, first because of the out-of-the-way location and second because of the French (and slightly silly) name – will people take their all-important third date there if they’re not sure how to pronounce it? At any rate, it would be a shame to see this place close its doors prematurely, because the food is really good.
To give you a sense of the place, its closest Indianapolis cousins are Elements and R Bistro, thought L’Ex is really nothing like either of these places, when you look at the menu. I suppose you could call it French-Asian-Hoosier fusion. There’s a strong tip of the hat to American innovators like Thomas Keller (one of the lunch menu items is named for him); Keller's flair with culinary combinametrics is reflected throughout the menu.
And that’s one of the reasons I like this place so much – the chef, Neal Brown, isn’t afraid to try new combinations of ingredients and textures. It may not always work perfectly, but he gets an A for innovative effort. If you’re looking for the familiar spinach and artichoke dip, look elsewhere.
Our meal was preceded by an amuse-bouche of grilled Thai eggplant with cilantro and lime oil. The tiny eggplant was crunchy (perhaps a bit underdone) but the bright flavors and unique lime oil made it an interesting start, if not plate cleaner.
L’Ex offers two menus – their standard seasonal menu with appetizers and entrees and a separate Summer Raw Bar menu that bends toward the Far East, with items like hamachi carpaccio with horseradish, Indy sweet pea shoots, and warm chile oil; oysters with boutique vinegars ($15); and caramelized tuna loin with sumac gelee ($13).
Kate started with the bohemian squash, lobster salad, and szechuan cotton candy (yes, you read that right) and I tried the grilled romaine lettuce stuffed with teriyaki eel in a rice vinegar and smoked almond vinaigrette. Both arrived on simple but dramatic long rectangular white plates.
Kate’s appetizer was beautiful--the sizable chunks of lobster were served in a broth in the a little squash bowl with greens that the server identified as celery hearts. The lobster was slightly on the chewy side, but combined with the lightly seasoned broth and rich sweet squash, it was a great combination in a great presentation. It really was served with a garnish of little stick topped with spun sugar, which seemed out of place with the rest of the dish, but could easily enough be pushed aside.
The eel-romaine dish was a little perplexing – it was practically a whole head of romaine, grilled as promised, with a prodigious quantity of eel nestled inside. For fans of Unagi (the cooked and glazed freshwater eel sushi), this was pretty much the same thing but more of it. The surrounding plate was coated with the vinaigrette. I liked the grilled romaine, I liked the eel, and I loved the vinaigrette; I just don’t know if I liked them all together. No matter. I swished the lettuce leaves in the yummy dressing and ate the eel separately (which is really how you had to go about it anyway, given how the dish was assembled).
For the main course, Kate had the drunken goat cheese and black bean chile rellenos with a garden peach buerre blanc and cilantro smoked almond pesto ($17) and I had the quail ($25) in flagrante delicto (that’s not what it was called but my God, look at the photo).
Why do you ask, Two Quails Fucking?
The quail were from-the-oven hot and juicy with a dark shining glaze, and each had a couple of figs nestled in the breast meat. Again, I love figs and I love quail, and I marveled at their engineering feat of seamlessly fitting the former in the latter, but I’m not sure how well the two flavors ultimately married. The bed of polenta was rich, creamy and smoky,and the greens--red chard, I think—were crunchy and rich, if maybe just a bit too salty.
Kate's chiles rellenos were enormous, filled with black beans and cheese, and fried lightly. Kate, a longtime resident of New Mexico, proclaimed them to be very good if not completely authentic. I had only a taste, but couldn’t really taste the peach beurre blanc in my sample. The beans, cheese, and spicy chile dominated.
Really, it was better than it looks.
Other items on the menu that caught my eye were the seared foie gras with brioche sponge and permission puree ($12), Release the hounds! ($23) which is rabbit with egg noodles, and Une etude du porc (translation: a study in pork) ($28), which is pork belly and pork tenderloin with an apple onion reduction.
If you can’t make up your mind, L’Ex offers a tasting menu, paired with wine, for $65. That night’s tasting menu featured the grilled romaine with eel, rabbit, and quail.
For dessert, we split an apple tart, which was filled with perfectly cooked apples and served with homemade apple ice cream and caramel sauce. I thought the thick, chewy crust could have been a little more flaky, but the flavor was tremendous, and we certainly didn’t leave anything on the plate.
The mildly erotic theme continues.
The wine list looks like someone spent a lot of time making the selections – it’s regionally diverse, sizable, and fairly priced – almost half the bottles were under $30. They have a more limited by-the-glass selection, and Kate tried a Bouchard pinot noir. The price wasn’t bad - $7 – but it was not a generous pour.
In addition to the wine list, there’s also a good sake selection and limited list of beers, though if you’re looking for your corner bar favorite, you’ll be disappointed unless you normally dink Hitachino, Weihenstephaner, or Tilburg. There’s also a nice list of unusual hot teas and French press coffee.
Décor is cool and minimal, with white and pale green walls, dark brown ceilings, and original art. It’s Broad Ripple so you can probably wear whatever your later-in-the-evening plans dictate. Kate had been packing all day for her move and was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but we were seated free of attitude.
Service was courteous and professional, although I didn’t press ours on any menu or wine details, so I don’t know how knowledgeable they are (although that night they were all young and beautiful, which made think they were hired more for looks than culinary chops). The restaurant is clearly very particular about assuring that your entire table is served at exactly the same time. It’s a refreshing change from having to sit around and play the “No, really, go ahead and start before it gets cold” game.
A note about the location: as of our visit, there was no sign outside to speak of, and while the name of the restaurant was etched on the glass entryway doors, it was really hard to see. I knew exactly where it was and still wasn’t sure it was open. Some more assertive signage would help.
I have friends who will reject this restaurant out of hand – if not because of the name, then because the portions can be modest, and the combinations a little odd. Some will accuse this restaurant of trying too hard, but I’m just glad to see that there’s a chef in town who seems to be trying at all.
6523 Ferguson St. Indianapolis, IN 46220
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