My company has a facility in Ft. Wayne, Indiana that is vibrant and employs more than 1,000 highly-skilled people, many of whom I quite like. It also is home to a Miss America local and executive director I’ve become internet friends with this year and whom I’d very much like to meet. Apart from that, the most remarkable thing about Ft. Wayne is…that it is so similar to Endicott, NY. The weird thing about that is that Ft. Wayne is Indiana’s second largest city, while Endicott doesn’t even make New York’s top ten list. But Ft. Wayne has a lot of residential territory, a lot of industry, a lot of chains, and almost no traffic, which was all incredibly familiar to me. Colleagues, know that if you get sent on assignment to FW, you’ll be right at home there.
I traveled to Ft. Wayne with B, my marketing co-worker who also is from the Southern Tier and who also found FW to be remarkably similar to home, if a tad harder to navigate. Our first night in town, we took recommendations from colleagues T and K and hit the Oyster Bar downtown for dinner with our Communications friend J. J and I split the cajun BBQ shrimp appetizer special. If you’ve ever watched any specials about New Orleans cuisine, you may have seen this special take on “BBQ” shrimp, which has no BBQ sauce nor any interaction with smoke. This preparation is based on two delicious ingredients: Tabasco sauce and butter. The Oyster Bar tossed us some lemon, celery, and blue cheese to take the edge off, as well as tons of good French bread to sop up all that peppery liquid. These were fiery and fantastic. Much more in the vein of “Buffalo” than “BBQ,” but who am I to tell a Cajun what’s what?
I should mention here that our waitress, who may have been an owner for all I know, was one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic servers I’ve had the pleasure of dining with in a long time. She knew her menu inside and out, including cocktails and desserts, she understood the preparation of each dish, she was keen to share the restaurant’s best features with us, and make our dinner the most enjoyable experience it could be. She highly recommended the clam chowdah, and all three of us took her advice. Luckily, it was great advice, and this was definitely up there in the top five of all chowders I’ve tasted. It was decadently creamy and rich, with deep shellfish and salt pork flavor. The clams were large, plentiful, and incredibly tender as well. Don’t miss this when you go.
There are several cool things about the Oyster Bar. One is the history of the joint, which opened in 1954 as its most recent establishment, but began as a saloon in 1830! Another is the fact that you can pick any two entrées off the menu and combine them as a half and half. Can’t pick between filet mignon and tuna? No problem, just do half of each! I saw this as an opportunity to sample more than one thing from the tempting menu, and chose both the scallops and stuffed shrimp, with the smoked bacon risotto as my side, naturally. I’ve been on a kick lately where I’m more interested in appetizers than entrees, but I wasn’t disappointed by a single bite from this plate. The food is unabashedly old school, but prepared in masterful style. Isn’t that how we like our classics? Two jumbo shrimp were butterflied and stuffed with a delicious crab and breadcrumb mixture, then broiled, while the scallops were crusted with crushed pistachios and grilled, lending the already creamy, perfectly cooked bivalves that distinctive and also somewhat creamy nuttiness. The risotto underneath was maybe a smidge tighter than I like it, but cooked al dente and deeply flavored with smoky hints of bacon and salty parmesan cheese.
For dessert, I again took our waitress’ recommendation, and ordered Oyster’s bar’s signature Ho Ho Cake. It was far, far, too rich and sweet for my palate, but dense, sugary, and chocolately, just like its namesake. I would give Oyster Bar a solid seven on the BHS scale. No cutting edge cuisine here, but a surprising expertise with seafood, considering Indiana’s landlocked status.
The other notable meal I had in FW was at Casa Ristorante, which was very close to B’s and my hotel on W. Jefferson Blvd. Come to find out, the owners of the Casa chain, which is comprised of four restaurants in FW, are related to a woman who sits in the cube next to mine and whom I bother constantly with my loud mouth. Sorry about all the noise, Aimee, but I hope I can make up for it with this love for your family’s pizza.
I started my dinner at Casa with the chop chop insalata. I want to like salad more in general, but my big problem with it is leaves. I don’t like the feel of leaves in my mouth. Wedge and chopped salads are the antidote to this problem, and I loved Casa’s interpretation. A bed of crisp, chopped iceburg was topped with an attractive multitude of vegetables: kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, sundried tomatoes and peas, plus ham, salami, provolone and gorgonzola. The bright, homemade Italian dressing delivered a punch of tart acid to counteract all that salt and fat. And a crispy shard of salty, herbed garlic toast rose out the top like the Titanic in her last moments. Delicious moments, that is.
To go with my salad: pizza. B wasn’t feeling well that second night in FW, so I was dining alone, and pizza seemed the quickest, easiest answer to my lonely table of one. Turns out, it was a totally kickass pizza, and I wasn't sacrificing anything by ordering this quickie. I got the Tutti, which had been recommended on Urbanspoon. This mix of kicky, spicy sausage, pepperoni and shrooms was pizza perfection, bubbly and brown from the brick oven, and proof that Urbanspoon reviewers are smarter than their Yelp brethren. Next time in FW, I will be back at Casa, and I will bring friends.
Ft. Wayne seems to have a proliferation of Mexican Restaurants. I love Mexican food, so we asked one gent in a meeting which one we should choose for lunch. I didn’t care for his recommendation: Cebolla’s. I didn’t bother to take pictures there, as our meal was only so-so. I never understand it when a restaurant can’t get carnitas right. Pork shoulder is one of the most luxurious, flavorful, unctuous cuts of meat available. When it arrives in front of me dry and blah, that’s unacceptable.
B and I had a better lunch at Biaggi’s, which is in a relatively posh shopping plaza not far from the plant. This Italian place has a chain feel, but is apparently locally owned, and our colleagues all raved about it. We both got a salad and pasta lunch special, and were pleased with our food, but not blown away by it. It was fine. I would certainly acquiesce to lunching there again on a return trip.
The overwhelming feeling I had dining in Ft. Wayne was the same as the feeling I had while driving around it – it’s much of the same we have here in Upstate NY. The food is all fine, without a ton of innovation or boundary-pushing, and the people seem OK with that. I really think writing the blog has made me into something of a snob, in that if my dessert doesn’t have smoked salt or basil lavender emulsions in it, or my appetizer isn’t kicked up with duck fat, pork belly, or bone marrow, I’m not all that impressed. I’m like the damn Makayla Martell of food. But I can still appreciate pedestrian food that’s executed well and tastes great, and there were some good examples of this aesthetic to be found in Ft. Wayne.
We’re nearing the end of 2012, Big Hungries, and you know what that means: I’m tallying my thoughts of everywhere I’ve eaten this year for the 2012 Big Hungry Awards. I hope to have them ready for you next week, so get ready for a round-up of yummies! In the meantime, remember that our friends downstate are still hurting and starting to rebuild from that bitch Sandy’s assault. If you’d still like to give, try Governor Cuomo’s organization: Empire State Relief Fund. Governor Cuomo visited the Southern Tier yesterday, and our site was part of his itinerary. I was touched by how concerned he and his staff members are about the storm victims downstate, and how much help we all got last year when our area was flooded. Please help if you can. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!