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Indy's Wright of passage?: Conrad's renowned chef could beef up city's culinary reputation

November 21, 2005

"It gives [Indianapolis] a big-league chef," said John Mariani, food and travel correspondent for Esquire magazine, when asked about Wright's arrival. "It's about time a city like Indianapolis has a restaurant of this caliber."

Wright left the kitchen at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He and his wife, Delia, an executive with a restaurantproducts distributor, chose Indianapolis partly because she has business contacts here.

Jonathan is accustomed to pleasing an eclectic range of diners. He previously punched dough and caramelized tenderloins at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in England and Raffles Hotel in Singapore-two icons of the international dining scene.

Tourism officials here are ecstatic.

"The thought of having someone who is being watched as a national celebrity among our chefs is amazing," said Kiera Amstutz, an assistant deputy mayor and self-professed foodie.

The city's gastronomic landscape may be changed forever when the 243-room hotel opens in early April on the northeast corner of Washington and Illinois streets. Mariani will visit the city shortly thereafter. That means other high-profile reviews will surely follow, putting a national spotlight on the city's restaurant scene.

"If I'm doing it, then Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazine are going to look at the guy," Mariani said.

When the critics arrive, they won't find the complicated food for which Wright is known. They'll find staples of the Midwest diet with a cosmopolitan twist. In other words, roast chicken and beef casserole with multi-syllabic French names.

"The goal is to elevate meat and potatoes to a highly refined dish that everybody can understand," the 38-year-old Wright said.

Just don't mistake simple for simplistic.

Take one of Wright's favorite breakfast items: poached eggs with asparagus and mushrooms. For Wright it's as delicate as international diplomacy. He starts with locally grown asparagus that is individually peeled to remove the stringy outer layer. The eggs are carefully poached in water with exactly 20 grams of salt per liter. The morel mushrooms are from a specific area of Oregon.

"Is it complicated?" he asked. "Not to the guest."

On a recent Wednesday, Wright sat in his temporary office at 30 S. Meridian St. in a finely tailored pinstriped suit and spoke with a subtle British accent about his plans for the two restaurants at what developers hope will be the first Indiana hotel to win a five-diamond rating from the American Automobile Association. Room rates will start at $249.

Wright plans to give the same attention to every aspect of the Conrad's restaurant operations as he does the poached eggs. The flagship will be the 213-seat Le Soleil, which will be housed in the two buildings immediately east of the Conrad. It'll be connected to the hotel's lobby. He'll also oversee everything from the chocolate boutique to the temperature of the wines in the lounge area, which will be known as Vitesse.

"Wine tends to be served too cold over here," Wright said. He'll make sure it's served one or two degrees warmer than other local restaurants so it's not "dead on the palate."

Wright attributes the obsessive attention to detail to his childhood. Both of his grandparents were farmers so, as a child, he learned the importance of knowing what the livestock ate. He realized lambs that graze on wild thyme taste minty. Lambs that graze in marshes near the ocean taste salty.

That's why he's trying to meet as many local farmers as possible. He wants to know the growing environments for all his products. If he can't find what he wants, he may ask local farmers to grow it for him. Wright perfected his style in New Orleans, where he made three trips a week to the local farmer's market with a "truck and a pocketful of cash."

The approach led critics in New Orleans, such as Tom Fitzmorris of The New Orleans Menu and Brett Anderson of The Times-Picayune, to lavish him with praise.

"Wright was arguably the city's most ground-breaking chef, and certainly among its most gifted," Anderson wrote.

"I especially liked his way of turning a single flavor into its own mini-tasting, with several variations on the item," Fitzmorris said in an e-mail response to an IBJ inquiry. "I was also amused with the way he turned liquids into solids and vice versa."

Despite the dapper image, massive vocabulary and international pedigree, Wright is surprisingly down-to-earth. In a tour of the Conrad construction site, he splashed through puddles in his pricey leather wingtips and amiably chatted with welders and pipe fitters. Befitting his British nationality, he concluded conversations with a good-natured, "Cheers."

Gourmands and chefs think Wright is arriving at the perfect time. Amstutz said the fine dining scene is "exploding." A few chefs, such as Regina Mehallick at R Bistro and Greg Hardesty at Elements, already approach their menus with the same local fervor. And the crowds at their doors are growing.

"There is a trend sweeping the nation of people wanting to eat more local foods," Mehallick said. "They're realizing it doesn't have to come from across the country. It can come in a van from down the street."

Esquire's Mariani, however, had a few parting words of caution. Maisonette, a French restaurant in Cincinnati, closed its doors in July after winning 41 consecutive Mobil five-star awards. That's the equivalent of the Pacers' going out of business after winning the NBA Finals.

Maisonette's closest competitor in Cincinnati, meanwhile, is still open. Jean-Robert at Pigall's has kept prices down and listened to customers, not critics, Mariani said.

"If people don't like [Wright's food], he'll have to adjust his menu," he said. "He's also going to have to keep it at a certain price level."

Wright looks forward to the challenge.

"When you have a great stage and great tools, what else do you want in life?"

He expects entree prices to range from $16 to $25. Appetizers will range from $8.50 to $12. That is, unless one opts for the most upscale items, such as the dryaged steak or caviar bar.
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