Why Milktooth Chef Jonathan Brooks Can't Get Enough of Indianapolis
By Tyler Moss. Photos: Courtesy Milktooth, Courtesy St. Elmo Steakhouse, Courtesy General Public Collective.
With a robust restaurant scene, vibrant arts community, and peaceful parks, Indianapolis is now way more than "naptown." Below, Indy native Brooks—the owner of one of our favorite brunch places (in the world) Milktoothand soon-to-open dinner spot Beholder—offers an as-told-to tour of his hometown.
I grew up in Indianapolis in the '80s and '90s, and have lived here all but nine years. I spent time on the West Coast and in Chicago, but Indianapolis has been my primary residence my whole life. I remember having to drive a long way to go to any restaurants. We rode our bikes all summer long anywhere we needed to go. Things were sprawling—and are still somewhat sprawling—but back then everything was kind of a destination.
People hate on [St. Elmo's] because it always gets mentioned, but I still love it. I’ll go on a date or a night off, and drink Old Fashioneds and eat shrimp cocktail.
Today, the city is booming because a lot of young people who moved away to other cities are coming back. That’s certainly the case for me. I was one of the first young people [in Indianapolis] to own a restaurant as opposed to just being a chef. The more that happens, the better the food is. Investors allowing the chef to have ownership of the restaurant is hugely important. Normally, dining teams tend to move around chefs like chess pieces. And here, over two and a half years, I’ve been able to make my own mistakes and take my own risks, and that’s huge in why we’ve been successful. If that continues, the restaurants here will get better and better.
Indianapolis is less self-conscious than other places. Big cities are hypersensitive to what the next guy is doing. Here, there’s a really healthy spirit to competition. There used to be maybe one decent restaurant downtown or up north, but [the chefs] never communicated, never vibed off each other, never ate in each other’s restaurants. Today, we go to each other’s events; eat in each other’s dining rooms. That sprawl is getting less. There are more little food areas that really thrive off of one another.
Milktooth is in a neighborhood called Fletcher Place, and there’s a great spot across the street from me called Rook. My friend Carlos Salazar is the chef there. He does Asian-inspired comfort food—ramen, dumplings, whole fried fish. The pig-face hash is one my favorite things. Down the street is Bluebeard, which was probably the first great restaurant in this neighborhood. It leans more Italian, with small plates and large portions to share. I always get bucatini with crème fraîche and lemon zest. The pickled herring with chips is also great.
Downtown, there’s a brand-new restaurant called Stella that’s kind of modern-Mediterranean inspired. I had a great dish of hummus and harissa there, and also a smoked mackerel toast and a rabbit pappardelle. The chef is Neal Brown, who owns Pizzology and a bar called Libertine, which I frequent pretty often. St. Elmo’s is a big, throwback-style steakhouse that’s been around for 100 years. People hate on it because it always gets mentioned, but I still love it. I’ll go on a date or a night off, and drink Old Fashioneds and eat shrimp cocktail.
There’s another great restaurant in the area where I’m opening my new restaurant—off 10th Street, around Woodruff Place—called Love Handle. It’s mostly a sandwich shop, but also does breakfast. You can get cured pork heart and veal tongue, sliced and added to your biscuits and gravy. Thunderbird [near Fountain Square] does kind of a themed, changing menu, like Trick Dog in San Francisco. And I love having margaritas at a place called [La Margarita](http://lamargaritaindy.com/) down the street from Milktooth. They also have an amazing tequila and mezcal list.
I love the music scene here—there's an amazing array of local music every night, at venues like HI-FI, State Street Pub, Pioneer. There are great art galleries, as well. General Public Collective hosts everything from performance art to painting exhibits. My head barista, Benny Sanders, opened a gallery [called Standard Studio Gallery]. There’s also the [Garfield Park Farmers Market](http://garfieldparkfarmersmarket.com/) that my ex-wife, Ashley Brooks, started. I’m a huge supporter of her and what she’s done.
Fletcher Place has the Cultural Trail, which runs through Garfield Square and Fletcher Place to downtown. It’s awesome to see people riding bikes, and walking with their kids. We get plenty of walk-in business from it. My son goes to school at IMA—the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is also connected to 100 Acres [Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park].
I opened Milktooth in 2014 because I feel like in the pursuit of great food, a lot of times, the fun is lost. Restaurants are too pretentious, too precious, too quiet, and predictable. I wanted to do something fun and energetic, young and happy. And I think we’ve definitely succeeded in that. We pushed the boundaries on the quality of food that we use for a breakfast restaurant. We work at a very small profit margin because I refuse to buy and cook with shitty ingredients. Breakfast, brunch, even lunch is an afterthought in some restaurants, but here, we made it our goal to provide the same kind of quality, the same kind of craft. We’re doing it playing loud music and having a good time.
Restaurants are too pretentious, too precious, too quiet, and predictable. I wanted to do something fun and energetic, young and happy.
We don’t have a huge cuisine of our own [in Indianapolis], though there’s a lot of Midwestern comfort food. I think we kind of get roped into Bible Belt-kind of cuisine: heavy food that expands your mid-section—stews, casseroles, pies. But I think that’s changing now.
One of my favorite parts of the year is when my friends from Full Hand Farm have amazingly sweet, almost candy-flavored heirloom cherry tomatoes. My lamb purveyor is a farm called Viking, and I’d put them up there with best lamb I’ve ever tasted. We have great pork from Connersville, Indiana. We use duck eggs every day here at Milktooth, from Heritage Meadows [Farm].
[My new restaurant] is called Beholder, and will be in the Woodruff Place area. We’re hoping to open in October. My partner is a sommelier who worked at [the restaurant] Recess with me back in the day, which actually just closed. We’ll be [wine focused](http://www.cntraveler.com/gallery/the-best-wine-regions-to-visit-in-2017), and have a tasting menu as well as à la carte. It’s definitely going to be fine dining, but a modern, more casual expression of fine dining—pushing the limits of what’s been done in Indianapolis. It’ll be unpretentious, fun, honest food that highlights Indiana ingredients with new techniques and surprising presentations. I want people to tell who I am or pick up on something I’ve experienced through the food they’re eating.
This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.
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