By Donovan Wheeler
- National Road Magazine Senior Editor
I’m not the worldliest traveler, but I have been to most of the US states, and dozens of its cities. I was impressed by the glitz of Vegas and the eclectic atmosphere in San Francisco. I marveled at the majesty of Washington, D.C. and enjoyed the charm of Memphis. Charleston’s Rainbow Row astounded me and no place gives off that big-city feel for more than Chicago. However, despite a lifetime of stops, no city won me over quite as much as New Orleans. Over a span of four days in the summer of 2011, my Fiancée and I sweated out a very warm, mid-morning line for a beignet and coffee at Café du Monde. We admired the artwork in Jackson Square, went on a historical coach tour of the French Quarter in the middle of the night. The evening Jazz on Frenchman Street showed us how beautiful sounded when it echoed in mellow softness, and the deafening horns of the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar showed us that the Big Easy could also belt it out fast-paced and edgy.
—–But good music and appealing scenery aside, my favorite part of the trip, hands down, was the food. In doorway-after-doorway, we stepped into one tiny hovel after another. Small, eccentric restaurants with a handful of tables, a typically quiet and intimate atmosphere, all wrapped up in an experience which felt “non-corporate” and further made the act of simply sitting in each joint often times more exciting than enjoying the food. Oh, and the food…
—–Long after leaving the Crescent City, I always wondered if I’d ever stumble onto an environment like that again, but fewer than two years later I did…in Greencastle of all places. In Chief’s, chef and owner Steve Geabes has created a dining experience that reminds me of that fantastic trip to the South every time I step through the door. The closed-quarter setting, the salmon colored walls, the Mardi Gras paraphernalia littered on shelves and rails (complete with an array of the city’s signature, dangling beads), and the mock brick-front window-service wall separating the dining room from the kitchen almost perfectly mimics the feel of so many little places peppered throughout the Quarter.
—–On a normal night, Chief’s menu stands as one of the best dining experiences in Western Indiana. My favorite dish, the Franklin Street Chicken, blends a healthy cut of breast with a delicious layer of barbecue sauce, some Swiss cheese, onions, and finally peppers. Throw in a side of potato salad and green beans, and it’s a perfect transition meal from Midwestern comfort foods to the spicier, zestier, more Cajun items on the menu.
—–In late January, however, I had the chance to sit-in for Geabes’ 24th Beer Dinner, an event the owner used to host frequently, but now offers seasonally. According to Geabes, he was first inspired by a similar tradition Rick Rhine started when he ran the former Greencastle haunt called The Rock House. A handful of years later, after Geabes had opened his Cajun restaurant, his beer supplier, Jared Brentlinger, encouraged him to resurrect the event.
—–I knew Geabes could make great food, but when the opening course arrived I began to appreciate just how versatile his talents went. We started with an Arugula salad which included bits of bacon, tiny chunks of grapefruit (an interesting addition I’ve never experienced in a salad), feta cheese, and a very tasty citrus dressing. Accompanying the dish was one of my personal favorite beers, Barley Island Brewing Company’s Dirty Helen, made in Noblesville. I’ve written at length about the uniqueness of this brown ale, and it remains one of my top three favorites, not just for the taste but the atmosphere it exudes from the character of its labeling and the environment where it’s made.
—–We transitioned to the second course, staying with the Noblesville Brewery but switching to another delicious dark beer: Brass Knuckles Oatmeal Stout. Like a lot of stouts, this brew is full-bodied but unlike many of them, it packed less of an alcoholic punch. Adjoining the beer, Geabes served us a soup made legendary in the 1990’s sitcom, Seinfeld: a Mulligatawny. When the chef rattled off the number ingredients he ended up listing almost twenty. Without question, the soup was my favorite dish of the night. Very spicy and extremely full, the buttery liquid mixed well with the curry and rice and produced a fantastic experience. Even now, I still occasionally daydream about that cup of soup.
—–The night closed with the final two courses: first, Sierra Nevada’s Porter served with a roast pork loin, mashed potatoes, and a porter-based gravy; and second, a huge slab of ginger cake smothered with bourbon sauce served with Cutters Brewing Company’s (Avon, IN) Empire Stout—a potent beer clocking in at 10% alcohol. Both plates were amazing, and by the end of the night I was so full I practically needed to dribble my stomach to the car.
—–The most personally satisfying element of the entire evening happened when Geabes mentioned during the first course, in an off-handed fashion, that what he most enjoys about the beer dinners is the opportunity to experiment and break away from the traditional menu. He also announced that Chief’s would be making some future tweaks and changes to their normal routine as well. Whatever he has in store, if it’s half as good as what I sampled on the evening of the beer dinner, it’s probably going to be phenomenal.