It might have been made for romance. Secluded, cozy, intimate, the Scholars Inn Gourmet Café and Wine Bar sits on a hilly perch a few blocks north of Bloomington’s Square, set back from the bustle and haste of downtown traffic. Wrapped in leaves and history, the 150-year-old building feels like a world unto itself.
But the food on the menu has an edgy modern touch that belies the restaurant’s ante-bellum ambiance. While his guests woo each other in the elegant dining rooms or on the patio, executive chef Jake Brenchley conducts his own love affair in the kitchen, marrying his fascination with South African cuisine and Asian flavors with “American contemporary food done in a French way.”
The dishes that result awaken Hoosier taste buds. As interpreted by Brenchley, the 2007 winner of the Bloomington Chef’s Challenge, the South African palate combines sweet and savory, mixing lots of fruit and hearty grains with exotic touches like pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water, and tamarind paste. To that he adds some spicy northern African accents like chermoula and harissa and lots of Asian flavors—ginger, hoisin, lemongrass.
On the plate that might mean scallops, seared, with fruit and vegetable salad in a Thai coconut broth, served with mailie pap, a South African polenta cake. Or beef short ribs, braised in a classic style, but with tamarind paste added to the veal stock braising liquid to give it a different, almost sour edge. Or it might mean something as homey and comforting as a roasted chicken with mashed potatoes but nudged into complexity with a chermoula glaze.
But really, says Brenchley, he just likes to experiment, and no cuisine is off the table for him (witness the grilled skirt steak drenched with Mexican flavors of cumin, cilantro, and lime). Brenchley is open to new ideas, loving the stress of kitchen life and the fact that no two days are ever the same. His days, in fact, are hectic, as he divides his time between the restaurant in Bloomington, where he lives, and the newly renovated Scholars Inn in Indianapolis, where he spends about 80 percent of his time these days.
The two restaurants are just part of the expanded empire of owners Lyle and Kerry Feigenbaum, which includes the Scholars Inn Bed and Breakfast next door to the Café, three Scholars Inn Bakehouses (two in Bloomington, one in Broad Ripple), and the Scholars Inn Bakery on Highway 37 just north of Bloomington, where bread is baked for all the restaurants as well as for area grocery stores.
But you’d be forgiven for forgetting that all that exists as you sit on the balcony of the Café and Wine Bar, sipping cappuccino or wine, nibbling on one of the rich and decadent desserts on the menu, and looking deeply into the eyes of someone you love. High in the trees above Bloomington, it’s all about romance.