BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Upland Brewing Company’s Bloomington Brew Pub is a popular place, abuzz with the energy, the chatter, and the laughter of people having good times. Regulars crowd up to the bar and grab the best tables early; less fortunate latecomers might have to wait a few minutes to sit down, even during warm months when the beer garden is open. The beer is a big draw at Upland, of course, but so, with the kitchen under the direction of Chef Seth Elgar, is the food. The British coined the word “gastropub” to signify a neighborhood establishment that takes both its drinking and its eating very, very seriously. Upland is a gastropub, albeit one with a Hoosier twang.
That means that, while the menu offers the usual bar-food standards—hamburgers, chili, and pizza, for instance—the hamburgers are made with local beef, the Italian sausage on the pizza comes from a nearby farm, and the chili is made from Indiana buffalo. There are less conventional gems as well, like the sweet and piquant Watermelon Feta Salad; seared sustainable salmon with luscious wasabi mashed potatoes; the unexpected Sri Lankan spiced vegetables and lentils that graced a recent specials menu; and the killer, not-to-be-missed, chocolate porter cake with chocolate whipped cream.
Chef Elgar knows the value of just-harvested seasonal food; he grew up on an Indiana farm where the pork, beef, chicken, eggs, and vegetables his family ate were all home-grown. At 18, he took that taste for fresh food with him when he left home for two-and-a-half years of culinary school in Chicago and several months of cooking in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Back in Bloomington after finishing a B.A. at Purdue, he worked for restaurateurs Jeff and Candace Finch, first at Trulli Flatbread and then at Finch’s Brasserie as a sous chef.
Now 30, Elgar has been at Upland for nearly two years. He has kept the place’s long tradition of providing first class “pub grub,” like the aforementioned hamburgers and the crispy fish and chips, and of catering to vegetarians and vegans. If he even thinks about taking the seitan tenderloin sandwich off the menu he gets “threatened,” he laughs. But he also focuses on weekly specials (the best of which join the menu on its thrice-yearly changes) and dishes that showcase the best of what southern Indiana has to offer—gorgeous local produce from Heartland Family Farm, meat from Fischer Farms, cheeses from Capriole and Traders Point Creamery, and herbs from Upland’s own rooftop garden. The fall menu will feature comfort foods, like Elgar’s version of cassoulet and charcuterie and cheese boards that will showcase local artisan-cured meats and cheeses.
Elgar loves cooking in Bloomington where, he says, residents “have such a great imagination for food.” With a kitchen expansion coming up, his own imagination is at work as well. He is planning to host more beer dinners and more community events like Hillbilly Haiku, an Americana music series, and the Local Growers Guild’s annual Harvest Dinner. “We are big on the karma bank around here,” he says. “These people support us, so we support them,” a community spirit that is reflected in Upland’s happy buzz.