BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
The gracious 150-year-old building that once housed the Scholars Inn Gourmet Café and Wine Bar has long been Bloomington’s most romantic restaurant, evoking nostalgia with its Victorian architecture, charming sun porch, and softly lit dining room.
It still is, even though the business, along with the Bakehouse on the Square, is newly in the hands of Garrett Hibiske and Ken Davenport, owners of Black Canyon Restaurant in Fort Wayne. The two have shortened the restaurant’s name to the more generic Gourmet Café. And because they have had the excellent good sense to entrust the kitchen to Bloomington native and Chicago-trained chef Matt Plaisier and the front of the house to his wife, Molly Otto, it is a terrific place for a romantic dinner, a couple of casual small plates, or a sunny weekend brunch.
In its early months, the Gourmet Café featured a mostly Italian menu with a few outliers like the steak filet that had been a stalwart at the Scholars Inn, and a rich-and-cheesy French onion soup. Some of those Italian entrees survive, including one of the best eggplant parmesans ever—fat, meaty slices of crispy eggplant in an herby and delicious marinara sauce. It is served with spaghetti alfredo, but traditionalists can order the pasta with marinara sauce. The chicken parmesan is equally fabulous.
But as we move into spring and summer, the menu will become more broadly Mediterranean. Chef Matt is dreaming of Greek Isle and North African flavors, and itching to shop at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market that he remembers from his childhood, before the family moved to Washington, D.C., to accommodate his mom’s job in then-Congressman Frank McCloskey’s office.
Matt has been teasing that new menu with spectacular specials like savory braised bison short ribs; butternut squash frico with green herb sauce, basil Greek yogurt sauce, chili oil, and toasted pumpkin seeds; a grilled confit octopus with caramelized broccolini and cauliflower, hot peppers, mint, and fried lemons; and fregola (an Italian pasta not unlike Israeli cous cous) with pickled red onion, Kalamata olives, heirloom tomatoes, Calabrian chilies, preserved lemons, and lemony Greek yogurt. The flavors are clean, bright, vivid, and delicious, conjuring the hot sun, the blue sea, and the rocky beaches of the Mediterranean.
Although Matt has cooked for years in the Chicago area, his last gig was at a farm-to-table restaurant in Champaign, Illinois, where Molly’s parents live, and he’s excited about continuing that philosophy in his kitchen here. The two enjoy working together, although Molly was at the Gourmet Café first while Matt was home with their two toddler boys, born a year apart—to the day. Fortunately for Bloomington diners, they have family nearby to support a schedule that allows them both to work in the restaurant now. Mediterranean food fantasies await!