BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Got a hankering for some classic American comfort food with just enough of an edge to keep your taste buds from feeling too complacent? How about creamy cavatappi (helical tube-shaped) macaroni and five (count ’em,fi ve!) cheeses, studded with the fresh zing of jalapeño peppers? Or fish and chips, spicy enough to bite back when you sink your teeth into the crispy batter? Wings, smoked and baked instead of deep fried, served traditional Buffalo-style or with Middle Eastern za’atar and honey? Or an all-American ice cream oat, where the rich Chocolate Moose ice cream melts into a velvety pint of Quaff On! Common Necessity Hazelnut Stout? Big Woods Bloomington has your number.
The charming house near the corner of North Grant and East 6th streets where the Nashville, Indiana–based enterprise now lives has not always been a new American restaurant and taproom with a beer garden tucked away in the back. Not long ago it was the Pan-Asian Cafe Django that resided there. But Big Woods Bloomington — known as Quaff On! before that name was assigned solely to the beer garden — is in thorough possession of the cozy space now.
Big Woods Bloomington is not, so far, as multibranded as its original Nashville parent (which combines a Big Woods restaurant and smokehouse with the Big Busted Bar and Big Woods Pizza to form what employees call Big Woods Village) or as huge as its Big Woods Speedway cousin that puts pizzeria, restaurant, and beer garden under one roof. Instead Big Woods Bloomington is a homey pub where 24 beers flow on tap and the food is casual, fun, and delicious. Even more casual, the newly opened beer garden, with authentic German benches made for young, well-padded rear ends, has its own menu and kitchen and serves only Quaff On! brewery beers.
The Big Woods enterprise is owned by Jeff McCabe, Ed Ryan (an IU alum), brewer Tim O’Bryan, and Jim Dunbar, but the Bloomington branch is headed up by General Manager and Chef Dan Nichols. Nichols designed everything on the Bloomington menu except for a few signature dishes such as the Big Woods Pulled Pork Nachos. Nichols is also the designer of the JB Burger. JB stands for the renowned James Beard Foundation that ran the nationwide contest for a healthier and more sustainable burger — ingredients had to include 25 percent mushrooms as well as a protein. To his surprise (and chagrin), Nichols’ arugula and Tulip Tree Creamery brie–topped burger, made from crimini and porcini mushrooms and a Butcher’s Block blend of sirloin, short rib, and ground chuck, won first place. Now the 13-ingredient burger is a hit on the menu and Nichols is wishing he’d come up with a simpler creation.
Nichols’ goal is to source as much of his food locally as seasonality allows. Except, of course, for the exotic game and fowl that he loves to feature in weekend specials. It’s a pretty good bet that the main ingredients in Creole Alligator Risotto, Antelope Lasagna, and Kangaroo Strudel don’t come from Indiana farms. Just another Nichols tweak on the familiar comfort food that Hoosiers love.