by CHRISTINE BARBOUR
When serious Bloomington diners, already spoiled for choice in town, decide to look farther afield, Indy is usually their goal. Or Louisville. Maybe Cincinnati.
Here’s a bit of unexpected good news: Amazing crispy fish and chips, savory shrimp and pork belly grits, and a killer apple cake a la mode can all be found much closer. In Martinsville.
Yes, that Martinsville, the place you cut through on your way to the airport. Chef Matt Harakal is giving you a reason to make it a destination, not a byway.
At the beginning of the year, Harakal bought 21 North, at 21 N. Jefferson St., on Martinsville’s downtown square—and coincidentally, just 21 miles north of Bloomington. He had already been cooking there for the previous owners when they decided to relocate, and he jumped in to buy it. He hopes his commitment to fresh, local ingredients, and the warm, welcoming brick-walled interior will encourage people to give Martinsville a second look.
Originally from Ohio, Harakal, 49, has cooked all over the country. Johnson & Wales trained, with skills honed by years of cooking for the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, he settled in Paoli, Indiana, for family reasons. Harakal relishes the commute to Martinsville to his own kitchen where he gets to spend time with his own crew (who have been with him through several earlier cooking gigs) and his own community of people out for a good meal.
And that’s what it’s all about for Chef Matt. If you ask him about his future goals for the place, he seems slightly stymied by the question. “We just want to make good food,” he says, surprised that the answer might be anything else. “Full of flavor, and rich. If we are going to make fish and chips, we just want to make good fish and chips.”
Harakal’s terrific fish and chips are definitely “good food.” They are only on the lunch menu, though, so if you go for dinner you’ll have to make do with a nice, fat, smoked pork chop from Fischer Farms, topped with red onion jam; or a fresh catch of the day (halibut on mushroom risotto on one lucky occasion, seared scallops on another); a burger made from a blend of premium and short rib beef, with a “21” branded on the bun; or whatever the season dictates. It’s all good.
But do save room for dessert. The apple cake looks deceptively pedestrian, but it is a knockout. The apples taste like candy, the cake is tender, and it comes with vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and … well, just get it. They may also have a sensational blueberry mascarpone cake, and it’s a winner, too, but if you can’t have both, choose the apple.
While he doesn’t rule out future expansion to other ventures, Harakal’s focus is on building a loyal clientele for his place. He likes nothing better than to circulate through the dining room after a hot night in the kitchen to hear regulars and first-timers say, “We’ll see you next time, Chef.” That comaraderie between diners and kitchen is key for him and keeps him thinking up new menu items and nightly specials and planning new meal pairings with local breweries and distilleries to strengthen the tie. “I just love being a part of that,” he says.