by CHRISTINE BARBOUR
When Lennie’s opened in Crosstown Plaza in 1989, the goal of its owners, Jeff Mease and Lennie Busch, was to create a near-campus spot that would be home to students, faculty, and staff.
Lennie’s served great food, it was easy to get to, and there was almost always parking. With the birth of the Bloomington Brewing Co. in 1994, housed in the same 10th Street strip mall as Lennie’s, the location was perfect. But a couple of years ago, when the prospect of a mall renovation made continuing there difficult, they found perhaps the one place that could make Lennie’s even better.
With its new location on East Kirkwood, only half a block from the Sample Gates, Lennie’s isn’t just near campus, it’s practically on campus. What’s more, with the new space, Lennie’s inherited the amazing wood-burning oven that was once the heart of the previous occupant, the now-defunct Finch’s Brasserie. Bonus—multiple noise-abatement features have been installed so the room no longer sounds like a cacophony of voices in which you cannot distinguish that of your dining companions. The dining room is filled with soft light, the kitchen is open, and the whole place feels warm and welcoming.
The food even tastes better than it did in the original venue. That wood oven gives a new touch to Lennie’s pizza, a classic, sturdy Midwestern pie that can stand up to multiple toppings. It’s also prompted the addition of a thin, crispier-crust pizza that doesn’t quite transport you to Italy, but comes close. You can get it with all the toppings, but you can savor the wonderful crust better if you keep the ingredients simple. The roasted vegetables now do their roasting in the new oven, and they emerge smoky and sweet, served with the sharp tang of tarragon mayonnaise.
The rearranged kitchen space at the new Lennie’s means the pasta dishes are cooked to order rather than prepped and heated in the oven. If you ask Mease which one you should try, he’ll recommend the mushroom and chicken tortellini. And he’s right. The pasta is perfectly cooked and the punch of garlic in the sauce makes your taste buds zing.
Although this isn’t due to the new space, Lennie’s now serves a dynamite lemon herb tofu sandwich with pesto on ciabatta. With a side of sweet potato fries, at once meltingly soft and crispy, it’s a lunch you can love. That same tofu can be substituted for meat in other dishes and salads.
Salads, of course, have always been central to Lennie’s menu and they have come across town intact. The heaped plates of colorful vegetables, meat or tofu, and sometimes a sweet bite of fruit are eye-catchers. If you haven’t ordered one, when you watch them being delivered to another table and look at your own plate of lovely food, you wonder if you can make room.
But if you do have room, give serious thought to dessert. Lennie’s still has its mini-indulgences and a killer, chocolatey Original Sin—a housemade double-chocolate brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and caramel sauce. But a bit of synergy from Mease and Busch’s new restaurant, Hive, puts a fabulous housemade cream soda and an even better root beer on Lennie’s menu. Add some Chocolate Moose ice cream to make a dreamy, creamy, root beer float. If you haven’t had one since you were a kid, it’s time you remember what you’ve been missing.