Daniel Orr says his new culinary complex in Bloomington, IN, is all about letting him “get in touch with his inner Hoosier.” We know his Midwestern roots must run deep, because this Indiana native ran the kitchens at some of the finest restaurants in the country before heading back home for his first shot as a chef/owner. Surprisingly, he's doing it at a self-imagined concept where his prodigious cooking skills are only part of the attraction.
Orr, a Johnson & Wales grad, went to Europe after graduation to work at a pair of three-Michelin-starred restaurants, returning to the U.S. to become executive chef at palatial French cuisine standout Lespinasse in New York City's St. Regis hotel. In 1999, he moved on to Sir Terence Conran's ultra-hip (and, at 25,000 square feet and 500 or so seats, ultra-big) Guastavino's, located under Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge. In 2004, Orr channeled his inner beach bum by moving on to a stint as executive chef at CuisinArt Resort & Spa in Anguilla, British West Indies.
Just three years later, Orr, who had the luxury of drawing from the on-property hydroponic farm and organic gardens while at the CuisinArt Resort, found himself cruising the back roads of central Indiana in search of farmers who could supply his new venture with the region's best products. He found plenty, and this January he opened FARMbloomington in a 6,500-sq. ft. space in the former Odd Fellows Building in downtown Bloomington.
So did this distinguished chef open a high-end restaurant to showcase his culinary chops? There's one of those, to be sure, and it's open for lunch during the week, for supper Tuesday through Saturday and for weekend brunch. But the restaurant component of FARMbloomington is just one facet of Orr's new operation, which is designed to attract patrons in every daypart on every day of the week, no matter their budget or taste.
Beside the restaurant, there's also a market that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, offers takeout and sells gift baskets and gourmet food items, most of them made by Orr. It's open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. The bar serves a dandy lineup of small plates and pizzas that Orr dubs “Hoosier tapas” and “FARMpies” from 4 p.m. until closing seven days a week. Opening soon is the Root Cellar, a club in FARMbloomington's basement that will offer food, drinks and live blues and jazz Thursday through Saturday. Also set to open is an outside walk-up “Alley Window” that will serve sweet and savory crepes plus Belgian waffles to hungry passersby.
It's no wonder Orr calls it a culinary “complex.” But there is a unifying theme: the food at each component emphasizes fresh, local ingredients that represent the best of the heartland, all of it prepared by a world-class chef. Instead of coming off as a big city know-it-all, Orr is as local as a local can be, albeit one whose knowledge of world cuisines can lift the area's bounty to new heights.
It makes for a good fit in Bloomington, a town of 70,000 permanent residents plus 37,000 students who attend Indiana University. Pretension doesn't go far here, but there are plenty of adventurous eaters who have been waiting for a place along the lines of FARMbloomington to open.
What's on those menus? The market food lineup has an all-day café feel. Customer can, for instance, start their day with a basket of Gramma Kolb's Buttermilk Biscuits with apple butter ($7). Then they could return for lunch at the restaurant to sample a couple of small plates like FARMfamous Parmesan, garlic and chili fries with turmeric aioli ($6) or curry baked chicken wings with sweet & sour tamarind sauce ($9).
For dinner, they might grab a FARMpie ($10 on up to $16 for the Francaise with braised snails, herbs, white beans, spinach and garlic) or go big at the restaurant with a starter of Anguillan tuna ceviche with coconut water and white balsamic ($16) and a “principal plate” of sorghum-glazed double pork chop with daily roots and greens ($24) or local elk loin served with country fruit reduction, Gorgonzola & toasted walnut grits ($32). Or they could simply opt for a FARMburger, 10 oz. of Hoosier grass-fed beef, greens & fries ($14). All desserts go for $6.50. There's a full bar with a dynamite beer list, both bottled and draft, and a small but sophisticated wine list.
Orr's approach is one answer to the question many accomplished chefs and restaurateurs face mid-career. If you want to have several irons in the fire to make more money, why not have all of them under one roof? And why not make the place somewhere close to where you grew up? “I've come home to embrace my Midwest sensibilities,” Orr tells the Indianapolis Star. “I think that's a very sophisticated thing to do.” Amen.