One of the great things about my job is that my boss allows me the opportunity to eat in some fine restaurants from time to time. While I usually will try to find a good burger, a juicy steak or a great pizza, when the opportunity arises to eat in an exquisite restaurant I'm not one to turn it down. I had the recent opportunity to do just that at a Creole gourmet restaurant in the small town of Roanoke, IN - Joseph Decuis.
Roanoke is located about 10 miles away from the southwest side of Fort Wayne, about halfway between Fort Wayne and Huntington. (see map) Roanoke is not unlike many of the hundreds of small towns across the Midwest that have fallen on hard times over the years. Once a thriving small town in the 1800's and well into the 20th century, the advent of cheap transportation and changing buying habits allowed for people to bypass the retailers and merchants in the small town for the "big city" of Fort Wayne. Many buildings in downtown Roanoke stood empty for years before a revitalization program in the 1990's began. And spearheading the renaissance were the Eshelman's - Pete; his wife, Alice; and Pete's brother, Tim.
Pete Eshelman was a minor league pitcher in the New York Yankees farm system in the mid-70's. A shoulder injury cut short his baseball career after a couple of seasons, so the Williams College graduate took a job in the front office of the Yankees working under the enigmatic George Steinbrenner. It was while working for the Yankees he discovered two important things that would affect his life. The first happened to be the concept of insuring sports and entertainment companies for long term contracts that they needed to take out on athletes and performers. The second discovery was a young aspiring actress who lived next door to him in Greenwich Village - a Denison College graduate who majored in theater and film, his future wife Alice.
Pete and Alice Eshelman - pictured at right.
The Eshelman's lived in Boston and New Orleans before a business opportunity found them settling in Roanoke in 1986. It was in the basement of their house in 1989 that American Specialty Insurance was formed along with Pete's brother, Tim, a finance man with a background in insurance. American Specialty Insurance describes themselves as the industry leader when it comes to insuring both professional and amateur sports organizations, teams and leagues, motorsports organizations, and entertainment entities such as amusement parks, casinos, convention centers, special events and horse tracks.
Whenever a client would come to town, the Eshelman's would cook dinner at their house. Quickly deciding that entertaining clients in their home with three young children was difficult, they bought the old bank in Roanoke and set up a small entertaining area complete with a kitchen and dining room. It was there that many of the deals that made American Specialty Insurance one of the top insurance companies of its type in the world were consummated.
Word got out that there was this private dining place in Roanoke that was in the old bank that served hellaciously great food. In 2000, Alice Eshelman decided to open the Cafe Creole using recipes that were passed along within the family way back from ancestors who lived in Louisiana just after the Louisiana Purchase. One of those ancestors was a man by the name of Joseph Decuis. The Eshelman's eventually changed the name of the restaurant to Joseph Decuis (pronounced by the locals as De-KWEEZ, but the probably more authentic pronunciation, courtesy of my French-Canadian colleague, Simon, is De-KWEE). In fact, the logo for the restaurant is the actual signature of Joseph Decuis on his Last Will and Testament dated 1822.
The original executive chef at Joseph Decuis was Lisa Williams. However, since 2005 Aaron Butts has headed the kitchen operation at the restaurant. Butts started his career when Cafe Creole opened in 2000 as a line chef, but worked his way up through the ranks by showing his prowess not only in his culinary skills, but his management skills, as well. Located at the back of the main dining room in the original bank building, the kitchen is open and you can easily see Butts and his crew working on dinners for the patrons.
I happened to be in Fort Wayne working with my colleague, Simon, who heads the Focal Pro loudspeakers division for our company in North America. Our largest pro account is Sweetwater located in Fort Wayne. If Sweetwater was a restaurant or a grocery store, they would garner an entry on Road Tips just by the shear level of professionalism the company exhibits and how they present themselves within the professional music industry.
We were there to demonstrate to the Sweetwater sales staff and others who work there a high-end audio system consisting of a pair of the $180,000 dollar Focal Grande Utopia EM loudspeakers driven by a pair of Devialet D-Premier integrated amplifiers. The system was set up on the stage of Sweetwater's own 220 seat theater, a state-of-the-art facility that features custom-designed lighting, video and sound. (If you click on the picture, you can see the thin amplifiers laying on the stage with the speaker wire running to the loudspeakers.) Even though Sweetwater doesn't have the authorization to sell these speakers, we felt it would be good to expose the staff at Sweetwater as to what high-end esoteric audio is all about. And Focal and Devialet are certainly both leaders in high-end audio.
After packing up the system after a day of sound demonstrations, Simon suggested we go out to Joseph Decuis for dinner. It was only a 10 minute drive from our hotel and even though there was a light snow falling, it was an easy drive down a four-lane highway. My GPS took us right to the front door of Joseph Decuis. (See map) On the way, Simon had made reservations via Open Table on his smart phone. I've used Open Table a couple of times and I should probably use it more when I travel to larger cities. We walked in precisely at 7:15 p.m. The hostess sort of recognized Simon from previous visits (he's been there probably more than a half dozen times during his travels over the past couple of years to Sweetwater) and Simon saw that Aaron Butts was cooking in the kitchen. "Good," he said as he turned to me as we walked to our table. "Aaron is in the house!"
Joseph Decuis' culinary philosophy centers on the concept "farm to fork" meaning that they primarily use local organic grown beef, pork and chicken - some of it coming from their own farm, Heritage Farms. It's there that the Eshelman's raise Wagyu beef for their restaurant. Long considered the finest type of beef available for steaks in the world, Heritage Farms raises their Wagyu beef in an all-natural and humane fashion that they learned from the legendary Wagyu beef pioneer, Mr. Shogo Takeda. Joseph Decuis is the only restaurant in America that raises their own Wagyu beef for consumption at their dining establishment. Joseph Decuis also uses about a dozen other local organic farms to get vegetables, fish, cheese and humanely raised veal. There's even a Michigan City, IN farm they use to get caviar from salmon and whitefish from Lake Michigan.
We were seated in the atrium room just off the main dining room and kitchen of Joseph Decuis. It was the Christmas season and a brightly lit tree was the center piece of the room. Simon and I took a table along the wall and were given menus to look through. Simon's eyes lit up when first glanced at the menu. He said, "Oh, God. They have the Lobster Carbonara!" It's an appetizer and they take chunks of lobster meat, mix it with homemade Orecchiette pasta - kind of little round discs of pasta - then add homemade and cured pancetta with locally grown chanterelle mushrooms. They top it with a spinach style Swiss chard and then finish it off with homemade Sambal, a somewhat spicy pepper based sauce found in Southeast Asia. It was no wonder Simon was jumping up and down in his seat when he was describing it to me.
Our server for the evening, Nancy, came over to greet us. She looked remarkably like my wife's and my good friend Marcia Schroeder. Other than the long hair, she could have easily been Marcia's long-lost sister. She asked if we wanted anything to start out for a drink and Simon was already perusing the wine list. He said we were going to order some wine and we'd probably just go with that.
Simon told me, "The French wines on this list are cheap. Here's a 1999 Chateau Simard for $50 bucks!" I don't know French wines at all and when I asked if that was a good price, Simon replied, "It's a GREAT price!"
He let me look through the wine list at some of the Californian and South American wines they had that I was familiar with. The prices on those wines were a little high and I wouldn't have felt comfortable ordering something like that at those prices. I said, "Well, if the French wine is good and at a good price, let's just go with that."
The menu at Joseph Decuis changes periodically and one thing they did not have on the menu that evening was any of their locally farm-raised pork. I had seen that on the menu on line when I first looked up Joseph Decuis after Simon was telling me about it. (We had gotten into Fort Wayne on a Sunday night and we were considering going there that evening, until I found that they're closed on Sunday's.) The Wagyu beef strip steak was not a consideration at $75 bucks a pop. But they had a few other things that caught my eye.
They had osso bucco that evening, served with a butternut squash polenta with pan-fried brussels sprouts and chanterelle mushrooms. Simon told me, "The key to these things are the chanterelle mushrooms. They're just great."
Simon was telling me about the "Chef's Tasting" on the menu. For $90 bucks a person, Chef Aaron picks out the menu he wants to make for the table that evening and pairs each course with a wine. Simon was telling me about the time he came out with Bob Muller from Dangerous Music, known for their D-Box that is used in many high-end recording studios, and Fab Dupont, a New York-based writer, producer and mixer with whom we work closely with Focal Pro loudspeakers. Simon said that they sat down and almost immediately the first course with a glass of wine came to the table. Simon inquired, "What's this?"
Fab told him, "Oh, when I made reservations earlier, I told them we wanted the Chef's Tasting tonight." Simon told me that everything was outstanding.
Seafood and fresh fish seemed to dominate the menu that particular evening. Since the restaurant is based upon a Creole theme, they had a Creole black grouper etouffee on a bed of dirty rice and spinach. It was either that or the osso bucco. But Simon was also pushing the Massachusetts pan-fried diver scallops. "Heavenly," he described them as being.
When Nancy came back to the table to take our order, Simon immediately said, "Well, I need to get the lobster carbonara appetizer." I asked if it was big enough for two, Simon gave me a dirty look. He said, "Well, two could share it, but it's so good that I won't let you have any of mine."
I looked at Nancy and said, "We'll take two..."
Simon ordered the osso bucco and I took the Creole black grouper etouffee. For a good measure, I also wanted to try a small bowl of the "Gumbo du Jour" which that day was a homemade seafood gumbo.
Being that each item on the menu is made from scratch, the time between courses can be pretty long. That was OK as we weren't going anywhere in a hurry. It was great to relax with a little wine and conversation after listening to music all day long. Simon was telling me that some of the online reviews from people about Joseph Decuis weren't very flattering. He said that some he read were really ripping the place for slow service, overpriced food and not being a good value. I said, "This place is in the middle of farm country. I know those people. They probably heard about the place, thought they'd come here and get a steak and side of potatoes with a salad bar like any number of steakhouses or supper clubs throughout the Midwest. Then they see the only steak on the menu is $75 bucks and the other food is this eclectic, high-end fare that they have no idea what it is. They order something and decide they don't like it. This isn't the kind of place for those kind of people."
Simon told me, "I have no doubt that if this restaurant was anywhere other than this small town, like New York or Chicago, it would get at least one Michelin star." Simon has eaten in enough excellent restaurants that he would know.
Nancy and another server brought out our lobster carbonara. They sat the bowls down in front of us at the same time, another high-end restaurant custom. The lobster carbonara was - in a word - outstanding. At the first bite we both took, I looked at Simon and he looked at me and we immediately began to laugh. It was so friggin' good! The chopped chanterelle mushrooms were everything Simon said they'd be - they were plump, had an almost meaty consistency, had a great taste to them. Yes, he was right. The key was the mushrooms. But you couldn't overlook the big chunks of lobster along with the Sambal sauce they had. It wasn't all that spicy and had more of a taste like a spicy marsala sauce. And the pancetta had a nice somewhat smoky flavor to it, but it was very salty. So much so that I was drinking a lot of water to quench my thirst the rest of the night.
After we finished the lobster carbonara and about 10 minutes after our pasta bowls were removed, my seafood gumbo came to the table. It had large chunks of seafood swimming in a smoky broth, topped with a dollop of steamed rice and chopped green onions. It was very good. I offered a bite to Simon and he said that it was very good, as well. I can't say that it was the best gumbo I've ever had, but it was up there.
About 20 minutes after Nancy took my gumbo bowl away, two other servers brought out the Creole black grouper etouffee and Simon's osso bucco. Of course, the presentation was exquisite. Simon's meal was placed in a large rimmed bowl and featured a nice size chunk of veal shank with the center-cut bone rising as the centerpiece of the meal surrounded by the polenta, brussels sprouts, fingerling carrots, sliced potatoes and, of course, the chanterelle mushrooms.
My Creole black grouper etouffee also sat majestically on the plate, with large chunks of seasoned grouper covered in an etouffee sauce sitting on top of the dirty rice and the cooked spinach. From the first bite, we both began to laugh again - it was just outstanding.
We traded bites of our meals. Simon gave me a chunk of his osso bucco and it was moist, juicy and overly flavorful. He said that he thought my grouper was pretty good, too. He told me, "I think the best osso bucco I've ever had was that place out in Vegas (Panevino). But this comes close."
He also said, "You know, I don't really care for polenta, but this stuff (butternut squash polenta) is very good!"
Quite honestly, after the lobster carbonara and the seafood gumbo, I could have easily stopped at that. But the Creole black grouper etouffee was so phenomenal that I couldn't stop eating. I was full as the food was very rich, but I couldn't let an smidgen of this dish go to waste. It was truly magnificent.
Finishing off our wine after the meal, Simon and I were savoring the remnant taste of what we had. When Nancy dropped off a dessert menu, I groaned. Simon had been raving about the Caramel Pot de Creme all day long. He even said that it was so good that one time when Fab Dupont and he were there with some other people, Fab came up with a song for the dessert. I told Simon that I'd share some with him, that was until I saw something that popped out at me from the menu. It was a seasonal dessert consisting of a Pumpkin-Mocha creme brulee with a tiny layer of chocolate at the bottom of the dessert bowl. I said, "Oooo... Now THAT sounds really good."
Simon said, "You want to get that? We can get the pot de creme the next time." Geez, I hope there is a next time for me.
And it was as good as advertised. The caramelized mocha topping was thick and Simon and I were laughing as we were trying to break through to the pumpkin creme brulee. The taste was exquisite. I'd never had pumpkin creme brulee before and while the pumpkin spice wasn't overpowering, it sort of lingered on the tongue after each bite. And at the bottom of the dessert cup was the shallow layer of chocolate. It was just exceptional.
After dinner and after we paid the bill, we took a short tour of the restaurant. In addition to the atrium and outdoor seating in the summertime, they have the main dining room (below left) where you can easily see into the kitchen as they prepare your meal. It's small and cozy, but no one was seated in there that evening.
On the side of the restaurant opposite the atrium is an addition the Eshelman's bought to expand the restaurant into the building next to the original old bank building. (The Eshelman family have restored 15 buildings in downtown Roanoke to be used for their businesses. I believe this building used to be an auto parts store.) This dining room is more of an art gallery with works of art painted by a local artist, Tim Johnson, who now lives in France. In this dining room was the bar area for Joseph Decuis. Nancy came over and was telling us about some of the artwork, one of which was a sketch of Joseph Decuis sitting with his wife on a horse drawn wagon.
Simon said, "Hey, look in the vaults!" They had two old bank vaults that they kept their wine in. One of them had been turned into a wine humidor. It was a brilliant and interesting use of space in the old bank. The original doors were still on the outside of the vaults with glass doors inside one for the humidor.
I know I've been accused by some of being wordy in a handful of my posts, but the length of this one is justified considering the experience I had at Joseph Decuis. It's amazing that you'd find this type of fine dining in a small town in northeast Indiana. The food, the service, the atmosphere - everything was top-notch. I'm slowly getting more into the pro sound side of things for our company and I know I'll have more opportunities to come back to Fort Wayne to work with Sweetwater in the coming months. I just hope I have the opportunity to once again dine at Joseph Decuis at some point down the road.