5 Best and Worst Evansville Eats: Joys and killjoys

1) Hilltop Inn. Parking lot promisingly packed with broad-bodied sedans and the enthusiastic eaters who stress their suspensions. The clientele is heavy on hairspray, light on cynicism and full of enthusiasm for the best of the animal kingdom.

Order the fried brain sandwich once–it’s justifiably advertised as the house specialty– and you’ll never doubt again. Deeply, delicately and lovingly fried, the pork brains are as slippery rich as grilled foie gras. A tempura light coating holds them snug and moist against the good locally baked buns.

Veteran cerebrophages proclaim “There’s no better way to get smarter than to have more brains.” Who am I to argue with such compelling logic? Some grouse that the pig brains aren’t as tender and delicious as the calves’ brains that the Hilltop used to serve—the switch was made when Mad Cow Disease broke out—but for my money, Wilbur the Pig’s smarter than Ferdinand the Bull, and just as tasty.

Add the greaseless onion rings and a brace of beers for the perfect Friday lunch.  Fried pickles are also a must.

2) Gerst Haus: A jewel on the German West Side of town. Thanks to its seamless repurposing of an old dry goods store, this recent Nashville transplant feels like it’s been around for years. Dozens of beers on tap or by the bottle, a great selection of sausages and schnitzels and, above all, creative sides from the less noble animal parts. Kraut balls sound unappetizing, but they transform castoffs into fried meat ball magic. Especially tempting to hoard when paired with tart cream cheese sauce. Dig into an order or two, plus pig knuckles and fried pickles. N.B. If you’re a mustard fan, bring your own. The house only has ballpark French’s. I tried a dab once on my brat–it was like the first scratch on a new car.

3) Madeleine’s: I include this restaurant more for great ambition than execution. It’s Evansville’s loudest and bravest salvo against the kudzu-like growth of chain restaurants on Green River Road and a laudable outgrowth of the movement to restore dowtown’s old homes to their former glory. Nonetheless, this restaurant and this downtown have a long way to go.

Use of fresh and seasonal ingredients is laudable, and often successful. Who can argue with the chef’s own garden tomatoes, especially when they’re far more varied than the garden varieties we grew up with? Regional meat sourcing, including delicious elk steaks, are also an impressive demonstration that Midwestern cuisine is not an oxymoron.

Still, plenty’s off with the chef’s vision. Appetizers were an unappetizing mishmash of Asia, Mexico and mid-80’s California, more confusion than fusion. Mains were paired with far too many sides. The idea was abundance; the effect was incoherence. Plenty of potential, just a lack of editing.

Service was also a bit off, as one would expect in a smaller market. Madeleine’s struggles to reconcile the sophistication of its menu with its woefully undertrained front of house. Dropped plates, dropped orders and a compulsive need to educate–calamari is Italian for squid–didn’t suggest ill will just poor preparation.

To get the front of house up to speed, I suggest that Madeleine’s hit up the University of Evansville’s excellent Drama School for some new servers. Those aspiring actors know how to carry themselves, carry an order and memorize a script (no peeking at the specials lists during the recitation). Besides, if they ever want to make it in New York, they might as well work on their inevitable full-time job skills as soon as possible.

Finally, wine servers needs to control wine temperature–room temperature doesn’t mean room temperature–and denote vintage years. With a bit of time to work out the kinks, I’m hopeful that Madeleine’s wil be the place to raise Stoplight City’s dining standards.

4) Lic’s: Quirky spelling aside, you won’t get your “Lic’s” on Rt. 66. Rather head to Lincoln Avenue for the best milkshake in town. Pick up a shake to go and cruise aimlessly. Try not to think how expensive gasoline is.

5) Aztar Casino: The name is suggestive of the quality of food. Plus, a little traipse through the slots room can make for the most expensive meal of your life. Why not go to Louisville for the night and pronounce yourself frugal for having avoided the one-armed bandits? Have a second mint julep while you celebrate beating the house by never going there in the first place.


2 Responses to “5 Best and Worst Evansville Eats: Joys and killjoys”

  1. emily Says:

    Gerst makes their own german mustard but they treat their employees like crap.

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