eat local

Modern Midwestern: Sky's the Limit for Cerulean Crew

By / Photography By Ashley Dru | September 15, 2014
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Cocoa Praline Crunch at Cerulean Restaurant
For dessert, our server recommended the cocoa praline crunch and the crème brulée (mango, banana and lime). She was clearly a mind reader or a genius—maybe both.

Ask Caleb France, owner and chef of Cerulean Restaurant in Winona Lake, Indiana, to describe his food and he will use the words modern Midwestern. But between the sushi menu and dishes like chickpea fritters with jalapeño yogurt, cilantro and mint, you might find yourself wondering, where exactly does Midwestern come into all this?

Chef Caleb France of Cerulean Restaurant
Chickpea fritters at Cerulean Restaurant
Photo 1: Chef Caleb France draws culinary inspiration from his world travels, including trips to Thailand, Spain and Ireland.
Photo 2: Bright and tangy, fresh herbs and peppers from Cerulean’s garden take center stage in chickpea fritters with jalapeño yogurt, cilantro and mint.

Undoubtedly, it’s about sourcing and making the most of the region’s best ingredients. The yogurt served with the chickpea fritters is from a small Indiana dairy. The herbs and peppers come from the restaurant’s own garden, right out back. And Chef France is proud to point out that all meat on the menu comes from a farm (that is, not from a distributor)—one hand-selected by one of Cerulean’s four full-time sourcers.

As if that weren’t enough, this summer Cerulean kitchen and front-of-house staff traveled down the road to Hawkins Family Farm in North Manchester every Tuesday to help harvest and pack the restaurant’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. (For more about Hawkins and the Cerulean CSA program, click here.)

Local Bounty, Transformed

With the best local ingredients at his fingertips, France unleashes his creativity, turning familiar Midwestern foods into something unexpected— and totally delicious.

Heartland NY Strip at Cerulean Restaurant
Risotto with house-made duck bacon with Cerulean Restaurant
The bar at Cerulean restaurant
The sign in front of Cerulean Restaurant
Photo 1: All meat served at Cerulean, like this Heartland NY Strip with baked bean “hummus,” caramelized Brussels sprouts and bacon croquettes, is purchased directly from a farm.
Photo 2: Unexpected ingredients, like the foraged nettles in this risotto with house-made duck bacon, mushrooms and nasturtium ricotta, surprise and delight.
Photo 3: Cerulean’s bar program emphasizes old-world wines and craft beers and spirits. House cocktails like a plum shrub with gin and St-Germaine—floral, tart and a palate exciter—are designed to complement the kitchen’s creations. Bar program director Corey Drake is a second-level sommelier.

A dish he calls the Heartland NY Strip, for example, begins with a generous cut of sustainably raised beef. France enhances the umami flavor of the meat with a hickory gastrique and a schmear of baked bean “hummus,” and contrasts its tenderness with caramelized Brussels sprouts and crunchy, golf-ball-size bacon croquettes.

Even common Indiana garden “weeds” get star treatment: Foraged nettles turn risotto a surprising and gorgeous green, an herbaceous foil to rich and salty duck bacon (made in-house at Cerulean) from Maple Leaf Farms (Milford, Indiana).

Think Globally, Eat Locally

Not everything served at Cerulean is local, and France is fine with that. The chef draws culinary and aesthetic inspiration from his world travels—he rattles off a list of favorite destinations: “Thailand, Spain, Ireland, Chicago”—and he knows that turning Midwestern ingredients into truly exceptional dishes means pushing all sorts of boundaries, including geographic ones.

“We love to support local and sustainable—and highlight ingredients from all over the world,” he explains. “We do that unapologetically.”

Bento entrée at Cerulean restaurant
Sesame seaweed salad at Cerulean Restaurant
Sunrise roll at Cerulean Restaurant
Photo 1: Seared tuna bento entrée with lime pepper sauce, seven spice and sesame seed, served with bento sides, including pear salad and spinach greens.
Photo 2: Sesame seaweed with sweet soy vinaigrette
Photo 3: Sunrise roll with eel, red pepper, snap pea, avocado, shrimp and tobiko

The Cerulean menu, for example, boasts over a dozen artfully constructed sushi rolls, made with decidedly non-Midwestern seafood (fresh tuna, hamachi and scallops), complemented by locally sourced vegetables and herbs.

France, who was trained in sushi, also celebrates modern and global influences on his lunch menu, which is built around Japanese-style bento boxes—lacquered trays divided into sections filled with the diner’s choice of entrée (peanut ginger chicken, stir-fry, wasabi-crusted shrimp) and a selection of noodle and vegetable sides. The boxes, Mondrian compositions of color and geometric precision, are as beautiful as they are delicious.

Food + Business

After graduating from high school in Winona Lake, France studied business and finance at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He then returned to Winona Lake and started catering, bringing together his two passions: food and business. His talent was quickly apparent. The Village of Winona approached him about opening a restaurant to anchor the Village’s shops. France was 23 years old. In 2006, Cerulean was born. Six years later, in 2012, France launched a second restaurant in Indianapolis (also called Cerulean). Then, in 2013, he started Light Rail Café and Roaster, which specializes in high-end coffee and artisan baked goods, next door to the original Cerulean.

Light Rail coffee at Cerulean Restaurant
The perfect finish to an indulgent meal, the coffee served at Cerulean is roasted next door at Chef France’s Light Rail Café and Roaster, which also makes gourmet pizzas and baked goods.

What, we asked him, keeps him in Indiana—especially in a small community like Winona Lake?

Too often, France says, local people graduate and head to the big cities. France sees virtue in “taking what you’ve learned and making your own community a better place.”

His way of doing this is by bringing people together over great food. Th e aim of his restaurants, he explains, is summarized by a motto on the Cerulean website: “communication, communion and joy, while encouraging a modern sensibility that inspires.”

Now 32, France and his wife, Courtney, are parents of a new baby and deeply rooted in the community that they have helped to create. France sees a growing identity in the region around food and says that many local people are asking themselves, “What does it mean to eat and live in Indiana?”

He smiles and ponders his own question.

“We have,” he observes, “such great things here.”

Thanks to Caleb France and crew, yes, we do.

Find it

1101 E. Canal St.
Winona Lake, IN
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