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Cerulean
*****
Out of a possible five
$$$$$
By Ryan DuVall
Striped bass bento box at Cerulean in Winona Lake.

No surprise, Cerulean still on top

I am never surprised by accolades given to Cerulean, nor was I surprised to find out the Winona Lake restaurant opened a second location in Indianapolis.

Cerulean has been one of the finest establishments in the area since it opened in 2006 and it remains on the cutting edge. It was the first place in these parts to introduce a tapas (small-plate) menu, has been at the forefront of the farm-to-fork concept by working with about 60 farms in a 100-mile radius and has branched out into gourmet coffee circles by offering single-source beans via direct trade that are micro-roasted on site. And during my recent visits, I discovered you can add molecular gastronomy to its résumé.

But what makes Cerulean's progressive approach all the more unique is that the restaurant is not at all intimidating. It is still a cozy little place where you can enjoy the finest of fine dining, but still just roll in on a Saturday afternoon with the kids to have lunch. Yes, Cerulean is the most family-friendly upscale restaurant I have ever been to.

The atmosphere is perfect. It is sleek, ultra-modern and formal enough to be formal, but not so formal that you feel like making your kids sit up straight as if they are in the front pew at church.

Cerulean's ever-changing menu recently changed from summer to autumn. But there were enough items that crossed over so that the change was subtle. A pair of soups best represented this and both were fabulous. (See my photos.)

The Strawberry Gazpacho was a cold blend of the name ingredient, heirloom tomatoes from a farm in Columbia City, and basil topped with two dehydrated tomato crisps and a little crème fraiche. It was bright and fresh and a little sweet with just a kiss of basil flavor. It was simply a fantastic summer soup.

But now, tomato soup has taken its place on the menu, although what I had was not what I would call tomato soup. Greenhouse tomatoes from Indianapolis replaced the long-gone heirlooms in this soup. But this one also had bits of ground, grass-fed beef, flageolet beans, a cheese crisp and a dollop of chili-infused crème fraiche to give it heat. I found it to be more of an upscale chili. It was richer and heartier than the gazpacho, and was so good I literally rolled my eyes into the back of my head with the first sweet-spicy-savory spoonful.

The examples of molecular gastronomy were all over the menu, from my basil-infused blueberry-basil Fizz cocktail to my sous-vide cooked beef short ribs.

"It's all about precision," chef-owner Caleb France said. "We are working on a Bloody Mary right now that would include some bacon fat in powdered form."

Carrots were turned into powder with the use of maltodextrin – a starch-derived food additive that is commonly used as a thickening or filling agent – to make my Carrot Gnocchi. The little billow potato dumplings were just faintly orange, but packed a punch of sweet carrot flavor that was perfectly tamed by a butter emulsion and crisp, water-laced snap pea shoots.

As far as I know it was the first time I have had anything with maltodextrin in this area, and it wasn't the last of the firsts at Cerulean.

The smear of black garlic on the plate with my short ribs was also a first. The rib was fork tender and so juicy it was practically dripping after being sous-vide (vacuum-sealed and slow-cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath). This rustic, hearty hunk of meat, served over pappardelle pasta and a dandelion cream sauce with a dollop of honey mascarpone cheese on top, needed the zip the black garlic added. More of its intense fermented flavor would have been nice with the rich cheese, sauce and meat.

The sea beans atop my lobster were another first; I have seen it on food TV shows but not on menus around here. And they, too, proved to be essential to the dish. This was not the butter-soaked lobster you find at most places; these small tails were perfectly cooked and not too heavily seasoned so their flavor was pure. Combined with the salty seawater bursting from the beans, the dish, which also included goat cheese and mascarpone-stuffed agnolotti, white pepper cream and a touch of pesto, made me feel like I was sitting at a seaside café instead of in a cabin next to a canal just outside of Warsaw.

Another item from the sea was the highlight of my lunch visit to Cerulean.

The small plates get even smaller at lunch as the restaurant offers bento boxes where one entrée is selected along with three sides.

The striped bass was perfection. The two slender filets were pan fried in sesame oil and were crisp on the skin and the meat sides, and had just the right hint of salt that I gobbled down both, barely touching the Asian barbecue dipping sauce in the center of the box.

Although the coffee was a fine meal ender on its own, the dessert offerings at Cerulean were also too good to pass up. With so many upscale places outsmarting themselves with savory dessert offerings that are more about intricacy than indulgence, Cerulean does it the right way.

There was plenty of chocolate. The Cocoa Praline Crunch consisted of a big, crispy, chocolate-hazelnut praline square topped with a layer of chocolate mousse. It was garnished with whipped cream, salted caramel and hazelnut crumble. It was crispy, creamy, nutty and wonderful.

The Chocolate Silk was just as scrumptious, but more modern and playful. Cubes of strawberry-jalapeno sorbet were scatted on a dish with crumbled red velvet cake and a cylinder of soft chocolate cremeux with vanilla gel and pastry cream on the plate. The slightly spicy and tart sorbet was phenomenal and I would have been happy with just it, but the chocolate and cake were by no means afterthoughts.

Another thing that was surely not an afterthought was the outstanding service at Cerulean. My servers were exceptionally educated on the menu, and this is no simple menu to master. The service team, which also included hosts and food runners, handled every need seamlessly so you almost didn't notice them as they cleared plates, delivered clean flatware and refilled beverages.

But I guess that should come as no surprise to me. In fact, the only way I think Cerulean could ever surprise me is by doing something wrong.

Restaurant: Cerulean

Address: 1101 E. Canal St., Winona Lake

Phone: 574-269-1226

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Gazpacho ($4), tomato soup ($5), short ribs ($30), lobster ($28), bass bento ($14), Cocoa Praline Crunch ($4), Chocolate Silk ($8), Berries and Cream ($4), gelato/sorbet ($3)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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