Searching for lunch today, I decided to give a second chance to The Barking Dog Cafe, a relatively recent addition to the dining options in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood. Located on 49th street just off of Pennsylvania, the Barking Dog aspires to give Hoosiers a taste of New England coastal cuisine -- the sort best found in dilapidated shacks next to
sandy rocky beaches. This is a noble goal. As someone who has enjoyed various seafood rolls in lobster-shacks from Ogunquit to P-town, I can testify to the pleasures of fresh seafood and a touch of mayo on a buttered bun. But what the Barking Dog promises and delivers are, unfortunately, worlds apart. The cost is reminiscent of an overpriced Cape Cod cafe, but the quality is not.
My review after the jump.
My first trip to the Barking Dog came shortly after it opened more than a year ago. On that trip I tried a shrimp roll ($8.50). The shrimp were, well, shrimpy, not particularly fresh, and served on a hot-dog bun (which should indicate the shrimpiness of the portion). The roll was served with unremarkable potato chips and sweet pickles. My companion ordered a double-cheeseburger with
fries "pommes frites" for a small fortune. He confessed that the burger was alright. We stood at a counter to order, it took a while to get our food, and they didn't accept credit.
[Edited to Add after additional research: I should note that the Barking Dog is "new" in the sense that it is in a new location. Apparently it used to be at the City Market. I was not aware.]
Since the Cafe had just opened and I suspected it was still probably ironing things out, I filed it in the back of my brain for "maybe give another try in the distant future."
I ate alone today and decided that I would try a different ordering strategy. During my first visit I had taken the Barking Dog at its word and ordered a dish that best captured what they were advertising -- hence the shrimp roll. I should have been suspicious of the shrimp roll. It's not easy to get fresh seafood in Indianapolis and even when you can get "fresh" seafood it tends to be extremely expensive and not terribly fresh. On this trip, I decided that I would order a dish that, given the food-system constraints of the Cafe's location, could be truly fresh and fairly priced.
I ordered the special entree salad, an heirloom tomato salad with greens, capers, blue cheese, red onions and a "home made" tomato dressing ($10.75). Tomato salads can be things of beauty, especially in Indiana where a plentiful supply of amazing tomatoes can be easily secured. $10.75 was a lot to pay for a salad with protein, but if it was generous or flavorful enough, I would be happy to pay that much.
My salad was, on any scale, disappointing, and given the price downright upsetting. The salad consisted of four slices of heirloom tomato -- one of which was from an overripe and bruised tomato -- a handful of halved cherry tomatoes, and a scattering the remaining ingredients (including the bulk salad greens one buys in the bins at the Costco). The "home made" tomato dressing may very well have been that, but it tasted almost identical to conventional store bought tomato dressings: too sweet, under-seasoned, and without the bracing acidity of a good tomato. Meanwhile, despite the inclusion of the capers and blue cheese, the salad was unseasoned and needed a more serious touch of saltiness and crunch. It came with grilled and buttered toast, which was, I'll admit, scrumptious.
Meanwhile, I also ordered a Diet Coke. Now, I have no major objection to Restauranteurs padding their profit margin by marking up the drinks. In fact, I expect it. But the secret to this is the free refill fountain soda, a steady cash cow which also manages to not feel like an obvious ripoff. I mean, I could hypothetically choose to drink my volume in soda with free refills, thus making it a value purchase. No one ever does that and most restaurants make serious dough off it, but it at least gives the customer a sporting chance. On the other hand, the Barking Dog charges movie-theater prices for its beverages. I paid $1.25 for a can of Diet Coke, netting the Barking Dog more than a dollar of pure, pure profit. In fairness, the can did come with a complimentary glass of ice.
This all underscores a larger problem. I like local business. I frequent local business. But I don't like getting ripped off by local business and I won't shop at local businesses that consistently gouge me.
What do I mean by gouge? I'm willing to pay a premium to locally-owned businesses that provide me with high-quality products that I can't obtain elsewhere, especially if those businesses provide me with access to local culture and community. This doesn't mean that local businesses must focus exclusively on "Hoosierness" or some such thing. But it does mean they should try to exploit the advantages offered by Indiana, not just because it'll keep me happy but because it's a smart business plan.
An example: my two favorite restaurant in Ames, Iowa are a Brazilian restaurant called Cafe Baudelaire and a falafel joint called Pita! Pita! Both used international techniques and recipes to bring fresh Iowa ingredients to life. Pita! Pita! was dirt cheap and wonderful. Cafe Baudelaire was a touch more expensive but still quite reasonable (The Bauru burger was unbelievable).
My general impression, then, is that the Barking Dog, in a somewhat quixotic quest to bring the seaside to Indianapolis, shortchanges all the wonderful things that coastal restaurants could benefit from and that Indianapolis has a wealth of. This is a local restaurant that doesn't seem to hold it's locality in much esteem. That might appeal to people who aren't thrilled to be in Indianapolis and are longing for a facsimile of more urbane terrain, but I happen to like Indianapolis for Indianapolis, not because it has joints that remind me of the Cape.
In the meantime, to cover the costs of overpriced seafood, they seem to be marking up all sorts of other things. Nothing about my experience was bad, mind you, but it was consistently mediocre in a way that didn't match up to the price. This left me in a place that no restaurant should leave its customers: still hungry from the miserly portions and sore about feeling like I'd been taken advantage of. Quiet down, Barking Dog.
3 Hungry Tyrions out of a possible 10 Hungry Tyrions.