Standing at the stove behind the counter of his Indianapolis restaurant Milktooth, Jonathan Brooks scattered a handful of squash blossoms over a pan of slowly scrambling eggs. He folded in the flowers using a wide spatula, until their green and marigold stripes wilted and flecked the eggs like streaks through a summer sunrise. Then he chucked in dollops of pungent raclette — good morning, taste buds! — and I knew, watching from my perch a few feet away, what I’d be ordering for breakfast.
Beside him a line cook worked the oven, overseeing an endless succession of Dutch baby pancakes baking in cast iron skillets. She pulled out the pancakes when they began resembling jumbo popovers, puffed all over and bronzed at the edges. As they deflated, she embellished the Dutch babies in one of two ways. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries rolled atop a sweet version, finished with lemon-colored curd bright with the surprising flavor of cucumber. Coins of chorizo, grated manchego, and dribbles of smooth romesco crowned its savory counterpart — a Spanish-influenced riff on the classic American trinity of sausage, egg, and cheese.
I decided I needed one of those, too, along with some strong coffee to shake me awake afterward. I’d had one drink already, a daybreak cocktail called Verlaine’s Deathbed. It combined espresso, Mexican Coke, lemon, anise simple syrup, and a glass-coating wash of absinthe, and it sent my brain chemistry on quite the thrill ride.
Milktooth knows how to set off a constant barrage of culinary pyrotechnics — at hours of the day when we might not normally be expecting them. This is part of a wholly welcome advancement. When Brooks and his wife, Ashley, opened Milktooth in October 2014, they joined the growing squad of skilled disruptors who are changing how America thinks about morning dining rituals. Breakfast gives chefs a broad palate of starchy, homey comforts rife for personalization. Jessica Koslow, as one big example, discovered this when she expanded her Los Angeles jam business Sqirl: She began serving brioche toast spread with ricotta and then glossed with fruit spreads made from Persian mulberries or strawberries and rose geranium. It incited a craze, as did her sorrel pesto rice bowl. Countrywide, it feels like the unfettered creativity around breakfast is still only beginning to percolate.
But lunch, too, deserves more love from ambitious chefs across the land. It’s a direct correlation to our dine-at-the-desk culture that finer restaurants now tend to truncate noontime menus, or fall back on fancy sandwiches, or (more often than not) skip serving lunch altogether. But there is true worth in sitting down to a midday meal designed for speed, affordability, and deliciousness. Chefs like Mike Easton, who serves exquisite pasta for less than $10 a bowl at his lunch-only Il Corvo in Seattle, have figured out that if you serve memorable food only during the day, people will seek it out and keep coming back.
Milktooth tapped into this void — this need — and the accolades came on rapid-fire, deservedly. It arrived during a restaurant boom in Indianapolis. Its community, Fletcher Place, lies along the city’s Cultural Trail, an eight-mile, $63 million network of biking and pedestrian paths completed in 2013; it connected downtown to outlying neighborhoods, spurring a resurgence of businesses along their routes. The restaurant sits back from the street, in a former service station with a snug parking lot, but it is hardly a secret. And no surprise: throngs swarm on the weekends. Better, if possible, to come during the week. The waits then rarely exceed 15 minutes, and you can relax into the quirky space filled with knotty wood tables and a mishmash of midcentury modern-style chairs.
At first, Milktooth pitched itself as specializing in brunch, reinforcing the notion with the restaurant’s hours: The kitchen operates between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., not early enough to function as a weekday breakfast hangout, but open late enough that customers’ cravings can certainly demand lunchier foods than waffles and pancakes. Brunch, though, has become a loaded portmanteau lately — code among haters for dyspeptic weekend crowds, also-ran Benedicts, and bottomless well drinks. I noticed the sign outside Milktooth these days reads, "Open for breakfast and lunch." No B-word in sight.
The point is, Jonathan Brooks and his team deliver A-game cooking, however you might define the mealtimes at which they serve it. You will find some familiar morning contentments, though they will be polished or nudged in cheffy directions. Tart-sweet yellow plums may be mixed into butter to highlight those same flavor nuances in a sour cream biscuit. A veneer of sorghum turns thick blocks of bacon into salty candy. The waffle crunches with nibs of pearl sugar (a popular add-on in Belgium), and the fruit strewn over will likely include something that pleasantly jostles the palate, like fermented sweet cherries.
But to relish the fullest measure of Brooks’ virtuosity, look beyond the reassuring mainstays. Veer specifically to the menu’s "of the moment" section. It details four or five heartier, more intricate dishes, some of which change daily. That’s where the squash blossom scramble that I watched Brooks assemble was listed, and it delivered everything I’d hoped for — a mind-bending contrast of delicate, almost fleeting, textures and ricocheting flavors amplified by the raclette. The scramble rotated out the next day, though some of its ingredients reappeared in a croissant bread pudding (mercifully light for summer) hiding squash blossoms and oyster mushrooms in its buttery creases It was set over a tomato and onion soubise the color of Thousand Island dressing and finished with a peppered egg sunny-side up. Stunning.
This "of the moment" category is really Brooks’ playground for egg cookery, the place where he explores that universal food and the way its consumption anchors us to a particular time of day. That scramble? Breakfast, definitely. Fried bologna okonomiyaki, the chef’s take on the Japanese savory pancake, which he squiggles with aioli zinged with yuzu kosho (a spicy, citrusy fermented condiment)? It’s pub grub in Japan but translates here as brunch fare, aimed squarely at the hangover convalescents. Then there are full-throttle protein bombs like a tartine constructed on toast, spread with pâté made from braunschweiger (pork liver sausage) and piled with crisped beef tongue, a sunny-side up egg, and crisped discs of bologna. Turmeric-stained beets and pickled collards bushwhack through the carnivorous onslaught with vital acidity. The whole shebang tasted mighty right at a 2 p.m. lunch.
There are dishes where Brooks could consider doing away with the egg altogether, the way plenty of dinner chefs could abolish pork belly as a default upsell or easy enticement. Last week, for instance, he surrounded a beautifully grilled lamb steak with a warmly spiced lentil tagine, cubes of grilled eggplant, pomegranate seeds, a splotch of yogurt, and then a poached egg — which added loamy richness but ultimately felt like overkill. The restaurant has clearly cultivated its audience; Brooks, I think, can present the occasional whim without the identifying element that anchors its squarely in the breakfast or lunch milieu.
I could argue for or against the plump duck egg that caps his grilled cheese, but the dish mostly stands out as an exemplar of how masterfully Brooks pushes the boundaries between sweet and savory — perhaps the ultimate freedom of expression allotted the daytime cook. Crunchy cranberry-walnut bread barely holds back the cascade of white cheddar it sandwiches; truffle honey adds a sticky glaze, and this is where the egg helps to even the flavor balance. Sometimes his use of sweet is sneakier, like when he slips dates into the chorizo-manchego Dutch baby (my favorite of the two offered). Even pastries like a blueberry-corn-basil scone or oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies made with barley flour swerve into earthier territories.
Early birds can snag those pastries with coffee from 7 to 9 a.m. before the full menu becomes available, and the options for caffeinating at Milktooth run the full third-wave gamut: a bottomless cup from local roasters Tinker Coffee Co., Ethiopian and Kenyan pour-overs, cappuccinos or macchiatos, and concoctions like the Love Train — espresso with sage, coconut, and vanilla, finished with caramel sticky bun sauce. (The coffee drinks, too, compete in a tug-of-war between sweet and savory.)
And then there are the alcoholic beverages. The expected bloody Mary variations and pitchers of mimosas make their appearance, but then the selection also dips into French 75 and milk punch cocktails, shots of small batch mezcals, a Prairie Gold sour ale, and a Tuscan red by the glass that would softly punctuate the spice of the lamb steak dish.
It is a thoughtfully composed, thirst-inducing list by any standard of restaurant, let alone for one that turns off its lights well before happy hour begins. But, then, the Brookses are creating their own genre of restaurant. Milktooth not only defies entrenched expectations of breakfast and lunch dining, but it also exemplifies how a talented chef can transcend confining notions of success. A world of possibilities is suddenly as clear as day. 534 Virginia Avenue, Indianapolis, (317) 986-5131, milktoothindy.com.