The Return to the Valley of Paradise
- Josh Tuck
- Danielle Tuck
It had been a hot day at the beach. The sun made the sand painful to walk across and the wind whipped it into clouds that stung eyes and skin. The water in Lake Michigan was so cold we could barely tolerate being waist-deep in it for more then a few minutes. That’s the thing about going to the beach in Indiana in May though; the odds of it being a great experience are just as good as the odds of it being regrettable. Likewise, we know that returning to a restaurant we had a fantastic dining experience at was no guarantee that it would be amazing a second time. We had little hesitation about returning to Valley Kitchen and Bar in Valparaiso, Indiana. This small restaurant, located in Valparaiso’s quant downtown, is run by a husband and wife team dedicated to transforming local food into consistently remarkable meals.
From Vail to Valley
The heat and humidity of the day were triggering pop-up thunderstorms when we arrived in downtown Valparaiso that evening. A cool breeze kicked up and thunder rumbled in the distance as General Manager, Blaire Muro, welcomed us inside. She and her husband, Executive Chef Cory Muro, decided to open a place of their own after working together at several of Vail and Telluride Colorado’s nicer restaurants. At his last job, Cory was a sous-chef at a large, fine-dining, Asian restaurant and was called upon to replace the executive chef. He was thrown into it, but he learned he could handle the responsibilities of managing a kitchen. “The place was in the red for about five years,” Cory said, “And in the two years I was in charge, it was profitable again.” Blaire said, “When we realized we could do it all, we wondered why we were doing it for someone else.”
Since they opened their doors in October of last year, they have run the gamut of emotions. “When you open a restaurant you go through phases from excited, to ‘what was I thinking?’, to stressed out, and back to excited again,” Cory said. Initially, they were serving lunch and dinner six days a week. Cooking freshly prepared meals from two unique menus meant they had lines out the door, but they were also working 100-hour weeks. It helped them develop a strong customer base, but, “It was two months of misery,” Blaire said.
These days they focus their attention on dinner service, seven nights a week. “It’s a lot more feasible for us to focus on one meal and make sure that product is perfect every time,” Cory said. While they heard some mild grumblings from their customers at first, this new arrangement has worked out well for their sanity and their business. After only seven months of being open, Blaire and Cory have built a loyal clientele of customers who keep them busy every night of the week.
They knew from the start they wanted their restaurant to feature fresh local food, and at first, they thought they could do that in Colorado. However, Northwest Indiana turned out to be a better option because of the longer growing season, and because of the wide variety of agriculture produced in the region. Southwest Michigan is home to numerous fruit orchards and vegetable farms, and northern Indiana has an abundant supply of farmers raising all-natural meat, eggs, and dairy products. Blaire, who was raised near Valparaiso, said it also helped that they had a lot of connections in place before they moved back here. “My Dad’s family farms and we can buy produce through his buddies,” she said.
In addition to supporting local farmers, their other top priority is to use as much fresh organic food as possible. In the process of running Valley, they’ve discovered there is a balancing act to their purchasing. For instance, they will not order an organic item for the sake of it being organic if it will have to be trucked 1500 miles. Rather, Cory will attempt to source a near-organic variety locally, which will often be just as good and fresher. “I really believe in organic dairy, but I can’t get it locally,” Cory said, “So, I get hormone-free from a dairy in Holland, Michigan.” To make sure there are as many locally grown organic options on his menu as possible, Cory tailors the menu to what he can get in season from the area. As such, they change the menu four times a year.
Dinner in The Valley
Food lovers that they are, Blaire and Cory love engaging with others who are passionate about food. If you ask them, you can have a spot at the bar that looks into the kitchen. “We found out the hard way that if you offer it to anyone, you get people who don’t really care about food. The only people I want to sit up here are the ones who are interested in food,” Cory said. Watching two talented chefs cook and assemble meals is great dinner entertainment, especially when you can ask them about what they are doing. A side benefit of sitting at the kitchen bar is that Cory and his Chef de Partie, Jared Moxley, have been known to treat their guests to complimentary snacks.
Cory has cooked in a variety of styles, but he has been the most influenced by Asian cooking methods. He is not a fan of “fusion” cooking though, and prefers to focus on classics. “They are classics for a reason,” he said, “And we can put our own twist on them.” For example, if he makes Jambalaya he might start with a traditional recipe, then substitute duck sausage in place of the andoullie sausage. He occasionally introduces some basic molecular gastronomy into his dishes to give them some added distinction. Most of the time though, he prefers the challenge of preparing food as perfectly as possible rather than experimenting for the sake of experimentation.
For our dinner that night, we settled in at the kitchen bar and ordered a spinach salad, a side salad, Chicken 3 Ways, and the perch. It’s a good thing we came hungry because we ended up sampling the chicken skewers, truffle fries, grilled asparagus, and tempura fried banana as well. Before any of that though, I had to try one of the custom martinis dreamt up by Bar Manager, Blaine Neessen. The Lemondrop was the ideal refreshment after a sweltering day on the beach. Imagine lemonade, laced with vodka, perfectly chilled, and served in a sugar-rimmed glass. To my surprise, they even offer vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey that is distilled locally in Three Oaks, Michigan, at Journeyman Distillery.
Relaxed and refreshed, we started with salads. A good salad separates the chefs who like to talk about their commitment to great food from those who are actually committed to great food. Valley delivers with two outstanding salads, both of them are distinctly different and tasted as if they had been plucked from the garden that afternoon. The spinach salad, as we stated in our previous article, is still our favorite. It’s mix of flavors and textures is hard to top. However, the side salad is good in it’s own right. The Champagne vinaigrette dressing added a nice sparkle of flavor to a familiar mix of vegetables.
Before the entrées arrived, we tasted the olive oil marinated grilled asparagus. The firm spears were seasoned with a touch of salt and pepper that accentuated their sublime natural flavor. The remarkably tender chicken skewers, with their subtle vinegar barbecue sauce, were a tantalizing glimpse of what to expect from the Chicken 3 Ways. Just before our main courses were ready, Cory slid us a sample of their truffles fries. The french fries, along with the ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise are one of the few things they don’t make from scratch. However, Cory transforms them into a hedonistic treat by tossing them in a large bowl with a pinch of salt, parsley, parmesan, and truffle oil.
At last it was time for the chicken and the perch. Valley only buy Amish chickens from Miller’s Amish Country in Angola, Indiana. Cory visited their operation and was blown away by how well it was run and how flavorful the chickens were. To accentuate the chicken’s natural flavor, he marinated the leg quarters and lightly glazed the breast. The leg was quickly grilled while the breast was braised before both were put into the broiler for finishing. The end result is a fall-apart-tender piece of meat that is almost too delicious to describe. It was like biting into a juicy, roasted, turkey leg, and a crispy-skinned piece of grilled chicken at the same time. It’s a meat that is so often done poorly, you forget how delicious, simply prepared, high-quality, chicken can be.
The perch, as well as most of their other fish, comes from Bell Aquaculture in Albany Indiana. Both Blaire and Cory were impressed by how clean (i.e. “not fishy tasting”) this perch was thanks to the methods Bell use to raise their fish. Knowing that he had a great base ingredient, Cory simply prepares the delicate fillets with a white wine-lemon cream sauce and a garnish of fried capers and tomatoes. It is a revelation to taste a local fish prepared so thoughtfully. I never would have imagined that the humble perch, a bait fish in other parts of the country, could hold it’s own against elaborately prepared, halibut, sea bass, and mahi-mahi.
We were stuffed to the gills (pun intended), but we felt we would be remiss if we didn’t try a dessert. The deep-fried Oreo seductively beckoned in the way that only thinly veiled carnival food can, but Danielle insisted we try the tempura fried banana. I’ve never been a fan of banana splits, but apparently I’m a quick convert if you deep fry the banana, nestle it into a scoop of Valpo Velvet vanilla ice cream, and drizzle it with chocolate. A sprinkling of fresh grapes and apple chunks added tangy sweetness to the warm savory banana and gloriously silky ice cream.
By the time we left, the afternoon thunderstorms that had popped up had passed and downtown Valparaiso was damp, cool, and quiet again. Restaurants like Valley remind us why it’s important to get off the interstate when traveling and get into the downtown areas of small cities. Occasionally, a hidden gems can be found and the reward is an unforgettable meal. Striking gold is not a sure bet, or the most convenient option, but it is important to take the chance. Find something extraordinary tucked away in an unexpected place is one of life’s great pleasures.