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By Courtney Westlake | FREELANCER
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Fine dining with a groove
By Courtney Westlake

When Mike Novel and Samah Hassini got married in St. Thomas in September, they took part in a chef's tasting of an eight-course menu at the restaurant located at their resort. While it was a romantic and delicious experience for the couple, it also inspired potential new items on the menu of Indigo restaurant, which the Novels now run.

"We have so many new ideas, so we're working with the chefs in the back on some extremely successful dishes," Mike Novel said. "The creativity here has never been higher."

Indigo was originally opened in April 1998 by Kevin Boehm. Several owners have come and gone since Boehm turned left to become a restaurateur in the Chicago area.

The Novels took over Indigo in April from their good friend, who introduced the couple seven years ago.

Mike Novel was in the restaurant business for eight years before starting the marketing company that he now owns. Samah has been the general manager for three years and continues to run the day-to-day operations. The Novels are not originally from Springfield but have made the town their home for the past 15 years. When they married, it was on the same date that they had met seven years prior.

Now working together, the couple strives to carry on the same success that Indigo has found on the west side of Springfield for many years.

"The main thing that sets us apart from other restaurants in the region is that we truly provide metropolitan cuisine," Mike Novel said. "We're locally owned fine dining in a sea of chains that Springfield seems to love.

"All the time we get people from hotels in the area who come in, sit down, and by the time they're done with their experience here, they say 'I had no idea something like this was in Springfield.' They can experience a whole fine dining atmosphere, and instead of going to Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, New York, they can experience it right here."

Mike Novel classifies the restaurant's cuisine as "fusion," inspired by tastes of the Asian, French, American and more.

"We have an extremely large sushi menu, and the majority of our steaks are French-inspired," he said.

Recently the restaurant added several new appetizers to its menu, with choices such as gourmet deviled eggs, The Rock (fresh cut New York strip served raw on a heated rock) and hot dates.

"Hot dates are a huge hit," Novel said. "They're sun-dried, stuffed with bleu cheese and pecans and wrapped in bacon. The sweetness of the date, saltiness of the bacon and creaminess of the cheese does wonders for the palate."

The deviled eggs have been an "overwhelming success," Novel said. The dish consists of Rangoon eggs with cream cheese and crab meat inside the stuffing.

"We call them our Indigo Eggs," he said.

Other appetizer choices include spicy shrimp, baked brie, calamari, the Indigo Shoe - which is the gourmet horseshoe of the day - and more.

"The cool thing we love about our menu is that we have just as many appetizers as we do entrees," Novel said. "We like to supply that, especially on the west side of town, where there are nothing but sports bars open (late). You can come in and have a glass of wine and unwind with an appetizer after a long day."

Several staples have remained on the menu since the restaurant's opening day, such as duck enchiladas, crab cakes, seared tuna and lobster tail. Otherwise, the menu looks different every few months. In the six months that the Novels have owned the restaurant, the menu has changed four or five times, Mike Novel said.

"We have fresh fish, steaks, chicken, and we change the preparation and sauces with those quite often," Novel said. "A lot of our customers like the fact that there is always something different on the menu, but the staples are never going to be different. It helps make Indigo great."

"And a lot of our regulars know that if they want a certain dish and it's within reason, we can accommodate them," Samah added.

Indigo's menu is backed by the talent of three chefs, one of whom has been with the restaurant for 10 years, as well as a sushi chef.

"We have servers who have been here 10 years; they're really what make the place run and make it what it is," Mike Novel said. 

As for the new dishes, Novel said the creativity is left up to the chefs, and then all of the restaurant staff partakes in tastings to determine which ones will make the cut to land on the menu.

"We like certain things, and we'll say we might want to try something, but we give (the chefs) no specific instructions, so they have the creative freedom with how they want to prepare and present," he said. "It has to be overwhelmingly liked by everyone - not just us but the servers, kitchen guys, everyone - before we put it on the menu. It's really a joint effort as for approval of new items.

"The menu and food are always going to be constantly changing for the better. You're either getting better or you're getting worse - there is no stand-still - so we always want to increase our quality and look for better products, from our sauces to our glassware. They sky's the limit as far as dining goes."

The top three sellers on Indigo's menu are the filet mignon, sea bass and rack of lamb, Novel said. These make for a winning combination when paired with a glass of wine from the extensive selection offered. Indigo has been a two-time recipient of the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine, Novel said.

"We have $6 glass pours all the way up to $15 glass pours," he said. "Our staff just finished a wine training seminar, so they are truly experts at pairing a fine wine with other aspects of the meal."

The restaurant also just launched a reserve list of 10 wines that can't be found anywhere else in the region. One wine in particular is so rare that only 475 cases are produced a year, Novel said.

"Wine's a big part of (dining); it always has been," he said. "It fills a void, especially in central Illinois. All of it together gives people something they expect in a metropolitan area."

Novel is quick to point out that while Indigo is perfect for a dressy date night, the atmosphere is casual and comfortable, and the majority of customers wear jeans when dropping in to have a steak and a glass of wine for a relaxing dinner out.

"You will find that couple dressed up for their anniversary, but it's not just for special occasions," he said. "You'll find a lot of people coming in for drinks and appetizers. It's an open restaurant with a good vibe."

Indigo is open seven days a week, with the entire menu available until 10 p.m. The bar doesn't close until around midnight.

"People come here for a good time," Samah Novel said. "So many regulars have been coming since Kevin owned it. We've had families coming in since their children were kids, and now they're in college."

Indigo also caters and hosts private parties in its two private rooms, which can hold about 60 to 70 guests. The restaurant is a popular venue for holiday parties, rehearsal dinners and business gatherings, Novel said. An area of the restaurant also can be curtained off for a small group.

"We can seat 15 to 20 people in the curtained area and still have the ambience of Indigo," Novel said.

Whether it's the food, the atmosphere or the service - or all three - the economic downturn doesn't seem to affect the loyalty of Indigo's customer base.

"This past June was our biggest June in the 12-year history," Novel said. "July and August were up 40 percent since last year. People are paying more attention to their spending, so we give them more than they're expecting. Our chefs never skimp on their portions."

When asked what continues to bring customers back into Indigo and drive its success, Novel didn't hesitate.

"It's fine dining with a groove," he said. "Our guests expect to be taken care of. You'll find the fine dining etiquette in the way our staff is trained. It's fine dining, but you don't have to have a jacket; that's the groove part."


Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )

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