XX Marks the Spot
The year WAS 1999: The Cosmopolitan cocktail became a household name thanks to Carrie Bradshaw and the HBO show Sex and the City. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? premiered and Spongebob Square Pants debuted. The Matrix hit the silver screen and the New York Yankees won the world series. A gallon of milk was $2.88 and $2.59 was the cost for a pound of bacon.
This was also the year that five iconic Fort Wayne dining establishments opened their doors for the first time. Each restaurant was bringing something new to the table be it a different type of cuisine (Asakusa); embracing the farm-to-fork movement (Joseph Decuis); creating a place to hang out with friends (Club Soda); offering a place primarily focused on coffee (Firefly Coffee House); or taking comfort food up a few notches on the culinary scale (Catablu).
And 20 years later, these five restaurants are an integral part of the foundation on which Fort Wayne’s burgeoning culinary scene has been built.
LUCK REQUIRED – ASAKUSA
Finding their way from Taiwan to northeast Indiana in the early 1990s, Yi-Kuang and Michelle Chiang decided, in 1999, to open Fort Wayne’s first sushi bar. For the first two years, Michelle admitted the restaurant struggled to get people to come in and try something new, not to mention something raw.
But then the Chiang’s got lucky. A morning anchor on Magic 95 talked about his fabulous meal at Asakusa and all of the sudden the restaurant was filled with people wanting to try Japanese cuisine. “We continued to grow by word-of-mouth, especially with people talking about our delicious cooked teriyaki chicken,” said Michelle.
Their luck continued, when three years later, a review in The Journal Gazette raved about the restaurant and set it on its course to become a popular dining destination.
And although sushi has become more mainstream, Asakusa’s most popular sushi rolls are those that are deep-fried including the AKA Oni with kani, cream cheese, spicy mayo, cilantro, jalapeño, deep fried and topped with sweet and spicy sauce; the Texas roll with tempura tuna, Texas sauce and avocado wrapped in seaweed; and the soft sell crab roll deep fried soft shell crab, avocado, cucumber and mayo wrapped in seaweed.
And although it continues to serve lots of teriyaki chicken, the restaurant has also become known for its creative special rolls including its first, the Golden roll – imitation crab, eel, cream cheese, avocado and spicy sauce wrapped in seaweed, lightly battered and fried in teriyaki sauce.
Speaking of sauces, Asakusa is known for its inventive and palate pleasing sauces all of which are exclusively created by Yi-Kuang.
Only Yi-Kuang knows the recipes for the homemade sauces and dressings including its spicy mayo, ginger-radish and sesame seed dressings, yum yum and sweet & spicy sauces, and of course, its teriyaki sauce.
Twenty years later, Michelle still believes in luck.
“We have loyal customers. We do our best to offer high-quality food, but it is our customers and regulars that make the restaurant special,” she said.
“We are very lucky.”
The luck that Michelle and Yi-Kuang have seen in Fort Wayne continues to the next generation, their nephew Sean Wang owns the very popular FortezzaCoffee located downtown. 6224 Lima Road, 260.490.6888, asakusasushibar.com
PASSION FOR TWO – CATABLU
Maureen and Mike Catalogna have two passions. The first is to be part of a good restaurant with great service and high-quality food; the second is for each other. Before they met and pursued their second passion, they were independently pursuing their desire to have successful careers in the hospitality industry.
After graduating from different colleges, the two found their way to South Florida to start their careers. It was while both were working for Maureen’s uncle and his group of restaurants that they met and began to see how their professional philosophies could merge to create a successful restaurant and catering business. But first their passion, for each other, was solidified, and they got married.
“My own restaurant was always in the picture, but I didn’t have two million dollars to open a restaurant and that was in the 1990s,” said Mike.
But as the couple made the routine visits back to northeast Indiana to visit Maureen’s family, the two began to realize that in Fort Wayne it wouldn’t take two million dollars to open a restaurant. And with the help of Maureen’s sister and her connection to the owners of downtown’s Cinema Blue building who wanted a storefront restaurant, Catablu was born.
The Catalognas have always wanted a high-quality everyday restaurant where they would see their guests three or more times a week.
And in 2008, when the opportunity to move into the restaurant’s current location presented itself, they knew that it would be the perfect place to realize their dream. But wanting to keep the connection to its location in the historic Cinema Blue building for 11 years eplains why the rounded ceiling above the bar that feature famous movie quotes.
“We thought that the movie quotes were a great way to acknowledge our history; plus, it is a good icebreaker for couples on a first date, trying to figure out what movies the quotes are from,” said Maureen.
For the sake of their marriage and recognizing their individual strengths, Maureen and Mike have been able to divide up the business. Mike oversees the day-to-day of the restaurant and Maureen oversees its catering company Blu Spoon Catering.
“Mike loves getting to engage with the customers. He likes to visit the tables, create relationships and make people happy,” said Maureen. “I am much more of a planner. I like to know what is going to happen.”
And with Catablu being open for 20 years, it would be very easy for the Catalognas to rest on their laurels; but, they want to constantly stay on-trend and offer a high-quality contemporary dining experience. So, in honor of its 20th anniversary Catablu is getting a bit of a facelift including an expanded kitchen, added bathrooms and a dining room with a refreshed look.
“We are constantly pushing ourselves to be the best and maintain our standing within the community,” said Mike. “Even if this mean updating our most popular dishes, adding new things to the menu, like cauliflower rice, or finding new things to offer our regulars.”
The Catalognas continue to offer a dining experience where comfort food is given a twist and has become modern American cuisine. 6372 W. Jefferson Boulevard, 260.456.6563, thecatablugrille.com
STORIES TO TELL – CLUB SODA
For Jason Smith, it is all about Club Soda’s stories. Twenty years ago, a group of neighbors, including Smith, found themselves sitting in a garage smoking cigars, drinking martinis and listening to Sinatra. When one of the five gathered suggested they open a restaurant; and as they finished the third pitcher of martinis, the restaurant idea became a really good idea.
“We wanted to create a Chicago-style steakhouse where we would want to hang out,” said Smith, one of the restaurant’s original partners. “And we found the Strasburg/Indiana Textile Building that the city was using to store rescued stolen bicycles and knew it was the perfect spot.”
The downtown building definitely had great bones with its exposed brick and area for the city’s first outdoor-dining patio, but the building required serious renovations. But, with a $1.45 million investment, Club Soda opened on May 16, 1999 … and then the stories got serious.
The story behind why the restaurant is only open to those 21 and over is because the initial owners all had young children at home and they wanted a place where they could get away from their broods. They also believed that other adults wanted a place where they could go to let their hair down, have fun and be surrounded by other grown-ups. And from hearing the stories of The Rat Pack, Club Soda was going to be a place that catered to hedonism; its initial tagline was steaks, cocktails and ring-a-ding-ding.
But, offering a place for hedonism and creating a place for stories that are only appropriate for adults to tell wouldn’t make the restaurant profitable. So, the initial group of owners found Noelle Robinson who knew the nuts and bolts of running a restaurant and convinced her to come aboard as the manager. And 20 years later, Robinson, who is now a co-owner, is still keeping the restaurant profitable and true to its initial concept – offering adults good food and a great time.
And she too has great stories to tell – like the time Carrie Underwood came to eat after her concert at the Embassy Theatre; or when the renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis sat in with a jazz band and played a set; or how Harrison Ford earned his name on the back of one of Club Soda’s coveted bar stools.
It seems that Ford was flying his DC-3 across the country and stopped for maintenance. When he asked the mechanic where he could go for a good meal and a stiff drink, he was sent directly to Club Soda. As to how other names found their way on to the backs of its 30 bar stools, both Robinson and Smith said, some stories are not meant to be shared.
But when asked what he is most proud of in the restaurant’s 20-year history Smith said, “We are proud that we decided to put a stake in the ground and not give up on downtown Fort Wayne. There have been many trials and tribulations, but we are still here. And now it is so exciting to see all that is happening in downtown. We are proud to be a part of the riverfront’s resurgence.”
As for Club Soda’s future, it is likely just more of the same and as Smith likes to say, “There’s nothing good for you here and that’s just how it oughtta be.” The true making for a few more great stories. 235 E. Superior Street, 260.426.3442, clubsodafortwayne.com
UNPLANNED SUCCESS – JOSEPH DECUIS RESTAURANT
Sometimes the best things come not from plans, but from happenstance. When Pete and Alice Eshelman made Roanoke their home, they didn’t plan that, in 1989, Pete would decide to open his own sports and entertainment insurance company. And they certainly didn’t plan that he would need a space where he could wine-and-dine clients; so, they opened Club Creole, a private dining room in downtown Roanoke.
The food was based on Pete’s hometown of New Orleans and its first corporate chef started the Eshelmans on the course of using only locally grown ingredients.
When word got out about Club Creole’s atmosphere and food, other people wanted to use the private space for meetings and gatherings. So, Café Creole was christened.
Then, in 2000, with a name change, the restaurant was opened for lunch and then quickly added dinner three nights a week.
“This way of opening allowed us to tip-toe into the restaurant business. It was a great way for non-restaurateurs to start a restaurant,” said Alice.
The restaurant was renamed Joseph Decuis in recognition of Pete’s Louisiana ancestors whom he and Alice credit for their belief in the American Dream and love of fine dining.
It has become one of Indiana’s most highly awarded restaurants. It has consistently earned the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine, AAA’s Four Diamond Award and voted both Indiana’s number one restaurant (and one of the Top 50 restaurants in the US) by Open Table.
After the first year being open, Alice was looking at the bills and saw that the restaurant was paying 75 cents/squash blossom plus shipping. She thought she could grow the squash on the farm that served as the family’s home. So, she put some raised garden boxes in the former horse paddock, planted seeds, and admittedly, surprised herself, when they grew. Alice then took classes in growing organic vegetables and flowers and became a master gardener.
At the same time, she and Pete began to have many conversations about our food system – where it comes from, how it is grown, how the animals we eat are treated, etc. This led them to dedicating more of their family farm to organic gardening and adding chickens for eggs.
Around this time, the Eshelmans also tasted some incredible beef that led them to learn about Wagyu beef. The next thing Alice knew she was receiving 20 pregnant Wagyu as a birthday present.
And now, Joseph Decuis is the only US restaurant to raise its own Wagyu using traditional Japanese husbandry practices. And in 2019, Pete was appointed president of the America Wagyu Association.
And as with most things about the restaurant and farm, the Mangalista pigs arrived unplanned. “Pete tagged along with our chef to a hog fest and met an Austrian couple who were working to bring back a breed of pig that is known for its delicious meat and Austrian/Hungarian heritage,” said Alice. “He fell in love with the story and the meat and the next thing I knew we had Mangalistas.”
As for doing weddings on the farmstead that too was unplanned. When one of the restaurant’s former employees asked if the Eshelmans do weddings on the farm, Alice responded, “I guess we could.”
Since that simple answer, a fullservice kitchen catering kitchen was built, bathrooms were added and the barn was painted and decorated.
Similarly, the Joseph Decuis Emporium, also located in downtown Roanoke, was established because of the unplanned results of raising Wagyu. “There is a lot of meat on a cow. Out of its 1,800 pounds only 18 pounds are tenderloin that everyone wants for steaks. But from the Wagyu, the rest of the meat is very tender and offer some great cuts,” said Alice. “So, we started the Emporium to sell the rest of the meat. We then wanted to support other Indiana purveyors and began selling their products too. We also thought it would be nice for Roanoke to have a good quality lunch spot, so we added a lunch menu to the Emporium’s offerings.”
Clearly, the restaurants, farm and two inns were not things the Eshelmans planned. “Whenever I am asked if this was our dream, I respond, ‘This was never our dream. It just happened.’ But we definitely love it. We also enjoy being able to share it with other people,” said Alice.
Although Pete and Alice Eshelman’s contributions to northeast Indiana’s farm-to-table movement started by happenstance and evolved slowly, they are now moving purposefully forward with their efforts to take care of the environment, practice organic farming and educating others about the importance of eating local.
And when asked about future plans, Alice said they didn’t really have any. But, when she was reminded that Joseph Decuis recently announced it is going to introduce a new restaurant with a more casual approach to its innovative farm-to-table cuisine in Fort Wayne’s Electric Works redevelopment, she quickly responded, “I guess we do have plans.”
She then laughed, knowing that this was not the usual way she and her husband did things. 191 N. Main Street, Roanoke, 260.672.1715, josephdecuis.com
LOVE FOR COFFEE – FIREFLY COFFEE HOUSE
Twenty years ago, and long before there was Utopian, Conjure, Fortezza or the ubiquity of Starbucks, there was Cyndi Demaree and her love for specialty coffee.
This combined with Cyndi and her husband Paul’s interest in their community fueled their desire to create a neighborhood gathering place where good friendly conversation and a satisfying mug of specialty coffee could be had. This was, and continues to be, the goal for Firefly Coffee House.
Over the years, the coffee house has been used by students needing a place to study, people meeting for a quick catch-up over a cup of Joe or groups getting down to business.
And since the beginning, there is a group of 10-15 people who every morning, starting at around 6:30 am, grab a to-go cup and sit for some quick conversation before they go on with their day.
“Pretty typical of a coffee house, the regulars have gotten to know each other, and they stop in just to learn what is the day’s topic of discussion,” said Cyndi.
Over time, Firefly has expanded its offerings beyond coffee to include pastries, sandwiches and light meals. This year, the Demarees have added a full kitchen, complete with a giant convection oven and fryer.
Paul is the head cook, bread baker and provides creative food for the coffee house. In addition, he cures meats in house, making ham, pastrami and sausages used for its sandwiches.
Paul and Cyndi live in the ’05 and have weathered the tough times to keep the coffee house open. “We took the attitude that like a farmer who had one bad year farming, we just weather the bad times,” said Paul.
The Demarees have spent their lives dedicated to helping others. Prior to Firefly, Cyndi worked as a social worker and Paul was a chaplain.
They are always willing to share with others, including their secret for a good cup of coffee – great beans, good water and the understanding of how to use the right amount of each. And when it comes to competition, the Demarees aren’t worried.
“We believe that the health of a city is measured by the vitality of its neighborhoods. We definitely don’t want to be the only place like this in the community,” said Paul. 3523 N. Anthony Boulevard, 260.373.0505, fireflyfw.coffee