“Have you been yet?”
“You must check it out.”
“You will love it.”
Those are just a few of the things that my social media followers have said to me about a tiny little restaurant just off of Interstate 69 at Exit 259 in Gas City. Payne’s is about 50 miles south, but when it comes to the big three C’s that I look for in a good restaurant – culinary quality, concept and customer service – it really outdistanced any place like it around here.
Payne’s is the brainchild of Stephen Payne, a native Brit who arrived in the states with $1,000 to his name and knowing only that he wanted to visit the home of screen idol James Dean. He did odd jobs around Fairmount and then spent some years in Los Angeles until 2005, when he returned to Indiana and built what was then called Payne’s Custard and Coffee.
“James Dean rhymed with ice cream, so that is where that idea came from,” Stephen says.
Though the building is somewhat new, it is decorated in a funky, retro style that makes it seem like a throwback. Its atmosphere is eclectic with unrestored antiques that give it a hipster vibe while still maintaining a sense of modern style.
“The stuff you usually overlook is what you should never overlook,” he says of his cool mix of old and new.
The atmosphere is still more coffee shop than fine dining, but the menu is the opposite. There are standard coffee offerings and simple frozen custard treats, but how many places like that do you know of that bring complimentary chicken pâté to every table? And how many coffee shops serve seared duck with a red wine and blackberry reduction?
From the start with that pâté, things were good. It wasn’t for everyone because, well, it is blended chicken liver, but I found it to be better than about any bread basket or chips and salsa you normally get gratis. It was thick, fatty and a little grainy but delicious.
When it came to the first courses, all were unique.
Take, for instance, the fattoush. Shaved radishes, tomato chunks, cucumbers, onions and garlic were dressed with Greek yogurt, fresh mint and parsley, and served with torn pitas. It was light and refreshing, but it got a peppery impact from the radishes. It was also about as colorful and beautiful a salad as anyone could make.
The Poached Pear and Goat Cheese Salad didn’t have the same visual impact but was just as special. The sliced pear sat on a bed of raw spinach dressed in honey-balsamic vinaigrette with a big scoop of soft, creamy goat cheese. The slices of pear were grilled after poaching, so they were soft and almost like applesauce on the palate. The rich cheese and crisp spinach with its strong mineral flavor were the perfect foils to the sweet fruit and dressing.
The Moroccan Lentil Salad had an enticing mix of savory spices. The legumes were mixed in a mayonnaise base, so it had the consistency of egg salad, and they were al dente to have plenty of texture. The salad was seasoned with turmeric, ground coriander seeds, garlic, fresh mint and cilantro with a little lemon and lime juice for acidity.
All of the soups at Payne’s are smooth, blended bisques. I tried the split pea and lentil; a potato, leek and lemongrass; and an asparagus vichyssoise. All were topped with a splash of crème fraîche, and all were tasty, especially the vichyssoise.
Soups are something close to the owner’s heart.
“My mum had a three-course dinner for us every night, even though she worked,” Payne recalled. “It was soup, a main and a sweet.”
As for the main offerings, Payne’s duck was exquisite. Two Indiana-raised duck legs were grilled until the skin was crisp, then served over a heaping mound of perfect mashed potatoes. Both were drenched in a red wine and blackberry sauce. The berries added a nice burst of freshness, and the duck was heavily seasoned to offset the sweetness.
The second poultry main was also well-seasoned but still light and vibrant. The Spatchcock Grilled Chicken for Two was a butterflied and flattened half chicken grilled skin side down and dressed with lime juice and cilantro, which gave it that lightness. The skin was crisped wonderfully, and the meat was juicy – especially the dark meat. It also came with mashed potatoes and “gravy,” but this gravy was really a thin chicken jus, which also kept it from being heavy.
The pulled pork sandwich, however, was heavy, and that was a good thing.
The heaping pile of pork – locally sourced from a nearby farm – was stringy and tender and heavily dressed with a sweet, tangy sauce. It was good, but what made it great was the soft, fresh French bread that was sliced nearly 2 inches thick.
From a classic such as pulled pork, I moved on to something not so classic, something that further emphasized Payne’s uniqueness.
The Apple, Walnut and Brie Panini had soft, cooked apples that had been marinated in the honey-balsamic vinaigrette, organic walnuts, gooey brie cheese, fresh spinach and a smear of apple butter between slices of artisan Italian bread. It was sweet, creamy and crunchy with that charred bread adding just the right toasty flavor. I could eat one of these daily and never get tired of it.
Speaking of something I never get tired of, Payne’s is a custard shop; so of course, the dessert offerings were tremendous.
The best dessert was named after Payne’s hero: the James Dean Payne’s sundae. Payne learned that Dean’s favorite dessert was coffee ice cream topped with raspberries, so his version is made with his silky vanilla frozen custard and fresh raspberries with a shot of espresso poured over it.
He also serves a version of his mother’s bread pudding, which I had as part of a trio with another British classic, sticky toffee pudding, and Mary Stearns Apple Cake. It came with a scoop of vanilla custard as garnish.
The bread pudding was full of dried fruits and had a scrumptious caramel over it, and the toffee pudding was sticky and rich with an almost molasses-type sweetness.
The apple cake was the best of the three. It is named after a somewhat famous farm wife and mother from Sissinghurst, a small village in England. The cake was subdued and got its sweetness from the apples, which made it great with a cup of coffee.
What I loved about that cake was what I truly loved about Payne’s.
It was simple and unpretentious, but unforgettable in its goodness.
Address: 4925 Kaybee Drive, Gas City
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Smoking status: Nonsmoking
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Fattoush ($6), poached pears ($6), Moroccan Lentil Salad ($6), soups ($6 bowl, $3.50 cup), pulled pork ($8), duck ($14.95), chicken ($23), panini ($7.95), James Dean sundae ($4.50), Payne’s Reaction ($4.50), dessert trio ($6)
Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 max.), service: * (1 max.)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).