All it took was one bite of the pleasantly piquant mejillones en caldilo, a shimmering heap of mussels drenched in cilantro-flecked red chilli ginger sauce, and my bewilderment transmuted into bliss. The room, awash in turquoise blue, offers a panoramic view of Bardstown Road, a heavily trafficked boulevard in Louisville. Other Spanish influenced dishes followed and the bourbon flowed in abundance. There was not a steak strip or country ham in sight.
Given Kentucky’s inextricable link with bourbon, there’s an expectation that traditional, hearty Southern food is the most suitable accompaniment. But chefs in Louisville today are shattering those expectations, turning out creative, designer fare, each menu radically different from the next.
Anthony Lamas, chef/owner of Seviche, created the mejillones en caldilo. He opened the restaurant six years ago and quickly became known for cuisine that unites his Puerto Rican and Spanish roots and places them squarely in a bluegrass context.
“The Latino-bourbon mix made sense,” he said. “I like to stay close to home with my cooking style but use local ingredients. We are in bourbon country, after all.” In addition to using the native spirit in Latin desserts, it plays a key role in the irresistible chipotle bourbon orange glaze he developed for the Woodford Reserve cookbook. The sauce is a finishing touch in a special involving a variation on shrimp and grits – a cake made from local grits, Indiana corn and Manchego cheese– served with smoky grilled pork tenderloin.
Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen around the planet, but Louisville’s Italian newcomer is not your typical trattoria. A beguiling blend of innovation and hardcore traditionalism is evident in a space as sleek as a Lamborghini, yet comfortable as a familiar corner osteria. The furniture is from Milan and the vegetables, meats and hormone-free dairy products are from local farmers.
“The formality of dining is gone,” owner Michael Cooper declared. “We want to create a Roman frenzy here, like a fireball.” To that end, there’s live jazz nightly, but the open kitchen arguably provides more excitement. Chefs employ a classic northern Italian method of making pasta by rolling dough across guitar strings. Bartenders craft a variety cocktails that fearlessly employ Italian amaros. But perhaps the most eye-catching element is the Mozzarella Bar. Mozzarella that’s hand-torn fresh every hour and antipasto is dispensed at a long counter created in the style of a sushi bar.
The “frenzy” has taken on an stylish appearance, thanks to a lounge that, at time of press, was due to open in April. The opulent room is a tribute to Fellini’s Italy. The Champagne and caviar focus evokes La Dolce Vita and vintage Italian fashion pieces that make up the décor are glamour incarnate.
Gourmet glamour is casually dressed at Social 732, which opened two years ago in The Green Building, an ultra-eco-conscious complex. Thus, not only is everything in the light, airy, lively eatery sustainable, from the wood furniture constructed with planks of an old barn to the coasters, but Chef Jayson Lewellyn shows the commitment of a religious zealot when it comes to sourcing products from local, sustainable sources. He goes so far as to grow his own Brussels sprouts in a greenhouse in the offseason for the crowd pleasing plate of preserved apple, crispy Brussels sprouts and candied black walnuts, one of the few constant dishes on the regularly changing menu. Most dishes embody a contemporary riff on a tradition. Same goes for the bar, where cocktails are mixed with house syrups and bitters. Bourbons, though abundant, share the spotlight with artisanal gins and tequilas. The engaging bartenders practice precision engineering, from jiggered pours down to the meticulously sculpted ice balls.
If Social 732 has an urban-rustic sensibility, the approach at the handsome, wood-dominated Blind Pig, which opened last March, is village gastropub. Located amid warehouses in a quiet nook of the Butchertown neighborhood, once a vast tract of farmland colonised by butchers, it’s chef Joseph Frase’s thoughtful celebration of the land’s history. The peasant food leans heavy on the swine. There’s even bacon bourbon.
“Anything cured, stuffed or smoked we do here,” the bartender announced, then proceeded to tell us about the smoker outside and present a menu of beers and bourbon.
Creative new restaurants are found even further outside Louisville’s urban circuit. Just north of Louisville in Anchorage is the Gothic-tinted Village Anchor Pub & Roost, a British pub/French bistro hybrid. It’s set in a historic train station, which was moved up a hill from its original location and retrofitted. Floor and furniture are made of fallen wood from the owner’s yard; beer taps are from the Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Revolutionary era flint pistols hang on the walls; Renaissance masterpieces adorn the ceiling. With the owner’s mother’s fried chicken recipe on the menu next to “Deviled Eggs Three Ways” the fare is described as nostalgic-contemporary.
When “nostalgic” and “contemporary” cancel each other out, the “timeless” remains. That clear-minded attitude has kept Lilly’s a cornerstone amid the city’s changing culinary scene since chef/owner Kathy Cary opened it in 1988. Cary’s great grandfather, James Thompson, an Irish immigrant, founded the Glenmore Distillery Company in the early 1890s. With this deep-seated Kentucky legacy in mind, she is hyper-attentive to supporting local farmers as she turns out refined, assured food with simple, satisfying style, allowing the ingredients’ integrity to
“We do eclectic Kentucky cuisine in an upscale way,” she said. “We have international staff, so some influence comes from them. I have an Irish chef, a Jordanian baker, a Senegalese sous chef, and the night time chef is Korean-Mexican. People draw on inspiration they grew up with and interpret things with ingredients from their country.”
But “simple and time tested” are at the heart of her cooking. Trends are irrelevant. Take, for instance, the cassoulet. “If it’s simple and done right – if people have been eating it for 1,000 years in France – there’s a reason.”
There are about 60 bourbons on the bar, and despite her heritage, she encourages “not getting stuck in the mold that you have to have bourbon on the rocks.”
She may, in fact, have captured Louisville’s culinary condition when she said: “We take the word bourbon as an adjective instead of a noun.”
The Blind Pig
1076 East Washington Street
Louisville, KY 40206Tel:
+1 502 618 0600
A Kentucky Bistro 1147 Bardstown Rd Louisville KY 40204-1301Tel:
+1 502 451 0447www.lillyslapeche.com
Ste 101, 445 East Market Street
Louisville, KY 40202-6101Tel:
+1 502 690 6699
1538 Bardstown Road Louisville, KY 40205Tel:
+1 502 473 8560 sevicherestaurant.com
The Green Building
732 East Market Street; LouisvilleTel:
+1 502 583 6882
Village Anchor Pub & Roost
11507 Park Road Anchorage, KY 40223Tel:
+1 502 708 1850www.villageanchor.com