Making its Mark

Louisville’s culinary scene hits its stride


For a different article on Louisville, I would have a glass of bourbon and watch the Cardinals play basketball. You’ve already read that one … about bourbon and horses. This time the story starts unlike the others.

Leaving the sanctuary of a small Unitarian Church, I felt a slight twinge of guilt, but by the time I stepped onto the black and white checkered tile floor of the Choir Loft and stood in front of six taps beholding specialty and rare beers, any pang of conscience dissipated.

“I’ll have the De Molen Bo & Luke,” I told the bartender. Waiting for the smoked imperial stout aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels by local brewery Against the Grain, I looked around in awe.

The church, built in 1905, still has devout people congregating on a regular basis, albeit instead of hymnals and pews the space is packed with menus and tables. Most surprising, is that in a town known for its bourbon heritage, not a single option exists. A beer geek at a bar called Holy Grale in the heart of Louisville’s Original Highlands neighborhood seemed like an anomaly – until the heavenly sliders arrived. Then it not only made sense, it confirmed what had initially led me to Louisville: the food scene is legit.

Hungry in the Highlands

Wide-brimmed accessories atop fashionable Southern belles, stately thoroughbreds with memorable names and more Mint Juleps than you can muddle top the list when Louisville, Ky. comes to mind. So does stamping pocket-sized passports at designated stops along the Urban Bourbon Trail, where an education comes caramel colored and by the glass.

I, on the other hand, arrived with an appetite to please, curiosity to feed and a map. The Highlands neighborhood, centered along a 3-mile stretch of Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue, has the country’s largest collection of restored Victorian homes and was the original “Restaurant Row.”  Other popular stops in this area include Lilly’s – A Kentucky Bistro and Jack Fry’s, both revered for reasons that have everything to do with tradition.

Chef/Owner Kathy Cary has a mural of her childhood farm on a wall in her restaurant, which she named for her daughter Lilly. As a long-time steward of local and sustainable, Cary set the table for future chefs to continue the ever-important locavore movement. Fresh, innovative fine dining is what to expect from this signature establishment, along with an occasional visit as she emerges from the kitchen frequently. Beyond southern born and Kentucky proud, Cary’s food is inspiring, right down to the seared sea scallops, with pimento cheese grits, Buffalo Trace Bourbon shrimp cream and crispy kale.

The food at Jack Fry’s is delicious, but the black and white photos on the wall often steal the attention, especially since many of the stars are four-legged legends dating back to when the restaurant opened in 1933. Go for the history and the old school ambiance, just keep in mind this establishment has won 22 Best of Louisville awards for good reason. I vote for Jack’s burger and fries – simple, but perfect.

No place like NuLu

As I made my way through each neighborhood, I found myself playing favorites, with the majority of my visits ending in NuLu, also known as the East Market District. Minutes away from downtown, NuLu is a laid-back artsy community that has emerged as the city’s newest “Restaurant Row.” Cute shops like SCOUT, a home accessories store, and The Louisville Beer Store, where I found “souvenirs” for my husband, certainly did their fair share of keeping me captivated.

This street, lined with distractions in an accessible four to five block area, is home to Harvest, the first of several farm-to-table stops where I unsuccessfully resisted both the artisan bread board and the cheese board, comprised of tye-dyed chevre and compote, aged white cheddar and chow chow, and smoked blue gouda and apple butter.

Irresistible for a number of reasons, including the ping pong table atop wrecked cars, the Garage Bar sports a wood-fired Ferrara oven built by hand in Naples, producing a thin, chewy crust that is perfectly crisp on the outside. But it’s not all about the crust at Garage Bar, which chooses only seasonal, local ingredients from regional farmers and producers for the menu, which changes often. Not many pizza joints can get away with a brussels sprouts pie, but when “From Farm to Garage,” is just as much a philosophy as it is a T-shirt phrase, it’s possible. Besides incredible pizza, Garage Bar also offers a ham bar, salads and oysters. Somehow, I was too full to dive into the Moon Pie custard and the Nutella pizza. Shameful, I know.

Housed in a renovated 1870s building, Decca boasts a beautiful interior and a formidable chef in Chef Annie Pettry, who foraged for mushrooms and fished for trout as a child growing up in Asheville, N.C. With culinary stints in the South, on the West Coast and in NYC, Pettry’s style is a confluence of former experiences and past memories. The result is sincere but approachable modern American cuisine. I started with the wood-grilled asparagus, mousseline and Norwood gruyere, followed by ricotta cavatelli with braised rabbit, herb cream and horseradish gremolata and then moved along to a main dish of hay braised pork cheeks, couscous, Marcona almond and plum. Those of us lucky enough to visit and order the ice cream sandwich, made with honey gelato, oatmeal cookie, lavender caramel and pine nuts, left with fond memories.

Speaking of sweets, I couldn’t resist popping into Please and Thank You, mainly because I loved the name. After all, it isn’t every day you can hang out in a record shop with a bevy of coffee and teas. Stronger drinks like the Revolver made from Bulleit bourbon, Chouffe coffee liquor and BD’s barrel-aged orange bitters are crafted further afield at Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which left an impression almost as indelible as the ink in my Urban Bourbon Trail passport.

Detours and Downtime

It’s true. I did it. I couldn’t resist flipping my handy dandy passport at nearly every restaurant and bar. Research is research, after all, and a stint in Louisville without a flight of bourbon or exploring at least part of the Urban Bourbon Trail could almost be considered a compromise of journalistic integrity.

Although several of my stamps included bourbon barrel-aged beer, I can proudly say I saddled up to the bar at places like Bourbons Bistro, Bristol Bar and Grille and the Old Seelbach Bar to sample bourbon flights. I tried to taste the difference between single barrel, small batch, bottled in bond and traditional bourbon, but aside from the burning in my chest, most sips didn’t warrant much of an epiphany.

Turns out, I like my bourbon best in food recipes, and plenty of local chefs incorporate their passion for cooking with their love for bourbon. Taking it one step further is former chef Matt Jamie. The owner of Bourbon Barrel Foods created a product line of bourbon-aged sauces, spices, sugars, sorghums and most surprising – soy sauce. Jamie is the first in the United States to microbrew soy sauce, which he said was his initial idea but since the process takes 12 months to age, he launched Bourbon Barrel Smoked Sea Salt, followed by barrel-aged Worcestershire sauce, and then expanded the company’s line to spices before adding a teriyaki sauce called ‘Kentuckyaki.’

Besides Bourbon Barrel Foods, housed inside a fun shopping destination called Work the Metal in the Butchertown neighborhood are shops for home decor, clothing, bath and body and gifts for everyone back in Atlanta.

Eventually, even the overachieving among us need to rest and while Louisville comes equipped with plenty of pillows to call home, 21c Museum and The Brown Hotel are hard to beat. Rooms at the 1923 Brown Hotel are ornate and well-appointed, as expected, but impressive aesthetics aside, the property is significant for a sandwich and a room.

The famous Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a delicate Mornay sauce first made its way to the plate here and is now a local tradition with worldwide appeal. The esteemed English Grill with its handsome wood pillars and stately decor presents itself as perhaps the finest dining in the city. Upstairs, the Muhammed Ali Suite, dedicated by the boxer himself during the premier of the Will Smith blockbuster “Ali,” looks more like an apartment filled with signed memorabilia.

New, modern and trendy, 21c Museum Hotel is the complete opposite. The uber-cool hotel started as the brainchild of two contemporary art collectors from Kentucky and quickly turned heads as a boutique retreat. Exhibits rotate every six weeks. During my stay, the 4-foot tall “Red Penguins” found scattered in the lobby and on each floor were merely “art,” until I realized that intentionally or not, part of the attraction included relocating the birds. Then it suddenly became an interactive exhibit. This creative theme overlapped in its onsite restaurant, Proof on Main, where the tastemakers stole the show when the chilled heirloom carrot soup with charmula, boiled peanuts, salted lime and yogurt arrived.

Although not paraded around town with wreaths of roses, Louisville’s culinary scene is making its mark down the home stretch, proving there’s more to love than bourbon and horses.

Online Exclusive: Read about Heather’s day trip to Bardstown, better known as Bourbon Capital of the World.