Jul
01
2013

Imbiber

On the Road in Kentucky: Visiting
Bardstown, Frankfort & Lexington Distillers

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Recently catching up on new restaurants, bars, and breakfast spots in Louisville during my second visit in two years, I also trekked to eight distilleries from Bardstown to Lexington, a mixture of “the big guys” (Heaven HillBuffalo Trace) alongside small batch, craft distillers, including Kentucky Bourbon Distillers/WilletLimestone BranchTown Branch, and Barrel House Distilling Co. Here’s a photo journey through my two days of distillery road tripping during a snowy March in Kentucky.

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Jun
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

The gorgeous entrance to St. Charles Exchange recalls New Orleans and Savannah

The gorgeous entrance to St. Charles Exchange recalls New Orleans and Savannah

Dining & Drinking in LOUISVILLE

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Meat still crafts some of Louisville's best cocktails

Meat crafts some of Louisville’s best cocktails

Bourbon. Baseball. Bluegrass. The Derby. These all immediately come to mind when thinking of Kentucky. After my return visit this snowy, grey March, I also think of rolling hills in the historic town of Bardstown – home of Stephen Foster, of burgeoning, small distilleries popping up all over the countryside, of bluegrass families singing around the Galt House for the Itchin’ to Pick weekend jam session.

Catching up on new restaurants and bars since my trip here one year before, I also visited eight distilleries from Bardstown to Lexington, a mixture of “the big guys” (Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace) and small batch or up-and-coming craft distillers, including Kentucky Bourbon Distillers/WilletLimestone Branch, Town Branch, and Barrel House Distilling Co.

Snowy, grey March countryside

Snowy, grey March countryside

Returning to my former favorite Louisville bar, Meat, cocktails reign among the city’s best, but I missed the effervescent service of Jared Schubert who no longer bartends there. The same sexy space upstairs in a former meatpacking butchery remains inviting with comfy couches and dim lighting. Kentucky flair infuses spirit forward cocktails, while house creations are cheeky and delicious, like a brilliant, effervescent Ants on a Log cocktail ($8) mixing peanut infused rum, fall fruit chutney, Bittermans Orchard Street Celery Shrub and celery soda. Just after my visit, Meat closed temporarily for “renovations”, in what has turned into a liquor license debate with downstairs restaurant, Blind Pig, now a months-long saga. Here’s hoping Meat will soon return and remain the unique cocktail haven it is in Louisville.

All of this tasting and meeting with distillers meant I must eat well. In addition to favorites I already have in Louisville (including breakfast go-tos), here are my new favorites in a city whose culinary scene continues to rise:

Milkwood

Milkwood, inside the Actors Theater

Milkwood, inside the Actors Theatre

With three frontrunners for best new restaurant in Louisville this year (the other two below: St. Charles Exchange, Silver Dollar), the most promising newcomer was merely two weeks old at the time of my March visit. Milkwood (named after the Dylan Thomas play, “Under Milkwood”), is in the basement of Louisville’s Actors Theatre.

Breakfast in Bed

Black Coffee in Bed

It’s the latest restaurant from James Beard nominated and Top Chef/Iron Chef America star, Chef Edward Lee, who first made his mark on Louisville with upscale 610 Magnolia. Chatting with Chef  Lee that night, we discussed his Asian-influenced Southern dishes, playful as they are gourmet (note: Chef Lee just came out with Smoke & Pickles, a cookbook of his Southern recipes).

Cocktails ($7-10) are simple, fun, and humorously named, like The Cornhole (Buffalo Trace white dog, pear, ginger) or Toy Tiger (Old Forester bourbon, vermouth, bitter orange), named after a now defunct, legendary local dive bar. Black Coffee in Bed, a simple mixture of Bulleit bourbon, bacon, egg white, is pleasingly savory with a bacon rim. For refreshingly dry there’s Jaliscan Spring: blanco tequila, rhubarb, dry vermouth.

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Rock shrimp sausage on Texas toast

The wine list, from front-of-the-house manager Len Stevens, is categorized by flavor profile, from herbaceous to earthy, including cult California wines like LIOCO Chardonnay on tap. Starters illuminate the playful promise of the menu: deconstructed fried chicken and waffles ($7) line a dish, dotted with radish, dill and house butterMILK dressing. Rock shrimp sausage ($8) comforts on Texas toast slathered in Duke’s mayo, carrot slaw and herb salad.

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Grilled mortadella

Minuscule frog legs ($8) in bourbon brown butter left me wanting despite accents of pickled Fresno chilies, celery, cilantro. But a shredded organic pork ($11) sandwich is one of the menu’s strong points, piled with Napa cabbage kimchi, havarti, pork cracklins’ for crunch, remoulade sauce and cilantro. If only I had one in my hands right now.

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Fascinating desserts

Another standout is brisket and grilled mortadella ($16) buried in pickles, garlic jam and gravy, with a Southern twist on biscuits and gravy represented by biscuit crumbles. Asia-meets-the-south is noted in entrees where flavors (happily) collide, as with caramelized scallops and shaved pork belly ($21) over bok choy, accented by mango, cashews and tamarind butter.

Dessert is likewise creative: togarashi-spiced cheesecake ($9) is touched with peanut sea salt crunch, miso caramel and blackened pineapple, while lush sorghum and grits ice cream ($8) sits atop coconut cake and croissant, drizzled in coffee syrup.

I am eager to see how Milkwood (and Chef Lee) evolves…

St. Charles Exchange

St. Charles Exchange's classic cocktails

St. Charles’ classic cocktails

Opened since my visit last year to Louisville, St. Charles Exchange is “the whole package”: a historical, restored space in downtown Louisville that evokes New Orleans and Savannah, featuring an elegantly casual Southern food menu and impeccable classic cocktails.

How could I not love arancini-style shrimp and grits balls ($8) in red eye gravy and shaved pecorino cheese? A Kentucky ham plate ($12) features many of my favorite Southern hams thinly sliced, like Benton’s, partnered with pickled okra, a biscuit and killer pimento cheese. The winning dish is Elvis On Horseback ($9), a twist on classic Devils on Horseback with traditional bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with peanut butter and dotted with smoked banana vinaigrette. Brilliant.

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Brilliant: Elvis on Horseback

A kale and grilled fennel salad ($9) assuages the need for greens, perked up with pickled orange segments, shallots and fried chèvre cheese in orange-lavender vinaigrette. Sticky mushroom risotto ($18) under shaved black truffle was a far cry from the perfect texture of authentic Italian risotto. Maple bourbon chicken over pancakes ($22) is another example of the chef at the time, Patrick McCandless’, fun-loving touch, even if the surrounding mishmash of pearl onions, spinach, walnuts, ham crisps and bacon powder felt disjointed (note: the chef is now Mark Ford – with a turnover of two chefs since my three meals here in March, I’m concerned for the current quality level).

St. Charles' entrees

St. Charles’ entrees

Cocktails (generally $10-11) stick mainly to classics, whether on menu or in their back catalog, which they can make by request. They claim to make the best Old Fashioned ever – from the countless I’ve had around the world I’d give that title to Chris McMillian’s Old Fashioned at Bar Uncommon in New Orleans (he recently moved to brand new Kingfish and I’d follow him for the Old Fashioned). I’d say their Sazerac is more “perfect”, a lush rendition of one of the greatest drinks of all time.

Keepin' it classic

Keepin’ it classic

Keeping to the classic format, even for house creations, cocktails generally keep to 3-4 ingredients, like a bitter, bright Paper Trail (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Aperol, Salers Gentiane – a French bitter liqueur), or Hoping the Moon Explodes, a lush bitter beauty of Rittenhouse Rye, Cynar and Benedictine.

After three visits, I found their most exciting cocktail to be the most unique, The Lioness, a vibrant, creamy mix of Beefeater Gin, dreamy Kalani Coconut Liqueur, ginger syrup, grapefruit and lemon juice, given a savory touch with Thai bitters. Lovely with dinner, it’s the one cocktail on the menu that doesn’t stick to a spirit forward, classic profile, rather could be categorized as a culinary cocktail evoking Thai cuisine. I wish there were a few more of its ilk here.

Silver Dollar

Silver Dollar

Silver Dollar

Though I rarely repeat places during a trip, both St. Charles Exchange and Silver Dollar brought me back multiple times. Though the tequila/mezcal/American whiskey-focused, hipster roadhouse thing has been done before, Silver Dollar deserves the praise it has received in the year and a half it has been open.

The concept of 1950′s Bakersfield, California honky tonk charmed me from the get-go. I was wooed by colorful strings of lights and giant booths. But they had me at classic country music on vinyl – a backdrop of Hank, Johnny, George Jones and Patsy is an idyllic soundtrack for sipping a boozy Woolworth Manhattan using Cynar (Italian artichoke amaro) for a touch of bitter, Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, Carpano Antica vermouth, Angostura and house sassafras bitters.

Hipster roadhouse cantina magic

Hipster roadhouse cantina magic

The food is as heartwarming as one would hope, from hearty chilis ($6 each) – I’m partial to the chili con frijoles – to guilty pleasure in the form of a chorizo corndog dipped in achiote mustard ($7). Veggie empanadas ($7) are surprisingly flavorful, creamy and savory, even better than the braised beef versions. Fried cornmeal oysters dipped in ancho aioli ($11) are plump and ideally suited to the plethora of beers and whiskeys on offer.

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Braised short ribs over mashed potatoes, topped with fried carrots

Garlic shrimp ($16) were a bit bland but accompanying roasted chayote and cornbread stuffing happily recalled Thanksgiving. Generous portions of barbecue are done right, whether spice-rubbed, hickory-smoked beef brisket ($17), fall-off-the-bone braised short rib ($25) or staff favorite, simple barbecue grilled chicken thighs ($15), elevated by being basted in arbol pepper sauce and lush ancho chile butter.

Though an all-time favorite Southern dish, their buttermilk fried chicken and waffles ($18) was not tops among the countless versions I’ve had – it’s solid but not memorable. Unexpectedly, my top entrée was an Oklahoma specialty (my birth state): chicken fried steak ($15) in mushroom gravy… the best version I’ve ever had.

Eiderdown

Eiderdown's cozy dining room

Eiderdown’s cozy dining room

German and Belgian beers, Austrian and German wines, welcoming staff and two dining rooms of brick and wood… this is the setting for Eiderdown, Louisville’s nouveau German restaurant.

Typical with the modern German restaurant proliferating around the country in recent years (or over a decade ago in my city), there’s housemade pretzels and sausages and snacks like a basket of duck fat popcorn ($4) with herbed salt. Local meats are honored in a Broadbent Farms Kentucky ham ($9) sandwich (a gratifying late night snack) layered with fried egg, pickled red onion, Hefeweizen mustard on Pugliese, an Italian-style bread from popular, local Blue Dog Bakery.

My favorite dish was skillet pie ($16), essentially a glorified pot pie arriving piping hot in a skillet, featuring changing seasonal vegetables.

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Duck fat popcorn and beer at Eiderdown

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May
01
2013

Wandering Traveler

Vacation-like fried shrimp po boys in coconut sauce at Rick's White Light Diner

Fried shrimp po boys in coconut sauce at Rick’s White Light Diner

KENTUCKY QUIRK in Frankfort

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Back again in Bourbon Country, catching up on new restaurants and bars since my visit one year before. While visiting eight distilleries from Bardstown to Lexington, I particularly enjoyed a lunch in the historic town of Frankfort (home to Buffalo Trace Distillery) and fueled up on breakfast and coffee in Louisville before long days of spirits judging/tasting.

Inviting roadside diner over the river

Inviting roadside diner over the river

RICK’S WHITE LIGHT DINER
In the charming, historic town of Frankfort en route to nearby Buffalo Trace, I thankfully went with my instincts to eat at Rick’s White Light Diner. Chef Rick Paul was a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) grad back in 1975 – unusual pedigree for a small town, KY diner.

His tiny, quirky restaurant, with red counter seats and hodgepodge signage (including a glaringly large photo of Guy Fieri who featured the diner in his show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives), reflects his fun-loving personality and care for local ingredients in New Orleans-influenced food and Southern BBQ. Eating here is a bit touristy – but plenty of locals packed the place, too. Most importantly, the food is heartwarmingly vibrant.

Counter seats at Rick's

Counter seats at Rick’s

A special of the day converted me: fried shrimp po boy ($15), not so much classic New Orleans style with its crispy flatbread, and plump, juicy shrimp doused in creamy coconut sauce. It tasted like tropical island vacation in New Orleans.

Crawfish pie ($15) is one of Rick’s specialties: a gratifying slice of crawfish and cream under flaky crust. A side of fried banana peppers crusted in cornmeal was one note – salty – but the pie is well worth ordering. Being a lifelong key lime pie fan, I had to try Rick’s ($5), a lush version with perfect texture though I prefer more tart versions (my mouth-puckering favorites experienced in South Carolina and Florida).

All in all, Rick’s is unique, special sort of place that should be a stop when one is near Frankfort. A spritz of bourbon in my mouth (Rick keeps a spray bottle behind the counter) was the ideal finish to lunch, sending me on my way to meet with the next bourbon distiller.

Pretzel croissant sandwiches at Superchefs

Pretzel croissant sandwiches with hash browns at Superchefs

Breakfast (with coffee) in LOUISVILLE

Beignets

Beignets

SUPERCHEFS
Superchefs, a divey breakfast-only joint that shares a space with Chicago Gyros (from 11am on) on lower Brownsboro Road and worth going out of your way for. Besides Hillbilly Tea (for cozy atmos and hipster-fied Southern food), Superchefs is my favorite Louisville breakfast spot. A pretzel croissant from beloved local German baker, Klaus Riedelsheimer, is packed with brown sugar candied bacon, egg and cheddar cheese and served with hash browns (8.50).

Creamy grits

Creamy grits

Red velvet pancakes ($8.99) are a bit more visually stimulating (red and heart-shaped) than exciting in the flavor department.

Other highlights are fluffy “soufflé doughnuts”, or rather Beignets & Coffee (5.99), lighter than air yet crispy on the outside from generous butter and frying. Creamy, slow-cooked roasted red pepper Weisenberger grits ($5.99) are another must on the blissfully high-calorie breakfast menu.

Mountainous chilaquiles

Mountainous chilaquiles

WILD EGGS
With three locations in Louisville’s suburban surroundings, Wild Eggs is bustling every day with breakfasts made from local farms in a cheery, elevated diner setting with close up wall hangings of eggs and farm fresh ingredients. Portions are massive, as is the case with a mountain of Maria’s Chilaquiles, corn tortilla strips piled high with refried beans, salsa verde, queso blanco and a sunny side up egg. Their everything muffin, a biscuit-like muffin loaded with cracked pepper, garlic, onion, poppyseeds and the like, is justifiably popular.

Sunergos

Sunergos

SUNERGOS COFFEE
Sunergos (the Preston Street location) is a bustling, friendly locals coffee spot south of downtown Louisville serving bracing espresso and coffee.

Though not a third wave, artisan coffee shop with perfected microfoam and such, it’s an ideal neighborhood hangout and they do take their in house roasting seriously. It’s a laid back, friendly place to watch locals gather over a good book.

Nord's

Nord’s

NORD’S BAKERY
Next door to Sunergos Coffees, Nord’s Bakery is a Louisville institution since 2002. Old school donuts are the name of the game, sugary and fluffy. The maple bacon bar is beloved, though I prefer some of the straightforward classics which dissolve, pillowy and soft in the mouth. They do a mean apple fritter or donuts like peanut coconut crunch.

Cake Flour

Cake Flour

CAKE FLOUR
Tiny, little Cake Flour is one of Louisville’s more artisan bakeries, a haven for daily-changing baked goods, including their popular schmuffin: nutmeg-laced “muffins” brushed with butter and rolled in cinnamon sugar. It’s easy to down one (or more) with a bracing cup of coffee.

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Jun
01
2012

Wandering Traveler

Sipping teas at Hillbilly Tea

Southern Adventures in LOUISVILLE, KY

Sipping Johnny Drum at Jockey Silks in the Galt House hotel

Kentucky: land of bourbon, the Derby and Mint Juleps. I’m ever delighted to return to the South, even as I’m connected to some areas more than others (ah, New Orleans, my love). I recently spent a week in Louisville, on the judging panel for ADI’s (American Distilling Institute) annual awards. It was an honor to judge with key spirits and cocktail industry folk, spending days tasting (blind, of course) through the latest in a broad range of small US craft spirits – winners here.

In my off time, I roamed Louisville, from downtown to Bardstown Road. Louisville is a small city, not exactly visually beautiful or dense like ultimate US cities, but its distinctly Kentucky treasures do unfold. The historic Brown Hotel was my home base, its player piano welcoming me with strains of Gershwin and old world elegance in the beautiful lobby.

The elegant Brown Hotel lobby

An American whiskey girl at heart (though I love all spirits), being in bourbon and rye’s epicenter is invigorating, even if I can find the region’s most rare, small batch spirits in my own city. A unique preview came in an early peek at Distilled Spirits Epicenter, shortly before it opened, essentially a distillery “for rent”, where would-be distillers have their visions crafted, try out test batches or take classes to learn more about distilling. Founded by David Defoe of Flavorman, a scientific flavor lab that creates sodas, juices and beverage products for numerous companies, my favorite feature is their upstairs apartment which they offer to guests using their facilities as they create a product: an open, brick-walled apartment upstairs in the Flavorman building.

Here are highlights from my travels in food, cocktails, whiskey and unexpectedly the most incredible beer collection I’ve ever seen.

BEER

SERGIO’s WORLD of BEER

Sergio’s impressive tap offerings

If you can find Sergio’s World of Beers (no, it’s not the dive bar next door), you walk into an unmarked space and could wait 10 minutes for someone to even come out. Immediately impressed by the selection of beers lining the dingy front room packed with boxes and glasses, beer aficionados will freak out over the options available on tap. Numerous rotating beers range from Italian sours to a bourbon barrel rarity made by a guy down the street.

Sergio Ribenboim himself is an avid beer collector (read Imbibe magazine’s article about him last year). With one of the most exhaustive collections in the world, he leads tours of breweries around the globe. After the joys of the front room are uncovered, one realizes they haven’t seen anything. .

Rare beers

Stocking the halls and back rooms (not to mention Sergio’s home) are over 1000 beers for purchase from every region of the globe, including first editions of cult favorites and rarities, such as a Belgian beer, Smisje Calva Reserva, aged in Calvados barrels.

The humble shop is a beer lovers paradise, every unassuming foot of it. The Renaissance man – the avid beer fan in my home – and I planned to stop in for 30 minutes but ended up staying over 3 hours.

We chatted with Sergio and obsessed beer lovers who dropped in from all over the country, those who, like us, will make Sergio’s a must-stop whenever we’re in Kentucky.

Restaurants, Cocktails, Whiskey & Wine

HARVEST

Kentucky Burgoo

To date, Harvest is my favorite Louisville restaurant. It’s the usual farm-to-table concept, long the standard where I live and more common in recent years around the country. The walls are covered with large black and white photos of Kentucky farmers who supply Harvest’s ingredients.

Here the concept invigorates local classics like the Hot Brown (see Brown Hotel’s English Grill below) in a Hot Brown pizza ($14), a brilliant twist on a local classic. Or burgoo ($16), a Southern stew laden with rabbit, pork and chicken, fresh with snow pea sprouts. Its one flaw was being far too salty so that the heartwarming bowl started to feel “one note” after a few bites.

Hot Brown Pizza

After a starter of a pretzel bun dipped in addictive amber ale beer cheese sauce ($7) and solid cocktails utilizing house bitters, syrups and tinctures, not to mention engaging service and a manager walking the floor ensuring all of us were satisfied, I found Harvest a “whole package” kind of dining destination. No wonder they were nominated for a James Beard award this year for Best  New Restaurant.

BROWN HOTEL’S ENGLISH GRILL

The original Hot Brown at Brown Hotel’s English Grill

The Hot Brown ($22) is one of Kentucky’s signature dishes, created in 1926 at the Brown Hotel’s English Grill by chef Fred Schmidt. When bored with traditional ham and eggs, he opted for roasted turkey breast over toast points topped with bacon and tomatoes, then slathered it all in Mornay sauce (butter, milk, Parmesan, egg, cream). If that weren’t enough, it’s baked golden brown in Parmesan cheese. Brilliant. Eaten in its home base, the old world elegance of the English Grill, it’s every bit as decadent, gooey, rich, meaty and fabulous as it sounds.

MEAT

Hands-down, the best bar of my visit to Louisville was Meat – and Jared Schubert was the best bartender. We lingered for hours, till 3am, watching thunderstorms pass, filling paper bags with their revolving turntable of free snacks, a genius addition of unending servings, including Trader Joe’s favorites from mustard pretzels to peanut butter stuffed pretzels.

Cocktails at my top Louisville bar, Meat

Jared joked and flirted with customers from the oval bar at the center of a brick-walled space tucked away upstairs in the back of a building that once housed a butchery in the trendy Butchertown neighborhood. Butcher tools and meats hang in the entrance, while the dim, glowing room is a romantic space filled with couches and comfy nooks.

Their menu states, “We love the Prohibition-era cocktail movement. We love Louisville.” Instead of exactly copying big city bars, their mission is to “serve authentic and inventive beverages with a distinctly Louisvillian sense of place.” They list recipes from favorite bartenders around the world alongside house creations (all $10), while Jared whips up some off-menu beauties, including an effervescent mix of Del Maguey mezcal with Moet Imperial champagne.

Butcher entrance at Meat

One of the most delightfully unique menu offerings is a Viking 75. The Nordic twist on a French 75 uses Taffel aquavit, Cynar, house sour mix, demarara syrup and lingonberry jam with Bott Geyl Cremant d’Alsace. Upscale tacky plays well in The Queen’s Tea: Pimm’s, Hendrick’s gin, Campari, Dewar’s Scotch, Chartreuse, lemon, and, yes, 7-Up.

Puerto Rican Wingman was another favorite: Ron Zacapa Solera and Bacardi rums blend with orange curacao and lime into a bright whole where house falernum adds nutty texture, coffee bitters an earthy kick, Abita root beer a punchy finish. Another winner? Hit the smoky side with The Smoke Monster: Ardbeg 10yr Scotch, Vya sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, orange juice, grenadine, celery seed bitters.

Whatever you order, don’t miss Meat.

HILLBILLY TEA

Corner rocking chair

Hillbilly Tea is a funky, hipster version of Appalachia circa turn-of-the-century. In a gorgeous restored building, two levels of brick walls, rustic wood floors, 70’s rocking chairs, 1800’s sewing machines, picnic tables and quilts set a comfortable tone for rounds of tea served on slices of a tree trunk. We sipped aromatic, herbal, mint-inflected Snap green tea ($3.75) and Sweet Smokey Mountain chai boiled with milk and sugar ($4.75) – a little sweet for me (we’re in the South, after all, where “sweet tea” means sweet). I found Twig ($3.75) most soothing: a nutty, toasted green tea.

Upstairs at Hillbilly Tea

Brunch is a fun affair, whether a skillet pancake ($8) lathered in Smokey Mountain chai butter and sorghum syrup, or white bean and sage fritters ($5). I particularly enjoyed pork and pone ($8), a mound of BBQ pulled pork on corn pone with garlic mayo, red cabbage chow chow, and choice of side – I opted for healthy braised greens. They serve a tasty biscuit ($3), even better with local honey and a dreamy house-cured bacon ($5). In the locally sourced foods vein with young, hip servers, Hillbilly Tea delivers substance alongside style.

DOC CROW’S

Doc Crow’s pork rinds & spiked lemonade

Spacious, extensive Doc Crow’s is a historic, 1880′s downtown Louisville space, particularly charming in the cozy, middle booth section or open back room with wood floors and fireplaces. The menu is a fun range of some of my Southern favorites, heavy on BBQ and oysters, also offering Po Boys, fried green tomatoes, mac n’ cheese, fried catfish and gumbo. Not all of it is the best version possible, but cornmeal fried catfish with hush puppies ($9), for example is generously portioned and satisfying, as are slow-smoked, baby back ribs ($12 1/2 rib, $22 full rib).

Cozy booths at Doc Crow’s

Key Lime Pie ($6) is not as tart as my favorite renditions (still remembering Uncle Bubba’s outside Charleston), while seasoned pork rinds ($4) taste great with a boozy lemonade but aren’t comparable to SF’s own cult classic – the best chicharrones I’ve ever had from the South to Mexico – 4505 Meats‘ chicharrones. Overall, Doc Crow’s is a fine downtown choice for value, with large portions, heartwarming food, and a welcoming, all-day space.

GARAGE ON MARKET

Garage on Market’s cars

The building alone draws one into Garage on Market: a restored gas station with two cars melded together on the front drive, and a picnic table area with astro turf-covered seating under strung white lights. Serving brick oven-cooked pizzas, like the Monte Cristo ($14 – smoked chicken, gouda, egg, sorghum, preserves) or on the sweet side, Nutella Pie ($12 – nutella, banana, cinnamon sugar, butter, syrup), the Garage offers a playful, casual menu and regional country hams.

Garage’s picnic tables

Brunch is the likes of beignets, poached eggs and ham, with drinks like a Red Hot Bitter ($7): local Red Hot Roasters espresso, chocolate milk, Kahlua, Bailey’s, and chocolate bitters. The cocktail menu in general appeals to cocktail fans while keeping that same approachable, unfussy tone.

PROOF ON MAIN

Vibrant artwork at Proof on Main

When it comes to Louisville, the restaurant and bar that almost always comes up is Proof on Main. Inside the 21c Hotel one is immediately impressed by its modern art museum. The dining room makes a statement with dramatic artwork and upholstered seats. But despite how long I’ve heard raves, disappointment set in immediately at the bar with a diffident, seemingly bored bartender who stood off to the side of the bar mixing drinks, only talking to servers vs. interacting with customers – and this was at the mellow hour of 5:30pm with a half empty bar.

Woodford Rye duo

The bartender acted as if he was doing us a favor serving an ok round of cocktails from a menu that in the end felt typical. For those of us who travel the world in search of the best food and drink, cocktails should stand on their own, yes, but service sets apart a menu that reads well from a destination-worthy bar. Ordering whiskey pours was the best way to go (we opted for Woodford Reserve’s rye duo), but in terms of the hundreds of top notch bars I’ve visited around the world, I wouldn’t return to Proof.

Best dish: bone marrow with apple butter

Once we moved to the dining room, service was friendly and gratifying, redeeming the experience. The food menu is a stimulating mix of modern creativity with Southern ingredients, but at high prices (starters are $8-21, entrees $18-34) I was disappointed in more than one dish, starting with a dry charred octopus ($15) with bagna cauda and lime.

Striped mullet

Striped mullet ($27) sounded like a fishy/meaty melange of mussels, fennel, country ham, rutabaga, almonds, and smoked grapefruit but ultimately felt disjointed. The beloved Proof bison burger ($17), which more than half the restaurant seemed to order, piled high with Tillamook cheddar, smoked bacon, Jezebel sauce (a wonderful Southern mix of pineapple preserves, apple jelly, horseradish, mustard, black pepper), was cooked more medium than my medium rare request. I couldn’t help but recall the countless delectable gourmet burgers (whether bison or beef) I’ve had for under $15.

The wall of the Wine Market building

A standout dish was Bison marrow bones ($12), fatty and delectable, smartly paired with apple butter and frisee on toast. For cost to value/taste ratio, I’d recommend visiting the hotel’s museum, then heading on to Harvest or another locale for dinner and drinks.

CELLAR DOOR CHOCOLATES

A local chocolatier, Cellar Door Chocolates, produces crave-worthy sea salt peanut butter dark chocolate cups available at shops like The Wine Market on Bardstown Road. Buying a four-pack to sample, I promptly finished each one.

RYE BAR

Excellent, rare Rathskeller Rye distilled for Seelbach Bar in 1983

Rye had just opened in February when I was in Louisville on a hip stretch of Market Street. Young bartenders in a sleek space were looking up recipes in Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, slowly crafting drinks requested by guests or on menu. At the time, they seemed not quote yet ready for “prime time”, but served decent standards like a Mezcal Mule or Dark & Stormy (with Ron Zacapa 23 rum), or tongue-in-cheek drinks like The Shit ($9): Plymouth gin, chile-lime syrup, Prosecco.

One of my drinking companions, a well-known distiller, requested a Whiskey Sour with egg white and Whistlepig 10 year Rye (which they pour at $19 a glass) – it was easily the best drink I had here, bright and refreshing. Just mentioned in Food & Wine, this bar should get progressively better as the staff gain a more seamless knowledge of the menu and what they want to offer to customers.

SEELBACH BAR at the Seelbach Hotel

Jockey Silks jockey-themed bar at the Galt House

The Seelbach is a piece of Louisville history dating back nearly 100 years. A dated respite of a bar inside a hotel, it offers an impressive range of bourbons and ryes, including a couple you won’t find outside of Kentucky, like a special Seelbach bottling from 1983 of Rathskeller Rye: a true treat, vibrant and boozy at cask strength.   

JOCKEY SILKS in the Galt House

With over 120 whiskies, Jockey Silks is a hotel bar offering a quiet, dated bar (think lots of wood and red, circa 1970’s) in which to sip a range of bourbons, from “deluxe” pours at $10, premium at $9, or most glasses at $8. It’s affordable and relaxing, a classic Louisville bourbon respite.

THE WINE MARKET of Louisville and OLD TOWN WINE & SPIRITS

Old Town with drive-thru window

The Wine Market is a small but well-curated selection of wines from Alsace to Bordeaux with friendly staff in a funky, cool building with appealing wording (“weird, independent, proud”) covering the exterior wall. It seems to be Bardstown Road’s finest wine shop. Stronger on the spirits and beer front with a badass drive-through window is Old Town Wine & Spirits – they offer an affordable, wide-ranging selection.

COFFEE

I felt right back at home with third wave coffee, excellently roasted beans and proper foam on my cappuccino at Quills Coffee (with two Louisville locations), which appears to be Louisville’s best artisan coffee.

Satiated with Quills Coffee

As has long been commonplace on the West Coast and only gained traction in recent years in NY and places East, this hipster coffee haven is full of artists and students on laptops, with chemex and locally roasted beans hailing from Africa to South America.

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