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/Willet, Limestone Branch, Town Branch, and Barrel House Distilling Co.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
My favorite dish was skillet pie ($16), essentially a glorified pot pie arriving piping hot in a skillet, featuring changing seasonal vegetables.