May 8, 2007

54 bottles of wine on the wall ...

  lamb pops: L&N Wine Bar and Bistro’s “lamb pops,” four bite-sized lamb chops over large Israeli couscous. It’s an appetizer that’s substantial enough to serve as a light main course.  I’ve been predisposed to like L&N Wine Bar and Bistro ever since it opened. I’m a wine geek, and the owners are wine geeks. With its majestic wall of wine, a 54-bottle Cruvinet wine-storage facility and dispenser that’s the largest made, it boasts a wine program that’s second to none.     More than 100 wines are available for tasting, from as little as $2.50 for 2-ounce “taste” of several value-priced items to $60 for a bottle of more upscale wine. Connoisseurs may also choose from a short daily list of higher-end wines on the     Cruvinet, or peruse the book-length cellar list.    But you don’t have to be a wine geek to enjoy this place: Full bar service offers a broad selection of liquors and a dozen well-chosen microbrewery beers. As the name implies, it’s both a wine bar and a Bistro, and it performs as well on food and service as it does with adult beverages.    Proprietors Len Stevens (the “L” of L&N) and his wife Nancy Richards (The “N”) bring nearly four decades of wine and restaurant experience to L&N, not least their shared tenure at the late, still-lamented Zephyr Cove. The Cove lives on at L&N, at least in spirit, in the tall glass tubes of vodka-and-fruit infusions and the heavy, comfortable dining chairs used in its cozy bar and two dining rooms, each equipped with a working fireplace.    It was time for a return visit, since Chef Rick Adams had moved on last year, and Chef Mark Purzycki came down from the Motor City to take over the kitchen. I thought Purzycki might roll out a new menu, but it turns out that L&N’s bill of fare has taken on a life of its own. L&N’s loyal clientele is so fond of all the old favorites, it seems, that management can’t remove anything from the list without a chorus of wailing and gnashing of teeth.     Clearly Purzycki adds his own personal stamp to the cooking style, but if you haven’t been back lately, you’ll be delighted to know that all the old standards, including the steak frites ($22.95) and the signature Tuna Humphries ($29.95) remain on the menu.    L&N is the kind of comfortable eatery where you feel easy about dropping in any time, no need to wait for a special-occasion blowout or celebratory event. The menu makes that relatively easy, offering a dozen appetizers — many sufficient to make a light dinner or combined for a larger repast — from $5.95 for tomato-artichoke soup to $14.95 for lamb “pops” or seared diver scallops.    A dozen main courses start at $11.95 (for a half-pound Georgia burger with Kenny’s Kentucky Colby cheese) to $28.95 (for the aforementioned Tuna Humphries, a dish of rare ahi tuna over truffled risotto with a wild mushroom and asparagus ragout, a great fish dish that will stand up to red wine). For the thrifty, about half of the entrees come in under $20.    I’ve been in several times lately, for dinner with a family group of four and a couple of wine-tasting gatherings, and am fully satisfied that my original 95-point rating — a strong four stars — remains well and truly earned by this classy but comfortable spot.    There wasn’t a clunker among the dishes I’ve tried during recent visits:    The L&N Cheese Tasting ($10.95) may serve as an appetizer or a cheese course after the meal. Served on a wooden cutting board were samples of California Humboldt Fog, a soft, tangy goat cheese; Epoisses, the deliciously “stinky” cow’s milk cheese of Burgundy, legal in the United States only after aging, as it’s non-pasteurized, but still impressive; and a nutty, buttery French cow’s milk cheese. It was accompanied by walnuts and dried figs and thin slices of Blue Dog baguette.    Fried green tomatoes ($7.95) are crisply breaded and golden brown, just like the roadfood original but more refined, with a touch of upscale flavor added by a tomato-poblano relish.    Crab cakes ($9.95) are simple and perfect, well-picked crab with little filler, pan-seared and served with a cilantro-lime aioli.  Belgian-style steak frites: L&N’s Belgian-style steak frites is a perennial favorite — a 10-ounce sirloin with sweet-tart Worcestershire demiglace and shredded tobacco onions. You can sub mashed potatoes for fries.  I got just a bite of a seared diver scallop (scallops and gnocchi, $14.95), but it just about made me swoon, perfectly cooked, crisply seared on the outside and just warm and sweet as seafood candy within.    Lamb “pops” ($14.95) are sufficient to make a main course, four tender, bite-size mini-chops artfully assembled atop a small pile of pea-size Israeli couscous and a sweet bourbon-molasses demiglace.    Seafood bisque ($8.95) is so creamy that it might be a cardiologist’s nightmare, with deep, intense flavors of lobster and shrimp. It’s garnished with an oversize, tender prawn.    It’s always a tough call between the bisque and the luscious tomato artichoke soup ($5.95), a thick, creamy, dark-red puree with slight natural sweetness well offset by deep vegetable flavors. It’s finished with an artful (and tasty) dollop of basil-scented crème fraïche.    The Caesar Bouquet ($6.95) takes a creative spin on traditional Caesar salad: a crisp, fresh whole romaine heart is lightly dressed with a simple Caesar dressing and served with an earthy eggplant and kalamata olive tapenade and crunchy croutons of Blue Dog bread seasoned with a surprisingly fiery spice that’s fun but a bit over the top for wine.    Finally, they may bill it as an appetizer, but the cheese fondue ($11.95) is plenty for four to share. This is no ’70s wedding gift fondue pot concoction but a rich blend of four cheeses (including a distinct whiff of blue), served molten with chunks of Blue Dog bread, thin-sliced Granny Smith apples, sizzling rounds of Polish sausage and crisp, fresh corn tortilla chips for dipping.     Among entrees, the Belgian-style steak frites ($22.95) is a perennial favorite because it’s particularly compatible with sturdy red wines. A 10-ounce sirloin is grilled exactly to order and served with a sweet-tart Worcestershire demiglace, crisp shredded “tobacco onions” and a tumbler full of addictive Belgian-style frites (fresh-fried potatoes). If you don’t want the fries, they’ll substitute mashed potatoes or what have you. But go for the fries. Trust me, you won’t be sorry.    Shrimp and grits ($24.95) is a spectacular and well-made presentation, with three oversize grilled prawns surmounting a mound of coarse-ground grits enhanced by Kenny’s horseradish white cheddar cheese, dressed with a smoked-tomato chutney and garnished with a few fried green tomato halves. It’s country comfort food dressed up and brought to town, and I can’t fault it for quality, although for my tastes I wish the tomato chutney weren’t so sweet.    Nor are vegetarians forgotten here: The vegetable Wellington ($15.95) is one of the most refined (and delicious) meatless main courses I’ve ever enjoyed: Grilled veggies, including roast peppers and mushrooms, are wrapped in puff pastry with Capriole goat cheese, baked until the pastry is brown and the cheese soft and melted, and served with a sweet corn cream sauce.    Desserts? Yes, please. There are plenty to choose from, but I recommend pastry chef Marsha’s strawberry tiramisu, a fruit-scented reinvention of the Sicilian favorite that ranks very high on my list of all-time great desserts.    I suggest choosing a series of comparative wine tastings with your meal, matching a variety of interesting wines in 2-ounce tastes with an array of goodies for mix-and-match comparisons. If the outsize wine list intimidates you, just ask for help. Every one here, from Len and Nancy to your server, knows the wines and will give you excellent advice.    The share of our dinner for two, including all the wines and a 20-percent tip, came to an even $100, more than fair for an indulgent meal of this quality.L&N Wine Bar and Bistro1765 Mellwood Ave.897-0070LandNWineBar.comRating: 95 pointsContact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com