April 15, 2008

LEO Eats: Meeting John Barleycorn at Bourbons Bistro

Chef Michael Crouch: of Bourbons Bistro offers thoughtful, creative dishes that may be rooted in down-home Ohio Valley flavors but travel around the world for inspiration.(WITH COLUMNIST MARSHA LYNCH)We did an odd thing at Bourbons Bistro the other night. You might expect a place named after Kentucky’s native nectar to feature steak, potatoes and red wine, but we ended up with a delicious selection of seafood and vegetarian dishes.That’s the delicious secret (although it’s not much of a secret) at Bourbons Bistro: Bourbon has outgrown its reputation as the potent, old-style liquor that your Old Grand-dad used to sip and has moved into the modern era. Bourbons Bistro, arguably bourbon whiskey’s No. 1 temple in the metro, provides fare to match, with Chef Michael Crouch turning out thoughtful, creative dishes that may be rooted in down-home Ohio Valley flavors but travel around the world for inspiration.Located in a fine old Clifton commercial building, the Bistro’s interior breathes a sense of age worn gracefully; tables are simple, undraped black, with attractive wooden side chairs. Exposed brick walls are decorated with old photos of distillery scenes, and the tongue-in-cheek use of shot glasses as votive-candle holders carries out the boozy theme.Of course, it would be silly to dine at Bourbons Bistro without trying some bourbon, and the menu makes it easy, proposing eight suggested “flights” of one-ounce samples; or you can pick any three you like from the 150-bottle list, add up the regular prices and then knock off $4 for the tasting set. We chose three from the “Small Batch” flight ($20), trying caramelly Ridgemont Reserve 1792, mellow Basil Hayden and strong, complex Bulleit, and enjoyed comparing their flavors alone, with a single ice cube and over ice.Our meal started with complimentary Blue Dog levain bread wrapped in a white cloth napkin, with whipped butter piped into a white ramekin.Fresh baby spinach salad ($7), with cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes and walnuts, was excellent, if rather heavily dressed, with an excellent, tangy mustard vinaigrette.Seven small, perfect oysters ($9) were cloaked in a crisp cornmeal breading and deep-fried grease-free, the oysters steaming but not overcooked, served with lemon wedges and a dish of creamy, gently piquant horseradish sauce.Our server highly recommended the pan-seared lobster cakes ($28), and I can see why. Think of rich, dense and perfect crab cakes the size of large marshmallows, then substitute shredded lobster as the central ingredient. Fresh and richly flavorful, they were studded with tiny dots of red, green and yellow bell pepper, topped with a thin coat of perfect lemony-tart Hollandaise and plated on a tangy-sweet orange gastrique sauce, with perfect home-fried potatoes and caramelized onions formed into a turban on the side and a small bundle of crisp-tender haricots verts. This is a memorable shellfish dish, and it was a stunning match with a full-bodied d’Arenberg “Hermit Crab” white wine ($7 for a glass).Wedges of “chunky new potato and asparagus tart” ($17) were made with big chunks of perfectly roasted potato and thin-sliced fresh asparagus, sitting on and topped with melted Brie cheese and a silken lemon crème fraiche. The combination of flavors and textures was just incredible; add this one to the local Hall of Fame for vegetarian main courses. Grilled summer squash sliced lengthwise and grilled asparagus made a healthy springtime accompaniment, and it was a fine match with a fruity, slightly musky Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc.For dessert we shared a favorite, chocolate pecan bourbon bread pudding ($7), a delicacy so fine that my long-suffering bride, who usually hates bread pudding, declares it one of Louisville’s best desserts. A block the size of half a brick, it’s saturated in chocolate and studded with tart dried cherries, laced with a haunting touch of bourbon. Moist, dense yet tender, plated on rich crème anglaise, it’s all beautiful flavors that go together perfectly.The toll for two came to $109.18, not bad at all when you consider that it includes both a flight of high-end bourbons and two glasses of decent wine. Our server Jeremy’s confident and professional service made the customary 20-percent tip seem cheap; we rounded up to $140 and were glad we did.Bourbons Bistro2255 Frankfort Ave.894-8838www.bourbonsbistro.comRobin Garr’s rating: 89 pointsNow it’s my pleasure to introduce an old friend from LouisvilleHotBytes.com and the local restaurant community. Marsha Lynch, the pastry chef at Café Lou Lou, is a culinary graduate of Sullivan University and has worked at Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro.From time to time, Marsha will step up to join me on this pulpit with a new column, “Industry Standard,” subtitled “Insider info for those who dine out,” a hearty menu of tips and tidbits aimed at offering the dining public a fresh view of the restaurant business from an insider’s perspective.Industry Standard: Always make a reservation“What’s on the book?”It’s the eternal question, roughly translated as, “How many reservations do we have?” As we begin our daily rituals, every cook and server wants to know: Exactly how busy are we going to be?The phrase is a holdover from the days when reservations were written by hand in a reservation book. Nowadays, the “book” maybe a state-of-the-art computer network, with access terminals throughout the restaurant, but the list is still often called “the book.”It’s not an exact science, but the number of reservations can usually be extrapolated to indicate how busy the evening will be. Of course, there will always be walk-ins, and these are usually welcome. We count on them to fill in holes in the “book.” Still, for the best experience, you want to be a party with a reservation.On a Monday at 6 p.m., you might well think, “They won’t be that busy. We don’t actually need to make a reservation.” To an extent, you are right:  You won’t necessarily need a reservation to get a table during non-peak hours. But getting a table is only half the battle. You don’t just want a table, you want a great meal, with delicious food and professional service.When you have made a reservation, your server will be pre-assigned, already working for you before you cross the threshold. The servers have your table in mind already. They are waiting for you to get there, the menus are ready, the flatware is ready, the table is clean, set and welcoming. You shouldn’t have to wait in a drafty anteroom while your table is bussed and cleared to accommodate you, or while servers wait to see who’ll be assigned to your table. If your party is large, the cooks have been informed and are planning ahead, expediting the smaller parties that may order around the same time as you, so they can clear the window for your party’s food.So make that reservation! Even if you just make a quick call on your way to the restaurant, it’s still much appreciated, and practically guarantees a better experience for you and your party.Speaking of reservations, have you made yours for the first weekend in May? Let me clue you in on a little secret: It’s often easier to get a last-minute table (for a smallish party) on Saturday, Derby night, than it is to get one on Friday, Oaks night. It may sound crazy, but it’s been proven time and again. I think people plan ahead for the whole weekend, and they honor their reservations for Oaks night. But over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of folks run out of steam at the track on Saturday, ending up at home with an ice pack on their head and another on their wallet, leaving their top-spot reservations unused. So, never say never. You might just get that table that you thought was impossible for Derby night — but only if you try. Whether you can stand the suspense is another matter entirely. Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com