April 1, 2008

LEO Eats : Simple comfort at Ann’s and the Grape Leaf (WITH GUEST COLUMNIST KEVIN GIBSON)

Winter is dragging its feet as it slouches on into springtime, and the closing years of the Bush economy are scaring us all as they slouch toward the dustbin of history. We’ve seen some sad restaurant closings (worst case: The lamentable loss of The Jazz Factory), and we fear that other Louisville Originals and Louisville original restaurants and nightspots might not be doing as well as we could wish.As Derby season nears and brings smiles back to the metro landscape, we’ll be coming forth with some strong buy recommendations for local dining — and supporting the local businesses that provide it.Today, let’s talk comfort — affordable comfort — as correspondent KEVIN GIBSON reports in from Ann’s by the River in downtown Jeffersonville, a prime source of comfort north of the river. Here’s Kevin!The first thing one sees when walking into Ann’s by the River is an antique white Majestic stove; the next is a cafeteria rack filled with cakes and pies (rhubarb anyone?) on top, and fruits, salads, deviled eggs and the like on the bottom. Behind, an old-fashioned Pepsi-brand menu is lined up with little slide-in block letters that jaggedly announce options and prices. You know what you’re in for: good old-fashioned American comfort food, as promised in Ann’s tag line, “Home-cooked food like Grandma used to prepare for Sunday dinner.” We are not kidding about this.Ann’s is the brainchild of Ken and Ann Coomer, with their sons Dave and John. The Coomers started the business in 1991 because they wanted a restaurant that featured true home cooking like — well, you know. Many of the dishes really are based on recipes passed down through the family for generations.They’ve endured challenges but have pressed on and worked hard, and business remains brisk. Dave cites fried chicken as the restaurant’s No. 1 bestseller. They move more than 500 pounds of chicken per week, plus more than a ton of potatoes, many of them mashed. The clientele? All walks of life. “You’ll see everything from a beat-up truck to a new Mercedes sitting out front,” Ken said. “Some people drive 30 or 40 miles just for the fried chicken.”Ann’s is cafeteria-style, not a type of restaurant that I usually consider a favorite. But I quickly became intrigued when I pushed my blue plastic tray along the metal track at Ann’s, because, frankly, it all looked and smelled really good.Daily specials — $6.95 including two side dishes and bread — range from chicken livers (Monday) to steak and gravy (Thursday) to fried Icelandic cod (Friday). Sides vary, but I saw steamed greens, buttered corn, baked potatoes, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes and more as I went through the line. “Award-winning” chili (it claimed first in a Churchill Downs chili cook-off) or homemade vegetable beef soup is $3.69 per bowl, and you can top off lunch or dinner with a slice of pie or cake. Or cobbler, ice cream or pudding: It’s all under two bucks a serving.Choosing an entrée wasn’t easy, but fried chicken compelled me. I asked for white meat, and the server promptly dropped a huge, crispy-fried breast and a sizable wing on my plate. It was already more than I would normally have for lunch, but I was in the spirit, so I ordered sides of mashed potatoes and home-style green beans. All that and an all-you-can-drink soda cost me $8.95. (You’ll spend that much at Starbucks for a cappuccino and a muffin, and I guarantee you’ll be hungry again inside of two hours.)Ann’s simple décor adds a deft, homey touch. An antique kitchen pantry filled with mason jars and glassware sits in the middle of the room, with plenty of trinkets and knick-knacks on shelves. A model train takes laps around the dining room above, and a framed tribute honors banjo-playing entertainer Rob Durst.But the food is the main attraction, and I wasn’t let down. The crispy chicken was cooked perfectly, with a golden brown (almost orange) coating of spiced batter covering crisp skin and juicy, tender white meat. It isn’t quite as good as my grandmother’s fried chicken (I’ve got your back, Mammaw), but it’s light years ahead of anything you’ll get at the taco/chicken hybrid, and a better value, too.Mashed potatoes — atop which I enthusiastically requested white gravy — were the real thing, even if they needed a dash of salt and pepper as a flavor boost. The green beans were spot on. Cooked tender, mildly flavored with pork and perhaps a hint of garlic and spice, they were a taste-bud pleaser, good, solid comfort food.As I left, I saw a guy getting ready to cut into a roast beef sandwich the size of his head. This brought me back the next day for lunch. Indeed, the roast beef Manhattan ($5.29) seemed to be at least a third of a pound of thick-sliced beef on two pieces of white bread, covered in brown gravy, with the requisite gravy-covered potatoes. I also fell in love with a side of tender, tasty pinto beans in thick stock. Beans and cornbread are Ann’s everyday standards, and they’re just $2.50.I’m usually the guy hankering for sushi or other ethnic cuisine (such as hot wings), so Ann’s is a throwback for me. It genuinely reminds me of the food on which I grew up. (Thanks, Mom.) Oh, and Dave Coomer also told me the fried Icelandic cod is to die for.Guess I’ll be back. Again.Ann’s by the River149 Spring St.Jeffersonville, Ind.(812) 284-2667Robin Garr’s rating: 84 pointsWrapping it up in The Grape LeafThanks, Kevin!Back over on the Louisville side, we were feeling the need for a little affordable comfort, too. I keep talking about hitting The Grape Leaf, a popular Clifton spot, for dinner, but until I get around to that, lunch seemed like a mighty good idea. Grape Leaf is generally crowded at noon, and service is sociable, friendly but not particularly quick. No matter, if you’re not in a hurry. The Middle Eastern food is worth the wait.The decor has been through a fix-up since my last visit — it seems a bit more upscale now — and large, leatherette-bound menus bear out this impression. We’ll devote serious attention to its Levantine charms on another visit. This time the pick was simple: Good and easy lunch. Did I say “comfort”?Lunch specials cover the standard range of regional specialties such as kibbeh, kufti, schwarma and falafel, and come with a Greek salad or green salad. (What’s the difference? “Feta cheese,” the waiter said.)Said salads were estimable, and so generous that they barely left room for the main dishes. Cool, crisp lettuces, olives, red onions, tomatoes and the requisite feta were dressed with fresh vinaigrette, with a small mound of creamy, garlicky hummus and fresh pita wedges on the side.Kufti is a savory treat of seasoned ground lamb and beef loaded onto a skewer and grilled juicy and moist. Imagine a hamburger or meatball stretched into the shape of a sausage a good 8 inches long, stretching the length of my plate. Accompanying rice pilaf was studded with raisins and lentils, so much that I took a lot of it home; with a small helping of a tangy pickled vegetable condiment on the side. Aromatic Earl Grey-style hot tea was delicious, served properly steaming hot with its own pot. Extra kudos for fine tea service.We were way too full to even inquire about desserts, but affordable comfort we had aplenty.The Grape Leaf2217 Frankfort Ave.897-1774Rating: Wait for dinner!Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com