December 12, 2006

LEO's Eat 'N' Blog: The Fixe is in: English Grill on a budget

English Grill: Photo by Ben Schneider The Brown Hotel’s English Grill is worth a trip, but try the regular menu.If you want to create an impression of class in your restaurant, just drop in a little French.Unfortunately, some French words aren’t easy for English-speakers to handle. Take “prix fixe,” which means “fixed price” — a full meal of several courses offered for a set tab. Neat concept. Not easy to spell and pronounce. I’ve seen it rendered as “prefix” and pronounced as “pricks fix,” but nooooo: Make it “pree feese,” and you’ll hear no snobby Frenchmen snickering at you.Whatever you want to call it, we invited Eat ’N’ Blog correspondent ANDREA M. ESSENPREIS to try it, sampling the pre, er, pri, um, fixed-price dinner at the Brown Hotel’s English Grill on the company tab. Her conclusion: You get what you pay for. Better to open up your wallet and let this fine downtown eatery do what it does best for the full price. Here’s Andrea’s review:With a toddler in the house, my husband and I don’t get to enjoy fine dining as often as we did in our footloose days. However, with our anniversary approaching, we wanted to enjoy a grown-up meal in a swanky environment without breaking the bank. A recent discussion on the LouisvilleHotBytes.com Restaurants Forum brought inspiration: The English Grill at the Brown Hotel offers a discounted three-course prix-fixe menu for $29.Sounds good, right? As it turned out, this option is a great idea, but it misses a few steps in the implementation.The first problem came up when we tried to make a reservation for Friday at 8 p.m. The $29 deal is now a “pre-theater menu,” offered only before an 8 p.m. curtain time. Fair enough. We rescheduled for an early Wednesday dinner at 6 p.m.  We showed up on time, and the hostess asked us to wait while she finished her phone conversation, a project that took her five minutes or so. Eventually we were seated in plush upholstered chairs at a lovely table for two and presented menus and a wine list. We asked for the prix-fixe menu. The captain encouraged us to order from the regular menu instead, and frankly, it did look a lot more appealing. Big R’s,: out in the middle of La Grange in Oldham County, has all the signs of a serious barbecue joint. And the pigmeat backs it up.But we had a budget and needed to stick to it, so we gently insisted, going for prix-fixe (three courses including salad, entrée — a 4-ounce portion of chicken, beef tenderloin or salmon — and a “chef’s choice” dessert), plus a glass of wine each. Whoa! My glass of 2004 King Estate Pinot Noir was a whopping $12, half the price of an entire bottle at the Oregon winery. An amuse-bouche put us back in a good mood. A crisp piece of nappa cabbage was spread with creamy goat cheese and topped by a crisp piece of prosciutto. Bread service was fine, too, but vegetarians beware: The most delicious of the breads in our silver tray was laden with bacon (our server told us that sometimes they use country ham instead).Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. The salad with “marinated tomatoes” was lackluster, and the tomato had never seen a marinade, not that it would have helped these wan wintry rounds. An inedible chunk of radicchio core turned up in my salad, an unpleasant oversight for a restaurant of this caliber. My husband’s beef was cooked medium-rare as ordered, but still seemed dry; and salmon caviar in the sauce did not improve the fishy flavor of my salmon dish. Side vegetables were fine, but the entire entrée seemed more like convention fare than fine dining.A fresh fig soufflé had caught my eye on the regular menu, but we recalled the captain’s warning when our server brought out a tiny sliver of Derby Pie on a large plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The tab for our “budget” dinner mounted up to $82, with the tip rounding up the toll to nearly $100. Frankly, Louisville offers many superior dining experiences for this price. The English Grill can offer a splendid dining experience if you’re prepared to shell out real bucks for it. But take my advice, don’t bother with the “pre-theater,” prix-fixe menu. It’s no value.The English Grill’s pre-theater dinnerBrown HotelFourth and Broadway583-1234www.thebrownhotel.com/dining.php3 Craving Crustaceans“I have yet to meet a pile of shrimp that I was not immediately on good terms with and could not devour promptly,” says Eat ’N’ Blog correspondent KIM MASSEY. “My deep affection for these little parcels of protein is well matched with my passion for ethnic foods. It’s a fortunate thing, then, that Louisville’s ethnic restaurant community offers so many opportunities to indulge these cravings.”Needless to say, Kim was quick to volunteer for the challenge of finding some of the region’s most delightful ethnic shrimp dishes. This is her crustacean-loving report: Let’s start with a duo of appetizers that come dangerously close to displacing shrimp and grits as my favorite way to begin a meal. The Banh Xeo ($5.60) at Vietnam Kitchen is an inspired creation. An eggy crepe that falls somewhere between a pancake and an omelet, Banh Xeo is pan-fried to a decidedly crispy exterior, then folded over stir-fried shrimp and bean sprouts in a simple but complementary combination of tastes and textures. The salty-sweet acidity of the soy-based sauce provides a perfect foil for the rich crepe. It’s one of those appetizers that you would gladly order in entrée-sized portion, if only you could! (One possibility: Order two.)Vietnam Kitchen5339 Mitscher Ave.363-5154The Camarones de Alio ($6.99) served at Havana Rumba offer a sumptuous prelude to any meal. A half-dozen plump, tail-on shrimp are sautéed in a simple sauce of olive oil and butter with a smidgen of red pepper and lashings of minced garlic, served sizzling in their clay-pot cooking vessel. This is culinary minimalism at its finest. It’s served with warm, crusty French bread, perfect for mopping up the delightful sauce after the sweet and tender shrimp are down the hatch.   Havana Rumba4115 Oechsli Ave.897-1959That’s just the beginning of the diverse and delicious shrimp dishes available at the city’s ethnic eateries. Consider the shrimp tips ($13) at Queen of Sheba. This splendid dish combines shrimp, onions, tomatoes and green peppers, lightly sautéed in butter with Ethiopian spices. It is served with Kik Wot — a mound of creamy stewed split lentils that would make a satisfying vegetarian dish in itself. Both shrimp and lentils are piled atop injera, the spongy, pancake-like Ethiopian flatbread, which adds a hearty element to an otherwise light entrée. This delightfully complex dish will leave you clamoring to sample more of this wonderful cuisine. Queen of Sheba Ethiopian3315 Bardstown Road459-6301Another shrimp dish, less subtle but just as satisfying, is the Camarones al Chipotle ($11.50) served at Fiesta Mexicana. A dozen plump shrimp are liberally smothered in a rich, dark sauce of tomatoes and chipotle peppers, with a sprinkling of just-melted Chihuahua cheese. Its smoky heat packs quite a punch, which can be pleasantly tempered with a dollop of sour cream. Served with a side of savory Mexican rice and salad, it’s a hearty, warming dish, a welcome respite to a cold winter evening. Fiesta Mexicana5414 Bardstown Road762-0840When my crustaceous cravings unite with a desire for the familiar, I beat a hasty retreat to India Palace — a regular port of refuge for a sometimes homesick Brit. It can be so difficult to choose just one dish from the many impressive shrimp options that I frequently give up the struggle and select a contrasting duo. The volcanic, spicy, tangy, Shrimp Vindaloo ($11.95) creates a delightful reverse trajectory of creeping warmth from the back of the throat to the tip of the tongue. It partners perfectly with the mild and aromatic Shrimp Saag ($11.95), a delicate light curry that combines spices, herbs, spinach and a dash of cream. Add a side of Pilau rice, a warm fluffy round of naan flatbread, and there you have it: a culinary hug from a much loved friend!  India Palace9424 Shelbyville Road394-0490Taking my ’cue in LaGrangeMeanwhile, I blazed a trail out to Oldham County recently to check out Big R’s, a fine new barbecue joint. It’s located in an attractive country house right in the middle of town, surrounded by all the signals that real barbecue is sold here: a big, black smoker, lots of hickory logs and a statue of an anthropomorphic pig out front. It’s a smallish place but clean and neat, with freshly painted walls the color of lemon ice and tasteful red-checked curtains; maybe a half-dozen tables inside and a few more on the porch. The menu is basic and functional, too: Baby-backs range from $9 for a half-slab with no sides to $18 for a full slab with two sides. Other smoked meats — pulled pork, pulled chicken and beef brisket — are mostly $5.25 for a sandwich with one side, $6 with two sides. We chowed down on ribs and a brisket sandwich and four sides between us and were generally pleased. Let’s put it this way: Big R is a master of smoking meat, a champion BBQ artiste who “slow-smokes” pork butts and briskets over hickory for 15 hours and ribs for five; but his tastes in sauces and rubs differs from my “less is more” philosophy: He likes to use a little more. The ribs, indeed, were as good as I ever ate: They’re very meaty, with surprisingly little fat or gristle, smoked just right so the hickory flavor is like a condiment but doesn’t conceal the natural flavors of the meat. I wish he had throttled back on the dry rub and shiny glaze, though. The aromatic spices in the rub (I think I smelled cumin) and the sweet-sticky glaze didn’t really enhance the excellent pigmeat. The same was true of the brisket: The smoky beef was tender and delicious, but they shredded it and served it in a thick, sweet sauce like a Sloppy Joe. Why do that to good brisket? I wish they’d just offer a no-sauce option. The sides were quite good. Baked beans were just about perfect — small and pink in a savory-salty sauce. Potato salad was devilishly good, chunks of tender potato and crisp celery in a thick sour-cream sauce with a hint of herbs, maybe dill. Wide green beans were wide beans, long-simmered country-style, decent enough, though a little bit of ham hock would have taken them to bean heaven. My wife liked her mac ’n’ cheese despite its alarming Velveeta color.Too full for dessert, we got away from a generous meal for a very attractive $20.14 for two, plus a $4 tip. In spite of my barbecue maven’s nitpicks, it was darn good ’cue, some of the best around, and the ribs and pork might have made my Hall of Fame if they had just left them alone. Big R’s Barbeque Shack109 E. Washington CourtLa Grange, Ky.222-0058 Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com