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August 28, 2007

North of the river, things are looking bright

The Speakeasy: Photo by Nicole Pullen The Speakeasy in New Albany was modeled after Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. The idea originated from proprietors and local musicians Lori (pictured above) and Brad Tharp.With three interesting new restaurants recently joining Bistro New Albany, Federal Hill, La Rosita and others in historic downtown New Albany, Louisville’s Sunny Side is looking mighty bright these days. I’ve been eager to get over and check it out, but the scare stories about miles-long traffic backups during the recent I-64 construction had me so nervous that I wimped out and asked a Hoosier buddy, Greg Gapsis, to pick up his knife and fork and tell us what’s going on over there. Now the interstate is open again, Greg has completed his assignment, and he tells us that the Hoosier scene is becoming so good that Kentuckians really need to re-think our attitude about crossing the river. Here’s his dispatch from the Hoosier frontlines:Something is going on across the river in New Albany. Inspired by development incentives and awakening to its inventory of historic buildings, the Southern Indiana city’s downtown is bursting with new restaurants. Until recently, New Albany’s culinary scene was perhaps best known for quirky relics of another era, such as the around-the-clock, pocket-size diner, The Little Chef, and, until its recent closing, the Southside Inn, a legendary cafeteria. (There is word that Southside will reopen.)In recent years, though, Federal Hill Café on Pearl Street and La Rosita on Market have earned success by offering real quality in distinctive niches — hearty East Coast-style Italian and authentic Mexican cuisine, respectively.The pace picked up in 2006 when David Clancy and Dave Himmel launched Bistro New Albany in the old New Albany Inn at Market and Bank streets, earning quick critical acclaim. Clancy, now sole proprietor, developed as a chef in the San Francisco Bay Area and directed both Portico’s and Morton’s Steakhouse locally before unleashing his creativity — and commitment to local produce and craft beers — on downtown New Albany. Now, three more restaurant openings in the city’s historic district — Treet’s Bakery Café, Speakeasy and Connor’s Place — have brought the New Albany dining scene close to critical mass … and there’s more coming.Treet’s is a treatEarlier this year, Teresa Clancy, the wife of Bistro New Albany’s Dave Clancy, opened Treet’s in the long-vacant storefront space of the old Wilcox Block building on East Market Street. The cozy downtown eatery offers home-cooked lunches ($4-$8) along with a nice selection of baked treats, Breadworks breads and coffees.Treet’s is inviting and homey. Paintings by local artists adorn the walls. Checkered tablecloths, cloth napkins and servers in old-fashioned aprons make you feel as if you’ve entered Aunt Bee’s kitchen in Mayberry, back in a less hurried time. Get an espresso or a coffee, sit in a stuffed armchair and just hang out. Read The New York Times or surf the ’Net on Treet’s wifi while you dine or just hang out.Homemade soups include a richly flavored chicken soup with large chunks of meat, vegetables and noodles, served with garlic bread for $3.95. Entree salads — lemon chicken, spinach or chef — range from $5.95 to $7.95. There’s a $3.95 quesadilla, plus wraps, burgers and hearty sandwiches made to order. Treet’s now also offers an excellent $6.99 breakfast buffet from 8 a.m. to noon, featuring just about everything you would expect from your grandmother’s kitchen. Treet’s Bakery Café133 E. Market St.New Albany, Ind.(812) 945-5440www.treetscafe.comSpeakeasy, and carry a big shtickSpeakeasy opened on State Street just two months ago, after incubating for a decade in the hearts and minds of local musicians Brad and Lori Tharp. It’s modeled on Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, and the Tharps bring to New Albany a strong commitment to both excellent music and good food. The pre-Civil War brick building sports a room-length bar and a wall of plush booths under exposed brick walls. Amber heart-of-pine floors glow, while tables are muted black, directing the focus on the food and performers. Monday offers an open-mic jam session. Wednesday is dance night (with a $10 cover after 8 p.m.), featuring a 16-piece jazz orchestra and instructors from Shall We Dance? Jazz icons Dick Sisto and Tyrone Wheeler appear on Thursdays, and a wide range of talent rounds out the weekends. Many menu items bear humorous jazz-influenced names, such as the “Wynton Marsala,” sautéed chicken and wild mushrooms over fettuccine with a Marsala demiglace. Other bistro-style fare, like shrimp scampi over angel hair pasta and penne with smoked turkey and wild mushrooms come in generous portions and with a lunchtime price of $6.95. Dinners range from $9 to $20.Gumbo ($3.95) is made with a rich, thick, smoky roux dusted with cayenne pepper. Ours, oddly, was served without rice. Sandwiches with slaw and fries (or a cup of gumbo) for $6.95 commanded a friend’s and my attention on two visits. Pulled pork on a Kaiser roll had a tasty, not-too-sweet sauce. A “Hoagey Carmichael” brought back memories of a favorite po-boy from Mother’s in New Orleans. The Jazz Club, with smoked turkey, bacon, Swiss and American cheese dressed with a touch of cranberry mayonnaise, came on toasted whole-grain bread and was delicious. There’s much potential here, and jazz fans throughout the metro area are already hailing Speakeasy as a winning addition to Louisville’s outstanding Jazz Factory among top local dining-and-music venues. Candor compels us to observe, however, that food and service appear variable at this point, with some of LEO’s diners reporting awkward service and food that’s good but not memorable for its price point. We’re hoping a little experience will help kick the food up to the high level of Speakeasy’s music vibe. Speakeasy225 State St.New Albany, Ind.(812) 981-0981www.speakeasyjazz.usHanging out at Connor’s PlaceWhen Dave Himmel set out on his own after having helped launch Bistro New Albany, the Sullivan University culinary grad wanted to create a relaxed place to hang out and, oh yeah, get some decent grub. In July, he opened a sports bar and grill — named after his toddler son — in the 1850s-era building on Market Street that locals still call “The Maytag Building” for its long service as a laundry. Pressed-tin ceilings, overhead fans, white ceramic tile wainscoting and a Hollywood-style, Depression-era bar enhance the period feel. Mounted bass and bluegill, funky old signs and a television tuned to sports complete the decor. The secluded, shady patio was comfortable even on a 92-degree day.Connor’s Place features local beers from New Albanian Brewing Company along with national craft beers and imports. The menu includes sandwiches, barbecue, brats and hot dogs boiled in beer and served in various styles ($4.95). Sandwich platters are $7.95. The pulled pork barbecue platter ($8 with pasta salad and chips) was flavored with a good smoky, not-too-sweet sauce and served on a toasted bun. A lamb-and-beef gyro was built on pita bread with tsatziki sauce and chopped cherry tomatoes. It came without the traditional lettuce, accompanied by pasta salad and chips, a visual combination that left me feeling a bit overwhelmed by white.My vegetarian tablemate Helen summoned a “Big Salad” ($6.95), and it was big indeed. Even after sharing, we still took home leftovers. Other salads ($8.95) include the house special chicken salad made with herbed, oven-roasted chicken mixed with pecans, apples and celery. Mandarin Orange salad features iceberg and field greens, pecans, raisins and grated carrots in a sesame vinaigrette.Lunch is served until 2 p.m., after which a simple pub grub menu kicks in, featuring pizzas ($8.95), brats, potato skins and mushrooms ($4.95-$6.95), burgers and pulled pork barbecue sandwiches. Just the essentials while you kick back and relax over a pint: Who needs anything more? Connor’s Place207 E. Main St.New Albany, Ind.(812) 944-0207www.connorsplace.netContact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com