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December 21, 2007

Rising trend for ‘07: fine dining comes to suburbia

    Here’s a vignette that captures the year 2007 on the local dining scene for me: I’m enjoying lunch in the new Seviche — A Latin Bistro on Goose Creek Road. The room is packed, but I’m the only male in sight, and I’m the youngest person in the place except for the servers. I’m enjoying a wonderful Chinese-Latino “fusion” seviche ... and all the ladies lunching around me are having guacamole and quesadillas and talking about what a marvelous new Mexican place this is.    In fact, the year 2007 has seen a lot of action on the Louisville restaurant scene, including some disappointing closings (Bistro New Albany, Azalea, Diamante, Harper’s) and some exciting openings (Mojito, Basa, Varanese, Wild Eggs, Original Impellizzeri’s), not to mention a closing-but-reopening (Nio’s at 917) and even a closing-opening-closing-opening-again-then-really-and-truly-closing (the ill-fated Oscar Brown’s/La Rouge/Bobby J’s).    Perhaps the most intriguing developing local restaurant trend, though, is the first shaking of a seismic shift: The arrival of Seviche and other top-echelon, locally owned and independent white-tablecloth restaurants in the chain-rich East End.     While the mostly affluent acres east of the Watterson have already grown into a virtual second city, many of whose denizens venture into Louisville’s urban quarters only with trepidation, the East End’s restaurant scene has been dominated by the likes of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, with gastronomic temples such as P.F. Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory for special occasions.    With few exceptions (mark Jim Gerhardt’s impressive Limestone down an early arrival that proves the rule), Louisville’s exciting and often idiosyncratic independent eateries have been concentrated almost entirely within the Watterson Expressway loop.    Until now, that is. With Seviche’s arrival on Goose Creek Road in November and the opening of Corbett’s “An American Place” in Brownsboro Crossing this month, plus Napa River Grill’s planned move from Dupont Square to the renovated Westport Village in the new year, the floodgates are opening.     Why the suburbs? Why now? Says Dean Corbett, the long-time chef and owner of Equus and the new Corbett’s: “It’s been so obvious, I’m just amazed it didn’t happen six or seven years ago. Eighty percent of our demographic lives out here. It’s remarkable how much of our client base has migrated to this end of town.”    What’s more, he says, betraying the considerable market research that went into the project, there are 100,000 homes within five miles of Corbett’s, and their average annual income is $110,000. Any more questions?    “People out here are just hungry for anything,” Corbett says. “Everybody out here is tired of the chains. They’re crying for us.” But restaurateurs accustomed to an urban clientele may find that tastes translate just a bit differently in suburbia.    Anthony Lamas, chef and owner of both Seviches, said he tweaked the East End shop’s menu a little. “Men out here want steak and potatoes, so we put more steak on the menu,” Lamas says. “We put on escargot. Older folks, they know it, they’ve had it. We put on liver and onions. But ropa vieja, dishes with Latino names, that kind of scares them. It is a little more red meat, and it is demographics, absolutely.”    The East End set is also an earlier crowd, Lamas says. He decided to cut back Sunday and Monday evening hours at Goose Creek from 10 p.m. closing time to 9 p.m. At Bardstown Road, in contrast, the crowds come later, and the kitchen is often still cooking at midnight.    Early or late, urban or suburban to the contrary notwithstanding, both the suburban Seviche and Corbett’s have gotten off to roaring starts. I’ve dined at the new Seviche several times and, save for the few meat-and-potatoes additions, found it all but indistinguishable from the Bardstown Road operation in food and mood and price point.    The lunch menu, introduced this month, offers Seviche’s familiar appetizers and seviche dishes, fish and seafood “cooked” in a spicy citrus mix called “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk); but the entree side features smaller, affordable lunch-size plates and sandwiches.    We started with a shared Chino Latino tuna seviche ($14), tiny cubes of fresh, “beefy” ahi tuna tossed with tomato and cucumber dice in a thick, spicy wasabi tiger’s milk, presented in a delicate fried wonton basket atop a small bed of tasty edible seaweed.    The lomito steak sandwich ($12) is a thin, charred, spicy dry-rubbed slice of grilled skirt steak placed open-face on a slice of Blue Dog baguette, surrounded by a pool of garlicky, spicy Argentine chimichurri sauce, surmounted by a perfect over-medium fried egg and a ration of caramelized onion strips.    Latino fish and chips ($10) consisted of a fine specimen of white, flaky fish, lightly breaded and crisply fried, casually plated on grilled store-bought wheat bread. Tartar sauce was pink and spicy, dosed with chile-lime flavors; ketchup was thick and chunky, improved with a dose of hot-smoky chipotle.    The papas fritas (french fries) were OK but limp and slightly greasy, one of the few items I’ve ever had at either Seviche that didn’t make my socks go up and down; ditto for a pale slice of winter tomato used as garnish.    Still, lunch is one of the best around, if not the cheapest. We rang up a $38.16 tab, plus a $10 tip.Seviche — A Latin Bistro2929 Goose Creek Road425-1000www.SevicheRestaurant.com    It’s a bit early to review Corbett’s formally, but we were lucky enough to sneak in to a pre-opening dinner with a group of LouisvilleHotBytes forum participants (a lapse in my anonymity made possible by the certain knowledge that Corbett had seen through my disguise during a review of Vincenzo’s in 1978).     Based on that evening’s experience, I’m predicting that Corbett’s will be the hot spot of the new year. He takes everything he has done at Equus, already one of Louisville’s top tables, and kicks it up several notches in a dining room, staff, bill of fare and beverage program that accepts nothing less than perfection. Corbett made it no secret that he is shooting for Kentucky’s first Mobil five-star rating within a few years, and I wouldn’t bet against him.    The venue, the 150-year-old Von Allmen farmhouse that now stands rather incongruously in acres of parking lots around Costco, has been lovingly refurbished and redesigned, elegantly stylish in its simple decor yet equipped with every high-tech bell and whistle that a restaurateur on a generous budget could imagine, from special air-conditioning for the comfort of chefs on the hot stations to a 21st century television system that allows, among other things, guests in the private “chef’s room” to interact with kitchen staff while their dinner is being prepared and later receive a souvenir DVD recording of the experience.    The pardon-the-expression TV dinner is $150 a person. The initial menu, which takes considerable advantage of local meats and produce and which will change frequently, featured a dozen main courses from $22 (for vegetables en croute, one of three thoughtful, even exciting meatless dishes) to $49 (for a prime-graded filet with bordelaise sauce, potato foie gras terrine and winter vegetables), plus tasting dinners for $65 and $100. A lunch menu will be priced in the teens for lighter luncheon portions and sandwiches.    Our table of eight was so busy making little nummy noises and slurping that I didn’t hear much about the food, but everything I sampled was perfection, from a tender, intense veal-cheek ravioli sharing plate space with a tiny fried sweetbread appetizer to beefy, gently gamey and spice-scented elk loin on a fall-vegetable ratatouille and pink, butter-tender Sonoma veal cutlets on a seductive, creamy puree of house-smoked sweet potatoes.     The wine list under sommelier Troy Ritchie will rank with the region’s best, and Corbett’s desserts are so subtle and addictive that they should probably be illegal.    Go. Soon. You’ll thank me for insisting that you did.Corbett’s “An American Place”5050 Norton Healthcare Blvd.327-5058Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com