Photo by Frankie Steele

April 29, 2009

Raising the bar

So you love pubs but not the grub. Here’s how (and where) to dine finely at the bar

When I lived in New York, I got used to the idea of doing many things alone. Movies alone, museums alone, shopping without a second opinion — but dining alone was by far my favorite experience. There’s something overly satisfying about sitting down to steak frites with a glass of wine and no one to answer to.

However, taking up a table can get lonely, so I’ve made the bar my preferred place to eat. Of course, you needn’t eat alone — bars can usually accommodate pairs and small groups; just be conscious of your numbers.

Louisville has more than a few spots perfect for bar dining. They differ in cuisine, location and environment, but in order to be successful all must share a few criteria: The bar must be comfortable, the bartender competent (he or she is technically your dinner companion) and the food as good as the drinks.

Of course the term “bar food” comes with connotations of pitchers of beer, platters of fried sometimes-ambiguous food, and bacon as an addition to everything. But this assignment focuses on a different kind of bar food, the kind that often begins with a cloth napkin.

First a few rules:

1. Own your space. Take a seat; don’t apologize. If you’re dining alone, directly say, “No, it’s just me” when asked if you’ll being joined by others.

2. If you’re going to take up space and an hour or two, be prepared to spend some money and make it worth the bartender’s time. Definitely order a drink, preferably two; none of that “just water” politeness.

3. Be patient. The bar is typically a place to serve drinks or to use as a holdover for guests. As a diner, recognize the demands of the bartender and that you may not be on the top of his or her priority list.

4. Be open to conversation. Expect suggestions about the food or wine from the regulars, and anticipate questions about why you’re dining alone. Or about your marital status. Decoy rings are always permitted (see “The Decoy”).

The Gentleman’s Club

First stop, Jack’s Lounge.

While less than inviting from the outside — its location could easily be confused with your dental office — the interior of this bar instantly tells you it’s not a one-drink kind of place. It’s more akin to your rich Uncle Teddy’s secret den in the basement, otherwise known as a boy’s club. Ladies, bring your sweaters; they keep it chilly here. Dark wood walls surround deep leather chairs and sofas that hunker under blacked-out windows and a low ceiling. Four flat-screen TVs broadcast golf on ESPN constantly, though mercifully without sound.

The clientele, on that Thursday evening, seemed to have a purchase on all the bar stools, so my companion and I decided on a tall table. Jack’s is a neighborhood bar, and the 25-year-old maitre’d, Jonathan Tarullo, called everyone by name. As the evening progressed couples met one another, after-work groups shared a cocktail, and eyeglasses were put on, taken off, and folded into breast pockets. In our early 30s, my friend and I were notably some of the youngest guests in the room.

But that didn’t stop Sara Cahill, our server, from making us feel welcome. She casually moved around the room as if she were hosting a party at her own house.

I began with the Ruby Red Sipper from the special cocktail menu on the table. The drink included Finlandia Grapefruit Vodka, fresh lime, sugar and pomegranate juice. It was just right — not too sweet and a lovely ruby color. My friend ordered the Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc ($9) from New Zealand.

For an appetizer, we started with a generous portion of Fried Calamari (although the nachos, each chip individually topped, Sara said, were tempting). The calamari ($7.95) came dressed in olive tapenade, capers, caramelized balsamic onions, lemon and a pepper sauce. No flavor overpowered, and, although it became a bit soggy from the sauce, this was some of the best calamari I’ve had.

Next I sampled the Bibb Salad. Crisp leaves of delicate Bibb lettuce were sprinkled with fresh strawberries, Marcona almonds and balsamic vinaigrette; a quenelle of whipped goat cheese anchored a corner of the plate. The server suggested we spread it on the bread: highly addictive. My friend, a vegetarian, ordered the Tomato Basil Soup ($6), but with the first spoonful she knew it contained chicken stock. Pushing the bowl to my side of the table, she ordered another glass of wine.

Instead of entrées, we opted for a cheese plate that included pungent Brillat Savarin, Point Reyes bleu and a smoked Mexican goat cheese. Fresh raspberries and strawberries, sliced green grapes, more Marcona almonds and a sweet Vidalia onion compote provided numerous flavor combinations.

Before we had a chance to finish the cheese, our server mentioned that a gentleman at the bar wanted to treat us to a dessert sampler. The majority of the cheese went home with us; we chose to enjoy the dessert instead, which showcased a small scoop of house-made Mint Julep ice cream, a single S’more and a block of vanilla bean crème brulee, again with fresh raspberries. We ordered a glass of port as complement.

We left feeling like pampered women, and only slightly miffed that no one offered us a seat at the bar. Next time we’ll come earlier.

Other dark, gentlemanly dens: The Old Seelbach Bar, Jack Fry’s

Neighborhood Comfort

On an early Monday evening, I visited Bourbons Bistro on Frankfort Avenue. I selected a chair near the center of the long, curving bar. The wall in front of me was filled counter to ceiling with handsome bottles of bourbon, bourbon and more bourbon. Instead of a wine list, this place has an unparalleled bourbon list. The warm caramel colors of those bottles pull you in and make you forget there’s a restaurant beyond the bar, or that you might have somewhere to be later.

Unfortunately, I craved something fresher, so I asked for a cocktail list. There’s no list, but a Beefeater martini with a twist was easy enough to come by. The generous drink came with a single ice cube floating on top.

I started with the salad special. The spicy arugula was dressed with blackberries, a warm wedge of brie cheese, macadamia nuts and fresh-from-the-pan slivers of pancetta. The tartness of the berries worked well with the smoky pancetta and the goo of the brie.

I chatted with a couple in their 50s near the end of the bar.

“Are you an accountant?” the gentleman asked. “That’s dedication if you’re still working.” My students’ grade book open in front of me with multiple lines and numbers was deceiving.

As the couple ate a lobster grilled cheese stacked high on a cute little bun, the conversation turned more personal. They seemed to think I’d make a good match for their friend Todd. We talked about having and not having children as they cut into their stuffed pork chop.

I ordered the duck breast, and it arrived perfectly medium as requested. Slices of breast meat fanned across a mound of orzo pasta tossed with spinach and shimiji mushrooms. The mixture was light and fresh, simply tossed with a touch of butter. It was a welcome counter to the greasy, yet perfect, character of the duck. An orange peppercorn sauce circled the plate, but I found the flavor a bit cloying after the delicate nature of the orzo. I enjoyed the dish with a glass of Row Eleven Pinot Noir ($10).

(I was disappointed when the owner told me they were switching to a spring/summer menu the next week and that that particular dish would be gone. Even so, I have no doubt it will be replaced with worthy substitutes.)

The owners, Jason Brauner and John Morrison, appeared at the bar and immediately began talking bourbon. The comfort of this bar cannot be overstated and it seems to begin with the thoughtful and generous manner of the knowledgeable owners. There is no pressure, only a genuine desire for each guest to enjoy the experience. I listened to regulars gush about the roasted garlic and goat cheese spread, while Margot McMillen, the bartender, told me how to get to Creation Gardens, a regional wholesale and gourmet food provider.

I finished my meal with a cup of hot coffee, and the owners kindly poured me a sample of Wild Turkey’s American Honey Liqueur. With the nose of bourbon but the sweetness of honey and a more viscous texture, it suited the coffee well and warmed my belly just a little.

Other neighborhood hangouts: Caffe Classico, Volare, really anywhere along Frankfort

The Fancy Pants

On a Tuesday night, 732 Social, the newest addition to the Green Building on East Market Street, looked warm and inviting from the street. The weather had turned cold and the lights of the building spilled through the large glass windows that front the dining room. The dining tables were packed and the staff busily pulled drinks from the bar to deposit at nearby tables. Warm wood beams bridge the high ceiling and heavy wood blocks act as sturdy bar stools. The room is angular and clean, and only the roundness of bottles and glassware and the curves of bodies disrupt the tight tidiness.

They’ve decided to call the bar a food counter, and the pre-set silverware and napkin at each seat encourages the distinction. Jared Schubert, our bartender, was quick to explain why: “At the bar you get the compact nature of the dining experience, the high and the low,” he said.

I can’t say I experienced much of a low.

From the very beginning, Jared steered us toward a lovely bottle of wine, Mas de Gourgonnier 2006 Baux du Provence ($32). An organic blend of cabernet, carignan, grenache and syrah, he described it as “having all the qualities you want in an old-world-style red.” He was right; it was helpful to have a guiding hand through the wine list, which includes reds and whites from all parts of the world, with a surprising selection of sustainable, organic or biodynamic wines.

The menu prompted tough decisions, despite it being slightly limited with eight “small” plates, seven “large” and an assortment of meats, cheeses and oysters. My companion and I selected the Roasted Early Beets with Warm Goat cheese ($7) and the Heffeweizen-braised Artichoke ($11) to begin. Waiting for our food gave us time to enjoy the show, as dining here invokes certain questions: “Did you just put raw egg in that cocktail?” “Are you crushing your own ice?” “What does fortified mean?” You will learn something.

The beet salad arrived topped with frisee and tot-soi (of the spinach family) and a heavy-handed dose of cracked pepper and salt. The artichoke, surrounded by a mixture of chorizo, golden raisins, lentils and hazelnuts, aggressively steamed in a small cast iron skillet. The dish looked and tasted like something that came off the back burner of a pot-bellied stove somewhere in the mountains, and I liked it. Everything worked — even chewing the tough outer leaves of the artichoke added to the hearty nature of the dish.

I paired our second course, a deep bowl of mussels sautéed in fennel, garlic, onion and white wine, with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire ($7), despite the pull of the Corpse Reviver cocktail. My friend ordered the Sazerac ($9), a rye whiskey cocktail. The production of the drink was almost more satisfying than the sipping.

The name 732 Social suits this place. We chatted with everyone — bigwig art guys from Italy (known for the 21c red penguins), servers from other local restaurants and first-time diners. With an open view to the raised kitchen, the diner feels in the middle of the action but not in an intrusive way; the transparency encourages ownership.

We finished the meal in the only fashion we could imagine, with absinthe. As first timers, we chose an inexpensive Swiss variety, Kubler ($10). Jared treated us to the traditional water drip, slotted spoon and sugar cube service since the bar and restaurant were nearly empty. As we sipped the absinthe, we realized that three hours had passed.

More showstoppers: Proof on Main and Z’s Fusion

The Let Down

Asiatique sits off Bardstown Road and, while known as a late night hangout, it seemed an ideal candidate for a bar meal on a Thursday night. A friend and I walked in on a Thursday evening a little before nine. The curving L-shaped bar, regrettably placed just inside the door, was empty but for two other customers. Subjected to the traffic of incoming diners, my friend and I felt like we couldn’t get out of the way, which prompted us to wedge ourselves into the dim far side of the bar. With Thievery Corporation playing in the background, backlit liquor bottles glowing on the shelves, and boxing on the TV, the place had all the trappings of a trendy bar. However, something made it cold, almost mysterious; we knew other people were in the building, but we couldn’t really see or feel their presence. Since it was $5 martini night, I ordered the Ginger Martini, made of vodka, candied and pickled ginger. My companion had a classic Manhattan, suitably sweet.

It took a minute to commit to the place and the menu. But with a little help from the bartender we ordered three small plates ($7 each): Roasted Duck Breast, Smoked Salmon and Goat Cheese Quesadillas, and Ahi Tuna Sashimi.

Before we had time to take two sips from our martinis our food had arrived. It was surprisingly, almost discomfortingly fast. All three plates stared at us overwhelmingly, and while I didn’t ask for the dishes to be separated or timed, it would have been nice for the server to have suggested it. I’m picky about hot food being hot and cold food staying cold.

Asiatique makes an effort to give you unexpected flavor combinations and presentations: The duck nachos presented like chips and salsa, except the chips are wontons and the salsa is diced duck breast mixed with Asian salsa, which is your typical tomato and red onion concoction. This was the same salsa used to top the salmon quesadillas, which seemed to be sandwiched between the same wonton-like bread. The crisp triangles were rather greasy and the burnt-pan taste overpowered the goat cheese and salmon. I believe there were supposed to be shiitake mushrooms as well, but I didn’t taste one.

Of the three dishes the sashimi could have been the best, but it also seemed to be having an identity crisis. Capers and red pepper and balsamic topped the tender pieces of fish, a small seaweed salad (my favorite part of the meal) tossed with sesame seeds, and lotus root, which lacked any flavor or interesting texture, accompanied the fish. For Asian cuisine, I was expecting tighter, more distinctive flavors.

Opting for beers after the cocktails, we thought of leaving but decided to give dessert a try. The Banana Lupia ($7) with chocolate, caramel and a “palate cleansing” smear of currant preserves was fine. We ate the whole dish.

Near the end of our meal, a few more seats at the bar had filled and a single woman sitting close by enjoyed her own duck salsa and vegetable tempura. She seemed like a regular and said it was hard to go wrong with the food there, adding that the tempura was a bit on the soggy side.

We left the restaurant as unannounced as we had come. At home, I ate a small, plump tangerine that easily trumped everything I had just purchased.

On the strip: Seviche and Avalon

The Decoy

On one of the most beautiful early evenings in April, I found myself circling the roundabouts in the Westport Shopping Center. It was seven on Friday, and shiny cars occupied most of the parking spaces. I had come to sample the bar at Napa River Grill, a sprawling restaurant meant to be reminiscent of wine country, including a few striving grapevines out front.

The large bar was crowded, and the only empty seat was between two gentlemen who slung their arms across the back of the chair, letting it act as their buffer (men and their space). Catching the bartender’s eye, I received a California-heavy wine list, quickly ordered a glass of Gruet Blanc de Noir ($3.45 happy hour price) and let him know I was waiting for a seat. A few low, cushioned seats opened in the lounge area, so I took one and let the sun streaming through the window play magic with my glass of sparkling.

Alone, I became acutely away of the demographics of the room. Many older men in weekend jeans and Tommy Bahama-style button ups chatted with others of the like, or with women whose freshly manicured hands delicately held wine glasses. I tried to keep from making too much eye contact, but it took less than 10 minutes for a gentleman to sit opposite me. We chatted about the weather, then I excused myself as a seat came open at the end of the bar.

Despite having never been to Napa River Grill, I immediately saw two familiar faces, both fellow bar patrons from Caffe Classico and Bourbons. Conversation two started with the man from Bourbons who had wanted to connect me with his friend Todd. His companion asked if he could buy my drink, and when I said it was paid for, he said “Good” and left.

With too much time to peruse a menu, I was indecisive. When the bartender finally came around I said, “I just know I want beef. So burger, steak or pot roast?” He suggested the ground-to-order Rib Eye cheeseburger with fries ($12.95). I ordered it with bleu cheese and asked for a glass of D’Arneberg’s Laughing Magpie 2006. It’s a wine I don’t see often, a lush blend of Shiraz and Viognier, and, while more expensive ($14) than my meal, it was worth the rare treat. (The wines at Napa River Grill line the back wall of the bar and require the use of a sliding library ladder for retrieval.)

The burger came out in a timely manner. Served open-faced with lettuce, tomato and red onion, it looked and smelled fantastic. The dish came with three small ramekins of ketchup, mayo and Dijon, as well as crisp, hot fries. Though I ordered the burger medium, it came out well done yet still juicy. The meat had a faint roasted garlic flavor that gave it depth without being overbearing. The fries were good but for the Lowry’s-like seasoning salt that coated them.

Conversation three occurred four bites into my burger. A man three seats away asked why I seemed to be working so hard on a Friday night; I was taking notes in the margins of The New Yorker. Before I had time to respond, conversation four began as another man split the distance between us. I’d been avoiding his glances for an hour. He complimented my dress and ability to pronounce Viognier correctly. He also questioned my use of “we” when referring to my living situation: a roommate. I declined his offer for another glass of wine and asked the bartender to box up the rest of my meal.

Also during my visit, a bartender broke a martini glass into the service bar’s ice. Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows that broken glass in ice on a hopping Friday night is an extreme pain in the ass. It requires the lengthy process of bleeding, or melting, the ice to be sure no glass remains. After 10 minutes of talking, a busboy finally came to discard the bad ice and refill the bin with fresh cubes. As I watched, I was troubled to see that he didn’t bother to empty the whole bin (it had been full); instead he scooped off the first half and dumped in new ice. Too bad I’d been paying attention.

More suburban meat markets: Martini’s at The Summit