July 28, 2010

The Taste Bud: Ahoy, it’s … bluegill?

My grandfather was no fan of the fish known as bluegill. Pappaw, as we called him, always complained that while he liked the flavor, they were too small and were too skilled at cleaning the bait from his hook. I was just a kid when we fished Pappaw’s little pond in Greensburg, Ky., so I was just happy to catch a fish — I didn’t care what it was.

Imagine my nostalgic joy when I recently stepped into Ahoy!! Fish Hutt and caught another bluegill. When I saw the fresh water fish was one of the specials (a sandwich and one side for a reasonable $6.50), I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Bluegill? Really? I asked co-owner Joni Romans if she caught it herself.

“I wish,” she said, smiling. She related that as a kid, she caught bluegill on fishing excursions with her dad, which prompted her to serve it at Ahoy!!. Well, that and the fact that she loves the stuff: The flavor is mild, and the meat is thin, but when you get a really good bite of bluegill, you know it.

“We’re the only restaurant in Louisville that has it,” Romans beamed, noting that she gets the bluegill from a distributor in Canada. “You have to catch 30 of them to feed four people; it’s $12 a pound, so nobody else will buy it.”

Ahoy!! is an interesting little hole-in-the-wall; the corner location, at 2902 Bardstown Road (near Assumption High School), has been home to a number of other mom-and-pop eateries with fish as a menu staple. The website (www.icravefish.com) boasts “best fish in Louisville,” and what’s noticeable is that Romans and co-owner Sheri Downey aren’t just deep-frying whatever they can find and serving up canned sides.

Downey said she learned early in culinary school — when she first came to Kentucky from California a couple years ago — that starting with quality is important. One of her culinary instructors made it a point to tell the class they were not to prepare personally acquired animals for use in their restaurants.

“I thought, ‘Who’s doing this?’” Downey said, not realizing at first that the instructor meant hunted meat and not roadkill. (Welcome to Kentucky, Sheri.) Needless to say, she looks for the best seafood with which to work; in other words, nothing comes from the Ohio River.

The charm of the place really is in the detail — while there, I overheard a conversation about the Greek spices used in the green beans (they’re delicious, by the way) and talked to Downey about the experimental nature of building the succinct but solid menu, often experimenting with new ideas.

My buddy Kirk tried something called a Shipwreck ($6.99), which illustrated the owners’ creativity — it’s an ample concoction made with baked tilapia, tomatoes, corn, jalapeño peppers, onions and salsa, topped with homemade coleslaw and then served over a bed of nacho chips.

Calling it “aptly named,” Kirk noted, “I’m not sure what I was expecting when I came in here, but it wasn’t this.” But he liked it enough that he said he wants to visit again soon. (Dude weighs a buck-thirty and eats everything in sight. No joke.)

They also have fun at the Hutt (which is spelled that way to preserve uniqueness). We were asked at the order counter whether we were dining in or carrying out, and when our food was ready, Romans brought it out in Styrofoam containers, placed them on the table, and opened them for us as we watched.

We both found that charmingly hilarious. “I guess if we have leftovers, they’ll come out and close them for us again,” Kirk deadpanned.

Along with the quality food and reasonable prices (a fish sandwich starts at about $4), there are $1.50 longneck specials during the week and live music on the weekends. Romans and Downey regularly host charity benefits as well. And the menu, Romans said, is about to get an upgrade.

I went back to Ahoy!! a few days after my initial visit and tried the cornmeal-battered frog legs (another Pappaw favorite), while my friend Becky had the incomparable fish taco — the 10-inch tortilla cradled tender tilapia, with varied ingredients similar to the Shipwreck, along with red cabbage and lots of cheese. Delicious.

But if you go, start with the bluegill. Make your Pappaw proud.