Decca, the latest addition to NuLu’s fast-growing restaurant scene, offers Bay City-influenced “California-Mediterranean” cuisine and an upper deck that’s a downtown treat.
This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
“Pleasant” describes so many things: the silkiness of a smooth terrine; silverware cutting into a softly braised beef cheek; the just-full-enough feeling one gets after a good meal. It’s also a word I’d use for Decca, one of the newest additions to Market Street’s NuLu restaurant row. Not overwhelming, not amazing, but quite good.
Chad Sheffield says the idea for the restaurant can be traced directly to San Francisco, where he and his Decca partners, Kelsey Norris and his sister Amy, were servers in the fiercely competitive Bay City scene. When family responsibilities demanded a return to the Louisville area, they left their jobs — but not before Sheffield enlisted his former boss, Loretta Keller, as a consultant for reinventing the 1870s-era building formerly occupied by Wayside Christian Mission. Preservation issues and the unfortunate passing of Jasper, Ind., designer/architect Charles Gabhart caused Decca to be delayed. But, Sheffield says, “Two years later (Keller) stuck to her word, stuck her neck out, packed her bags and came out here to open it.”
After menu design, another Keller decision was to install Annie Pettry, who had been her sous chef at San Francisco’s Moss Room, as Decca’s executive chef. Pettry told me Keller designed a menu that is kind of “California-Mediterranean,” and part of that philosophy includes modifying the menu in a gradual way. “I try to find things that go well with ingredients that may only be around for a few weeks,” she told me. “I’m constantly changing….I like to be inspired by the season and the things around me, so my dishes evolve.”
This seasonal inspiration didn’t intersect that well with my shaved market-vegetable salad ($13). The kale used as the primary green was a little tough and fibrous for my taste and the creamy Niçoise vinaigrette an unappetizing purplish-gray color. Fortunately, Keller left Decca a year-round signature dish (thanks to Creation Gardens hydroponics): slow-braised beef cheeks ($21). A cool, snowy-white dollop of tangy horseradish crème fraîche melted over a soft-yet-crusty grainy mustard crépinette of marinated beef cheek, with vinaigrette-drizzled green watercress adding a bit of cleansing tartness. Pettry also brought a wonderful duck-liver terrine ($10) along from San Francisco, a dish, she says, “I played around with a lot when I worked with Loretta.” My plate of buttery, slightly gamy terrine came with grilled focaccia slices and a pile of pickled ramps, each component so good I almost forgot to enjoy them in concert, which made them spectacular.
Sheffield told me he and his partners wanted a place where people could “come get a beer and a snack and see a band play, or come and have a three-course meal.” While I can’t speak to the beer and bands (my visits were limited to early dinners), I can say my own error was ordering a side of grilled broccoli ($7) with anchovies and almonds. Be warned: Individually, the sharable side dish was quite good, the broccoli nicely charred under a mound of toasted almonds, but the powerful anchovy flavor overwhelmed the rest of my main dish. The hardwood-grilled skirt steak ($24) showed the kitchen’s skill in handling hot surfaces. The steak’s sear was picture-perfect, and a glazing of bone-marrow butter added a bit of oleaginous goodness to the lean meat. After several sips of wine and water chased the anchovy taste from my palate, I also enjoyed some perfectly creamy polenta with goat cheese ($7), graced with a bracing bite of celery leaf.
I particularly liked the upstairs, with sunlight falling through the tall old windows onto the parquet floor. On a (rare) cool summer evening, be sure to dine on Decca’s upper deck, one of downtown’s special treats, with views toward the Ohio River over the old storefronts and down into a spacious and sinuous landscaped patio. Hanging out above NuLu is a great way to get a sense of how vibrant the area has become.
On the upper deck, I enjoyed some Georgia quail ($13), the juicy little bird sporting a dark crust on top of a smooth pool of fennel purée, with a refreshing salad of citrus and shaved fennel on the side. I thought the season’s asparagus had been grilled well, like the broccoli, but found the buttery sabayon and Parmesan shavings a bit too rich for the tender spears. Although I spied what looked to be a gigantic bowl of house-made cavatelli ($16), I found the portions at Decca to be pleasantly appropriate, including a fist-sized mound of fresh pappardelle ($17). It was lightly yet meatily caressed by a lemony lamb sugo (sauce) spiced with mint and coriander. Tarragon and cilantro brightened white shrimp a la plancha ($19).
My meals ended with a not-too-sweet buttermilk panna cotta ($9) and a devil’s food cake ($9), which pitted a light and sweet chocolate mousse against the dark forces of rich chocolate cake and cocoa meringue puffs.
Decca has more than I described, including two dining rooms, cocktails, a cellar, an outdoor stage, an art gallery and other things I haven’t fully explored. “We wanted a creative place,” Sheffield says, “a place that was a little different, that would encompass great music, great food — a space that people liked being in without knowing why.”
Photo: courtesy of Jolea Brown