This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
You have to hand it to a chef who can make roasted octopus a must-try menu item. I would venture to say that octopus is a tough sell anywhere outside southern Italy, or Greece, or Japan, but chef Michael Paley put it on the Proof on Main opening menu in 2006 and hasn’t been able to take it off since.
It certainly seemed like an odd choice at the time: Proof, after all, was to be the chic dining counterpart to the innovative, contemporary-art-filled 21c Museum Hotel; it would showcase local ingredients, like the bison raised on the owners’ farm, in preparations as current as the paintings and sculptures displayed in the dining room. Rustic Italian-style octopus was a surprising move. “The owner thought I was crazy,” says Paley.
But what may have seemed crazy at the time has turned out to be an artful juxtaposition. Paley’s earthy, seasonal cuisine — much of it, like that roasted octopus, Italian-inflected in flavor or approach, but all of it anchored by ingredient with a capital “I” — is delicious ballast for a high-flown, visually stunning dining room that could easily upstage the food.
Luckily, the owners —Laura Lee Brown and husband Steve Wilson — let Paley, who hails from New Jersey and trained at a posh Italian restaurant in South Florida before he was recruited to lead the Proof kitchen, have his way with the menu. I don’t know how anyone could try his pan-roasted octopus starter ($15) and not be crazy about it. After I’d wiped up every last morsel from the sizzling-hot cast-iron pan it is served in (with a piece of grilled bread), I noticed that the dish arrived on at least six tables in the course of non-crowded Sunday evening.
Paley says the secret is a slow braise — and a rather painstaking process to deconstruct and prep the octopus — followed by a hot sear. Then, each order of bite-size pieces gets seared again in that cast-iron pan with an aromatic paste of olive oil, garlic, anchovy, red chile, bay leaf and fresh oregano. When I tried it, each bite had a tender, pleasing chew and was caramelized with delicious bits of herbal, savory char. It was finished with the juice of a half-lime, which added a final hit of acid that animated all the other flavors.
The chef’s description of that dish hints at how — and why — so much works at Proof: Method and details matter. From sourcing heritage and pastured poultry and meats to working with the Proof garden to making his own charcuterie, there are no shortcuts, unless, that is, they make Paley’s food taste better.
This means things that benefit from less intervention are left alone, as evidenced by the pork shanks, which were patiently brined and braised to render fork-tender meat in a ragù and served with potato gnocci ($19). That ragù was simply a little braising liquid combined with a little tomato sauce, white wine and vegetables. A hint of horseradish and thin shavings of celery on top of ethereally tender gnocchi were equally uncomplicated, but absolutely delicious.
A fresh-tasting tomato sauce on homemade chard cavatelli with smoked lamb and olives ($20) turned out to be “really good canned tomatoes” run through a food mill and quickly cooked with the pasta. (Paley says he doesn’t make “sauces” per se.) I usually avoid pasta dishes at restaurants because they are almost always overworked and overcrowded and overcooked; Paley’s are almost always perfect. One exception, though, was an underwhelming bowl of handmade tonnarelli ($17). The too-tender strands of pasta were swamped in oil and the dish lacked the punch of fresh-herb flavor it should have had. And an über-simple pasta dish like this one, even at its best, really should be offered as a primi on the menu; it’s too one-dimensional to be a main course.
The pleasure of many of the dishes at Proof is Paley’s use of a gorgeous array of produce from the restaurant’s own garden. (It outgrew its hotel rooftop location earlier this year and has since moved to the owners’ Woodland Farm in Oldham County.) Though preparations change with the seasons and what is fresh from the garden on a given day, in the summer he used a variety of fresh greens to lighten and brighten even the heftiest of proteins. From a distance, I thought the grilled beef skirt steak ($29) was a salad because at least half the plate was filled with beautiful, fresh greens. (It also included confit of eggplant salad and basil pesto.) A nicely moist pan-roasted Berkshire pork chop ($26) was heaped with beautiful dandelion greens studded with chunks of grilled peach and pickled red onion — a fresh take on a Southern standard, pork with braised bitter greens.
One of the most delicious and integrated dishes was the smoked Amish chicken ($25). Italian-inflected via California (it is a take on a classic from San Francisco’s influential Zuni Café), it arrived with a clutch of fresh greens and herbs that were slightly wilted from the heat of the chicken and a warm vinaigrette with red wine, raisins and pine nuts that moistened generous cubes of homemade croutons. The melding of texture and flavor — sweet, sour, a bit of crunch from the pine nut, a bit of torn mint leaf, awakened by a little heat — was so satisfying, except for one thing: I found myself wishing that the chicken were not smoked; the smoking was too strong, a little drying, and interrupted the delicate harmony of an otherwise sublime dish. Likewise, an overabundance of goat cheese obscured the pure, earthy sweetness of roasted baby beets in a roasted beet and carrot pickles salad ($9). On the other hand, a medium-rare bison burger ($15) with smoked bacon and cheddar was that rarest of things: a posh burger that is worth the price. The pan-roasted wild salmon ($29) was also perfectly prepared.
Every dish was beautifully plated and thoughtful details in table service enhanced the best meals. On one visit, our waiter heard us deciding to share a salad, so, while summing up the order, he confirmed that we would share it, and had it plated individually. Attentive service like that made all but one out of four visits really enjoyable experiences. And one of the unexpected benefits of going to a restaurant attached to an art gallery is that you can take a stroll to check out the installations if you have to wait for a table on a busy Saturday night. It’ll make for a stimulating evening on several levels.
Photo: John Nation