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    Eat & Swig

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    This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Photos by Chris Witzke

    Chef Bobby Benjamin’s approach to running a restaurant is by no means easy on the self-proclaimed perfectionist, who was sick in bed for days during Butchertown Grocery’s Thanksgiving-weekend opening. “I just worked myself to death. I lost like 20 pounds in probably the last month,” the 35-year-old says. “Which is good. I needed to go on a diet, anyway. I eat all the time.” 

    His American-Mediterranean fare — lots of French, Spanish and Italian influences and ingredients — is pared down, devoid of trends and frills. Herbed rotisserie chicken. Steak frites. Grilled cheese. Benjamin describes it as “casual,” but I don’t know many people who casually order $60 rib-eye steaks and $18 burgers. While cooked on a flat-top grill for the delicious juicy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside effect, the burger’s accouterments (avocado, alfalfa sprouts, huckleberry ketchup) seem to merit a fine-dining label. “I always laugh when people say ‘fine dining’ because this is not fine dining. We have gnocchi on our menu. That’s a dish that’s been around for-ever,” Benjamin says. “If I took "The Silver Spoon" book down and looked up gnocchi” — he nods to the shelves of books, spices, vinegars and olive oils along a wall inside the restaurant — “I would not be surprised if it said that gnocchi has been around since the 1800s.” 

    He asks a server to grab him a stepladder so he can look up the Italian pasta in "The Silver Spoon," one of his favorites. (The book doesn’t say, but multiple sources date the use of potato gnocchi to the 19th century). After delving into the gnocchi chapter, he explains his method. “I use a high-starch potato — very deep in potato flavor — cake flour, egg yolks, olive oil. This Frantoia olive oil here is absolutely insanely delicious,” he says. He pulls a bottle from one of the shelves, grabs a spoon and has me try. The taste lingers in the back of my throat. “Very flavorful, right? And it gives the gnocchi a little sheen to it,” he says. The grilled cheese is served with tomato soup and has six ounces of three types of Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese. “Kentucky Rose is an artisan cheese that I put on grilled cheese, which is pretty disrespectful to the artisan cheese, but it makes that grilled cheese what it is,” Benjamin says. “I almost did not want to do that because I have so much respect for that cheese.” 

    The Sullivan University graduate worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills, with James Beard-winning Southern chef Sean Brock at the Capitol Grille in Nashville, and at the Seelbach’s Oakroom before heading the kitchen at NuLu’s La Coop: Bistro à Vins (which closed at the end of 2014 when its owners, Falls City Hospitality Group, decided to focus on other projects, including Doc’s Cantina, expected to open early this year in the former Tumbleweed on the river). Benjamin says what started out as a conversation between his new partners — My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan and attorney John Salomon — became real, fast. Salomon has lived in Butchertown for the past eight years and is old friends with Hallahan. The two had talked about doing something with the vacant building for a while, and, while Benjamin worked in the Nashville restaurant Union Commons and had a young child here in Louisville, they were able to persuade him to open a restaurant here. After months of renovations to the building that was home to the Blind Pig and Meat, at the corner of Washington and Buchanan streets, Butchertown Grocery opened in what used to be, 100 years ago, an actual grocery called Gunkel’s. 

    The tiled floors, marble tabletops and windowpanes that almost reach the ceiling mirror the food, with a chic yet unpretentious vibe that includes nonintrusive jazzy music. Bittners president Douglas Riddle helped with the interiors, including the upstairs speakeasy-style bar that somewhat resembles the still-missed Meat, closed almost three years ago. Lounge areas with plush couches surround the bar, which stays open, almost mandatorily in these parts, until 4 a.m. and hosts live jazz on Saturdays. An arsenal of enticing ingredients — salty prunes, bitter lemon sugar, nutmeg syrup — enrich the menu’s 20 or so cocktails. Charcuterie and cheese assortments come on handmade bourbon-barrel boards that range from small to the two-feet-square, all-tastes-included, $75 board called the “game changer.” Grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches also please boozy stomachs late at night. 

    What makes Butchertown Grocery stand out among other $20-and-up-entrée spots that seem to pop up every week is Benjamin’s focus on hospitality. “If we’re overwhelmed, our guests will be overwhelmed,” he says. That’s why he keeps the menu simple, he says. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘There’s so many restaurants; there’s no cooks out there anymore; it’s so hard to find great servers.’ I don’t know if I believe in that because I think you have to build your team. If you’re beside them, teaching them, they’re gonna do great things.” He routinely gets to the restaurant at 6 a.m. to pay bills, put in orders and taste everything on the line before dishes even get assembled. On this Wednesday morning, he checks on a prep station and tells a young, red-cheeked cook what to do with the mandolin-shaved Brussels sprouts. “Make sure there’s no blemishes,” he says, sifting through a tub. “Like that — this is not good, these different blemishes.”

    Just before the lunch service, Benjamin calls his staff together for a pep talk. He explains how, when he was a poor 26-year-old in Nashville who had recently advanced to his first executive-chef job, he sat in his close-to-empty house — no refrigerator, just a cooler; no bedding, just a sleeping bag — and held an orange, wondering how many techniques he could do with that one orange. Now, he can make 12 or more dishes out of the one ingredient, he says, because he puts finesse — a word he sprinkles like salt and pepper — behind it. 

    After the talk he tells me he told his staff the story because he had seen a spotty glass on one of the tables. “That could start your guest’s experience out poor. If they see a glass that’s clean, they know there’s finesse here, and there’s finesse behind the food,” he says. As he’s explaining this, he looks over at a couple of the servers, who are now angling the leather stools diagonally along the bar. “Can we go ahead and make these straight, please?” he says to them. “If we do them straight, then we don’t come across as being fancy.” He turns back to me. “Psychologically, there’s a difference, and I don’t wanna be fancy, you know?”

    This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

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