Sometimes I realize how ridiculous it is that reviewers/critics exist – in the end, does one person’s generally subjective opinion really matter? No. Do I think it’s irritating that a review from one person can sometimes make or break a restaurant, or at least affect the number of diners the place thereafter draws in for dinner? A huh. Do I think foie gras is an overrated, overused hunk of fat? I sure do. But those are my opinions. Show me negative reviews with consistent complaints from several experts, and I may discount a restaurant, but one person's view isn't going to directly affect mine. I’ve worked in the back AND the front of the house, I’ve certainly been a diner, and I’ve spent over 2 years preparing meals directly in clients’ homes, tailored exactly to their individual tastes. Opinions, likes, and dislikes are everywhere. What matters is the preparation of the food. Is it properly cooked? Did it require impressive skill or knowledge to prepare? Did everything on the plate make sense together? Did I receive what I expected based on the description? Whether it was filet mignon with truffles or sloppy, sticky BBQ, did it taste the way it should and was it put up in a proper amount of time? Did each bite roar with flavor? Those are the things I care about knowing when I read about a restaurant. I want to know only about the food, and so that’s all I write about. Here is an account of a dinner I genuinely enjoyed last night at Lilly’s Bistro, a time-tested culinary staple in Louisville since 1988. I don’t need to tell you that this place is great, but, in my self-indulgent reviewer opinion, I think you DO need to know how wonderful this particular meal happened to be based on what I consumed. Not because I want to influence you, but because I want to share my experience. Think of it as more of a story, as a testament to excellent dining, than a review.
Last night, I enjoyed a special 5-Course Argentina wine dinner at Lilly's which showcased the fruits of Chef/Owner Kathy Cary’s culinary-oriented travels through Argentina last October. Argentina’s cuisine is heavily influenced by Italy, and so this meal was a beautiful fusion of both Latin and Italian flavors/techniques, with items such as empanadas, risotto, pappardelle, basil, chimichurri, and 2 wines that were started in Italy and finished in Argentina.
David Dubou of Vintner Select did a wonderful job of pairing wines with each course, and when he arrived at my table, he made a point of sharing that the first two wines were made by female vintners, which is remarkable because wine is still a heavily male-dominated industry in Argentina. However, because women have heightened senses of taste and smell, they tend to create wines that are decidedly more complex with rounded, subtle notes. Because of this “gift”, he said that women vintners are slowly beginning to be embraced in Argentina.
The appetizer, a warm Stonecross Pork Empanada, was just lovely. Served alongside a cool “avocado, tomato, and lemon salsa” (lemony guacamole), it was stuffed perfectly with a dense pork filling. The meat itself had an impossibly fine texture, but was packed so tightly into the flaky pastry that it almost became a super tender sausage. Laced with warm spices, a solid kick of heat, and a citrus punch from the avocado “salsa”, this paired really well with the Altivo 2011 Torrontes “Vineyard Selection”, which was a crisp, clean, citrusy white wine that smelled delectably (and deceptively) sweet. This course was simple, but it was a nice WOW to start off the meal. I know, I know – it was just an empanada. But it was a very good one.
The second course, Ruby Red Truchas, was impeccably designed and seasoned to perfection. The Ruby Red trout encrusted with parsnip coin scales was nicely cooked with a crisp skin. It rested on a bed of well-made and perfectly-seasoned lemon risotto, which was snuggled up against an emerald green pile of spinach and a circle of pale green basil foam. The fish was seductively draped in an utterly delectable, sweet, smooth, pale yellow sauce in which I tasted honey and lemon. Now, let me make something very, very clear: I HATE foams. I don’t care how wonderful they taste because they look like cat spit. That being said, this basil foam changed my mind – it was intensely flavorful and downright pretty. Best of all, it made sense on the plate. This course wouldn’t have been the same without it. As for the wine, this was the best pairing in my opinion. A crisp, citrusy white with a beautiful golden color, the grape used in its production offered a rounded, almost honey-like flavor that made the entire dish, particularly that sweet yellow sauce, sing. This was a truly glorious pairing and a fantastic dish.
The third course, a Homemade Porcini Pappardelle, was a very interesting nod to the persistent Italian influence in Argentina. It wasn’t the prettiest dish of the evening, but the pasta was a perfect al dente, cool microgreens offered a welcome fresh element, and the color of the red wine-poached egg was striking. Once I had tasted each component, I pierced the egg and released the beautiful, oozy yolk, then swirled everything together. The result was much like a carbonara, though a spicy version with a complex red sauce. The accompanying red wine, Colonia las Liebres 2011 Bonarda, was light and clean with much less body than I had expected. It was subtle, though pure and delicious with a gentle sweetness, a bright acidity, and notes of black pepper that complemented the dish very well.
The fourth course, the “Yes – a plate of meat!” dish, was fantastic. Simply labeled “Asado” on the menu, it was a bold, exciting plate of food, and if I really HAVE to choose, it was my favorite. A beautifully tender cube of roasted bone-in ribeye and a fan of intensely delicious peppercorn-rubbed New York strip rested gently against tender chorizo gnocchi that were caramelized to a crisp golden brown on the outside but were light as air and surprisingly flavorful inside. The beef was fabulous, but those gnocchi stole the show. With an acid green stroke of well-made chimichurri waiting off to the side and a pile of crisp, fried salsify on top that melted on the tongue, it was truly outstanding. Every element played a lovely tune on its own, but a bit of everything in one forkful was a symphony that only we diners could hear. I giggled to myself when I first read the name of the wine that accompanied the dish – Vale la Pena (2007 Malbec, “Laurel Glen Vineyard”) – because “vale la pena” is the Spanish equivalent of “worth it” or “worth the time”. (I remember pathetically little Spanish from school, but I did remember that!) It paired very well with the dish, and certainly lived up to its apt name.
The fifth course was a very simple cheese platter with a trio of Spanish and Italian cheeses, nicely-grilled bread, and a small pillow of intensely sweet carrot. The Manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, with its distinctive cross hatch-patterned rind, was buttery and firm. The Queso Iberico, which is often mistaken for Manchego, was hard and tasted much like Manchego! Imagine that. ;) Soft, creamy Tallegio, an Italian cow’s milk cheese with a subtle blue cheese twang, was a perfect addition to the platter. This course’s wine pairing, the Altos las Hormigas 2006 Malbec “Vista Flores – Single Vineyard”, was intense. It was very thick, very strong, and very dry, and though it was a nice wine, I felt like it upstaged all the beautiful and subtle complexities of the cheese.
Though dessert wasn’t a scheduled portion of the meal, the kitchen staff did present some pretty little nibbles so that each of us could end the meal with something sweet. What I received was a round lemon curd wafer that was crumbly and luscious, much like a lemon bar, and a dark chocolate-hazelnut curl that much resembled a potato chip! Alas, it was not a crunchy spud, but it was smooth, rich, and delicious. A great way to end the meal.
This dinner was truly something special. I’ve eaten at many restaurants in town since I began writing, and I have to say that any place should take a page from Lilly’s on how to season food perfectly. It sounds simple, perhaps ridiculous, but salt and pepper make or break a diner’s enjoyment of a meal, and the staff back in the kitchen last night did not disappoint. Also, not a single ingredient was unnecessary or without purpose throughout the entire meal. That, in and of itself, is something special and commendable. I believe that proper seasoning and simplicity are the marks of a confident, matured culinary team, and though I’m sure the kitchen was as chaotic and lively as the dining room was serene and comfortable, they really did a great job and should be proud. Thank you to General Manager Mytch Law, Chef Kathy Cary, Chef de Cuisine David Scales, my lovely and attentive waitress, and the hard-working, efficient kitchen staff for a great meal!
Pictures are below.
I certainly hope Chef Cary travels again soon.
1147 Bardstown Road
Open: Tuesday through Saturday from 11 AM to 3 PM and 5 PM to 10 PM