This article appeared in the August 2012 edition of Louisville Magazine.
How do you combine restaurants and football in a way that interests both foodies and pigskin fans? Easy —let Shawn Ward, the chef at Jack Fry’s, spike a head of lettuce on a football field. OK, let us back up. This past March, five editors and contributors holed up in a conference room for Louisville Magazine’s inaugural (and extremely opinionated) fantasy restaurant draft to determine the city’s top 50 places to eat. Why the lead time? Research (that is, going to these places so each writer could comment on his or her team of 10) takes time.
Go ahead and skip to the next paragraph if you play fantasy football. For the rest of you, here’s how it worked: Every local restaurant — instead of football players — was up for grabs. We drew names out of a hat (OK, a cup) to see who had the first-overall pick, the second, on down through five. This was the draft order. We reversed that order each round so the person with the last pick in the first round wasn’t always getting the short end of the stick.
As you can imagine, many great spots went undrafted. There was no lollygagging allowed, so chalk some of that up to draft-day nerves and hurried decisions. But only some. Because frankly, there’s just too much amazing dining in this town to include everybody. Oh, and one more thing:
1. Proof on Main
I was blinded by thoughts of the octopus bagna cauda appetizer (garlic and lime elevate this dish to a sublime level), rarified cocktails (bartenders concoct them with seasonal ingredients) and art (honestly, sometimes it makes me feel icky — looking at you, Anthony Goicolea). But Proof always brings it’s A game and rarely misses with a solid playbook of expertly executed, ahead-of-the-trend dishes. I made the pick before chef Michael Paley announced he was leaving. Pressure’s on, new guy. (702 W. Main St.)— Melissa Duley
Young, fresh, full of energy — Rye is the blue-chip rookie who could be the cornerstone of my championship franchise, with the skills to back up the attitude. Strong in just about every position, from bar snacks to dessert, the kitchen effortlessly cranks out highlight-reel-worthy efforts such as Salt of the Earth, a chocolate cream pudding with salted caramel and potato-coffee crunch. Score. (900 E. Market St.)— Stephen Hacker
3. Blind Pig
Serve me this Butchertown gastropub’s bacon-infused Manhattan, pork rillettes and house-made chorizo sandwich and I’m as happy as a pig in, er, a poke. Yet I considered passing on the Blind Pig in the first round in hopes that it would slide, with my competitors instead opting for something flashier, like a pop-up artisanal pupusa stand that two hipsters were going to open under an undisclosed NuLu manhole. If they got around to it. But if my favorite Louisville restaurant wound up on somebody else’s roster, the rest of the draft wouldn’t have mattered. My squad would have been like a BLT with no B. An easy first choice that I would’ve made even if I’d had the top pick overall. (1076 E. Washington St.)— Zach Everson
OK, so the Ton brothers pretty much own this eatin’ town, and each one of their new endeavors (Doc Crow’s, La Coop) draws a bigger, hipper crowd. For me the original, Basa, is still their raison d’etre. At first, being the fusion-resistant type that I am, I wanted nothing to do with Vietnamese food that wasn’t strictly Vietnamese. But then, whoops, I got a taste of the Frenchy things these guys do with mollusks and crustaceans and all of the fishes in the sea. I defy anyone out there to find a more perfect pairing for aubergine than Basa’s Japanese eggplant with garlic chips, noodles and aromatic wild mushroom ragoût. (2244 Frankfort Ave.)— Mary Welp
5. Jack Fry’s
Almost passed — because, well, what’s left to say about the most reliable quarterback in the city? — but couldn’t let a restaurant worthy of the first-overall pick fall any farther. I’ve gone on about the black-and-white photos and the burger’s caramelized onions and the piano player and the pork chop and the and the and the. Before this story, basically the only thing I’d not had at Jack Fry’s was the shrimp and grits, which people haven’t shut up about since I came to town five years ago. (Actually, I’d never had grits period.) The dish isn’t on the lunch menu, but the kitchen does a handful of them every afternoon. I called and there was one left. “Hold it for me?” I asked. “No problem,” the hostess replied. (And I told myself I wouldn’t mention the service.) In a lagoon of red-eye gravy, portly sautéed shrimp buried themselves in a steaming island of silky grits, dusted with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Oh. Oh, my. So this is what grits taste like? (1007 Bardstown Road)— Josh Moss
I enjoy McDonald’s breakfast every now and again, so it’s easy for me to interpret the gazes from the farmers pictured on Harvest’s walls as judgmental. They’d make me squirm, but I don’t make eye contact because the luscious buttermilk fried chicken — with it’s just-sweet-enough hoecake and smoked-peppercorn gravy, which delivers a spicy drop kick — forces me to chew, blissfully, with my eyes closed. (624 E.
Market St.)— JM
7. La Bodega
There was a time in the ’Ville when only Spanish teachers knew the definition of tapas and only La Bodega was serving them. There was a time when people would ask, “What goes on in that funky little bar area next to De la Torre’s?” But all along, La Bodega was where the real fun happened. And it’s only gotten better since being reconstructed and expanded following a restaurant fire a couple of years back. While the menu gets updated fairly frequently, old standbys such as grilled sardines and crab-stuffed piquillo peppers are there for a reason. A wisely edited wine list is a pleasure. But Dame Maggie de la Torre behind the bar (at least until she retires) certainly knows her way around the cocktail shaker, too. (1606 Bardstown Road)— MW
8. Le Relais
The host in a suit-sans-tie and fashionable dark-framed glasses greets my wife and me through a thick accent. Behind me, a group of smartly dressed young professionals toast and toast and toast with generous pours of red wine. A table over, a gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair strokes the exposed back of his younger blond companion. Our waitress tells us the special is beef bourguignon (because of course it is), which will pair nicely with a glass of Pinot Noir (because of course it will). I order both, with escargot as my hors d’oeuvre. Our meals arrive, and I lower my head over the bowl to inhale that most French of meals. My wife takes a delicate bite of her pancetta-sprinkled scallops and looks at me — even the bistro’s dim lights dazzle in her blue eyes — and says, “Holy crap this is good!” The guillotine falls on my illusion of life in Le Marais. Le Relais, I’ll be back — next time, though, maybe with my mistress. (2817 Taylorsville Road)—ZE
9. Blue Dog Bakery
Like a baseball pitcher throwing a no-hitter on LSD, Blue Dog has such a solid set of skills it can deliver even when things get crazy. Ordering and even waiting for a table can be confusing and hectic, but grab a seat and get ready for house-cured pork in the bocadillo trio, on what is not only undoubtedly the best bread in town but quite possibly the best in the world. (2868 Frankfort Ave.) — SH
Recently, someone in this magazine said this place serves “stoner food.” If that means whilst dining you think it is the best food you’ve ever tasted and you can’t shove it into your pie hole fast enough, then I agree. But this menu is not for your average Cheech and Chong. Man, it’s got, like, duck tacos, barbecue lamb ribs, elk and venison burgers and truffle fries. Never mind that you’re actually eating in an old walkout basement. (921 Swan St.)— MD
11 Wiltshire on Market
A continually changing menu keeps things inspired and fresh. Unfussy yet sophisticated, this spot regales diners with local ingredients without hitting you over the head with the concept. The charcuterie plate is my go-to. It is an always-different, but never disappointing, combination of cheeses, compotes, tasty toasty things and salty meats. (636 E. Market St.)— MD
Scouting report says: unpretentious, down-to-earth performer. Comes from a local Germantown beer background, with a varying menu often based on the beverage. Eiderdown is sometimes erratic with its creativity but always delivers excellent sausages and beer cheese. (983 Goss Ave.)— SH