Our word today is “depth.”
Begin with depth of tradition. If you’ve lived in Louisville for any appreciable length of time, you’ve had some interaction with the Brown Hotel. In the 1940s, when my parents were first dating and downtown was still the center of Louisville, they used to eat at the English Grill and go dancing in the Bluegrass Room. My high school prom - was the theme really “Color My World” or did that come from a parody somewhere” - was held in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.
At the time, the early-1920s-built Brown was owned by the Louisville Board of Education and used mainly for administration offices; its reopening as a hotel in 1985, after restoration of the intricate, vivid colors of the lobby and the oak-paneled splendor of the English Grill, was more than a decade away. The arrival of chef Joe Castro in the early ‘90s turned the English Grill into a significant, if not pre-eminent, presence and brought back the notion of a grand downtown hotel’s dining room as a summit point for Louisville dining.
If the Oakroom at the Seelbach seems like a castle dining hall, the English Grill recalls a manor house (especially with its diamond-paned windows) or perhaps a private club. It is more intimate. The overall atmosphere of muted elegance, keynoted by the dark paneling, impresses you.
Such formality promises a high level of service. In most ways our recent meal lived up to that, although on a recent lightly attended Tuesday evening, there was an unnecessarily long wait after we sat down before we finally had anything set down in front of us. All in all, however, our server was very intelligent and informative - most notably, the wines she chose to accompany our meal were especially well matched.
So we return to our word of the day - in this instance, depth of flavor, which was demonstrated for us by the chef’s daily five-course prix fixe ($65 per person, $95 if paired with wine). Diners may also order off a seasonally changing menu that includes up to 10 entrees priced from $20 to $34.
Our tasting started - after a soon-forgotten amuse-bouche - in absolute ravishment. The appetizer was a small portion of the catch of the day, a piece of sea bass topped with melted spinach and bits of crab, sitting on Israeli couscous, all of it drizzled with a scallop jus that went full fathom five. It was paired with Sonoma-Cutrer’s 2001 Les Pierres, the sort of bright, anti-reductionist Chardonnay they were talking about in the movie Sideways. It was as if the appetizer were the sea - or the best essence of the sea (its fruits, as the Italians say) - and the mineral clarity and expansiveness of the wine were like the cliffside bar where you’d sit, watching the golden play of light across the bay.
The next courses were more straightforward, although the subtle ginger-soy dressing on my wife’s salad of mixed greens was intriguing N as was the mysterious little object that had us playing food detectives. Some crumbly, sweet cheese’ We asked, and were illuminated: It was a wedge of sorghum-glazed plantain. The intermezzo that followed was pleasingly different; instead of sorbet, there was a tart Italian-style soda that did the same job of palate-cleansing.
The entree was almost as mighty as the appetizer: slices of New York strip, arranged in a mound, with buttermilk mashed potatoes peeking out from the bottom. I cynically assumed the inside would be primarily potatoes, but I was wrong. The spuds formed only a shallow, piquant pool to contrast with the rich flavors of the meat and its sauce. Once again, a deep, long-reduced jus was a main vehicle of the flavor - veal, in this instance - abetted by caramelized onions. It was less sweet than I was expecting, a little more severe and on the point of tasting burnt (but never arriving there). The jammy 2002 Reynella Shiraz accompanied the flavor perfectly.
We ended, as we always /files/storyimages/here, with souffles. In this instance, it was a cantaloupe souffle, with blood orange crme anglaise. The fruit flavors were subtle notes; the main impact came from the rich, eggy flavor of the base - that first smell always enthralls me - and the sweet custard.
If I were a Bingham or a Brown, would I eat every night at the English Grill? Probably not - there are too many other tones a restaurant can take (and anyway, I’d be busier trying to hire Joe Castro as my personal chef). But as an ordinary guy who gets to bop in every so often, I love how deep the Grill goes.