Restaurants are proliferating around downtown so fast it's dizzying. What's most exciting, though, is the variety and overall quality. There is much less copycatting than in times past. Go somewhere new and you are bound to have at least one fresh experience. County Club, the excellent smokehouse, is one of my favorite examples.
Outside, the patio, with its umbrella-shrouded tables, makes for comfortable dining al fresco, overlooking Coolavin Park on one side and the sidewalks of the neighborhood on the other. With 2013's mild summer, it has been an ideal spot to linger.
But these temps won't last forever, so before long, diners will be packing inside the converted garage inhabited by County Club. (Note: The name is County Club, not Country Club.) There, booths, metal bar stools and an open kitchen make for cool coziness, with energetic but incongruent surfer sounds of the 1960s that kind of make me giggle.
So the vibe is laid back, OK, but what about the food?
It is, in a word, fabulous.
There is smoked meat, like brisket that my friend from Fort Worth, Texas, swears is the best she's had since leaving the Lone Star State, and pork — the whole pig is smoked — and sometimes chicken wings.
The beef appears in various forms. The most predictable is on a sandwich (but what a sandwich!) featuring bread from Sunrise Bakery, some vegetables pickled in-house, and the occasional schmear of something lemony and wonderful resembling gremolata.
Unique to County Club, however, is poutine, Quebec's version of cheese fries. This rendition is impeccable. Instead of a melted "cheese product" slathered over crispy "frites" that are perfectly executed, you get rich whole curds that cross the texture of cream cheese with the bite of ricotta salata, and a light gravy for a sweet-salty contrast. This is the classic poutine ($7), but for $5 more you can get chunks of smoked meat, too. Can you think of a better way to spend that fiver?
Smoked pork gets chopped into great big hunks and piled on a ciabatta bun, also from Sunrise Bakery. Again you get pickles on the side that add tartness and crunch.
Daily and weekly specials are written on the blackboards, and they are always original and creative.
For instance, when were you last served pho, Vietnam's national noodle soup, at a smokehouse? I can proudly say it was a few weeks ago, at County Club, where paper-thin slices of smoked tongue melted in my mouth. Of course, there are the traditional bean sprouts, lime wedges and basil for excitement. If the urge comes to increase the heat, there is a bottle of Sriracha sauce on the table.
But the most unlikely and wondrous feature of this place is its salads. They outshine all others. They are always local, fresh and superbly dressed.
For example, on the "Vietnamese night," there was shredded Napa cabbage scattered with cilantro, basil, minced scallions, cashews and peanuts. It was tossed with the perfect ratio of dressing with the lightest hint of fish sauce. On another visit, tender kale replaced cabbage, rosy slices of watermelon radishes garnished the plate, and you could at last experience green goddess dressing as it was intended to be. Yet another time there might be a mound of sautéed snow peas in sesame oil, crowned with skinny golden-fried shallots.
If you have room, desserts are either made on-site, as with baked goods, or locally sourced, such as ice cream.
I always go on reviews a few times for fairness and perspective, and I have done so with County Club. But those other half-dozen times I've visited? Those were just because I wanted to.
Address: 555 Jefferson St., at Sixth St.
Phone: (859) 389-6555
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Sun. with brunch menu 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Other: Parking lot. Credit cards accepted. Beer served. Price range: $3-$12.