A lot of thought has gone into House Restaurant, a new offering on South Limestone from the same people who own the successful Soundbar across the street.
It is in a house on the historic street linking the University of Kentucky and downtown. The menu is closer to what you'd find in a private home: small, flexible, local. The service is attentive if casual. If that's not sincere, then my hat's off to whoever does the training because the staff seemed genuinely interested in enhancing our visits, without the saccharine robo-pleasantness that can quickly turn a good evening sour.
As in most homes, House's kitchen also seems to do some things better than others.
What it does well is impressive. I'd happily order again any of the four appetizers I sampled. Vegetables first since I consider a kitchen's interest in and ability to prepare them a key indicator of its potential. House is not precisely a vegetable-heavy restaurant, but the appetizers include tostones, fried green plantains topped with queso blanco; and a caprese salad, that summer favorite of tomatoes, basil, balsamic vinegar and mozzarella.
House did well on both. The plantains were fried so the flavor came through without being obscured by a gloppy batter saturated in oil. They were cooked to that (literally) sweet spot before mushy, and each bite was a pleasure. The sauce, equally, allowed the vegetable to shine.
Likewise, the caprese rewarded with quality ingredients and thoughtful preparation. You'd think you couldn't mess up slicing tomatoes and cheese, adding vinegar and basil, but it happens all too often. Not here. Fresh and clearly local tomatoes and basil were offered with a good mozzarella. Again, restraint rewarded as a little bit of a really good balsamic provided just the counterpoint to set it all off.
The vegetable-heavy mahi boats — a sevichelike experience of small pieces of tender, cooked mahi mixed with red onions, roma tomatoes, cilantro, mango and lime juice, all served on three boatlike pieces of romaine lettuce — were equally fresh, light and satisfying.
A heavier but no less successful appetizer is House's plate of burger sliders. For $9, you get three mini burgers made of perfectly cooked (which in my world means very pink in the middle) high-quality beef dressed with a tasty mix of cooked onions and peppers, tiny greens and bacon. Throw in a lighter appetizer or two, and you'd have a lovely before- or after-movie meal for two.
The main dishes I sampled were not as successful.
A grilled steak salad was some well-cooked slices of flank steak on top of a huge mound of very cold and undistinguished salad mix. In the Cajun chicken pasta, highly touted by our server, whatever qualities the principal ingredients had were completely overshadowed by the heavy-handed spices and a sauce. The skillet-blackened swordfish was simpler and better, but the most memorable part of that offering was the caramelized Brussels sprouts.
I tried the cannoli for dessert, which were as creditable as any I've had in Lexington, with a creamy cheese filling.
House has a good, small wine list, with every bottle priced at $18. A selection of five beers, none more than $4.50, includes two local offerings.
Given the name House, I expected the interior to be a warm, welcoming place, but the décor struck me as uninspired, without any particularly local or personal touches. I know it's the style in Lexington and beyond to create restaurants with a hyped-up, noisy atmosphere; the minimal design coupled with the open kitchen certainly made House noisy. A soft drink dispenser glared its bright colors over one side of the dining area. Frankly, I'd rather eat in peace and enjoy my food and company.
The small outside seating area is much more pleasant. Blooming hibiscus and a view of the street scene on Limestone made it a pleasant place to experience a meal.
Address: 207 S. Limestone
Phone: (859) 379-8207
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sat.; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
Other: Parking and in nearby lots. Alcohol available. Credits cards accepted. Appetizers, $8-$9; entrees, $9-$17; sandwiches and burgers, $8-$12; desserts, $6; brunch, $8-$12.