LOUISVILLE — I don't get to Louisville as often as I should, making the trek west on Interstate 64 maybe four or five times a year. Considering the number of attractions the River City has to offer, not the least of which is a restaurant lineup as good as any to be found between the East and West coasts, I should shoot for twice that number of annual visits.
Here are some of the great restaurants just an hour and 15 or so minutes from Lexington.
■ Z's Oyster Bar & Steakhouse, 101 Whittington Parkway. (502) 429-8000. Zsoyster.com.
The sister establishment of downtown's Z's Fusion is tucked away in a shopping strip off Hurstbourne Lane. But the food makes it worth getting off the beaten restaurant track.
The décor is understated and chic, with lots of wood paneling and two large aquariums anchoring either side of the main dining room, but you'll probably be so focused on the cuisine that you won't even notice.
I had a prime cut of beef so tender I didn't need a knife; it was paired with a side of sautéed spinach and four plump fried oysters. I might have had a better meal recently, but I can't remember where or when. Z's says it ships in the best available, whether from the East, West or Gulf coasts.
■ Seviche, 1538 Bards town Road. (502) 473-8560. Sevicherestaurant.com.
The recently renovated and expanded hot spot has to be my current favorite Louisville restaurant. The color palette of soft amber and brick orange is as warm and welcoming as chef Anthony Lamas himself. Lamas, whose heritage is part Mexican, part Puerto Rican, is a consummate host and a creative wizard in the kitchen.
Try his inspired Latin dishes with a sophisticated twist: mahi mahi tacos with green cabbage, lime aioli and pico de gallo; Kentucky bison empanadas with avocado, cilantro and jalapeno; or his version of feijoada, the Brazilian dish that combines black beans, smoked meat, sausage, rice, manioc and braised greens.
At even the best restaurants around the world, I'll usually find things on the menu I'm content to skip. At Seviche I haven't.
■ Doc Crow's Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar, 127 W. Main St. (502) 587-1626. Doccrows.com.
Doc Crow's, which opened last year in downtown's Whiskey Row, just across from the KFC Yum Center, is, predictably, hugely popular. The football field-size dining room is divided into nooks and crannies, all of which buzz with activity.
The food here is down-home Southern, with cornmeal-fried catfish, cheddar grits, fried green tomatoes with Doc's remoulade sauce, and New Orleans-style po' boys. There's all manner of delicious fare from the smoker (the beef brisket is especially good), and if you have the constitution of a WWE wrestler, you might want to try the "Bubba," a half-pound steak burger with pulled pork, sliced beef brisket, fried green tomato, onion rings and one fried egg, topped with cole slaw and barbecue sauce.
In light of how good the food is and how convivial the atmosphere, the service was a disappointment — or at least my server was. On three occasions, she was less than accommodating, including being asked for a pat of butter instead of melted butter, to which she responded, "We don't have any." Hmmm. I wonder where the melted butter came from?
Don't let the possibility of less-than-stellar service deter you; go anyway and enjoy it.
■ Ghyslain on Market, 721 East Market Street. (502) 690-8645. Ghyslain.com.
This combination café/patisserie, which debuted in April in the trendy NuLu area, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu could just as easily put you in mind of Paris' Avenue Montaigne as Market Street.
At lunchtime, order the croque-monsieur panini, a brioche filled with ham, Gruyère cheese and béchamel sauce (add a fried egg and you have a croque-madame); the pan-bagnat Niçois, a sort of salad Niçoise on a baguette; or the charcuterie and fromage platter.
Regardless of when you stop in, it's doubtful you'll be able to resist the patisserie offerings. Will it be the bourbon-pecan tart, the pumpkin-spice truffles or a spectacular concoction called the Charlemagne, a chocolate génoise infused with orange syrup and topped with dark chocolate mousse and chocolate shavings?
■ Proof on Main, 702 West Main Street. (502) 217-6360. Proofonmain.com.
This arty restaurant is the perfect complement to the hotel it occupies, the 21C Museum Hotel, and it might have gotten much of its clientele as a result of the hotel's cachet.
Not any more. The kitchen artistry of chef Michael Paley more than stands on its own. Some of the dishes might seem a bit avant garde for some Kentuckians' taste — octopus with oregano, lime, anchovy and toast; or bison tartare with broccoli, peanut and cilantro — but Paley has plenty to please those of us who grew up segregating peas and carrots on our dinner plates.
This time of the year, the butternut squash soup is a popular first course, and for the main, try the Pacific sturgeon with kohlrabi, pumpernickel, apple pear and riesling.
For those who think ambience is an essential part of any dining experience, Proof's décor matches the vibrancy of the food. Hand-blown glass pendant lights sparkle from the ceiling, and glass votives and bronze statuary sit in the bar area.
■ Buck's, 425 West Ormsby. (502) 637-5284. Buckslou.com.
The owner, the eponymous Buck, is an ardent admirer of moon gardens, planted with all-white flowers that appear ethereal in the moonlight, and he set about turning his restaurant into one.
With sprays of white blossoms on the bar and at the tables, soft candlelight and a pianist with a repertoire that includes Cole Porter and Gershwin, this restaurant — in the historic Mayflower building and surrounded by the mansions of Old Louisville — exudes romance.
That's before you even get to the food. For appetizers, start with the bacon-wrapped shrimp with sour apple-curry chutney (the contrasting flavors work perfectly), and follow that with the beef tenderloin medallions with onion jam and Boursin cream sauce, or the pan-seared black grouper with a tomato saffron broth, sun-dried tomato relish, spinach and caramelized onions.
It's a good idea to make reservations here, especially on the weekends.