LOUISVILLE — With Lexington's first restaurant week ending this weekend, our collective minds might still be on food. Luckily for us, we have one of the nation's premier food destinations just an hour's drive west, in Louisville.
From downtown to Butchertown, NuLu to Anchorage, Louisville's restaurants are receiving national buzz — Edward Lee, Anthony Lamas and Kathy Cary are just a few of the chefs who are popping up routinely on network TV and in the foodie press.
During my most recent visit to Kentucky's largest city, I had a chance to experience a few of Louisville's culinary delights.
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On the fringes of Butchertown, this place was buzzing on a Wednesday evening, both in the dining room, with its brick walls and black-and-white checkerboard floors, and on the colorful umbrella-shaded patio.
My friend and I were doing a progressive dinner, so we opted for appetizers at Bistro 1860, which specializes in small plates. New York food writer John Mariani has said you can tell a lot about a chef's creativity by the appetizers on the menu. If that is true, chef Michael Crouch, formerly of Bourbon's Bistro, is an artist.
My lobster hush puppy filled with lemon hollandaise, blood orange gastrique and candied jalapeño was rich and bursting with flavors. The corn chevre pudding took that Kentucky staple to new heights. I came for the appetizers, but I will be back to try Crouch's entrees.
On a side note: The upstairs Camel Lounge started as a holding area for those waiting for a table but has morphed into an intimate spot for a quiet cocktail.
Pat's Steak House
If restaurants had a gender, most would say steak houses are masculine. All those hearty cuts of beef, paneled walls and full-bodied red wines reek of testosterone. Pat's Steak House on Brownsboro Road is no exception; it's the culinary equivalent of a man cave.
Its dark paneling and amber lighting give it the feel of an exclusive gentleman's club; the red wine list is more than satisfactory, and steaks truly are the stars here.
Those with more delicate appetites might find themselves leaving with a doggy bag. I had the petit filet; it was one of the tenderest, most buttery pieces of beef I've had in a while, but I could have shared it easily. The baked potato (with all the trimmings) was equally huge.
Pat's occupies a spot that was the site of a coaching inn dating back 150 years, and you can imagine the stories these walls have heard. Politicians, business executives, media types and those who just want to see and be seen flock here.
Louisvillians and visitors are likely to attest to Pat's motto: "We're not the best because we're the oldest. We're the oldest because we're still the best."
On a side note: Credit cards are not accepted, although personal checks are.
Blue Dog Bakery and Café
If Pat's appeals to our masculine, warrior side, Blue Dog, in a lovely Crescent Hill neighborhood, brings out patrons' softer, gentler side.
Situated amid high-end boutiques, design studios and independent bookstores, it is the perfect spot for a leisurely brunch, indoors or at one of the tables scattered across the sidewalk outside.
My goat cheese omelet was one of the best I've ever had — as light and fluffy as air, but with plenty of flavor. The artisan breads from the bakery are delicious, especially the cranberry walnut and the Kalamata olive.
The Blue Dog's chocolate chip cookies get rave reviews, and people come from far and wide for the baguettes, often described as the city's best.
On a side note: Service can be a little slow, but the result is worth the wait.
The Village Anchor Pub & Roost
Hidden among the leafy estates in Anchorage, in east Louisville, is this gem. It occupies what was once the historic train station, removed from its original location and reassembled in a low-key commercial area developed by John Schnatter, founder and CEO of Papa John's pizza.
The restaurant is a charming pastiche of styles. The indoor dining area, with its red velvet chairs, antique sconces and opulent bar, resembles a New Orleans bordello; the lower-level Sea Hag Pub channels the English coast; and the two patios and covered terrace in their lush gardens evoke Southern California.
I came for lunch and started with the wonderfully refreshing gazpacho, although it was a tough choice between that and the Stilton blue cheese potato soup. The salad fixings were fresh, and all the salad dressings — from pear-Champagne to ginger-cilantro — are made in house. See if you can resist the side order of sweet potato fries with marshmallow dipping crème.
On a side note: The Village Anchor is on Louisville's Urban Bourbon Trail and offers 55 bourbons.
Bistro Le Relais
This is the only one of the restaurants where I had dined previously, and my love for it made a return visit inevitable. You won't find another spot with this kind of ambiance anywhere in Louisville. It's not just the Art Deco design, which has a film noirish quality, making the patrons all look as if they should be sucking the olives out of their martinis and the staff as if they could be extras in Casablanca.
What's inside is great, but what's outside is equally so. The restaurant overlooks the Bowman Field airport and allows those wanting a pre- dinner aperitif or an after-dinner liqueur on the outdoor terrace to see planes take off and land, often against a spectacular sunset.
Not to overlook the food. Le Relais has undergone a renaissance of sorts — from a fine dining restaurant specializing in France's haute cuisine to a bistro, where dishes are simpler and less expensive though no less delicious.
I had ample proof of that with my starter, pâté du chef (house-made pâté with cornichons, grain mustard and crisps) and entrée, steak au poivre with crushed black pepper and brandy cream sauce, accompanied by pommes frites and Provençal tomato.
On a side note: Along with the menu, the wine list has been modified. Big spenders can still order their bottles from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, but there are a number of vintages in a more moderate price range.
IF YOU GO
■ Bistro 1860, 1765 Mellwood Ave. (502) 618-1745. Bistro1860.com.
■ Pat's Steak House, 2437 Brownsboro Rd. (502) 893-2062. Patssteakhouselouisville.com.
■ Blue Dog Bakery, 2868 Frankfort Ave. (502) 899-9800. Bluedogbakeryandcafe.com.
■ The Village Anchor Pub & Roost, 11507 Park Rd., Anchorage. (502) 708-1850. Villageanchor.com.
■ Bistro Le Relais, 2817 Taylorsville Rd. (502) 451-9020. Lerelaisrestaurant.com.