To say that our annual pilgrimage to Kentucky is an adventure in eating would be euphemistic. Truth be told, as I have said in the past, much of what was ever good and real about the food in this state, at least in the areas we frequent, has been subsumed by the juggernaut of modern fast-food establishments.
I don’t mean to pick on Kentucky specifically. This is surely a problem of epidemic proportions around the country and, increasingly, the world. It’s just that this is the one place we go to most frequently where this condition is most apparent. But there is hope.
I noticed, when perusing the list of upcoming Outstanding in the Field dinners, that there was one in Louisville. Sadly, we were not going to be here in mid-September, when it was scheduled, but I read on with interest about the chef, Kathy Cary of Lilly’s. Ms Cary focuses on local produce, working with farmers in the region and even a garden of their own. A preview of the menu offered some insight into her culinary tendencies — firmly rooted in the South, but inflected with influences around the world. I made a reservation for 7 pm on the Friday of our visit.
Lilly’s occupies a corner unit on the main stretch of Bardstown Road in an area called Cherokee Triangle. No triangle at all, it’s an irregluarly-shaped parcel of land, about two miles outside Louisville’s downtown proper, that evolved in the late 19th century. Bordered by Bardstown Road to the southwest, Cave Hill Cemetery to the north and Cherokee Park (among Frederick Law Olmstead’s last commissions) to the east, the streets are lined with grand Victorian manses, some bordering on the phantasmagorical.
The restaurant’s interior is a fun mix of traditional and modern. A
large mahogany bar dominates the main dining room, but as you meander
through the maze of adjoining rooms, the heavy wood gives way to
lemon-yellow sponged walls covered in quirky artwork. The service was
immediately engaging and pleasant.
Perusing the menu, DPaul’s parents Jane and David were at first a little intimidated, having to navigate through such unfamiliar territory as "arugula" and "gorgonzola." We happily acted as translators, and offered our interpretation of what the dish would probably look like upon arrival. We defused the discomfort and tried to tie it back to things they would know.
The first section of Lilly’s menu sports a selection of "Kentucky tapas," truly tapa-sized small plates (cutting edge stuff, here in the land of huge portions) of tasty bites. We ordered up a few for the table to start: The catfish spring roll was one large roll, cut on the bias into four pieces. The fish had a light, delicate texture almost reminiscent of crab; the roll itself was fried perfectly, crisp and not greasy, complemented with a sweet-sour sauce to cut the edge. Our rabbit croquettes won raves from everyone at the table, two creamy balls of pulled rabbit meat (yes, local rabbit), rolled in breadcrumbs and fried crisp. And how could we not order fried green tomatoes? Perhaps the best I’ve ever had, they were firm and dry, perfectly breaded and fried; for a surprise twist, they were sandwiched around some molten goat cheese. To be sure, they’ve got a knack for frying in the kitchen, but then again, this is the South.
My pork chop was tender and flavorful, paired with bigtime bacon-y French lentils, wilted arugula and a sweet roasted Vidalia onion stuffed with pulled pork shank. Mmmm…our friend the pig. Both DPaul and Jane had the Black Angus tenderloin filet, cooked to perfection with a good, crisp sear and a tender, pink interior. The gorgonzola-bacon-potato cake was pure comfort food with an elegant presentation. DPaul’s dad, adventurously, opted for the Duck Two Ways: A tender Asian barbecue duck breast alongside a duck confit spring roll, served with jasmine rice and a mango-lime glaze. Definitely the biggest step outside the comfort zone, and well worth the expedition.
Lilly’s also always features a vegetarian "God Bless Our Local Farmers" dish; at the moment it was a chile relleno of vegetables, grits, gouda and favas. Good as it sounded, it was similar enough to the chiles rellenos we’ve been doing at home that I craved something else.
I ordered a bottle of Venus "La Universal" Montsant to accompany our meal (and by "our" I mean "DPaul’s and my" — Jane had iced tea, and David stuck with water). When our server offered me the taste, I wrinkled my brow. It was sharp and almost effervescent, and I worried it was corked. But we were already asking the parents to go out on a limb, and I frankly wasn’t interested in being a wine snob at this moment. Fortunately, once the wine opened up, all the sharpness and heat burned off, and it mellowed into a perfectly lovely wine, silky with a gentle spicy note, that complemented our entrées nicely.
Desserts, unfortunately, were somewhat lackluster. My chocolate lava cake had lost its tectonic qualities, cooked through to a solid, if still delicious, cake. David had their "famous" caramel cake, which while redolent with intense caramel flavor courtesy of the icing, was dry. DPaul’s lavender ice cream, again flavorful, was grainy, as was the ice cream that came with my lava cake. Only Jane’s key lime tart was a hit, light and creamy with a delicate high note of lime, as opposed to the mouth-puckering tartness too often present in key lime desserts. Had it been just DPaul and me, we might have explored the extensive list of bourbons alongside a nice cheese plate instead.
Lilly’s qualifies as special-occasion dining certainly by local standards. Our check for four was $225 — certainly not out of range by Bay Area standards, but greater by an order of magnitude than what most spend on their meals around these parts. But then again, any time we’re visiting is a special occasion. We’ll be back.
1147 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY
One year ago today … mmm … cannoli.