Hunting for Local Distinction in Louisville
A trip to Nice Restaurant Land.
Here it is. It’s not complete but a good start and, at the very least, will keep you fed for a day or two: poached huevos with chipotle gravy at the Mexican diner Con Huevos as the sun rises to beat the crowds; a refined take on “hot” chicken at Proof on Main in the afternoon; happy hour at Check’s Cafe, sitting at the bar with a can of Budweiser and a braunschweiger sandwich on rye; a quick cup of cornbread dress’n at Shirley Mae’s; brussels sprout and kale salad on the ground floor at Decca with a strong Manhattan; cannellini bean toast at Rye; Berkshire porchetta with charred romesco sauce at Butchertown Grocery; finally late night at Milkwood, where the chef Edward Lee’s shumai “deviled eggs” keep you from giving into your exhaustion. Those are the best things to eat whilst in Louisville, KY, a town once known for bourbon, baseball and boxing but now increasingly one with its own culinary gravitational pull.
By unspoken consensus reinforced by geotagging, as is the wont of professional eaters, a culinary “Stations of the Cross” was soon established. Each station, as it were, was remarkable for either being representative of the burgeoning food scene (Butchertown Grocery, Decca, MilkWood) or somehow manifesting the city’s rich culinary heritage (Check’s Cafe, Shirley Mae’s). To these we trotted in dyads, triads and sometimes slightly larger groups but rarely alone.
One evening a tangle of us arrived in Butchertown, a neighborhood between Clifton and Phoenix Hill. In the middle of the 19th century, when Beargrass Creek was rerouted through the area, many stockyards and slaughterhouses opened in this neighborhood to turn the swine that came down the mighty Ohio river into pork. Today, there is only one slaughterhouse left, JBS Swift & Company. A billboard near the massive complex reads, “Welcome to Porktown!” The quarter has become cool.
Butchertown is also the home to a new restaurant called Butchertown Grocery, housed in an old brick building across the street from a sprawling meat processing plant. The chef is Bobby Benjamin, a handsome Nashvillian transplant and the place is co-owned by Patrick Hallahan, the drummer of local boys gone national, My Morning Jacket.
To walk into Butchertown on a Friday night is to enter into a disembodied embassy of Nice Restaurant Land, an psychographic empire unconcerned with geography. With exposed brick, vaguely industrial lights, weathered ceilings, very nice marble tops and indie rock on the stereo, there are thousands of Butchertown Groceries scattered around the United States. Each caters to the young and food-conscious with subtle variations. Though some are underwhelming, many Butchertowns are good and some are truly great.
This one, for instance, makes ample use of the local liquors—they’d be fools not to—in drinks like Paper Plane, which contains Old Grand Dad 100 bourbon, aperol, amaro Nonino, lemon and, grapefruit oil; and Jack Rose, which uses locally distilled Copper & Kings craft brandy finished with applejack, house grenadine and Peychaud’s bitters.
As far as the food menu goes, there hardly seems anything uniquely Louisvillian about it. Among the items listed are French onion soup; New Orleans BBQ shrimp; basil-fed escargot; maltagliati with pistachio, golden raisin, lemon and rosemary; and a Colorado bison burger. When I asked chef Benjamin what from the offerings represented Louisville, he cast a weary glance to the sloped roofs of the abattoir across the street which regularly releases the godawful smell of pig death and recommended the porchetta, “It pays homage to the neighborhood,” he said. Excited I asked, “Oh, is this from there?” He let out a slight chuckle and said, “No, I get this from Quebec. The meat there is commodity pork, nothing we would use here.”
Reader, what tempest of mixed emotion swirled in my breast at that moment. It was like West Side Story but in this case, the Sharks and Jets were replaced by the Locavores v. the Artisans. On one side, the sugarplum fairies of supporting local farmers pique arabesque’d, arms intertwined. On the other, lovingly raised Berkshire pigs cavorted unto slaughter. In the case of Louisville, these two sides could not be reconciled.
Not just at Butchertown but at Decca and Milkwood, Check’s, Rye and Proof on Main, questions of local provenance were brushed aside as being unsustainable. As Annie Pettry, who moved to Louisville from San Francisco to open Decca mentioned in 2010, the only element of local provenance in the brussels sprout and kale salad was the buttermilk in the dressing, bought from a local dairy farmer.
How lovely it would be to write the story of the local Louisville chef who, with Rene Redzepi-like insight, gazed upon local foodways and cultivated local purveyors to resurrect or redeem or reimagine Louisville cuisine with a refreshing elevated twist. The restaurant would be called, oh, I don’t know, “Vuhl: Modern Kentucky Kitchen.”
But the truth of the matter is that hasn’t happened in Louisville. Not yet, anyway. One reason, as Bobby Benjamin mentioned to me, is that the local farms just aren’t there right yet. Of the 76,400 farms in Kentucky, only 2.9 percent of the income is derived from “speciality” crops, and that percentage includes greenhouse/nursery, fruits and nuts, vegetables, barley, sorghum grain, popcorn, sunflowers, other seeds, other field crops and mushrooms. The vast majority comes from corn, tobacco, wheat and soy. There have been efforts but the record has been spotty. An ambitious plan for an urban farm in West Louisville, called the FoodPort, recently fell flat and a tax loophole meant to encourage small farms has, instead, encouraged many small farmers to redevelop their land. So there’s an issue of feasibility at work here. It could be the case that the local products—especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables—just don’t exist.
That can not be changed overnight. But something else can: regional imperialism. As we, the food media, privately grumbled at the absence of a true new Louisvillian restaurant—i.e. one in which Maria and Tony could gaze into each other’s eyes over a plate of house-made braunschweiger, a type of liverwurst popular with Louisville’s once sizeable German population but, at our mythic Vuhl, is made with locally raised Berkshire pork—the impropriety of such a judgement grows clearer. How would I feel if, when I took a visitor to Le Coucou, the most zeitgeist-y New York restaurant, she kept insisting that no, she wanted “a real New York restaurant”? Well, ask my mother. I was not pleased. (We went to Katz’s, btw.) The point is who am I, are we, to say what is or is not a true Louisvillian restaurant?
There is, undoubtedly, a difference between a great Louisville restaurant and a great restaurant in Louisville. But in the search for the former, one shouldn’t ignore the pleasures offered by the latter. There’s plenty of exciting food to have in Louisville at the moment and enough bourbon to ruin a man. The important thing is, as always, to save room for what comes next.