Tucked just over four hours south of Chicago is a city where chefs are free to have their way with farm-fresh ingredients, an endless supply of sorghum and some of the best seafood in the country. Yes, seafood. It’s a place where whiskey runs as freely as the Ohio River and the craft beer scene is on the verge of a sudsy renaissance. The heart of Kentucky is home to celebrity chef Ed Lee, the birthplace of bourbon and transforms into the biggest party for the fastest two minutes in sports on May 3: the Kentucky Derby. Louisville is, and should continue to be, a destination for not only Midwesterners, but hungry foodies around the country.
A City for Chefs
In Louisville, 610 Magnolia has been on the forefront of the culinary movement for over a decade. This timeless restaurant maintains its relevance thanks to chef Edward Lee, who took over the kitchen ten years ago. Lee is a figurehead in Louisville’s booming culinary scene. “I get more of the spotlight than I deserve,” says the James Beard Award honoree and Top Chef contestant. “I feel guilty about what’s happening.” So the chef uses his fame as a platform, bridging the gap between traditional Louisville purveyors and the younger generation of foodies who are flocking to the city by serving ingredients such as Newsome’s country ham (established in 1917), which appears on the menu at both 610 Magnolia and his new, Asian-Southern restaurant Milkwood.
It may not be local, but Louisville serves some of the finest seafood in the country. They city’s proximity to the central UPS hub means that many fish shipments travel to Louisville before they reach their final destination. Chefs such as Anthony Lamas know this fact well, since his menu at Seviche – a Latin seafood restaurant – stakes its claim on fresh, sustainable seafood. The California native pays tribute to his adopted home with the tuna ceviche “old fashioned,” with Bluegrass Soy Sauce, orange, bourbon and pineapple served in a rocks glass. Lamas’s ability to coerce bold flavors out of the delicate seafood is epitomized in sea scallops with fava-bean succotash and jalapeño-basil butter. The dish, which he calls, “me on a plate,” combines the flavors of the South with his Latin roots.
Whether it’s in the clandestine 610 Magnolia or the seafood-lover’s paradise Seviche, Louisville is a city that gives chefs room to play. Executive chef Bobby Benjamin opened La Coop, a cozy French-inspired bistro, two years ago. The menu started as traditional French, with dishes like duck-confit casoulette, but evolved into what Benjamin refers to as “crave-worthy” cuisine. One highlight: escargot cooked sous vide in chicken stock and thyme before it is served with bubbling hot garlic butter and cheese with bread from Blue Dog Bakery, a favorite artisanal bakery with chefs and locals.
Hot Browns at The Brown Hotel
While much of the city’s culinary scene is rapidly changing, on thing never will: the Hot Brown. The sandwich dates back to the 1920s when guests would flock to the lavish Brown Hotel for long nights of dinner and dancing. At the end of the night – slightly inebriated and famished – they looked for something more satisfying than the traditional ham and eggs. Thus a hotel chef created the ultimate drunk food – layers of turkey, bacon, tomatoes and mornay sauce on bread. The hotel will go through about 400 of these suckers on Derby Day alone.
In addition to this classic, The Brown Hotel is also one of the premier destinations for mint juleps. This classic cocktail is made by pouring bourbon, sugar and mint over crushed ice. The mint julep is also the drink that F. Scott Fitzgerald was reportedly drinking when he came up with the idea for The Great Gatsby, although that exact moment happened at a different hotel – The Seelbach.
Riding the Bourbon Trail
The Bourbon Trail draws about half a million visitors per year to the rural area that stretches from Louisville to Lexington. The industry, which dates back to the late 1700s, has survived time, Prohibition and a handful of natural disasters, from tornados to floods. One of the most resilient distilleries is Buffalo Trace, which is also the oldest continuously operating distillery in bourbon country. It’s located on sprawling grounds with warehouses filled with thousands of barrels and the centerpiece: a 60,000-gallon, four-story-tall still. Buffalo Trace bottles 3,600 bottles every day, from the signature Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s Single Barrel to the sought-after Pappy Van Winkle.
From one of the oldest distilleries to one of the youngest: The Woodford Reserve brand has only been produced for six years, although the property has housed a functioning distillery since 1780. Unlike Buffalo Trace’s wide selection, Woodford Reserve only produces its signature Distiller’s Select bourbon, using its unique corn-heavy mash that is fermented in cypress tanks, and the innovative Double Oaked, a rich and sweet dessertlike bourbon. The crown jewel of the property is the new visitor center, which opened in early April with a glass-encased tasting room, copper-accented fireplace and a cafe with a menu created by chef-in-residence and James Beard Award Nominee Ouita Michel.
In addition to the larger-production distilleries, the area is dotted with smaller craft distilleries. Willett is a must-see on the trail, with its famous copper pot still and spring-fed lake. Although the family’s distilling roots dates back to the Civil War, the current generation has been distilling since 2012 when siblings Britt and Drew Kulsveen restored the family distillery as well as opened a gift shop and tasting room. The distillery may be small, processing 18 to 21 barrels per day into bottles that are hand-dipped in wax and adorned with handwritten labels, but it has big plans, including the release of a 7-year rye aged in orange-liqueur barrels as well as a bed-and-breakfast that will hopefully open next year.
A hands-on bourbon experience can be found back in Louisville at Moonshine University. The school, which is held in a former auto garage that was converted into a classroom and microdistillery, teaches crash courses in everything from whiskey to rum, vodka, gin and absinthe. Professionals can learn about the process of opening a distillery with the school’s “Headmaster of Liquor Studies” Colin Blake and guest master distillers. Novices can partake in the University’s Summer Bourbon Series with courses in bourbon making, bourbon history and cooking with bourbon.
Bourbon, Bourbon and More Bourbon
There is certainly no shortage of amber liquids in the city. Tourists flock to places such as the new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, but locals know there’s a better way to experience bourbon – drink it. What Rye lacks in ten-foot-tall bourbon fountains, it makes up for in a selection of bourbon lined up behind the long wood bar. Classic cocktails range from a bourbon old fashioned to Boulevardier, while house cocktails, such as as the Leroy Brown, showcase familiar spirits in new ways with rye, Galliano, cold-brew coffee and bitters. Other drinks are more out-there, like the first cocktail on the menu – a gin, cereal milk and Fruity Pebbles-topped concoction called Yabba Dabba Doo!
After cocktails and perhaps an order of oysters, head down the street to a popular hangout with a distinctly more casual vibe. A gas pump marks Garage Bar, where two crashed cars slowly intertwine – an instillation by the bar’s parent company, 21c Museum Hotel. This is a beer and a shot type of place, where hours slip away between slices of wood-fired pizza and slices of porky goodness from the “ham bar.” Beer dominates the menu – from lowbrow Coors cans to craft Evil Twin bottles. The bourbon selection doesn’t disappoint either, with affordable options such as Old Forester and pricier pours like the $15-per-ounce Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Louisville’s newest addition to the bar scene, Meta, opened in a former strip club late last year. The stage was replaced with a marble bar and the once-grimy floor is now covered in 180,000 hand-placed pennies. Meta’s progressive cocktail menu pioneers something that owners Jeremy Johnson and Hanna Kandle call “Meta Bartending,” or bartending about bartending, where each cocktail’s lineage is traceable. The High Paint, a smooth drink made with Old Fitzgerald bourbon, Fernet, ginger, orange and aromatic bitters, claims roots in a Pendennis Old Fashioned and a traditional old fashioned-– both of which appear on the menu below the house cocktail. Thanks to Louisville’s 4 AM liquor licenses, Meta is equally conducive to savoring Verdita and aged-rum Jell-O shots as it is to overindulging in them.
There’s More Than Bourbon in Kentucky
A handful of establishments are attempting to holster the city’s bourbon-slinging ways in favor of more varied spirits and craft beer. The first, and most prominent, is Against the Grain, a brewery and smokehouse located inside Louisville Slugger Field. Opened in 2011 by a misfit crew that includes a former substance-abuse counselor, the brewery’s noticeable difference from other brewpubs is the lineup of flagship taps: hop, smoke, dark, malt, session and whim. At any given time, the bar offers one beer to match each flavor profile.
In addition to appeasing palates with its ever-changing beer lineup, Against The Grain serves an equally crave-able assortment of smoked meats, including a pork belly on a stick that is dry-cured for 10 days before it is cold-smoked over hickory and cherry wood. Pair the smoked meats with one of the smoked beers made using smoked grains, such as the limited release Bo & Luke, an imperial smoked stout aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels. The high demand has led the brewery to turn its sights on a new production facility that will make it one of the largest breweries in Kentucky.
For a wider variety of beer, Holy Grale is the place to be. The converted church serves as a temple to beer where painted hands worship a beer menu focused on 60% imported (Dupont, Hitachino, Mikkeller) and 40% domestic (Bells, Goose Island, Three Floyds) beers. Upstairs, the choir loft provides additional seating and a second bar backlit by a gothic candelabra.
Down the street, El Camino attempts to change the status quo with its tiki-inspired cocktails pitted against Mexican cuisine. From the same owners as wildly popular Silver Dollar, El Camino shies away from bourbon in favor of 100 varieties of rum, tequila and mezcal as well as housemade orgeat and falernum served over hand-cut ice.
Southern Hospitality and Afternoon Delights
It took two years for Brooke Vaughn to perfect the chocolate chip cookie recipe that she and her husband, Jason Pierce, staked their reputation on when they opened Please & Thank You in 2011. The 14-seat coffee shop-slash-record-store sells a variety of baked goods – oversized cinnamon rolls and peanut-butter Rice Krispies treats – as well as coffee. But the star is the chocolate chip cookie, baked thin with a crispy edge and chewy center, that can’t be eaten without transferring a good amount of warm chocolate all over your fingers.
Replace cookies with rich brownies covered in dark-chocolate ganache, and you have Atlantic No. 5. The recently opened cafe from the owners of Rye offers a respite from busy Main Street with casual, sit-down lunch and snacks. The restaurant places a premium on its coffee, offering a carefully selected daily drip from local roaster Sunergos. A chalkboard menu highlights the flavor notes of that day’s cup, while an adjacent chalkboard illustrates the builds of popular coffee beverages, from a foamy cappuccino to a classic espresso. Enjoy a cup in the white-washed cafe decorated with shelves lined with vintage lunchboxes.
Tea drinkers find solace in the herbal heaven known as Hillbilly Tea. The two-story teashop with its exposed-brick walls, reclaimed furniture and mason-jar glassware prides itself on whole-leaf teas, from green to herbal as well as oolong or mountain teas, and also tea-infused moonshine. The casual tea service is conducted on both the first and second floor, where servers in “Tea Shirts” pour intense Black Mountain Tea with notes of smoke and caramel, as well as fragrant Mulberry with whole berries, accompanied by a warm lavender scones and housemade jam.
On the Important Subject of Brunch
If 610 Magnolia represents classic Louisville cuisine, then Proof on Main represents the contemporary culinary movement. Located inside the ubertrendy 21c Museum Hotel, Proof is about as trendy as it gets. In tune with the rotating collections of photographs hanging in the restaurant and bar, chef Levon Wallace’s cuisine is equally composed yet soulful. The California native’s career has taken him across the country, from San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy to kitchens in New England and Chicago with chef Charlie Trotter.
On the dinner menu, Wallace showcases a mosaic of roasted bone marrow covered in pickled farm egg, radish and short rib marinated in house sriracha. Brunch sticks closer to tradition with dishes such as the Proof Benedict – cornmeal biscuits are topped with country ham and red-eye hollandaise. And don’t leave Kentucky without eating hot chicken: spicy bits of fried chicken are served on thin white bread and a corn-relish base with pickles and microgreens garnish. Even though it doesn’t pack the same heat of its Nashville forefather, it’ll still leave you sweating.
While Proof marks its entrance with a 30-foot-tall gold imitation of Michelangelo’s David, it’s easy to walk past Gralehaus without ever knowing that there’s a restaurant inside the converted two-story residence. Holy Grale owners Lori Beck and Tyler Trotter opened the beer and breakfast spot earlier this year with a select menu of elevated Southern classics. Weisenberger grits are served beneath lamb sausage that seeps spicy oil into the creamy grits as soon as it’s cut. Biscuits and gravy get a gourmet touch with duck-sausage gravy, duck jus and duck cracklin’. Even the coffee menu is rich with Kentucky pride. Case in point is the Kentucky cortado, made with sorghum and bourbon barrel chip-infused milk over a double shot of espresso.
Gralehaus offers a small pastry selection, including a pretzel croissant, in addition to standing coolers filled with bottles beers available to purchase. For the more impressive beer selection, head across town to Beer Store, Beck and Trotter’s flagship establishment. Pick up a six-pack for the road and count your trip in Kentucky a delicious success.