I always feel a little like I’m traveling to another country when I cross the river into Indiana. Maybe it’s just guilt over having told so many bad Hoosier jokes, but I get this uneasy feeling that someone is going to stand up, point an angry finger in my general direction, and yell “Kentuckian! J’accuse!” Or the Indiana equivalent.
So, I hope all my Hoosier friends won’t be offended when I admit that just about every time I visit downtown New Albany, I feel some sense of surprise when I look around and realize, for the umpteenth time, “Hey, this place is really nice.”
With its intact blocks of sturdy, historic office buildings and its lovely rows of stately Victorian mansions, N’Albany seems to have just about everything a city could want — with the possible exception, unfortunately, of a busy, vibrant street scene after the sun goes down.
But here and there, lately, there’ve been distinct signs of a renaissance, and none more vivid than the arrival of Bistro New Albany, a lovely dining room that’s been earning a growing cadre of fans since it opened in May.
Occupying much of the ground floor of the old New Albany Inn at Market and Bank streets (plus a delightful patio in an enclosed courtyard), the Bistro combines excellent fare, comfortably upscale surroundings and the kind of service that makes you feel right at home. That’s an impressive combination, and credit goes to “The Two Daves” — Dave Himmel and Dave Clancy, both pro chefs who cover the front of the house and the kitchen respectively.
“Our goal is to bring fine dining to downtown New Albany — affordable, and approachable to a wide demographic,” the Daves write on the restaurant menu. And by golly, I think they’ve done it.
The old hotel building looks like it might have been a cozy hostelry in the old days. The hotel has been closed for many years, and the upstairs floors now house a music school. The restaurant occupies a couple of rooms on either side of a small, welcoming lobby. The main room is comfortably elegant, with mustard-colored walls and white trim, large tables draped in white under protective glass, and attractive mahogany dining chairs. Dominating the room is a wall-size mural by local artist Glenda Krauss, a poster-style painting of New Orleans’ Vieux Carre with Bistro New Albany dropped in. Look up and gape at another of Krauss’s imaginative art works — a sky-and-clouds scene with a couple of small flying angels around the base of a crystal chandelier, a pretty if slightly wacky fresco-style work that looks like something Michelangelo might have painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if Michelangelo had been into recreational drugs.
A fairly extensive menu features about a dozen appetizers, soups and salads from $3.95 (for the homemade soup of the day) to $8.25 (for fresh mussels steamed in red wine with garlic and onions). More than a dozen main-course selections (plus daily specials) range in price from $7.25 (for a half-pound Bistro Burger or a blackened chicken-breast and provolone sandwich) to $19.95 (for a Creekstone Farms ribeye steak).
Three beers, er, cheers to the Daves for their strong support of regional microbreweries: The beer list offers an impressive choice of brews on tap from New Albanian Brewing Co. and Louisville’s BBC Brewing Co., plus a couple of other well-chosen micros. The wine list is short but affordable, about a dozen items mostly under $30, most available by the glass for $5 to $7, one-fourth of the bottle price. It would be fun to have a couple of options from Southern Indiana’s Turtle Run or Huber’s on the list, though.
We made short work of a dish of herb-studded, home-baked focaccia, then moved on to a shared appetizer, crab cakes ($7.95). They were billed as “Gulf-Coast style,” which prompted me to wisecrack that they ought to be served with a blue tarp stretched over the plate, but nobody got it. They were fine cakes, though, as good as I ever ate, big and sweet, mostly fresh crab with very little filler, pan-fried until they were crispy on the edges, tender within, and topped with an artful swash of gently spicy, pale-pink remoulade. It went well with a glass of amber NABC “Croupier” India Pale Ale ($3.50), potent, fruity and hoppy, made in the classic style of the strong beers that the British used to send to India on speedy clipper ships.
For main courses we shared two fine dishes. On the lighter side, capellini (angel-hair pasta, $11.95) came in a more-than-generous portion that filled an oversize, off-white, stoneware bowl, attractively plated with four thin spears of grilled asparagus marking the four points of the compass. It was served perfectly al dente — not an easy task with this ultra-thin, quick-cooking long pasta — and topped with generous portions of boneless, smoked chicken and a well-thought-out mix of bits of red, yellow and pale-green bell peppers with a lot of garlic and a little basil in a light cream sauce.
I eagerly ordered the ribeye ($19.95), curious to try a steak from Henry County’s Creekstone Farms in a restaurant setting. I had sneaked in to a media event at the farm this summer and found these “Kentucky Proud” black-angus steaks decent but not really compelling. However, I had suspected that assembly-line preparation might have been a factor in its relatively lackluster showing. Sure enough — Dave Clancy’s preparation yielded one of the finest steaks I’ve ever enjoyed, and I do not exclude pricey steakhouses. I’m sold on Creekstone now. A good-size slab was intensely flavorful and tender enough to eat without a knife (although they thoughtfully provided one anyway). It was topped with a couple of dabs of maitre d’ butter, a classic steak topping of butter with parsley and lemon worked in. It was plated on top of garlicky, textured mashed potatoes, just the way I like them, on a decorative fan of grilled asparagus spears and two thick ovals of grilled zucchini. With the main dishes I switched over to a New Albanian Brewing Co. “Community Dark,” a black brew with a good, sweet, roasted malt flavor made in the lightly carbonated style of a British “mild ale.”
I thought I would be too full for dessert, but as the saying goes, there’s always room for ice cream, or the equivalent. Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet, a Bistro New Albany invention, was amazing. A dessert geek might quibble that its dairy content makes it a sherbet, not a sorbet, which is technically pure fruit. But why quibble? This stuff was GOOD. Pale yellow, almost white, it boasted a remarkably clean, tart, tangy flavor that reminded us of a frozen cheesecake, and it was much less sinful than it seemed because it gets its silken creamy flavor from low-fat buttermilk.
All this with two beers and steaming, strong and well-made tea, and we still could only push the bill up to about $55 (plus a $12 tip). On a return visit, we enjoyed well-constructed sandwiches from the lighter lunch menu: crispy NABC-beer-batter-fried grouper on marble rye with a home-built tartar sauce kicked up with the inspired addition of capers ($7.25) and a magisterial Philly Beef sandwich of thin-sliced tender beef and mild provolone topped with lettuce, tomato and spicy red-cherry peppers on a hoagie bun ($7.95).
With a luscious dip of homemade blackberry ice cream, a creamy yet delicate blend of subtle fruit and tangy dairy flavors, a filling lunch for two on the Bistro’s sunny patio came in under $20 (plus a $5 tip).
If your Kentucky prejudice has been keeping you on the south side of the Ohio, I can’t think of a better excuse than Bistro New Albany to break you out of your rut. And you might want to consider doing it on the first weekend of October, when New Albany’s annual Harvest Homecoming offers a viable alternative to St. James Court.
Bistro New Albany
148 E. Market St.
Rating: 90 points
Heine’s fuels Habitat project in Guatemala
I love Louisville’s diversity of coffee shops, and I particularly love the way that just about every independent local java joint has its own special character, from the cool, sophisticated Euro-vibe of Caffe Classico to the Bardstown Road hipness of Highland Coffee and Days, or the downscale urban feel of Sunergos and Logos and the Atomic Saucer. But simple proximity makes Heine Bros. on Frankfort Avenue my local coffee community center, and I can be found there just about any time I need a caffeine transfusion. The corps of baristas includes friendly folks, who don’t complain when you want to order a custom drink. And now a dedicated group of these enthusiastic young men and women are planning a project that goes well beyond the call of coffee duty: Four or five of them plan to go to Guatemala on 10-day trips this winter, where they’ll serve as volunteers with Habitat for Humanity to help build houses for low-income people. Obviously, money is needed, so they’re passing the hat in hope of raising the $1,500 needed for getting each volunteer to Guatemala and back. For information, drop by Heine Bros., 2714 Frankfort Ave., or call 899-5551. I suggest going by in person — you can meet the baristas and enjoy a coffee while you’re there.
Guest chef at Norma Jean’s
Saturday (Sept. 24) is guest chef night again at Norma Jean’s Trackside in LaGrange, but this month’s guest has come to stay: It’s Norma Jean’s new executive chef, Rick Boman, who’s cooked at various country club and corporate spots around Louisville before taking off for Baltimore earlier this year. Now he’s back, and we’re glad. Rick plans a six-course menu from Eastern Europe for Saturday night, featuring such Slavic delights at borscht from the Ukraine, crab pierogies from Poland, szopska salad from the Czech Republic and choice of paprika chicken winny celubowy from Hungary or pistachio-encrusted, apple-stuffed pork from Romania. Seatings are at 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and dinner is $35 a person. Norma Jean’s Trackside is at 119 W. Main St., on the Town Square in La Grange. Call 222-8044 for reservations and info.
Contact Robin Garr at email@example.com