Issue June 17, 2008

French Flying: Le Relais soars

WITH GUEST WRITER PAIGE MOORE-HEAVIN

Le Relais consistently ranks among my top five restaurants in Louisville, and on any given night, it can make the top one. Yet a lot of people are wary of experiencing this great dining room. Some fear it will be too expensive. Others sweat the potential embarrassment of being unable to read a fancy French menu.

There’s no need for concern, says LouisvilleHotBytes correspondent Paige Moore-Heavin, who recently checked out Le Relais and found the price doable (especially if you go for the special-deal prix fixe menu) and the friendly attitude entirely bilingual. Here’s her report:

Photo by Robin Garr: Some French restaurants may be pretentious, but Le Relais is simply elegant. Its art deco environs are a perfect match for the setting — inside the Bowman Field Administration Building, circa 1929, which they’re remodeling
Photo by Robin Garr: Some French restaurants may be pretentious, but Le Relais is simply elegant. Its art deco environs are a perfect match for the setting — inside the Bowman Field Administration Building, circa 1929, which they’re remodeling

Despite celebrity chefs like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin — and, in more recent years, TV shows like “Top Chef” — French cuisine remains a mystery to most Americans. Maybe they’re intimidated by unfamiliar terms like duxelles and dauphinois. Maybe the whole concept seems a bit too stuffy. Or perhaps the words “French cuisine” bring to mind lots of dollar signs. 

Don’t let any of those fears stop you from going to Le Relais, Louisville’s only French restaurant. 

Photo by Robin Garr: If you’re in the mood for a more casual experience, the rear patio at Le Relais is more laid-back and offers a bonus: It overlooks the runway and hangars, so you can watch small planes come and go
Photo by Robin Garr: If you’re in the mood for a more casual experience, the rear patio at Le Relais is more laid-back and offers a bonus: It overlooks the runway and hangars, so you can watch small planes come and go

Many of those unfamiliar terms aren’t code for “salamander tails” and “monkey brains.” They’re French cooking techniques that have been perfected over hundreds of years by the world’s best chefs. (In case you’re wondering, duxelles is a mixture of finely chopped mushrooms, shallots and herbs; dauphinois potatoes are, essentially, scalloped potatoes.) And if you have any questions, the well-trained staff at Le Relais is happy to explain anything on the menu.

As for “stuffy”: Some French restaurants may be pretentious, but Le Relais is simply elegant. Its art deco environs are a perfect match for the setting — inside the Bowman Field Administration Building, circa 1929. If you’re in the mood for a more casual experience, the rear patio is more laid-back and offers a bonus: It overlooks the runway and hangars, so you can watch small planes come and go. 

Best of all, thanks to the prix fixe option at Le Relais (available only on weekdays), you can enjoy Executive Chef Daniel Stage’s delicious creations on a budget. We’re not talking dollar-menu cheap. But for what you get, it’s an unbelievable bargain: $34.50 per person for an appetizer, entrée, cheese plate and dessert. The portion sizes are scaled down a bit, but you’ll still leave pleasantly full. 

On a recent Thursday night, I joined three friends to welcome summer at Le Relais. The interior is impressive, with mustard-colored, faux-finished walls, brick-red accents and stunning art deco lighting. Posters of 1920s-era travel add to the atmosphere — and serve as a reminder that, in Bowman Field’s heyday, flying was a luxurious escape rather than the drudgery it is now. 

Photo by Robin Garr: Mazzoni’s, the 125-year-old Louisville tradition, is still going strong in its new Middletown digs. The fried oysters should not be missed
Photo by Robin Garr: Mazzoni’s, the 125-year-old Louisville tradition, is still going strong in its new Middletown digs. The fried oysters should not be missed

We were in the mood to sit outside, so our friendly hostess directed us to the shadiest spot on the deck. Our server, Christopher, greeted us promptly and took our drink orders. Le Relais offers an extensive, award-winning wine list, from which I chose a glass of Saumar Chenin Blanc ($8.50). 

For dinner, my friends chose the prix fixe option. Their appetizer choices were the two soups of the day — wild mushroom and lobster bisque — as well as a salad of asparagus and poached eggs. Entrée choices were beef tenderloin and rainbow trout. I ordered from the menu, selecting a bowl of the mushroom soup ($8) for an appetizer and the brown-butter gnocchi ($18.50) for an entrée.

With our first course, the waiter brought slices of crusty, chewy baguette and creamy butter. My friend Nancy deemed the salad “perfect,” adding that the asparagus was prepared flawlessly and not at all bitter. Beth and Lynn got the lobster bisque, which was topped with a thick crouton and a swirl of crème fraîche. Both reported the bisque was rich and flavorful, but not stick-to-your-tongue heavy as some bisque can be. My mushroom soup was slightly creamy and nicely salted, with a just-right balance of earthy flavor. I was glad I ordered the larger portion and briefly considered licking the bowl. 

The well-timed entrée was next. Two of my friends got the beef tenderloin, which was served perfectly medium-rare, topped with mushrooms and veal demi-glace. The sides were also spectacular — a crisp bundle of haricots verts (green beans) and a diced-potato dish Beth described as “the best hash browns ever!” 

Lynn had rainbow trout, a regular menu item. It was served with the aforementioned duxelles sauce, steamed baby spinach and tender fingerling potatoes. Again, everything was prepared and plated flawlessly. In particular, the trout had a clean, sweet flavor and not a hint of fishiness. 

My entrée was a generously sized pasta bowl filled with fresh vegetables (including peas, diced tomatoes and slices of squash, zucchini and carrots) tossed with tender gnocchi in a light broth. Roasted garlic and slivers of basil accented the flavor, but didn’t overpower it. 

After the entrée, we waited a little too long for the cheese plate to arrive. In fact, our desserts were presented first by accident, but the waitstaff was quick to correct the error. The cheese plate included with the prix fixe option has five selections, ranging from mild goat’s-milk cheese to creamy brie to flavorful blue cheese. Again, we received fresh bread to complement the presentation.

For dessert, the ladies who ordered prix fixe received a small slice of lemon torte. It delivered a nice balance of sweetness and tanginess to finish the meal. I devoured my chocolate mousse ($7.25), which was piped into a milk chocolate cup and surrounded by raspberry coulis. As we watched the sun set from the patio, we recounted what a great meal it was — and we weren’t in a hurry to leave.

Whether you want a little luxury for a great price or a budget-blowing feast, Le Relais is an exceptional choice. The total tab for our table, including our meals, four glasses of wine and two cocktails, was right at $200. Those who ordered prix fixe paid $34.50 plus the cost of their beverages. My total tab for soup, entrée, dessert and two glasses of wine came to $54, to which I added an 18 percent tip for a total of $64. That’s a small price to pay for an experience like no other in Louisville.

Le Relais

Bowman Field

2817 Taylorsville Road

451-9020

www.lerelaisrestaurant.com

Rating: 96 points

No need to roll your own at Mazzoni’s

Mazzoni’s, the 125-year-old Louisville tradition, moved out to Middletown from its longtime quarters on Taylorsville Road earlier this year. I wandered out the other day for a couple deep-fried delights and found its new shopping center quarters virtually indistinguishable from the old, complete with the trademark 27-foot-long walnut serving bar (which dates all the way back to its old downtown location) and gallery of old Louisville pictures on the walls. 

It boasts pretty much the same down-home, seafood-heavy menu, but Mazzoni’s is surely best known for its iconic rolled oyster ($3.90 for one, $7.80 for two, $11.70 for three). Fresh-shucked oysters are rolled in a secret-recipe cornmeal batter called pastinga, breaded in a thick cracker-crumb coating, and deep-fried until what’s left is sizzling hot and mahogany brown: a delicious fried oyster sandwich that you eat out of hand. Mine were pretty good, although they bore a couple of burned-black spots that had to be torn off and discarded. I hope this innovation won’t last. —Robin Garr 

Contact the writers at 

rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com