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December 28, 2005

11 best culinary events/discoveries of the year

Yes, it’s silly to squeeze Louisville’s vibrant dining scene down to 10 items. So we are doing 11. Seriously, even with a bonus pick, such lists are by their nature subjective. And yes, last week, or next week, my list might look a bit different. And yes, there are dozens of distinctive, appealing eateries that could have been number 12 on this list. So by way of disclaimer, I apologize for the many great places that are omitted from this list. But as for the restaurants and dining events listed below: They’re not listed in ranked order, but I’m happy to stand by every one.

1) Ask for the “Chinese menu” at Jasmine (just past the Gene Snyder on Shelbyville Road). Accessible Sichuan dishes, like spicy chicken chunk (get it on the bone), “empty heart” greens and crispy tofu will tie your tongue in knots of ecstasy. And if you can find a bold companion, why not team up to try something exotic, like maw or pig ears. You only live once. Have an adventure. (13823 English Villa Drive,?244-8896)

2) The culinary event of the year had to be the American Cheese Society’s Cheese Festival at the Seelbach Hilton last July. Cheese makers, critics and vendors from across the country convened for a sprawling trade show that culminated in a banquet hall piled high with hundreds of cheeses, butters and other dairy products; Louisville’s finest restaurants responded with inspired cheese-themed menus. (www.cheesesociety.org)

3) It’s a sad fact of life: You can’t eat all the time. But you can pretty much read about eating all the time. And when it comes to fictional food, Louisville food writer Mary Welp’s novel “The Triangle Pose,” should be on every foodie’s bookshelf — if only for the comic scene that takes place in the Russian Tea Room.

4) Speaking of food writers: Like many Louisvillians, I’ve been a fan of Ronni Lundy for years — both her restaurant criticism and her cookbooks. This year, she published “In Praise of Tomatoes,” and by way of celebration the Kentucky Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food hosted a tomato dinner at Park Place, where Lundy, Chef Anoosh Shariat and local growers of heirloom tomatoes collaborated to create a meal that ranged from muddle (a stew of tomatoes, shrimp and fish) to spicy tomato cake.

5) Maybe the best bargain in town is the “Lounge A” menu at Asiatique, where a “small plate” from one of the best kitchens in the city can be had for bargain prices (think soft-shell crab, wokked spicy lamb and the like, for $6). (1767 Bardstown Road, 451-2749)

6) Consistent flawlessness is a hard concept even to grasp, let alone to achieve. But somehow Saffron’s manages to achieve it. Everything, from the greeting at the door to the rack of lamb, to exquisite perfection that seems to infuse every grain of basmati rice, seems calculated to please. In years of visits, I have never had a bad experience there — even when I wandered in one afternoon during Thunder Over Louisville. Amazing. (131 W. Market St., 584-7800)

7) Louisville’s dining scene offers plenty of options for folks who like to see and be seen in vibrant, active surroundings, but if your taste runs to quiet romance, a bit of privacy and, yes, superbly conceived cuisine based largely on local ingredients, you can hardly do better than 211 Clover Lane. (896-9570)

8) When the Jicama Grill imploded last spring in a rancorous partnership dispute (much of which played out in public on the Louisville Restaurants Forum, www.louisvillehotbites.com ), fans of Chef Anthony Lamas’ Nuevo Latino cuisine were left hankering for the bright vigor of his signature ceviches and his smart way with meat and seafood. Fortunately, a few months later Lamas was back in business with Seviche — a Latin Grill. An immediate hit with Louisville foodies (and a dangerous addiction for me), Seviche also achieved much-deserved national notoriety this month when Bon Appetit magazine recognized his restaurant as one of the hottest restaurants of the year. So much for any hope of getting a table on Friday night ...

9) Middle Eastern restaurants continue to proliferate in Louisville, and two of the best are Al Watan (3711 Klondike Lane, 458-6000) and Safier Mediterranean Deli (641 S. Fourth St., 585-1125); both offer wonderful hummus, baba ganouj, grilled meats and the great street food classic: shawarma, a wrapped sandwich that looks like — but isn’t — a gyro.

10) We all owe a debt of gratitude to the gallery owners who boldly began colonizing the East Market Street area years ago, when most Louisvillians were afraid to set foot in the neighborhood after dark. Now it’s a thriving area with a growing dining scene. The big addition this year was Primo (445 E. Market St. 583-1808), Bim Deitrich’s new pan-Italian restaurant, which is not only one of the most attractive spaces in town but also among the very finest restaurants. These days, a diner could start eating in the west, at Ninth and Market (the Jazz Factory, where Jeff Jarfi purveys the food, or across the street at the delightful Big Hopp’s), start heading east, and days later finish a culinary tour that would include American bistro dining, Mayan, Korean and Persian food. Like Frankfort Avenue and Bardstown Road, Market Street is turning into a distinctive dining scene full of fascinating options.

11) And like Market Street, New Albany is developing a flourishing dining scene. Yes, the chains are moving in, but distinctive niches are being filled by places like Federal Hill (310 Pearl St., 812-948-6646), an idiosyncratic Italian restaurant in the heart of New Albany’s downtown, where the smell of freshly minced garlic heralds brilliant Italian sausages and lovingly prepared meatballs; La Rosita (2535 Charlestown Road, 948-0401), a tiny little taco stand where you’ll find succulent tacos filled with succulent stewed goat (and more conventional ingredients); and Rich O’s Public House (3312 Plaza Dr., 812-949-2804), home to the most ambitious beer list in the region, a place where the publican’s motto is: “Extremism in the defense of good beer is no vice.”

Contact the writer at toquedeville@gmail.com