June 6, 2006

LEO’s Eat ’n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes: Proof does lunch, and it’s good but pricey

I’ve been just as impressed as everyone else by Proof on Main since this upscale eatery with its strong New York City connections opened at the beginning of March. As I wrote on LouisvilleHotBytes.com after early dinners there, “I can’t rate it head and shoulders above Louisville’s top restaurants, but it’s certainly nudging its way into the city’s top tier, and it earns a place just into my four-star range based on food, style and service.”Proof added lunch service this week, a move I had eagerly awaited, and it didn’t take me long to pop in to check it out. What we found was very good, if a little short of perfection, and — in slight contrast with Proof’s reputation for a comparatively affordable dinner bill of fare for a top-tier eatery, it may have been the most expensive lunch I ever ate. Our foursome — including a sophisticated 10-year-old — shared two appetizers, four lunch entrees, four desserts and only a single glass of a very modest Pinot Grigio, and ended up paying more than $120, with an appropriate tip bringing the tab up to a heart-stopping 150 bucks. For lunch!Was it worth it? That’s a close call. Proof certainly doesn’t hold back at lunch time: The lunch menu is pared down a bit from the dinner selection but still offers a good selection of the restaurant’s international if slightly Italian-accented bill of fare, with more than a dozen main lunch courses ranging in price from $9 (for panzanella, a Tuscan-style “bread salad,” or a Holloway ham salad) to $15 (for baked rainbow trout, seared Atlantic salmon or Proof’s “bistro steak” and fries). Portions are ample, preparation is generally four-star, and service is fine. Menu misspellings (“Chic peas,” “cazeula” for the Spanish “cazuela,” a seafood stew, and “Reisling” for the great German winegrape variety “Riesling”) were a bit off-putting for a restaurant at this level.We started with a couple of appetizers. The country ham and “chic” pea fritters ($5) were addictive, fine-ground garbanzos and chopped ham formed into rather un-fritterlike rectangular logs and fried crisp. The flavor combination was unexpected and appealing, and a small crock of mayo-like five-grain mustard aioli went well on the side. Another app, “Frico” ($7) caught my eye, as I love this traditional cheese snack from Northeastern Italy’s Friuli Venezia-Giulia, and Proof’s menu claims it’s made with Montasio cheese, Friuli’s rich, butterscotchy alternative to Parmigiano. Proof’s version was tasty enough, but disappointingly different from the real thing: Rather than melting shredded cheese into a thin, lacy round, the chefs had simply put thick slices of cheese on the grill until they softened and slightly browned. Topped by strips of roasted red pepper, an arugula leaf and a tiny fillet of silvery fresh anchovy, they were tasty enough, but I wanted an authentic Friuli frico, dammit!Main courses were generally fine. “Hand-rolled” penne (short quill pasta, $12) looked factory-made to us, but it was fine with a light, fresh tomato sauce. Chicken brodo (“broth,” $13) was a well-made Italian variation on chicken and dumplings, with fresh tacconi pasta, thick but tender rectangles almost the size of playing cards, with chunks of tender chicken swimming in a rich broth scented with rosemary and lemon. The mussels “cazeula” ($12) offered a bounty of mussels in the shell, simmered in a brown earthenware crock with mild sausage and shredded fennel. Smoked trout “crostone” ($10) looked like a catamaran, strongly smoky salmon spread on two parallel ovals of slightly stale Blue Dog bread, each topped with half of a soft-boiled quail egg, bracketing a pile of mache lettuce.Desserts were OK but short of inspiring. A scoop of tangerine sorbetto ($6) was fine; flourless chocolate cake ($7) was on the dry side. Two of us were lured by the intrigue of cornmeal crepes ($7) layered with Nutella, slathered with buttermilk cream and garnished with fresh berries, but the concept didn’t play out as well as we had hoped: The crepes with their rather coarse cornmeal texture resembled nothing so much as small but heavy corn tortillas.Judged overall, Proof easily qualifies for my 90 rating. But at prices like these, you might as well save it for dinner.Proof on Main702 W. Main St.217-6360www.proofonmain.comRating: 90 points Big Dave’s goes CajunBig Dave’s Outpost, the neighborhood tavern in the redbrick Highlands house that once housed Judge Roy Bean’s and, in fond but distant memory, Fat Cats, has undergone a mild metamorphosis in recent weeks, reports Eat ’N’ Blog dining critic KEVIN GIBSON. Kevin reports: They’ve added outside seating in front and a deck in back, and set them up with tables topped with grass-skirt style umbrellas. But the most important change is the menu. Big Dave’s no longer relies on hot dogs, burgers and fries for its bill of fare. With Chef Sean Haggerty now in the kitchen, the menu has turned to a gourmet-Cajun-meets-classic-American theme. “We’re trying to be Louisville’s first five-star bar,” said owner-operator Dave Klein, a friendly, barrel-chested man who got his nickname “Big Dave” many years ago from his sister.Specials abound now at Big Dave’s, from $1 Monday drink specials to Friday seafood catch-of-the-week specials for $10.99 — and one never knows when Haggerty, who had been chef at the now-defunct Crawdaddy’s Café in Jeffersonville, will come up with something not normally on the menu. For instance, a couple weeks back oysters on the half shell and oysters Rockefeller were special menu additions, and I haven’t had oysters that fresh in quite some time. (I’m told they were such a hit that they will be back.)One of the more interesting menu items is a smoked frog legs appetizer ($8.99) featuring three sets of frog legs, bourbon-barrel smoked and served with slaw and Cajun honey sauce. If that isn’t your thing, the crawfish crab cakes ($8.99) and fried crawfish tail ($8.99) are darn tasty.If you’re really hungry, the “beer butt chicken” (I love saying that) offers about half of a beer-smoked, bone-in chicken stuffed with dirty rice and served with the veggie of the day for $12.99. Stuffed up the backside with a mason jar full of beer before smoking, this bird is melt-in-your-mouth tender. Thick and creamy seafood etouffee ($8.99) is another can’t-miss, with whitefish, crawfish and shrimp the size of your index finger in a Cajun cream sauce over rice.I stopped in at Big Dave’s last week and wrapped my mouth around the muffuletta sandwich ($6.99), which proved as good as the rest of the menu. The edges of the salami and ham were cooked crisp enough to resemble bacon, and the sandwich is also stuffed with Swiss cheese and topped with a relish made with carrot, olive, celery and garlic. This might sound bizarre to anyone who’s not familiar with the muffuletta served up at N’Awlins’ Central Grocery, but you need to try it.Oh, and don’t ignore the sides. The apple-cider greens are amazing, and I’m gunning for the fried corn on the cob with mojo butter on my next visit. Mojo butter? Sounds like a great name for a rock ’n’ roll band.Big Dave’s Outpost1801 Bardstown Road459-9142 Fine German dining just around the cornerLouisville has a strong German heritage, as Eat ’N’ Blog correspondent BARB TEMPLE can testify, having plenty of Teutonic memories hanging on her own family tree. Barb wishes the city still had a fine German restaurant on every corner, but she’s mighty happy that we still have two very good ones in Gasthaus and Erika’s, not to mention the good selection of German bar food that you can still get at Flabby’s Schnitzelburg. Trying to find out whether you can still go home again, she and her husband Jim and son Billy recently dined at both Gasthaus and Erika’s, and she’s here to tell us about it today.The Gasthaus has a quaint décor of knick-knacks and pictures from its owners, the Greipel family. It’s divided into several small, open areas and two small rooms with open windows and doors, decorated as rooms might be in an old German home. I like to think my great-grandparents’ home might have looked like this.And speaking of family, Gasthaus’ sauerkraut brings back memories that my mom shared about her Aunt Lena Drexler, who made her own kraut, leaving a big crock to ferment in a hole on the outside back of their house on Samuel Street in Germantown. As a child, I thought everyone’s mom made potato pancakes with a touch of onion and served them with applesauce. Mom’s German relatives made home brew for family consumption, and so did my dad. Didn’t all fathers do that?At Gasthaus, my hubby had his favorite German dish, gulasch ($17.95), ate every tender and flavorful cube of beef and his side of spätzle before I could finish half my dinner, then sat back and sighed contentedly. I usually have the chicken ragout ($16.95), pieces of breast in a white sauce with sliced asparagus, leeks, carrots and mushrooms. This night, however, the sign outside advertised a special dinner of chicken breast, lightly breaded and sautéed, with fresh spinach and a side of small potatoes and mixed veggies. Tough choice, but I went with the special.  When I faltered over the side, the helpful server offered half of each side, my usual buttered spätzle and the featured side, and brought out generous portions of both. We both added a dinner salad ($4.50).  I can’t leave Gasthaus without having one of their homemade desserts ($7.50). Hubby always has the apple strudel, with whipped cream and a scoop of good vanilla ice cream. I am not so loyal to one dessert ... so I ordered two! I chose the light German cheesecake, and a large slice of puff pastry with a thin layer of chocolate, a layer of sweet creamy filling, and a layer of sliced fresh strawberries and raspberries, and finally it was drizzled with more chocolate. As it turned out, I took the cheesecake home.The bill, including three desserts, an iced tea and a German beer for my husband, was $79.34, plus a $16 tip.Gasthaus German Restaurant4812 Brownsboro Center899-7177At Erika’s, the décor is simple and pleasing. The evening I dined there with my son, Billy, there were two servers, one of whom was restaurant owner Erika Masden herself. They were charming, efficient and friendly. The food, décor and service all show a sense of pride and warmth. When I shared some memories of my mom’s German heritage, their response was attentive and warm.  We started with a shared order of Kartoffelpuffer ($4.95), silver-dollar sized, crisp potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream, too, if you want it.I ordered Hanchenschnitzel “Wiener Art” (Vienna-style chicken schnitzel, $13.95). It was a boneless breast of chicken, pounded thin, lightly breaded and served with lemon. There’s also a chicken “Jäger Art” (“hunter-style”) with a creamy mushroom sauce, but I chose the simpler option. Dinners come with a choice of one side dish, dinner salad with a light vinaigrette and light seedless rye bread. My chicken was tender and tasty. The salad was simple and fine. When the spätzle came out with meat gravy, I realized that I had failed to mention that I don’t eat red meat. When I told our server, she quickly replaced it with a large serving of meat-free spätzle with butter. Score one for thoughtful service.  Billy enjoyed his Zigeunerschnitzel (“Gypsy-style” Schnitzel, $14.95), a lightly breaded pork loin in a hearty sauce with red and green bell peppers and paprika. He ate it slowly, savoring each bite. His side was warm German potato salad.  From the three desserts available, we ordered coconut cream pie and chocolate cream pie for him ($3.95 each), both topped with billows of delicious whipped cream. The servings were large, but so light they fit easily after a heavy meal.  Wine and beer, both German and domestic, are available, but I had iced tea and my son stuck with his usual cola. I took home an order of Gulaschsuppe (goulash soup) for Jim. It was full of chunks of tasty beef in a paprika brown gravy.  Our meal, with the extra soup, came to $58.52 plus a $14 tip for friendly and efficient service. (If you go, note that it can be tough to get in to Erika’s, which is just off I-64 at Hurstbourne. Coming east on I-64, take care to split off on the “Local Access” ramp, not the main ramp for southbound Hurstbourne, or you’ll miss Erika’s. Turn right at the foot of this ramp, and watch for the quick right turn in to Erika’s before you reach the traffic light at the main ramp. Coming north on Hurstbourne, you’ll have to get past I-64 and make a U-turn to come back south.)Erika’s German Restaurant9301 Hurstbourne Blvd.499-8822 NibblesGot bourbon? You can enjoy your fill — moderately, of course — at a tempting sampler that the non-profit Kentucky Bourbon Festival Inc. and Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Foundation plan on June 17 at the Salato Wildlife Education Center in Frankfort.Guests will tour the center while enjoying nummy goodies from local restaurants and sipping samples of Kentucky bourbons. They’ll have a chance to meet master bourbon distillers, participate in a silent auction and take home a souvenir glass. Soft drinks are also available, said the bourbon folks, perhaps through gritted teeth.Tickets are $35, and proceeds will benefit the Salato Center. Call the Center in Frankfort, (502) 564-7863, or the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, (800) 638-4877, ext. 4, for reservations, which are recommended. Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com