December 5, 2006

LEO's Eat 'N' Blog: Westport General Store cuts the cheese, but it’s no Cracker Barrel

Westport General Store: about 30 minutes from Louisville, is down-home, innovative and urbane.A rustic country store in a tiny rural village, it boasts a breezy veranda, an oversize wheel of fine cheddar cheese, and a down-home bill of fare that includes such goodies as stone-ground grits and country-fried pork chops and even, occasionally, fried bologna.Why, it sounds just like Cracker Barrel.Not! Here’s a simple thing that explains much about Westport General Store: This cozy restaurant is located about a half-hour’s drive from Louisville, on the banks of the Ohio in tiny, historic Westport in Oldham County, a village so far off the beaten path that your cell phone probably won’t work there. As the name implies, the restaurant is located inside an old general store building, complete with plank floors and mixed barn-sale antiques.But it’s both down-home and country-style and innovative and urbane. Westport General Store is also the only exurban restaurant (not counting a couple of city eateries that happen to have Oldham branches) that has earned entry to Louisville Originals, the association of independent, locally owned restaurants that otherwise are virtually all located within the Watterson.In an appealing “Green Acres”-style blend of country and city, the walls are painted in pretty pastel colors and adorned with framed historic photos that impart an urbane look and feel (think rustic Jack Fry’s), while a barn-sale mix of dining tables and chairs and intentionally kitschy salt-shakers and placemats add more than a hint of the country. The country-style pork chop: from Westport General Store, served over collards with bacon and with a mound of “smashed” potatoes.A cozy wood-burning stove boosts the comfort level up to high, as does a bill of fare that offers an appetizing mix of down-home dishes and more sophisticated international fare, plus a good choice of vegetarian items. City mouse or country mouse, dishes are prepared with skill and presented stylishly with interesting accompaniments, a nice wine list, microbrewery beers and a really fine list of bourbons (hey, this is Kentucky).Westport General Store has been through a few chef changes and schedule tweaks since it opened three years ago last month. Harold Baker Jr., who was the first chef, recently returned, and they’re open for dinner only Tuesdays through Fridays, lunch and dinner on Saturday. Through the changes, though, under the guiding hands of owners/hosts Will and Laura Crawford, consistency has remained good and standards high.We enjoyed a fine dinner on a recent visit, on an evening just chilly enough to make a seat near the wood-burning stove welcome. Bread came out first: light white pillow-like yeast rolls with real butter, served golden brown and warm from the oven in a napkin-lined basket.An appetizer order of Kentucky burgoo ($4.25) was an authentic rendition, featuring two or three kinds of meat (no squirrel, I hope!) cooked into tender shreds, loaded with corn nibblets and butter beans and green peppers and chunks of tomato, all simmered down to a thick, stew-like concoction that sticks to your ribs and puts a little tickle in your tummy with generous dollops of Frank’s Louisiana Hot Sauce. (In fact, it was just about spicy enough to require a warning. I liked the heat, but if you’re serving three-alarm burgoo, it’s probably best to let people know.)A tossed dinner salad ($3.95) was cool, crisp and fine, romaine and iceberg with bits of carrot, red onion, roasted red bell peppers and slivered almonds with chunks of feta, rendered doubly cheesy by my wife’s choice of smooth, creamy blue-cheese dressing on the side.A country-style pork chop ($13.95) was darn near divine, a boneless cutlet the size of a catcher’s mitt pounded out thin, crisply breaded and fried grease-free. It was a splendid rendition of this international dish that’s pretty much the same whether you call it schnitzel in Vienna or tonkatsu in Japanese or chicken-fried pork in rural Kentucky. It was served over tender, long-simmered collards with bacon and a touch of piquant spice, with a comforting mound of “smashed” potatoes, coarsely mashed with the skins.My choice, a half-chicken ($13.95), was billed as “brined and slow-roasted” but turned out to be smoked instead ... the server, apologetically, explained that the chef re-invented the dish but hadn’t updated the menu yet. Smoking or non-smoking, it was good, glistening and highlighted with charry bits. The smoke flavor was delicate, not overwhelming, and the chicken was tender and juicy, although I was kind of glad they hadn’t taken it out of the smoker any sooner. Let’s say it was just cooked. It comes with a choice of two sides, and I chose coarse, textured, pale-yellow and creamy Weisenberger grits and blue-cheese slaw, crisp and sweet coarsely sliced cabbage with bits of carrot and a delicious creamy dressing with a homeopathically delicate whiff of blue.The wine list isn’t overly long, but it’s well chosen, with a lot of affordable wines under $30, many by the glass from $6.50 to $12. Crawford recommended a special, Septima 2004 Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, on sale at $18 a bottle. It had a good smoky note in its dark-fruit flavor that was made to go with the smoked chicken, fine with the pork, and would have been great with any of the beef or bison dishes.Desserts, which change frequently, are brought in, not house-made; they sounded good, but we were full of dinner and opted out.Price was a country-style bargain, $57.35 plus a $12.65 tip, about half what you’d expect to pay at a restaurant of similar quality on Frankfort Avenue or Bardstown Road. Maybe it’s best that this Louisville Original stays out in the country and gives us a reason to make an occasional short road trip.Westport General Store7008 KY Hwy. 524Westport, Ky.(502) 222-4626 www.WestportGeneralStore.com  SIGHTINGSNew on the local eats scene is La Rouge, a sleek new spot that’s moved into the east-of-downtown premises at 252 E. Market St., recently vacated by Oscar’s (a.k.a. Oscar Brown’s). Appetizers at La Rouge: which just opened on East Market, include (clockwise from upper left) lump-crab cakes with ancho-honey aioli and chive coulis; spicy fried calamari with black-bean cumin aioli; and fried chili and jack shrimp wontons with lemongrass chili dipping sauce.Chef/partners Rick Adams, formerly of L&N Wine Bar, and Rick Longino, whose family has run popular South End family dining eateries for years, have done a bit of renovating to add a discreet upscale-dining vibe, with a luxurious, high-end dinner menu (a dozen entrees from $12.95 for a chicken-and-spinach pasta dish to $28.95 for a classic Filet Oscar with crab meat, asparagus and hollandaise), and a stylish lighter menu at lunch.It’s a bit early for a formal review, but five of us dropped in for a lunch meeting the other day and were very impressed. We sampled all three appetizers — spicy fried calamari ($6.95) tossed with tomatoes, tangy pepperoncini peppers and an earthy black-bean cumin aioli; a pair of tender lump-crab cakes ($9.95) with a spicy ancho-and-honey aioli, and a quintet of memorable fried wontons ($7.95) stuffed with shrimp and chilies and a lemongrass chili sauce for dipping. Main dishes were fine, too; I fretted whether I had too recently returned from a food-and-wine trip to Tuscany to enjoy Louisville Italian, but pappardelle Bolognese ($8.95), wide al dente pasta with a rich, dark meat-and-tomato sauce, was right on target. I didn’t share, but heard my companions making little nummy noises around the table in lieu of conversation, and they seemed happy. The future looks bright for this new venture, which Chef Adams says is named in honor of the building’s checkered history as a “gambling operation, brothel, swinger’s club, brothel and gay bar.” Right!  NIBBLESWho’s your Pappy?Serious bourbon aficionados uniformly rank the corn squeezin’s of Pappy Van Winkle among the finest of Bluegrass nectars. Like most good things, though, Pappy is fine but Pappy is not cheap. Tonight, however, you have an exceptional opportunity to sample this fine libation for free and meet the men who make it. From 5-7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 6), both Julian Van Winkle and Preston Van Winkle will be at Gemelli Wine & Spirits (3626 Brownsboro Road, 895-1400), offering samples and autographing bottles and copies of their book, “But Always Fine Bourbon.” Bottoms up!Shure and begorrah and a Merry Christmas to yeFrom 6-11 p.m. on Dec. 7, the Ancient Order of Irish Christmas will be wearin’ o’ the green, and tinsel, too, for an Irish Christmas at Molly Malone’s Irish Pub (933 Baxter Ave, 473-1222, www.MollyMalonesIrishPub.com). Sponsored by the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, the event will benefit Fr. Maloney’s Boys’ Haven. The Hibernians promise lots of fun and entertainment with a bagpipe procession and even O’Santa making a visit. Music will be provided by Cloigheann. Let’s hear you say that two times fast, after a jar or two of poteen.A sip and a kissThe non-profit Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft will celebrate its fifth annual Martinis & Mistletoe tomorrow, Dec. 7, from 5-8 p.m. at the Museum, 715 W. Main St. There’ll be three choices of martinis, appetizers, Godiva chocolates, a jewelry auction and artwork for sale from the museum’s “Holidazzle” exhibition and gallery shop. Admission is free for museum members, $10 for non-members. This event is sponsored by Brundage Jewelers, Clark & Riggs Printing, Finlandia Vodka and Martini Italian Bistro. For more information, call the Museum at 589-0102 or fire up your Internet browser and surf to www.KentuckyArts.org.    Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com