So the other night, four people drove up a hill in Southern Indiana to enjoy a classy evening of fine Indiana wine and upscale cuisine.
What’s the punch line? Get ready for it …
OK, there isn’t any punch line. This is no joke. It’s no surprise to find a touch of comfortable class at RockWall Bistro. Long known for its lovely setting tucked into an old rock quarry on the Floyds Knobs hills high above Louisville, RockWall has kicked things up a notch or two under Chef Alex Bomba, who arrived last summer.
When I heard RockWall was hosting a special evening tasting of the wines from nearby Huber Winery — another unsung and under-recognized Southern Indiana institution — I figured there was no better time to check out what Ted Huber is doing at the winery and Chef Bomba at the restaurant, all in one tasty go.
In its early years, RockWall built a reputation for a certain Cajun and Creole style, but that’s long gone. Although Bomba is a former New Orleanian displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he has built an eclectic, upscale American menu with no hint of a Louisiana accent. If anything, he’s a locavore, taking full advantage of produce, cheese and meats from local providers.
RockWall boasts an exceptionally attractive setting in a historic house nestled in an 1800s-era rock quarry. Its decor is discreetly understated. Tables are draped in white with navy cloth napkins, pretty cut-glass votive candle holders and bud vases filled with fresh freesia on the tables.
The patio, converted for year-round use with Plexiglas windows and five efficient gas heaters, nestles comfortably into the semicircular quarry rock wall, with a galaxy of tiny white lights sparkling on the angled roof high above.
We arrived in plenty of time for the wine tasting, a casual affair with Ted Huber and Jason Heiligenberg pouring their wines from Huber’s Orchard & Winery in nearby Starlight, while Chef Bomba presented appetizer-size portions fashioned to match.
The tasting session started with Huber’s Sparkling Starlight, a serious Indiana sparkling wine. Native “labrusca” grapes confer just a bit of a Welch’s white grape juice aroma, but clean, crisp carbonation and balanced fruit and acidity make it a credible bottle of bubbly.
Then came the first course, scallop seviche, tiny shellfish dice “cooked” in lime juice, served in a mound with red bell pepper dice, plated on an olive green bell-pepper puree with just a little kick of chile flavor at the end. It went very well with the next wine, Huber’s Vignoles. Named after its “French-hybrid” white grape, it was rich, with good citrusy flavors focused on grapefruit and tangerine, and just lightly sweet with good, tart acidity.
Next dish up was a rich and creamy, gently piquant lobster bisque, a pale-pink soup served in a coffee cup loaded with bits of tender lobster meat. It rang the bell with a glass of Huber’s White Blossom, which, despite the pop-wine name, is a very serious white wine, a rich, dry and complex Chardonel, a hybrid offspring of Chardonnay bred to thrive in Indiana’s four-season climate.
Braised lamb — inch-thick rib chop, on the bone — was long-braised, served with roasted shallots and red-skin potatoes on a plate decorated with thick, sweet dots of 10-year-old balsamic vinegar. It married well with Huber’s Cabernet Franc, an Indiana-grown red European-style grape variety. The wine is relatively light in color with peppery and “herbaceous” aromas over fresh red-berry fruit, dry and tart, not unlike a Chinon or other sought-after Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire Valley.
A tiny but intense dessert wrapped up the tasting: Two small figs had been poached in Huber’s “Port,” then roasted, coated with a thick, deeply flavored chocolate ganache flavored with a bit of Huber’s brandy. It was accompanied by glasses of Huber’s Knobstone Reserve “Port,” a strong, sweet red wine made from locally grown Chambourcin grapes and fortified with Huber’s brandy in the style of the original Portuguese Port wine.
The tasting was fun and Bomba’s dishes delectable, but the appetizer-size portions left us ready for more, so we stayed on, ordering two appetizers and two main dishes for the table to share.
Menus change seasonally. The current winter dinner menu includes appetizers plus about 15 main dishes and steaks, entrees ranging in price from $9 (for an Angus burger) to $29 (for sea bass with asparagus, roasted tomato and mozzarella and a lemon caper beurre blanc) or a prime filet mignon with fingerling potatoes and arugula with demiglace. A lighter lunch menu offers salads, sandwiches and panini from $7 to $13.
Full bar service includes a modest but fairly priced wine selection and a bewildering variety of creative cocktails. We started with wine, so we stayed with wine, sharing a bottle of rather plummy Susanna Balbo 2006 “Crios” Mendoza Malbec from Argentina ($22), sealed not with a natural cork but metal screwcap, no longer the sign of a downscale wine.
Artichoke-bacon dip ($8) had plenty of both ingredients chopped into a thick, creamy dip, with an ample supply (and more on request) of crisp Blue Dog baguette to dip in it.
Warm goat cheese salad ($10) was well made, too, very fresh and tender field lettuces in a light vinaigrette, tossed with juicy grape tomatoes and a couple of tangy slices of mild Capriole goat cheese wrapped in thin-sliced prosciutto.
Grilled chicken pasta ($16) was all but addictive, a big bowl of perfect linguine tossed with chunks of tender zucchini in a decadently creamy Alfredo-style sauce and topped with a perfectly grilled boneless chicken breast cut crosswise into four good portions.
A daily special, sausage pasta ($17), consisted of thin cappellini (angel hair) pasta in a garlicky, piquant sauce with plenty of small, juicy meatballs of fresh, mild Italian-style sausage. Bomba often makes his own sausages and cured meats in-house; these, he said, were made to his recipe at Karem’s Meats just down the road in New Albany. Close enough for me! This dish wins special praise not only for the sausage but for the kitchen’s technique in holding angel-hair pasta to a proper al dente texture, no simple task with this ultra-thin, fast-cooking pasta.
Later Huber came around with a bottle of a brand-new Huber’s wine, Stella di Luce (“Starlight,” get it?) Rosado, a very dry and crisp rosé wine, no sweet blush, made in the European style from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Coming out just in time for spring sipping, it looks like a real winner.
The full tab for four came to a reasonable $183 plus 20 percent tip, which seemed more than fair. Take away four $25 wine-tasting tickets and the rest of the meal — including the Argentine wine tipped the scales at only $83 plus tip, a value so fine it’s almost like stealing.
If you think Floyds Knobs seems too far away, bear in mind it’s only a 10-minute drive up through New Albany from the Sherman Minton Bridge, a trip well worth making for food, mood and service that ranks well up with Louisville’s best.
3426 Paoli Pike
Floyds Knobs, Ind.
Robin Garr’s rating: 88 points
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