Just about all local foodies can tell you about Louisville’s allegedly haunted or cursed restaurant venues, the unlucky spots that can’t hold a successful restaurant, housing one failed effort after another.
In at least one notorious situation, the old Parisian Pantry at Bardstown Road and Bonnycastle Avenue was widely believed to be cursed by an angry ghost who remained inconsolable over the removal of an upstairs wall. A dozen short-lived eateries must have come and gone before Café 360 seemed to break the juju — perhaps they replaced the wall?
And so it is at the corner of First and Oak streets in Old Louisville, where a neighborhood market gave way to a series of restaurants in the 1990s. Mai’s Thai was there, a tiny treasure tucked into a corner, before it moved on to a successful life in Jeffersonville. Then came The Corner Market and Café, a short-lived sandwich-shop. Major renovations brought in The Chef’s Table, a more upscale and innovative eatery that looked good (I gave it an 88-point rating) but didn’t last long. Leander’s followed with another well-intended effort to supply Old Louisville with upscale comfort food. It too failed, and its successor, Carly Rae’s, looked lined up to be the next victim when a management breakup brought it near closure last year.
But the restaurant survived — albeit with a changed phone number and dead website — and with the arrival of Chef David Clancy (late of the still lamented Bistro New Albany), Carly Rae’s is emerging as a strong option. Clancy, who jokingly describes himself as the “chef du jour,” has introduced a new menu, an attractive and fairly priced casual-bistro-style mix of lighter fare, a little Cajun, a little Creole, a little Mediterranean and a lot of Clancy.
Main-course dinner prices top out at $19.99 for a bourbon-glazed 12-ounce grilled Angus rib eye, and range down to less than $10 for some of the Cajun specialties and pastas. Come in for lunch, and you can’t exceed $9.99 for any of the soups, salads or sandwiches.
Carly Rae’s has a serious draft-beer list, heavy on local microbrews from Cumberland Brews and Browning’s. There’s also a diverse list of bottled craft beers; and for those who must, mass-market domestics at $2.50 for Pabst Blue Ribbon and $2.75 for the rest of the Usual Suspects. A short wine list is priced to sell, with just about everything under $30 for a bottle, $7 a glass. But I love craft beers, too, and the brew choices were just right on a warm summer night, even if we were indoors with air-conditioning.
Although Wisconsin’s Leinenkugel is not a true craft beer — it’s owned by Miller Brewing — my wife had no complaints about its Sunset Wheat ($4). It was light, smooth, frothy and fresh, and she declared it a fine summer beer. I stayed locabrew with a pint of Browning’s Red Ale ($5), a dark, amber-brown potion with a creamy tan head and bold flavors of pleasantly bitter hops and the rich, fruity character of good ale.
Clancy’s Southern-style fried green tomatoes ($5.99) move into strong contention as one of the city’s best renditions of this Southern treat. The Carly Rae’s version could serve as a salad, plated atop a good-sized bed of mesclun and garnished with sliced red onions and a sprig of dill. Thick, crisp-tender rounds of fresh garden tomatoes, caught at that crisp, tart stage just before they ripen fully, were cloaked in an excellent bound breading and fried, as TV Chef Alton Brown likes to say, “golden brown and delicious.” Not merely piled on a plate, the offering was neatly composed and painted with stripes of a lemon-basil pepper sauce that resembles tartar sauce with a spicy tang.
The “Classic Caesar” ($5.99 as a full dinner salad, just $1.99 as a side salad) was well constructed with crisp squares of chilled romaine, shredded Parmesan and fresh, crunchy herbed croutons, tossed with just enough creamy, tangy sauce.
Tomato Mozzarella salad ($5.99), a variation on the classic Italian caprese, was a perfect choice at the peak of local tomato season. It was a composed salad with a neat row of half-tomato slices, juicy and ripe, alternated with rounds of fresh mozzarella. It was placed on a mound of mesclun and topped with a row of thick-sliced red-onion rings; garnished with thick cucumber slices, Niçoise olives and a little crock of a tart-sweet sundried tomato and basil dressing. It was almost a shame to deconstruct this salad-as-art, but it was worth the effort.
I had the Gumbo Ya Ya, a New Orleans favorite. A “small” portion ($6.99) was plenty. I have a hard time imagining how gargantuan the “large” ($9.99) must be. A cup-sized mound of spicy Cajun-style “dirty rice” was surrounded by a thick, garlicky, spicy-but-not-fiery gumbo, loaded with chunks of tender chicken and smoky sausage rounds. The shrimp were AWOL, but a gentle complaint to the server brought out Chef Clancy himself with a cup full of crustaceans.
My wife’s spaghetti Pomodoro ($10.99) was a huge portion of steaming, al dente spaghetti tossed in a light, garlicky fresh-tomato sauce with basil chiffonade and dabs of Indiana Capriole goat cheese.
I really wanted the berries and cream, but my wife put her foot down and we shared a remarkable chocolate mousse ($4.99). It was dark, intense and silken, topped with rich whipped cream, served brimful in a good-sized wine glass. My wife, a choco-holic, declared it the best mousse she’s ever eaten. I can’t quibble with that, and matched her bite for bite.
Dinner for two, with two pints of beer, came to an entirely reasonable $50.77, and attentive, professional service earned a $12 tip.
It was good enough to bring me back for more, so I joined a group of about 15 buddies another day out on the patio on a sunny afternoon. This lovely, shady brick-paved space, separated from the noise of the city by the backs of Old Louisville Victorian houses, may be one of the city’s finest outdoor-dining scenes. With a burbling fountain, it has a distinct New Orleans style, pleasantly evoking the similar-only-different patio that Clancy left behind at Bistro New Albany.
Patio lunch service was friendly but a bit “leisurely” — I’ve had consistent reports that the patio is a better place for a laid-back experience than a fast-food lunch — but the food was just as good as before.
White chicken chili ($2.99 for a cup, $3.99 for a bowl) was a new, spicier take on the old local favorite, replacing the customary “bowl of red” with chicken and white beans, garnished with shredded cheddar, snipped scallions and a dollop of sour cream. A splash of hot sauce gave it a distinct warmth, which suited me just fine.
Another New Orleans favorite, the shrimp Po’Boy sandwich ($8.99), was served open-face on a hoagie roll, with a generous ration of crispy fried shrimp, perfectly done and not overcooked, piled on one side with shredded lettuce and tomatoes on the other; it was artfully decorated with stripes of spicy garlic mayo. Although it was really set up as a knife-and-fork sandwich, that’s no way to eat a Po’Boy, so I folded it over, cut it in half and pitched in, letting the mayo and juices drip down my arms without complaint.
With delicious, strong iced tea and the cup of chili folded into the sandwich price since I didn’t take a side dish (a generous gesture), a great lunch topped out at a recession-proof $11.64, and I paid back for the soup by kicking the tip up to $5.
103 W. Oak St.
Robin Garr’s rating: 88 points