Fork & Barrel’s warm vibe surrounds fine, pricey fare

When a restaurant launches in the springtime in Louisville, the owner faces a difficult decision: Rush to open the doors before Derby? Or open gently in post-Derby calm?

The issues involved are not trivial. Opening in time for Derby may pay off, but it poses challenges, too. If things go poorly, the train wreck happens in front of a critical audience.

So, props to Fork & Barrel’s owners, Chef Geoffrey Heyde and his wife, Emily, who risked opening on busy Frankfort Avenue just a few weeks before the race, following a quick, but stylish remake of the former Basa Modern Vietnamese.

Heyde brings a strong team, though, in the kitchen and front of the house, and the early buzz is good. So, Mary and our friends Anne and Don decided to drop by early enough to offer this review in time for Derby visitors and local folks, too.

The decor is simple, off-white walls with a few large photos of Louisville scenes. A long banquette lines one wall, and an attractive L-shape bar fills the back of the room. A huge table for 14, crafted from a single oak beam, affords community seating in a side room. Undraped wooden tables, heavy side chairs and hard floors makes for a noisy environment, which seems to be the norm for hip establishments these days.

In early interviews, spokespersons have described the price point as casual, with an average tab around $30. Let’s just say either the target moved, or we ordered too much, as our party of four left happy, but lighter in the wallet by $280 or so.

Still, I’ll certainly come back, perhaps with plans to choose an app and a drink next time. The menu features eight entrées that range in price from $18 (for fried chicken roulade) to $39 (for lamb chops and shank). About a dozen apps, soups and salads fall from $10 to $20.

The aforementioned bar offers good, well-chosen selections of wine, bottled beers, cocktails and about 50 bourbons.

A grilled romaine salad ($11) made a fine starter. Whole romaine leaves were seared with dark grill marks, dressed with fresh asparagus and thin-sliced Parmesan, mild white anchovies and a creamy-tangy Mezcal caesar dressing.

The Grateful Greens Bibb salad ($11) enhances crisp locally-grown lettuce with fine cornmeal-fried chicken livers, Georgia Thomasville tomme farmhouse cheese, pistachios, radishes and zippy red mustard vinaigrette.

Tender, mild-charred octopus ($18) won applause, too, plated on great northern beans with Col. Newsom’s country ham and crisp haricots verts.

Cape Cod mussels ($9) hit the spot. Citric flavors of lime, lemongrass, grilled lemon, Thai basil and cilantro made a memorable broth, with only two small slices of grilled baguette to soak it up.

Border Springs Farm Virginia lamb ($39) consisted of two tender, mild-flavored but fatty chops and a shredded braised lamb-shank meat on a fine gratin-like zucchini-and-cheese “casserole,” with a dark, winey thyme jus and tangy Dijon cream. Haricots verts and good tarragon-scented, Parisenne gnocchi completed the course.

Just two scallops topped tender, wide pappardelle pasta ($28), but they were oversize diver-type scallops, fresh and well prepared. Rich brandy-and-wine cream sauce boasted a delightful tarragon flavor, and bits of Col. Newsom’s ham, charred corn and fresh peas made it perfect for spring.

Fried chicken roulade ($18) was plated on buttermilk-honey biscuits with braised mushrooms in a thick smoked-pepper gravy, with a large, tempura-fried okra pod alongside. The chicken was tender and juicy, but the gravy was mild but for the pepper, and it pooled on the plate, turning the tempura-style chicken and okra breading soggy.

We were surprised that a new upscale restaurant offers no vegetarian entrée, but the kitchen was happy to fashion an appealing and fairly priced meatless plate ($18). A rich, tender potato gratin, deeply scented with black truffles, was topped with seared brussels sprouts, shallots and asparagus, finished with a sauce fashioned from the evening’s parsnip soup with more truffle scent.

“Coffee and donuts” ($11), was a fool-the-eye dessert featuring a small, crunchy cake donut alongside a tall glass layered with dark, almost toothache-sweet chocolate mousse, coffee-mascarpone custard, rum chantilly, espresso gelée and chocolate-milk froth.

Passionfruit pot de crème ($9) was simple and pleasant, light, tangy and delicious, topped with créme de cacao foam garnished with mango candy and macerated mixed berries.

Dinner for four came to a whopping $234.26, which we split down the middle and added 20 percent-plus tips.