Even on a quiet night, Marketplace rocks

We had such a good time checking out Main Street last week that we decided to hit the other end of downtown for dinner at Marketplace. Hmm. This block is different.

Walk down Fourth Street toward Broadway on a quiet evening when there’s nothing playing at the Louisville Palace, Mercury Ballroom or The Brown Theatre, and you may not meet another human being. Until you get to Marketplace Restaurant, anyway.

Actually, even Marketplace was empty at first the other night, save for the bartender and a server. To be honest, a space this large, with its square, gray columns and drum-shaped lights hanging above, feels a bit eerie when there’s no one around. Rows of shiny wooden tables were lined up in empty rows, glowing under theater-style spotlights that recall the building’s original use as the Kentucky Theater.

A warm welcome quickly reset the mood, and so did warming drinks and exceptional fare. Before long, arriving diners filled a few more tables and we were glad we came.

It was my first return to Marketplace since Chef Dallas McGarity left in 2016 to start Fat Lamb. How are things faring at Marketplace under Chef Zac Young? Very well. Even on a quiet night.

The menu is not overly long, but offers good variety. A dozen interesting starters and salads would make fine small plates on their own. They range in price from $9 (for sunchoke hummus, pommes frites or a hearts of palm salad) to $16 (for a bit of foie gras perched on caramelized onion corn cake).

Pricing for the 10 entrées approaches special-occasion levels. Other than the $17 double Steakburger, main courses range from $23 (for the only meatless main, butternut squash risotto) to $42 (for a center-cut filet); most are priced in the $30s.

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Marketplace’s lovely bar offers a virtual library of adult beverages; it earns its spot on the Urban Bourbon Trail with more than 110 bourbons. I sampled the evening’s drink special, a 2-ounce order of David Nicholson 1843 wheaten bourbon, half served neat in a bourbon tasting glass, the other half made into Marketplace’s take on a Godfather cocktail, blended with Luxardo maraschino liqueur.

With the first bite of our appetizer, puff pastry tartlets ($10), it became clear that this was going to be no ordinary dining experience. Three flaky rounds of puff pastry made edible bowls for a savory ragout of tender wild mushrooms accented with the French-onion-soup flavors of caramelized onions and gruyère, plated on herbal spinach-infused crême fraîche.

The $9 hearts of palm salad was a potential winner too, but failure to execute in the kitchen kneecapped the first round. Romaine leaves were crisp and fresh, but oak leaf lettuce in a salad mix had been carelessly picked over; several leaves had turned brown and slimy at the edges. Ditto for a couple of overripe pieces of English cucumber. We pointed this out and got quick replacements, amid many apologies. The repaired salads were fine with crisp rounds of hearts of palm and bright red and tangy oil-cured tomatoes. The first salad was dressed with a perfumey vinaigrette of olive oil and Banyuls wine vinegar. The replacement came with a cup of fine olive oil on the side.

Honey-roasted butternut squash risotto ($23) got it right on the first try. Risotto is challenging for restaurants because it’s best made fresh, a 30-minute process requiring constant attention. The secret is to make a batch in advance, stopping the process with a quick chill, then finishing each portion to order. This can easily screw up the texture of the rice, but Marketplace got it right with a creamy, luscious almost-porridge loaded with roasted root veggie dice and spinach, topped with a generous dab of silken labna (Arabian yogurt cheese) sprinkled with crunchy pumpkin seeds.

If we had any socks left to knock off at this point, our bowl of fresh scallops pappardelle ($36) would have done it. Five big, fresh, sweet sea scallops swam in tomato fennel lobster broth loaded with garlic cloves. Its intensely aromatic flavors tasted great, but the heat of the broth did continue cooking the scallops past perfection, a small dilemma perhaps best resolved by eating the scallops first.

Double chocolate cake ($10) made a fine finish to an indulgent meal. A European chocolate cake, it was dense and not too moist, with a deep chocolate flavor, it was drizzled with a sweet chocolate mint sauce reminiscent of liqueur and accompanied with crunchy-sweet sugared pecans and a dense, flavorful vanilla gelato.

As noted, Marketplace is upscale and worth it, although the price point may explain why there was a dearth of drop-ins during a quiet evening on South Fourth Street. Our dinner for two, with shared apps and dessert and a single adult beverage (excluding the comped salad,) rose to $94.34, plus a $20 tip for our excellent server, Kat.

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