I don’t know enough about design to sufficiently describe the expanded and improved Speed Art Museum and the way it seamlessly blends the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. But I know what I like, and I like the looks of the museum. I like the art within. And, as a certified foodie, I really like what Chef Reed Johnson has done with its stunning cafe, Wiltshire at the Speed, the museum’s outpost of Susan Hershberg’s Wiltshire restaurant group.
Tucked into a corner of the high, glass-walled first floor of the museum’s new section, the open, airy dining room takes full advantage of its view of the adjacent UofL campus and the museum’s plazas, which also offer an al fresco dining option when weather permits.
The two inner walls, as museum walls should, fill the lofty cubical space with forms of art to engage the mind and imagination. One wall bears a huge installation made up of shades of blues and grays. A repetitive, silvery metallic pattern that shimmers in the light fills the other wall. It’s good food for the eyes, but Chef Reed’s dishes please the eye and the palate, too.
This is not a high-end dining room with table service. It’s a quick-service, order-at-the-counter eatery, open only for lunch Wednesdays through Sundays. It reopens one evening each month, with a special, elevated menu, during After Hours at the Speed on the third Friday of the month.
Place your order at the entrance to the dining area, where pastries, cookies and other treats from Wiltshire Bakery are on display behind glass.
The seasonally changing menu is posted in a frame on the countertop. Currently, it features eight main dishes, affordably priced from $9 (for a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich or a tofu banh mi) to $12 (for four of the dishes). An additional, child-friendly option, grilled cheese and fruit, is $7. Soups, including caviar ramen and Polish chlodnik, are $6 for a cup and $8 for a bowl. Coffee and espresso drinks are also available for those who’d rather snack. Iced and hot teas and gourmet sodas are also available, along with a short list of cocktails based on liquors from major Speed Museum sponsor Brown-Forman.
All the entrées are interesting enough that it took a while to make up our minds. That tofu banh mi features not just tofu but bruléed compressed tofu, along with Fresno chiles, pickled carrots and more. A grilled peach salad ($11) with aged Manchego cheese and watermelon salad ($12) with compressed watermelon (there’s that word again) were both sufficient to tickle one’s fancy; so were bison burger sliders ($12) with ground Kentucky bison and pimento cheese.
First up was a bowl of pretty, bright fuchsia chlodnik, Poland’s summer sibling to borscht. Cool, rich and tangy, this red beet and sour cream puree was topped with aromatic, fresh dill and filled with chunks of undissolved sour cream. It came with positively addictive, paper-thin, crisp-toasted lavash.
Cacio e pepe pasta ($12) was excellent. Spaghettini, broken into short pieces, was dressed with earthy pecorino cheese and lots of black pepper, molded into a warm ball. It was plated next to a cool, fresh caprese salad fashioned with reddish-purple heirloom tomato slices and topped with basil leaves and creamy burrata. It was dressed with a vinaigrette of grape saba, a sweet-tart reduced wine-grape juice condiment.
A brisket Philly cheesesteak ($10) looked tempting, but it left us disappointed because the meat was stringy, tough and loaded with gristle. Purportedly prime-grade beef roasted with hot and mild peppers and onions, it had a good flavor reminiscent of Cuban ropa vieja, but it was tough, impossible to chew or even to cut with the supplied butter knife and was accompanied by only a small amount of provolone on an otherwise admirable challah hoagie bun.
A huge, chocolate, rye cookie ($2), big enough for two, made up for the unhappy steak experience. It was soft and chewy, like a brownie, with an intense chocolate flavor. Rye flavor wasn’t obvious, but I’m sure it added complexity and interest to the cookie.
With a $4 latte, lunch for two was $36.04, plus a 20% tip. Bear in mind that admission to the Speed is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, military or those under 18, so you may wish to defer your visit until you come for a museum visit or a free-admission Sunday. •