It hasn’t even been a year since I dropped in at Butchertown Grocery Bakery and enjoyed a really good meal and a loaf of artisanal bread for my first review of 2020.
Looking back on that mild January day now, it seems unbelievable that none of us saw the COVID-19 pandemic coming. We slogged on through the rest of winter without much on our minds, checking out Noche Mexican BBQ and heading to The West End for Galan’s Meat Market & Grille. We brunched at Fork & Barrel and got pizza at Union 15 in The South End’s restored landmark Colonial Gardens.
By March, people were getting a little nervous, though. Early in the month a group of us sat around a big table at then-new Agave & Rye and suddenly all the talk was about this looming virus and what it might mean. Then, on March 16 Gov. Andy Beshear closed all restaurants and bars to in-person traffic, with exceptions for drive-thru, delivery and some takeout.
Suddenly, just like that, we could no longer sit down and enjoy a restaurant meal with our friends, even if we were silly enough to want to do that during a pandemic. Restaurants shifted to takeout operations. Servers became delivery drivers or signed on for unemployment benefits. Owners nervously scanned their financials.
A few restaurants closed, maybe not all because of the pandemic, but certainly it weighed in their decision. By early June, the city was mourning China Inn, Eddie Merlot’s, Eiderdown, Hearth on Mellwood, Johnny Brusco’s Pizza, Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, Lilly’s Bistro, Lola’s Kitchen, Migo, Milkwood, North End Cafe, Scarlet’s Bakery and Verbena.
But it wasn’t long before Beshear offered options, and restaurants quickly tried to struggle back. I wasn’t ready for dining in then (and I’m still not), but patio dining is another story. We headed for Selena’s at Willow Lake Tavern on a balmy afternoon in June and enjoyed our first sit-down restaurant meal since March.
It was still a struggle for restaurants. Lots of people are staying home, making it a challenge to fill tables even up to 33% capacity. Patio dining and takeout seemed to thrive, but as autumn and winter approach, outdoor tables are going to lose their allure, even as many local eateries stock up on powerful outdoor space heaters, single-use blankets and even windbreak walls.
And in the middle of it all, something inspiring started to happen: In the face of all these challenges, new restaurants started to open. Listed in approximate order of their opening, BurgerIM, Faces Bar/Bistro, Abol Cafe, Jake and Elwood’s, Pollo, El Mundo Highlands, Morels Vegan BBQ Smokehouse. Parlour on Frankfort, Gourmet Provisions, I Love Tacos, Moya’s American Kitchen and Emmy Squared Pizza have opened their doors to limited seating, takeout and delivery. More are coming, including Marisqueria Vallarta in Plainview, Crestwood Bistro and Maple Street Biscuit Co.
I’ve selected two good newcomers as encore reviews in this special Dining Issue, and you’ll also find my regular weekly review for a comfort-food favorite, Boujie Biscuit. And Joe DeSensi also offers favorites from his column Veg Out — Dining In A Meat Eater’s World.
— Jake and Elwood’s opened in March, one day before the state shut restaurant dining down. Nevertheless, it persisted and has become a popular success for its deep-dish Chicago-style pizza, a genre that was sadly lacking in the metro.
— Gourmet Provisions smartly recognized the pandemic challenge when it opened in August: There’s no table service. Its high quality gourmet-style dishes and family meals are available for takeout and delivery.
DeSensi’s featured reviews for this issue include BoomBozz Pizza & Taphouse — Highlands, Dragon King’s Daughter and Ramsi’s Café on the World.
Remember: Menus change with the seasons, so some dishes from past reviews might not be available. Winter lies ahead, and it’s going to be tough on local restaurants. Give them your business, as eat-in, takeout or delivery, whatever’s comfortable. When there’s a working vaccine and restrictions finally end, we want Louisville’s great restaurants to be here.
Boujie Biscuit, comfort food in dark times
COVID-19 is spiking… again. The election is over but chances are there’ll still be plenty of political controversy and yelling when you read this. It’s just plain common sense to reach for comfort food right now, and it’s hard for me to imagine an item more comforting than a warm biscuit. Mmm, biscuits. No sooner did I write that than I want one right now. One of the simplest of breads, this buttery, short, soda-risen delight is easy to make at home but difficult to perfect.
Biscuits are said to be a Southern specialty, the result of poverty driving a filling, delicious bread that’s easy and quick to make with simple ingredients. But you can find good ones in every state of the Union, not just the South. Don’t believe me? Check out the Roundabout Diner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and tell me what you think.
Quite a few restaurants offer splendid specimens, from corporate behemoths such as Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster to Louisville eateries like Wagner’s Pharmacy to Gralehaus (where you can get your biscuit with duck gravy) and Please & Thank You (with its famous egg-and-cheese Chive Ass Biscuit).
In recent years, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing the arrival of restaurants where biscuits sit at the center of the bill of fare. Since Biscuit Belly blew up in NuLu, its owners seem eager to grow into a local chain, with three locations now and a fourth on the way. Jacksonville, Florida’s Maple Street Biscuit Co., said to be the nation’s first biscuit-centric restaurant (and now a Cracker Barrel property), plans to open a branch in the old KFC/Yang Kee Noodle shop in The Highlands soon.
It’s good to have choices, even in biscuits. But when I want a meal on a biscuit — a really big square biscuit sandwiched with a pile of something delicious — I’m inclined to head for Clifton and the tiny storefront that houses Boujie Biscuit.
Louisville’s first biscuit restaurant, Boujie is the project and passion of Cyndi Joyner, Brooklyn-born owner and cook, who consciously chose the modern slang word for “bourgeois” as her restaurant’s name to express class and rising hope. Moving into her third year in business this autumn, her operation appears crowded yet properly socially distanced inside, with many customers enjoying their biscuit meal out front in the small grassy strip along Frankfort Avenue.
Yes, biscuits are comfort food and Joyner’s 4-inch-square, 2-inch-tall buttermilk biscuits offer plenty of comfort, even before she fills them with more comfort food. You can read the menu online but must call in for takeout or curbside pickup. “PLEASE CALL 502-269-8426 TO PLACE AN ORDER FOR PICKUP!!!” the online menu urges and that procedure worked fine for us.
The bill of fare, all fresh-made in-house, features 28 biscuit boxes, which just as the name implies consist of one of those giant biscuits dropped into a sturdy, shiny white, lined paper box, with a generous portion of the goodie of your choice between the biscuit halves. This packaging worked quite well to keep our biscuits warm all the way home.
Biscuit boxes are mostly savory, a few sweet and they range from $5 (for the lite biscuit, simply spread with honey-maple butter) to $13 (for the meal-size brisket biscuit filled with seasoned beef brisket, caramelized onions and the tangy white three-cheese sauce that’s a feature on many of their items). Sweet choices include The Georgia Peach, Cherry Cheese and Cocoa-nut biscuits (all $8). Want a little humor with your meal? Try The Dirty Monkey biscuit ($9), filled with bananas and bacon spiced with cayenne-infused chocolate gravy!
There’s a short list of sides and extras and you’re welcome to buy your biscuits plain, $3.75 apiece. It’s hard to choose among so many tasty options. That brisket! Chicken pot pie! Fried chicken! Burgers! Ham and cheese! We finally settled on three, though, plus a plain biscuit for later and everything was excellent. Boujie’s biscuits are more cakey than fluffy, tender but sturdy squares designed to hold up in their boxes even under the weight of toppings and sauces.
The Big 3 biscuit ($8) was a plain biscuit smothered in a pool of three-cheese sauce topped with plenty of finely crumbled crispy fried hickory bacon. The bacon was intensely flavored; the bacon bits seeped into the cheese and coated the biscuit and yes, it was delicious.
The Sunshine Biscuit box ($8.50) was more subtle but just as appetizing: A well-made spinach-and-tomato frittata, Italy’s answer to an omelet, was a neat fit on a plain biscuit, covered with plenty of three-cheese sauce that complemented the good egg and veggie flavors.
The Lite biscuit ($5) was a simple but tasty choice, a huge plain biscuit with a dab of sweet honey-maple butter in a small tub alongside; and an unadorned cheddar-herb biscuit ($3.75) gained flavor from dried herbs and cheese baked into the bread.
A filling meal for two, with plenty of leftover biscuits for the next day’s breakfast, was $30.21 plus a 20% tip.
1813 Frankfort Ave.
Where to eat during a quarantine: vegetarian edition
As a lot of us in The ‘Ville settle into our quarantined, socially distant lives, we still need to eat. Before the world shut down on us, Louisville was an effortless place to find good gluten-free, vegetarian food. The good news is: That is still the case.
My wife Hope and I have been trying to eat out three to five times a week to support our favorite establishments as well as to have a governor-approved reason to leave the house. Some places have shortened hours, some have a curbside menu (a little smaller than the eat-in menu), and some have added some great cocktail and drink specials to their takeout options.
Here are some places and meals the veggies might enjoy:
Wild Ginger Sushi Bistro
Wild Ginger provided me with the healthiest meal that I will eat all week. I used to order some great low-carb sushi there in my quest to lose a little weight before I realized 2020 would not require a beach bod (and then decided to pull the ripcord).
Veggies: My favorite roll is the Oshinko roll, featuring a crunchy, vibrant pickled vegetable, but you can ask for added grilled shiitake mushrooms for savory chewiness. I also order a veggie roll and tamago roll, a fluffy sweet scrambled egg with a cucumber wrap.
Meatiness: Carnivores like the bulgogi beef and the chicken katsu. From the meatier side of the sushi menu, the chef recommends the Surf and Turf roll (tempura shrimp, cucumber, avocado inside, and topped with spicy crab meat, torched steak, eel sauce, wasabi mayo, spicy mayo and sweet chili sauce).
1700 Bardstown Road
Beverages: Bottled beer, wine and sake are available for takeout.
Ordering: Call in or order online or curbside pickup. Postmates and Doordash also deliver. Dine-in now available.
Dragon King’s Daughter
Hope and I eat at DKD at least once a week. It has the largest selection of veggie sushi in town, and most rolls can be ordered gluten-free as well. With its all-day alcohol happy hour prices for takeout, it satiates all of our sushi whims and wine pairing needs. In Indiana? There’s a New Albany location as well, although its menu differs slightly.
Veggies: We always start with a warm, salted edamame that never gets shared exactly 50-50 between us (we use the “you snooze, you lose” principle of edamame division).
I order the Summer Salad Roll (fresh mozzarella, spring mix, red onion, avocado, cucumber and cilantro with a drizzle of spicy mayo) and the Buffaroll (fresh mozzarella, cucumber and avocado). The Summer offers a variety of crunches and flavors pulled together by the rich, mayo drizzle. The Buffaroll has subtler flavors making it perfect for dipping into gluten-free soy with a healthy portion of wasabi mixed in for good measure.
Seafood: Hope’s two faves are the Sushi and the Banshis (avocado, cream cheese and roasted garlic on the inside with salmon and basil atop the roll) and the Selfish Shellfish, part of the new menu (cocktail shrimp, cilantro and fresh avocado on the inside and lobster salad and lime).
Meatier options: A friend that eats things with a face recommended: the Japan Fried Tuna (red tuna battered and deep fried with a special dressing) and the kimchi beef tacos (strip steak with sautéed kimchi and Kewpie over a spring mix).
1126 Bardstown Road
Specials: Happy hour prices on alcohol all day, and it now offers bags of frozen cocktails to go.
Ordering: Dine-in available. Call for curbside pickup; an 18% gratuity is added to ensure service staff is “being taken care of.”
Ramsi’s Café on the World
Ramsi’s was one of the first vegetarian -friendly restaurants I found in The ‘Ville over two decades ago. It was also one of the early adopters of farm-to-table and has long been sensitive to many eating restrictions. All of those things are nice, but we ordered from here for the food. With much of it raised at its own farm, you get fine dining at a much cheaper price.
Veggie side o’ life: I have a lot of favorites at Ramsi’s when we are able to dine in: Jun Kun Stew (root veggies, broccoli and limas in a Japanese broth), Peanut-ginger Thai Noodles with tofu (make sure to ask for the GF tofu) and the Crispy Petal Salad (roasted Brussels sprout petals with limas, goat cheese crumbles and an almond fig cake with olive oil and a balsamic glaze.) If you are ever unsure which way to go with a side dish, order the limas.
During quarantine, I have been enjoying the Faithful Falafel, a Pakistani inspired dish with baked falafel patties served with a vegan, homemade yogurt over sweet potatoes, tomatoes and cucumber and accented with a fresh mint sauce. I usually order a side of the pesto lima beans and dump them right into the yogurt sauce.
Things that died: Hope is a creature of habit at Ramsi’s. Unless we are going twice in one week, her order is always: basil salmon sandwich, but she asks them to grill the salmon (instead of fried) and swaps out the potatoes for the pesto lima beans.
Some other carnivorous favorites are: the blacked chicken Pollo Nueva Havana (blackened chicken breast, tamarindo jalapeño sauce, Boursin cheese served with basmati rice and stir-fried vegetables) and the Z-Man Steak (blackened beef tenderloin, Boursin cheese).
1293 Bardstown Road
Beverages: You can order bottles of beer and wine.
Ordering: Ramsi’s is serving its entire menu. Call in or go to its website to order for curbside pickup. Now open for dine-in.
BoomBozz Pizza & Taphouse — Highlands
BoomBozz has great pizza, lots of veggie options and excellent gluten-free crust. The gluten-free crust comes in only one size, a 12-inch at $2 more, but is still plenty of food for two people. Order a starter salad if you are extra hungry, and do yourself a favor and order a side of marinara sauce for crust and starter dipping purposes. BoomBozz’s Hurstbourne location is closed at this time, but its Highlands and Jeffersonville restaurants are still open.
Veggie Za: we have two go-tos if we don’t design our own pie — the Portobello Bello pizza (portobello mushrooms, fresh spinach, roasted red peppers, garlic olive oil glaze, asiago and fontina cheese) and the Farmers Market pizza (artichoke hearts, mushrooms, caramelized bell peppers and onions, black olives, spinach, roma tomatoes, feta and red sauce). Both provide smokiness in the grilled veggies, and the black olives and artichokes combine for a great flavor profile in the Farmers Market.
Post slaughterhouse options: In case you were thinking, “I haven’t killed anything in a while, but I just can’t decide,” BoomBozz has the dish for you. Its most popular pizza is the All Meats Classic with every kind of red meat it serves (pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef, ham and bacon). Another specialty for people who prefer to use their eyeteeth, the Buffalo Chicken (marinated chicken, buffalo ranch sauce, red onion, asiago cheese, diced celery and hot sauce drizzle and served with ranch dressing).
1448 Bardstown Road
Beverages: It has drink specials, growlers and bottled beer and wine.
Ordering: BoomBozz is serving its full menu and uses most of the delivery services. Or, call or order online. It is offering free cheese bread with online orders. Dine-in is also available.
Monnik Beer Co.
I have written about Monnik a few times over the last year. The first time was because it has amazing vegetarian and gluten-free options. The second time was for the healthy selections for those of us trying to make sure the buttons on our shirts aren’t social distancing. You can still order pub comfort food, but the salad and side options with their varieties of proteins make this a good, healthy stop as well.
Veggies: The salads are amazing and unique. I usually order the Harvest Salad (mixed greens, blood oranges, purple potato, mixed olives and edamame, accented with fennel and topped with a hardboiled egg for little protein). If I am particularly hungry and we are not getting a starter, I will get a second egg on top or an order of fried jackfruit. Hope enjoys the Kalette and Brussel Salad (fried kalettes, roasted Brussels sprouts, toasted almond slivers, pecorino, garlic, shallots and the Dijon lemon glaze). She will add a chicken breast for the protein and to ensure I am not grazing on her plate when she’s not looking.
If you are picking a starter, definitely try the Jackfruit Al Pastor Nachos (eggplant queso, pickled onion, corn pico, pineapple and pepita cheese). This is my favorite appetizer in town at the moment, rich and colorful with a unique flavor profile including the jackfruit tasting like pulled pork.
Meatiness: Monnik offers classic Bavarian dishes: Beer Brat (beer poached bratwurst, grilled onions and mustard on a pretzel bun with curry ketchup), Sauerbraten (sour beef pot roast, pickled cabbage, potato dumpling, gingersnap sauce and crème fraîche) and Rouladen (sliced beef, mustard, onions, bacon, pickles, potato fritters and a red wine sauce).
1036 E Burnett Ave.
Beverages: It offers drink kit specials weekly, canned beer, crawlers (24 ounces) and growlers, and wine by the bottle.
Ordering: Online, call in orders and dine-in. Delivery within five miles.
Take out Gourmet Provisions for bisque and more
Gourmet Provisions! You might think this is an upscale grocery or maybe a shop with fancy pots and pans and kitchen equipment. But you’d be wrong: It’s a new restaurant and a very good one, too. Gourmet Provisions, which opened Aug. 5, is the brainchild of Matt Rich, who has worked as a server and sometimes bartender at Owl Creek Country Club, Molly Malone’s, KT’s, Wild Eggs and once held a franchise for the last Steak ‘n Shake in town; and Chef Mike Driskell, who’s worked in many local kitchens including Jack Fry’s, Diamante and Club Grotto. Partnering with other chefs and a small staff, the two bring more than 50 years of experience to this venture.
Housed in a storefront on the Goose Creek Lane side of Westport Plaza shopping center, they’re handling the pandemic challenge smartly, focusing most of the business on takeout and curbside service and delivery and in-home meal catering. There’s no table service, but you are welcome to sit down and enjoy your takeout meal on one of three, small, socially distanced tables.
In an online conversation, Rich recalled that he has known Driskell and some other chefs he’s tapping for expertise since they met while working at Molly Malone’s in 2009. He was eager to bring Driskell, in particular, on board at Gourmet Provisions for his skills and, of course, his popular lobster bisque recipe!
The online menu is simple to use and offers lunch and dinner options. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It offers a choice of seven soups and salads, from $7 (for a Caesar, house salad, venison chili or Driskell’s lobster bisque) to $14 (for a California Cobb salad with shrimp and lobster). A half-dozen sandwiches range from $11 (for a shrimp po’boy) to $15 (for a lobster roll).
Six entrées range from $13 (for bucatini puttanesca, with no anchovies, making it the only meatless main course) to $24 (for a half-dozen, extra-large shrimp stuffed with crab imperial).
Larger-scale family meals big enough for two to four are from $34 (for a pork tenderloin family meal with about two pounds of roasted pork with house-made Parmesan scalloped potatoes and a large Caesar) to $90 (for four bourbon-marinated filet mignons served with twice-baked potatoes, grilled asparagus and a Kentucky bibb salad).
A variety of sides are all $4.50 or less, a child’s box with grilled chicken breast with noodles and fruit is $3, and a trio of desserts are $3 to $7.
Lunch was ready at the exact minute requested. Everything was neatly packaged and tightly packed in double bags, so it all stayed in place all the way home.
We started with a $7 cup of black bean, venison chili and found it so abundant that a $10 bowl would have been overkill. A good 12 ounces of very thick chili was crafted from black beans and chopped onions with small flecks of red pepper and tiny meatballs of lean, appropriately gamey ground venison. The black beans and onions nicely balanced what might otherwise have been a fairly strong game component. It was mildly hot-spicy but not at all burning, just a pleasant smoky heat. The chili was topped with a sprinkle of yellow and white cheese shreds and served with two buttery grilled Breadworks baguette rounds.
A piled-high pastrami sandwich ($14) more than lived up to its name. It was a huge sandwich loaded with close to a pound of thinly sliced, dark-brown, house-made sliced pastrami with the traditional fatty edges. It was built on lightly buttered grilled Breadworks rye to make a big square sandwich cut in half diagonally. The pastrami had been smeared with spicy brown mustard with a pile of sliced pickled red cabbage on top. The whole thing was almost too big to bite, and it was really delicious.
A side of Brussels sprouts ($1 upcharge) also came in a generous portion. Gently charred halved sprouts had been tossed with a savory balsamic and olive oil mix and deeply roasted until done but still firm. All the flavors came together with roasting to make a delicious veggie side.
Bucatini puttanesca ($13) omits the usual anchovies, but the mix of bold flavors that replaced them more than made up for the loss. Enough thick bucatini pasta to fill a large bowl was sauced with a charred, ripe-tomato sauce flavored with bits of black kalamata olives, capers, chopped onion and garlic, pickled ginger, spicy heat, and Parmesan cheese shavings. It held its heat and al dente status all the way home. Warm, buttery slices of Breadworks baguette made it complete.
We finished with a warm, soft, sweet and seductive peanut-butter chocolate-chip cookie ($2) topped with a shake of crunchy sea salt. It was a perfect ending to a memorable meal.
An excellent lunch for two was $39.22 plus a $6.66 tip. (I tried to get the online system to take a larger tip, but the order wouldn’t go through until I accepted its highest option, 18%.)
9407 Westport Road
Jake and Elwood’s masters the Chicago pie
Jake and Elwood’s opened its Chicago-style pizzeria in Clifton at 11 a.m. Monday, March 16. Does that date sound familiar? Yep! That’s the day that Gov. Andy Beshear told all the state’s restaurants to put a halt to dining in.
“We are mandated to close for dine-in at 5 p.m. today,” the restaurant posted on its Facebook page less than two hours later. “CARRYOUT is available!!! We’re working on delivery. The blues will prevail!” Indeed. As we know from the restaurant’s Blues Brothers namesakes Jake and Elwood, Chicago people do what needs to be done.
When the doors closed to sit-down dining, the owner John Thurlow, a Chicago native, promptly shifted the plan, offering pizza-to-go to waiting throngs. Within the first two days he had run out of pizza boxes and containers and had to close for a day to restock. He closed again for a couple of days at the end of March to refine the operation but came right back up. The restaurant has been earning uniformly positive reviews from just about everyone I know who’s tried it, on the HotBytes forum and across social media.
(Since I wrote this review, Jake and Elwood’s opened last Friday for 33%-capacity seating and all the rest of the state’s “Safe at Work” rules for restaurants, and it is continuing takeout as well.)
It is located in the landmark, yellow-brick, Frankfort Avenue building that long housed Clifton’s Pizza Co., and which more recently was home, briefly, to Steve-O’s Italian Kitchen. Jake and Elwood’s bills itself as “a Chicago tribute restaurant” specializing in Chicago deep-dish pizzas, Chicago hot dogs, sausages and Italian beef sandwiches.
That pretty much describes the menu, which offers a good range of choices among those categories. Thick, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizzas come in two sizes: 10-inch pies for $18.99 or 14-inch pies for $23.60 for any of four specialty pizzas; build your own for $15.99 plus $1 per topping for the small or $18.99, plus $1.49 per topping for the large.
Want your pizza crust caramelized? That will be another $3.50. Light appetite? Buy it by the slice for $3.25 for cheese, pepperoni or veggie.
A half-dozen variations on the Chicago hot dog (“dawgs”) are $4.99 (for the classic, Chicago-style dog or chili cheese dog) to $5.99 (for a Maxwell Street Polish sausage or Italian sausage); you can build your own for $2.99, plus 49 cents per topping.
The Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich is $8.99; a sausage and Italian-beef combo is $11.99. A variety of sides include garlic knots ($3.99 for six, $6.50 for a dozen), cheese curds ($5.99) and much more.
A half-dozen salads range in price from $7.99 (for a garden salad, Caesar or spinach salad) to $12.99 (for a chef salad with chicken, turkey and ham).
Before I dive in to my hefty pizza, let’s get one thing out of the way: I was weaned on New York-style pizza, thin and foldable, and learned to love its Neapolitan ancestor, the original pizza, on trips to Italy. Chicago’s heavy, deep-dish format doesn’t come naturally to me. (It should be noted that Chicagoans themselves tend to favor a thin pizza, served in tavern-cut squares, or the occasional indulgence in Giordano’s stuffed pizza, which is like a huge calzone with another crust on top!)
But Jake and Elwood’s pizza is the classic, Chicago deep-dish, and it is very good indeed. Coming at it with an open mind and a hungry tummy, I was impressed. Even the 10-inch pizza makes an imposing serving. We enjoyed a 10-inch Wrigleyville ($10.99) with tomatoes, mushrooms and onions; it normally comes with spinach, too, but I ordered ours without to keep things simple.
It was at least an inch and a half thick and beautifully made. The crust had been formed in a deep, black iron pan that imparted a crisp, tasty edge, then filled, in order, with a layer of stretchy, whole-milk mozzarella, then the toppings and finally an excellent tomato sauce — chunky, garlicky, not too sweet — spread across the top in a warming blanket. The crust boasted a light-golden color and a crisp but tender bite that almost made me think of biscuits. It was cut in four quarters, and one quarter alone made an ample lunch.
The Chicago dog ($4.99) is built on Chicago’s own Vienna Beef frank with its snappy natural casing and all the traditional trimmings. A soft, squishy, white, poppyseed bun was smeared with bright-green pickle relish and filled with a small frank; two pale, firm wedges of out-of-season tomato; a dill pickle wedge; three hot, vinegary peppers; a thin stripe of ballpark yellow mustard; and a small amount of chopped onion. It was standard for the genre but not really impressive.
The garlic knots, however ($3.99 for six, $6.50 for a dozen) were impressive. Short breadsticks tied in knots were baked like mini-loaves, coated with garlic oil and dusted with grated Parmesan. It was an appetizing snack, hard to stop eating, so good that the tangy, cayenne-laced beer cheese and good marinara sauce weren’t really needed.
A filling meal, with plenty of leftovers, came to a reasonable $29.11, plus a 25% tip. I’m adding a little extra to the tip during these difficult times, and I hope you are, too.
Jake and Elwood’s
2230 Frankfort Ave.
Varanese for great veggie dishes and drinks, paired with smooth jazz
My wife and I have a few restaurants for which we like to dress up and go have a fancy night out (meaning I am required to wear socks). Varanese is a favorite. In addition to high-end food and service, it is also one of the few restaurants that boasts jazz seven nights a week with music director Jeff Sherman and regional musicians. We often try to go Tuesdays so we might see Chris Tolbert and Tyrone Wheeler.
Varanese caters to veggies and folks with food restrictions alike. We don’t necessarily have go-to favorite dishes there that we order every time. We start with drinks, listen to music and try to figure out our starter, drink and meal strategy (the Normandy invasion had less tactical planning).
Alcohol: Varanese’s alcohol kung fu is strong, with a good beer list, an extensive wine list and bourbons and spirits for days. It has interesting bourbon flight pairings such as a bottle-in-bond grouping, a mid-shelf rye and distillery-specific pours. We started with a Lunetta Prosecco ($8). Hope will drink Prosecco only when it is hot outside or when it is not hot outside (strict rule).
We split an heirloom caprese salad ($9) knowing that this may be the last of the season. We got a generous helping of meaty tomatoes that had that ripened-on-the-vine taste and texture and was mixed with the olive oil, a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction and fresh buffalo mozzarella. Varanese adds black volcanic salt, which offers a bit of a crunch and a minerali-ness that pulled the flavors together. I recommend accepting the offer of cracked pepper over top.
To accompany our starter course, I had to make the choice of Solomon for a bourbon flight tasting. I was tempted by the rye trio ($15) but went for the Woodford Reserve three-fer ($18). Woodford Reserve is a rock solid bourbon, the Double Oaked is one of my favorite sitting whiskeys, and now I have one to add to my ever-growing list, Woodford Reserve Malt Whiskey.
Typically, Hope would select Varanese’s crab cake, a favorite, but on this night, our server’s description of opah ($35), Hawaiian moonfish, won her over. The opah was served on top of lobster grits with asparagus and micro greens, and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was suggested for pairing. To encapsulate Hope’s review of her entrée, I will refer you to the deli scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” just less demure.
If you could handle gluten, Varanese offers several appetizer and entrée options including angel hair pasta with fresh vegetables. My favorite is Chef John Varanese’s personalized vegetarian dish ($18) that can be catered to your taste and eating restrictions, and you can ask for the kitchen to go a little heavier on certain vegetables.
The veggie medley was a generous plate, cooked perfectly: a bit of crunch but flavorful and aromatic. On a base of butternut squash puree it included mushrooms, zucchini, tomato, squash, spinach and cauliflower. The savory smokiness from the grill blended well with the sweet base of squash puree. My bourbon did not get lost in the big vegetable flavors the way a white wine might have.
For the people who prefer food that eats my food, Chris “the Jazz Man” Tolbert recommends the lamb and lentil soup with breadsticks. The GM recommends the bourbon barrel-smoked pork chop, and the strip steak compares to steaks two to three times the price at steakhouses.
To end the night with a little dessert and to prolong our jazz listening pleasure, I ordered a burned lemon old fashioned ($12), and Hope explored another vino on their sparkling list, a Kenwood Yulupa Brut Sparkling ($10). The burnt-lemon old-fashioned was wonderful — it let the bourbon do the heavy lifting and used the grilled lemon and the ancillary spices to accentuate the glorious Kentucky nectar beneath. We ended with a small scoop of salted caramel ice cream ($2). Creamy and almost gelato rich, it paired well with the final sips of my old fashioned.
2106 Frankfort Ave
Noise: With most of the restaurant filled, jazz playing and a trickle from a waterfall, it was easy to have a quiet conversation, an average of 76 decibels. The whole restaurant could hear Hope yelling, “Play some Skynyrd.”
Accessibility: Varanese is wheelchair accessible, has handrails in the bathrooms and has handicapped parking spots at the entrance.