LEO’s Eat ’n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes

Apr 18, 2006 at 5:34 pm

Food, wine star on Avalon’s
understated stage

Writer STEVE COOMES takes a turn in LEO’s pulpit today, choosing the chapter of Avalon from the book of Good Eats. This popular Bardstown Road bistro, he says, offers one of the most approachable dining rooms on the strip, an understated venue that lays back so the bill of fare can strut its stuff without distraction on an unadorned stage. Here’s his report:


Avalon’s split-level space bears a simple black, tan and pale-yellow color theme, straightforward tables and chairs, soft lighting and wide, uninterrupted sight lines ... perfect for people-watching. The second level’s soaring ceiling is indirectly lighted, with an abstract metal sculpture adding a touch of elegance to an otherwise understated space.

The uncomplicated style, however, may be just as consciously intended as the stark setting of a kabuki stage, and for similar reasons: Examine the menu and you realize that all else is backdrop: The food and wine are meant to be the stars in this show.

Chef Mat Shalenko’s 26 offerings are neither daring nor dull, yet almost every item boasts a tempting signature twist. Consider the mussels appetizer ($9.50), a deft dish of plump mollusks steamed in white wine and seasoned with smoky bacon and lobster butter. Add the loaf of fresh bread provided for sopping the succulent broth, and you’ve got a light meal for one.

Fried green tomatoes ($7.80) were more architectural than flavorful. Presented as a tiny three-tiered cake, the breaded-and-fried tomato slices were joined by layers of rich goat cheese and encircled with a toasted-pecan vinaigrette. Green tomatoes are supposed to be firm, but these needed a knife for slicing, and the vinaigrette was in short supply.

My sister-in-law suggested we share the “Truffle Lobster Mac N’ Cheese” ($10.90). Despite its faux-down-home moniker, the rich concoction of lobster chunks and melted cheeses over short penne pasta comprised a gratin far more luxurious than you’d find at a church potluck. Like the mussels, this one’s a do-over for a return visit.

Salads earned mixed reviews. I found the “Classic Caesar” ($7.50 as an appetizer, $4 as a side dish) overly lemony, and lacking the anchovy kick and the eggy richness of the real deal — but, hey, it worked for by brother-in-law. The spinach salad ($8.90 as an appetizer, $4 as a side dish), however, was terrific. A vibrant sesame-soy vinaigrette complemented the earthy spinach, which amplified the modest heat in the spiced nuts and played a tart counterpoint to Mandarin orange slivers. My sister-in-law’s chopped salad ($7.90 as an appetizer, $4 as a side dish) didn’t dazzle me, but she’s a fan of Green Goddess dressing and loved this one, too.

The restaurant’s wine list is exceptionally well crafted. Listed conveniently on the back of the dinner menu and sorted by grape variety, it contains more than 40 choices by the glass and nearly 90 bottled selections. If you can’t choose by grape, just cover your eyes and point to anything under “Interesting Reds” and “Interesting Whites.” You’ll not be disappointed.

Be aware, however, that many of the lower-end and mid-range offerings carry steep markups. We paid $32 for a bottle of the reliable 2001 Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz from Australia, almost triple the fare levied at local wine stores. The markup on premium vino is more reasonable, but those prices are beyond my reach anyway.

Shalenko pays equal attention to land and sea entrees, and our table’s choices reflected that balance. My sister-in-law’s veal scaloppini ($23.50) with lemon caper butter and basil was an uncharacteristically tame selection for her. Unfortunately, the dish was as docile as everyday veal piccata, though the perfect broccoli florets on the side redeemed it somewhat.

My brother-in-law’s Parmesan-encrusted sea bass with basil oil ($28) was perfectly cooked, flaky and fork tender, but short on flavor. With its rather neutral flavor, sea bass begs for a chef’s assistance to fulfill its potential with supplemental tastes, but this fish’s call for help apparently went unheard.

Like the bass, the grilled pork tenderloin ($24.50) was cooked spot on, but the meat seemed devoid of seasoning, even salt and pepper. I’d hoped the cilantro rice and black bean and corn salsa might add a jazzy Cuban twist to the mix, but de nada.

The evening’s top taste proved to be my wife’s horseradish-crusted salmon ($23.90). Cooked medium as requested, the piquant horseradish added an electrifying “who’d a’ thunk it?” to the salmon. If only the pork and the sea bass could have been juiced up with a few volts of similar finesse.

Stuffed to the rafters, our quartet shared two desserts: the fried apple pie ($7.10) and the chocolate lava cake ($8.90). Both were simple sweet treats and provided a fitting ending to a mostly fine meal.

The tab for four, including the wine and several cocktails, was $232.19, plus a generous tip for friendly, unobtrusive service.

Avalon is located at 1314 Bardstown Road. It’s open for dinner only Sunday through Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday until 11 pm. Major credit cards are accepted, and the restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Call 454-5336 for reservations.

 Cuban holiday
Eat’n’Blog correspondents have filed food reports from two of the region’s top Cuban restaurants. First, here’s NED WEATHERBY with a favorite dish report on the lechon asada at Norma Jean’s Trackside, a popular new Cuban spot on the historic Town Square in La Grange:

“So many delectable dishes in our city and so little time to sample them all,” Weatherby says. “A few, however, are so far and above the others that we find ourselves yearning for them. One of my favorites, Norma Jean’s lechon asada (literally “roast suckling pig”), is well worth the drive to La Grange.

“Best described as tender roast pork, this generous portion is served with congris (black bean and rice medley), fried sweet plantains and a bowl of black bean soup. The soup is a good rendition: The addition of red bell peppers gives it a hint of spice. The congris complements the dish with its subtle flavor. But the star of the show is the succulent tender pork, flavored with hints of citrus and garlic. It almost literally melts in your mouth.

“Save the fried plantains for last. Fried to golden brown with the taste of caramelized sugar, they make a wonderful light dessert. I can never quite finish a dinner-size portion of the lechon asada, which is an unusual occurrence for me. But the leftovers do reheat to make an excellent pork sandwich. This plate of pork perfection is available at the extremely reasonable price of $10.99.”

Norma Jean’s Trackside is at 119 W. Main St. in La Grange. It’s open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner and Sunday for brunch. Call 222-8044 for information.

Cuban cuisine continued ...
Few cuisines are “meatier” than Cuban, but correspondent TINA L. MEREDITH, who keeps us up to date on matters vegetarian, reports on a meatless delight at St. Matthews’ popular Havana Rumba.

“It used to be much more difficult to find good vegetarian food at meat-centric restaurants,” Meredith reports.

“Often there was little more than a ‘vegetable plate,’ which meant that you could pick from side dishes such as green beans with ham, mashed potatoes with meat gravy, and macaroni and cheese. As a vegetarian, I quickly learned to be on the lookout for servers who think chicken is a vegetable. ‘Yes, the soup is vegetarian. It has vegetables and it’s made with chicken stock.’

“Havana Rumba’s Cubano Vegetariano entrée ($9.99) puts the old school vegetable plate to shame. The dish overflows with congris (black beans and rice), sweet plantains, a vegetable empanada and yuca con mojo. The congris is lightly spiced, not salty or oily, and it makes a nice contrast to the delicately sweetened plantain halves. The vegetable empanada is stuffed with spinach, corn and cheese and lightly fried. (A full order of vegetable empanadas is also available as an appetizer for $5.25.)

“I’ll have to admit I usually ask to substitute fried sweet potatoes for the heavily garlic-flavored yuca (which is a Caribbean root vegetable sometimes called cassava or manioc). On the other hand, the fried sweet potatoes are so good I always scarf them down first. Fried yuca is also available as a side. My half-Cuban friend told me that once you’ve tasted fried yuca, you rarely want to eat the boiled yuca again.”

“Havana Rumba’s other vegetarian options include a vegetarian pressed sandwich ($6.50), Pinchos Vegetarianos (vegetables on a skewer with black beans, rice and sweet plantains for $9.99) and assorted salads.”
Havana Rumba is at 4115 Oechsli Ave. (“behind where the old Sears building used to be”). Call 897-1959 for more info.

 Wine tip
This week’s wine tip is no cheapie with its price tag near $20, but it’s a great buy for savvy wine enthusiasts in search of value. Domaine Grand Veneur 2004 Cotes du Rhone Villages “Les Champauvins” is made by Alain Jaume & Fils in France’s Southern Rhone valley. The vineyard, a field blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes, is just the other side of a fence from the fabled Chateauneuf-du-Pape region, and shares similar vines and soil with Jaume’s vineyards on the more pricey side of the line. It can’t legally bear the more sought-after label, though, so it sells for about half the price of Jaume’s Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

It’s a rich, robust red wine, almost black in the glass, with bright fresh-fruit aromas of plums and red berries plus a dash of fragrant pepper. Mouth-filling flavors follow the nose, shaped by pleasantly sharp acidity and abundant tannins. Enjoy it with grilled meat, now or over the next few years. $18.99 at Liquor Barn Springhurst.

L&N Wine Bar and Bistro (1765 Mellwood Ave., 897-0070) is planning a series of “Tastes of New York” dinners over the next few months, and no, we’re not talking about kosher hot dogs, knishes or pizza by da slice. This is serious New York, as Chef Rick Adams takes his best shot at replicating the favorite dishes and culinary styles of four of the Big Apple’s top chefs. The series kicks off Monday, April 24, with dishes inspired by Chef Michael Romano of Union Square Cafe, followed by Chef Mario Batali’s Babbo Ristorante on May 22; Chef Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel on June 26, and Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean-Georges, Jo-Jo and more on July 31. For an encore, we’re told that Rick plans to don blue tights and leap the nearest tall building at a single bound.

Those wacky guys down at the Seelbach’s Oakroom like to lighten up at Derby time, just like the rest of us do. So they’re going to take off their tux jackets and loosen their black ties just a little bit on Saturday when the Oakroom hosts Casual Day for Thunder. The foie gras and truffles go into the pantry for the day, and out come nachos, corndogs, burgers and banana splits. It’s all done with a gourmet spin, of course: Think lobster corn dogs and crème brulee splits. Guests are invited to dress casually for the 5:30-7 p.m. dinner, and the toll (not counting tax or tip) is $45 a person. Yow! That must be one primo corndog! For reservations or information, call 807-DINE.

Those nasty storms that slammed much of Kentucky and Indiana last week dealt a damaging blow to two 19th century bourbon warehouses at Buffalo Trace Distillery near Frankfort, ripping off sections of the buildings’ roofs and knocking down bricks. The wind tore a large section of wall from one building, Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley said, exposing barrels of bourbon. Wheatley said no bourbon was damaged or lost, and distillery tours will be routed to other buildings until repairs are complete. There is said to be no truth to the rumors of Frankfort residents seen standing in the rain with mouths agape, hoping for a snort of wind-blown booze.

Contact Robin Garr at [email protected]