LEO”S EATS WITH LOUISVILLEHOTBYTES.COM: Eat the veggies first at Club Grotto

Dec 4, 2007 at 8:02 pm

   Eat your vegetables!

    This exhortation, so often directed at children, for many of us leaves lingering psychic echoes that ring down the years into adulthood. Veggies? Who needs them? Real men eat meat and potatoes ... don’t they?
    I count myself among the willing but vaguely reluctant vegetable eaters: I’ll force down a portion, knowing that I should, but rarely get the same kind of excitement out of it that I naturally derive from a great steak, shellfish or even a cheese or pasta dish.

    Frankly, I think some of Louisville’s top chefs share this aversion. Too often, even at the city’s finest restaurants, I’ll get a great meal with a careless blob of reheated frozen veggies right out of the bag, tossed on the side of my dinner plate as an obvious afterthought.

    This doesn’t happen at Club Grotto. This lovable if slightly out-of-the-way destination is one of the few upper-tier places around town that does not give the humble vegetable short shrift. Chefs Mike Driskell and Mike Dunbar clearly pay close attention to their veggies and present them bright, beautifully seasoned and done right. This is a good thing, a very good thing; and you don’t even have to be a vegetarian to appreciate their trademark all-vegetable dinner course, the aptly named “Vegetable Orgy.”  

    We didn’t do the Orgy thing on a recent trip, but the veggies that accompanied an exceptionally fine plate of liver and onions were exceptional, as was just about everything else we tried.

    Club Grotto’s setting is pleasant and comfortably upscale, three side-by-side rooms in bold colors and warm wood, tables double-draped in heavy white; it’s romantically dim, almost too dark for comfortable menu reading.  

    The menu offers a good, eclectic range of selections from fancified down-home dishes to an international kaleidoscope of flavors. Prices are definitely in the dress-up-and-go-to-dinner range, with some main courses reaching the $30s, but we found entrees to suit us in the upper teens, even though we weren’t consciously trying to economize.

    An appetizer, barbecued shrimp ($10), was a refined version of the Louisiana tradition. In Cajun country I would expect a big dish loaded with giant prawns with shells and heads on and antennae waving, swimming in a spicy thick brown sauce with a mound of white rice, I garontee. Club Grotto presents it as five well-cooked medium shrimp, shells and tails removed, on a discreet pool of smooth brown sauce and a neat wedge of green-chile grits cake made with cheese and green chiles, pan-fried until the exterior is crunchy, golden-brown and delicious.

    The Club Grotto salad ($7) consisted of a good-size mound of mixed lettuces topped with crisp croutons and shredded Parmesan, tossed with chickpeas, melon dice and a few unspectacular, perhaps canned artichoke hearts in a mild vinaigrette.

    Fresh house-made French rolls, warm from the oven, were served with whipped butter piped onto serving plates in pretty florets.

    Linguine “agli olio” ($19) was properly al dente, tossed with lots of garlic and oil and a dash of red-pepper flakes and elevated with dabs of wilted arugula and a few slightly stale pine nuts. A small, semi-boneless grilled chicken breast was placed on the side; three grilled crostini bread rounds topped with a little Parmesan added a tasty crunch.

    The calf’s liver with caramelized onions ($17) was diner fare dressed up in a tux. The meat was not trendy rosy pink in the middle (nor was such a concept even suggested), but to its credit, it was juicy and flavorful, with the good, earthy but not funky flavor of quality calf liver. The meat was topped with sweet caramelized onions touched with a shot of tangy vinegar, yielding a fine sweet-sour effect.

    As good as the liver was, the veggies took this dinner to Nirvana. Neatly arranged on the plate came a mound of smooth, rich mashed potatoes piped in a turban shape, creamy at the top but with tender boiled potato dice mixed in at the bottom to add textural variety. A dab of corn pudding was remarkable, sweet and intense in its corn flavor, so feather-light I half expected it to float up to the ceiling. Harvard beets were cut in cubes, a fresh, sweet-tart, homemade version. Long slant-cut half-moons of crisp-tender carrot were improved with a vinegar-tart sweet-sour dressing. Long, thin bright-green green beans were tastefully crisp-tender but done just right, neither soggy nor chewy. The veggies were so good that my wife literally ate them first, hoovering through them on the spot while taking a good-size chunk of the liver home for a splendid leftovers lunch.

    Club Grotto’s wine list offers a good selection of more than 100 bottles priced at about double retail or a bit more, with most offerings in the $30 to $50 range and a few high-end specials over $200. The lower-price wines are generally available by the glass at one-fourth the bottle price. I’d like to see a few more adventurous selections along with the many Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots, but we had no complaints about a crisp, melony King Estate Oregon Pinot Gris ($29), a fine companion with the shrimp, the chicken and the liver.

    A dessert special, chocolate soufflé ($7.95), had to be ordered before dinner, and they talked us into it. Glad they did! Although it wasn’t a true soufflé, it was just as good, one of those “molten lava” cakes that’s like an excellent brownie on the outside with a pool of hot, runny dark chocolate at the center. It might have been too chocolaty for me on its own, but small scoops of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream served on the side, a single raspberry and an intense plate decoration of thick strawberry sauce made it just right. It would have been decadent and shameful to eat this horribly rich dessert without help (although I could have done it), but it was just right for two to share.

    “Espresso” ($2.75) was disappointing, just strong black coffee in espresso cups, although the small complimentary biscotti on the side was a nice touch.
    Even with entrees and wine from the lower end of the menu and a shared dessert, the tab mounted up to $101.18 without any difficulty, and exceptionally competent if a bit hovering service rated a $25 tip.

Club Grotto
2116 Bardstown Road
Robin Garr’s rating: 88 points

Gimme a six-pack ... of wine?

If you think it’s cool (and green) to bring your own cloth grocery bag to Whole Foods or Rainbow Blossom, here’s a great idea from the good folks at the sibling wine shops Old Town Wines and The Wine Market on Bardstown Road: Pick up one of their spiffy new heavy cloth wine totes, and you’ll never need to lug home another nasty cardboard carton or big paper bag full of little paper bags again.

    The wine totes are an attractive burgundy color, natch, with the Old Town and Wine Market logos, addresses and Web sites imprinted on both sides in case you forget where you got ’em. A bag holds six standard wine bottles in snug individual dividers, with sturdy cloth handles to make them easy to tote.

    Whether you’re bringing wine home or taking a stash to a party, this tote will make you au courant. It’s not just purple but “green,” made from recyclable, environmentally friendly non-woven polypropylene by a San Francisco outfit called Green Bag.

    Best of all, you can get them while they last for just 3 bucks cheap. “We are selling them at cost in order to boost the green movement,” said Old Town’s Claudia Jackson. I’ve got mine. Where’s yours?

Contact the writer at [email protected]