We considered several options for dinner Sunday night. Edward Lee, Louisville’s most nationally recognized culinarian, has two restaurants in the city. 610 Magnolia is his first, and the one that earned him three James Beard Best Chef: Southeast nominations and a berth on Top Chef: Texas. Matt and I had originally planned to dine at 610 on Saturday night, but reservations are required, and the meal is prix fixe, with just one sitting per evening. We thought it would be more fun to try his new restaurant, Milkwood, which celebrates “how Southern cuisine and Asian ingredients can be friends.” Located in the basement of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, it certainly seemed like the perfect place to bump elbows with local foodies and the young, hip crowd. The walls of exposed brick were painted milky white, perhaps to lighten up a completely windowless space, but otherwise décor was non-existent. The long row of two top tables seemed like the perfect spot for a cozy evening, but one too many tables had been crammed in the space. I nearly knocked the neighboring woman’s glass of wine over with my rear scooching into my seat. So, an awkward start.
The charcuterie board we ordered, which is no longer on the menu, did not whet the appetite as a good meat tray should. A selection of country ham, guanciale, and prosciutto surrounded a heap of soft bread chunks, sautéed mushrooms, and a mustardy jam. The wonderful thing about charcuterie boards is the variety, the odd things you would never order individually. I’m talking about you, head cheese! With three thinly sliced, slimy salt-cured kinds of pig, this board—I’m going to say it—fell flat. We had also ordered several of Milkwood’s specialty cocktails, which are presented in a fun little diagram of the mouth indicating which taste sensors each drink appeals to. Very whimsical, and although I can’t remember which drink I had, my tongue’s memory recalls it being on the sour side. Matt first had the Smoke & Pickle, which was scotch, pernod, brine and mesquite flavoring. This fell in the Umami tasting area, which I learned is located on the roof of the mouth. The anise flavor of the pernod overpowered any savory qualities of the drink. With dinner, he ordered the Firth of Forth, a spectacular name and a spectacular cocktail made with Bulleit Rye whiskey, vanilla, Worcestershire sauce and beer. Salty and somehow still refreshing – perhaps similar to Scotland’s actual Firth of Forth, which I had never heard of until that drink came along. Have a cocktail, and learn something about geography.
My entrée, scallops and pork belly, I found to be a tease. Two rich, buttery proteins accompanied by the gentle sweetness of guava, watermelon and cucumber fell exactly into my taste expectations of an Asian-Southern fusion restaurant. What I did not expect, especially from the Southern tradition, was such a small portion. Two scallops, and two cubes of pork belly, which were smaller than the scallops. This might have passed at 610 Magnolia as one of four courses, but after the disappointing appetizer my stomach craved a meatier plate. Fortunately, Matt ordered the pork loin, a generously sized meal served with grilled peaches and miso eggplant puree.
As this was our first official foodie trip, we tried our best to photograph and document our meals. However, in this intimidate setting, we were all but forced to chat up the couple seated next to us. The pair, a dentist and his wife, struck up a conversation with us about our food once we started taking pictures of our plates. They happened to be celebrating the man’s birthday, which he shares with Matt. It ended up a nice arrangement, as they bought us dessert, and recommended a few more local eateries we should try—Harvest, which we considered although it was not open on Sundays; Rivue, which was the pricey lounge-type restaurant on the top floor of Galt House Hotel, and Jack Fry’s, an old-school steak joint with photographs of boxers and other sportsmen-types on the walls. They had been to 610 Magnolia too, and seemed unimpressed with what they got for the price tag. The dessert, sorghum ice cream with fried croissants and berries, I found no fault with, but no real inspiration either. Regardless, the couple cheered us with their southern hospitality and interest in our gastronomic endeavors. They also sent us off to our next destination, Proof on Main.
Proof on Main is the unique bar and restaurant attached to the 21c Museum Hotel, a short walk from Milkwood and easily recognized by the red penguins sitting atop the roof like gaudy gargoyles. This unique complex fulfills every modern traveler’s needs: a unique lodging situation, well-rounded breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, extensive drink lists and a selection of avant-garde art installations. When we stopped in for drinks, the bar was packed, but we ordered and then took our drinks for a spin around the gallery. My latest cocktail craze is for French 70-somethings, and Proof’s Italian version made with gin, Gran Classico bitters, grapefruit simple syrup, lemon and prosecco found perfect balance with its citrus and herbal notes. Matt thoroughly enjoyed his Helium Fizz, a combination of gin, lime, egg white, ginger syrup, and house orange bitters.
Proof on Main and the 21c complex cuts away from the horse and bourbon-themed traditions of the region, and literally exhibits the quirky, metropolitan side of Louisville that has taken root. For foodies, one wonderful thing about cities like Louisville (and Cleveland) is that there are enough hot spots to warrant another visit or two, but not so many as to make catching them all hopeless.