There is no better way to learn about a city than to eat its food. Say what you will about art, fashion and music, if you really want to get to know a culture, eat their food. Eating local cuisine not only teaches one about regional dishes and ingredients, but it educates a person about provincial traditions, history and people. Last week I was in Louisville, Kentucky, doing my best to learn all I could about the city. Although mostly known for the Kentucky Derby and the birthplace of Mohamed Ali, not many people know that the city has both the highest ratio of locally owned restaurants per capita (with the exception of New York City) and the most number of family owned farms. Even more impressive is the city’s wide spread practice of self-sustaining farming and use of local products through a loose but incredible network known as Kentucky Proud
. Kentucky Proud represents the gauntlet of the food market, showcasing everything from “delicious blackberry jam, rich-tasting Kentucky country ham, mouth-watering tomatoes and melons, and much more.” With their secret ingredients being nothing more than hard work and dedication from community farmers, it’s easy to see why so many restaurant owners choose regional product over national fare.
One of these restaurant owners is Susan Seiler, proprietor of Louisville’s renowned Jack Fry’s. Named after its original cantankerous owner, this local favorite has been serving the public for over seventy years. Since Mr. and Mrs. Fry never had any children, the restaurant has had various owners over the years, including Susan, who took over in the 1980s. She immediately started shifting the menu away from an upscale greasy spoon to a more elegant and refined dining experience. As she began to develop her menu (some of her original dishes can still be found on today’s menu), Susan began to work more and more with local farmers, making sure to both represent regional food and provide the best ingredients to her public. The result is a non-pretentious, four-star restaurant that uses and serves the freshest regional food possible to local and visiting crowds.
Sunday night was one of those nights that can only be described as a southern porch night. As we drove over to the restaurant, it seemed that every inhabitant of this lusciously green city was outside, eating, drinking and enjoying a rare, non-humid evening. As a result, Jack Fry’s was unusually empty, but suited our purposes nicely with our last minute reservation. We had called ahead to make sure Susan would be there, and not only did she promise to be there, but she promised to bestow us the honor of setting up an informal tasting of her entire menu.
The décor was romantic and nostalgic, with dim lighting, swinging jazz and wall-to-wall picture of horses, Jack Fry and the illustrative history of Louisville. Susan personally sat us at a corner table and with a wink, said our martinis would be right up. In no time at all, I was enjoying the smoothest, and dare I say strongest, Manhattan I had ever had (made with Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old bourbon). Through this drink, I knew we were in for something special.
As we sipped on our drinks, our fantastic server, Liz, delivered the first of our delectable dishes to our table. We started on the Medjool dates, which were bacon wrapped, then stuffed with chorizo sausage and goat cheese and covered in a smoky tomato vinaigrette ($12). Although an appetizers, this could have easily been served as a dessert, as it blended the line of savory and sweet, with strong flavors of salted pork, rich chocolate and tartly, sweet tomatoes. Up next were the spicy fried oysters (cayenne pepper were mixed in the breading), served with Kentucky country ham, green onions and grits ($12). The oysters were perfectly fried and the decadently rich grits had a nice cooling effect after the heat of the cayenne pepper. Finally we had the diver scallops, which were pan seared and served with Kentucky Bibb lettuce in a brown butter sauce, then finished off with a white truffle oil ($12). These meaty scallops were seared flawlessly and melted in my mouth, as the sauce showed my taste buds a whole new level of rich depravity.
Our plates were cleared and we were given little respite until the salads were upon us. Making sure that we saved room for the main course, Susan graciously only served us half orders of all four of her salads. Although I tasted all four, I mainly focused on two of her leafy masterpieces. The Warm Brie Salad ($6.50), melted Brie served on Kentucky Bibb with toasted almonds (a salad that has been on the menu for over twenty years), impeccably represented the traditional Spring flavors of blossoming greens, buttery cheese and earthy nuts. Meanwhile the Goat Cheese Salad ($6.75), cold Goat Cheese served with candied pecans and sun-dried cranberries, played tart and sweet effortlessly against each other, while resting nicely over a fantastic mix seasonal greens, which were drizzled lightly with a lemon balsamic vinaigrette.
As we finished our salads and the last of our martinis, a grinning Susan informed us that she had paired two beautiful wines to go with our upcoming entrees. She started us with a Hendry Block 8, a 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. Full in flavor, the wine had acidic fruit notes and a small hint of oak. Next up was a 2004 Conundrum Chardonnay, a white table wine from Rutherford, California. This wine was the most complex white wine I had ever tasted, which was probably due to the nine grapes used in its creation.
As the wine continued to flow, our entrees arrived and we were forced to dig deep into the reserves of our stomachs to find more room. I started by tucking into the herb encrusted Pork Chop, a healthy twelve once center cut loin chop, seared with a dry vermouth glaze and served with a medley of roasted new potatoes, asparagus, apple smoked bacon, garlic and shiitakes. The crisp crust complimented the tender meat, while the medley of vegetables reminded me about the significance of Kentucky Proud. After a few bites, we passed out plates to the left and I was presented with the Salmon Filet. This dish was also seared and encrusted with almond and pistachio rub, then served on sautéed spinach with a tomato, pearl onion and chive buerre blanc. The salmon was cooked with a tender precision, and the saltiness of the almond and pistachio crust nicely off set the sweet buerre blanc. Next up was the Lobster Campanelle, a bountiful dish of lobster tails tossed with fresh campanelle pastas, Nicoise olives, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapenos, broccoli rabe and tomato concasse in a rosemary shallot olive oil, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano. With so many ingredients packed into such a small dish, one would think that this entree would come off as heavy and overwhelming, but it was just the opposite. There was a perfect balance of individual components and just the right amount of oil and cream that gave the dish a both a light and rich feeling.
Finally it was time for dessert, and with much begging and pleading, we managed to persuade Susan to only prepare two of her decadent desserts, instead of the four she had already picked out. First up was the Chocolate Pave, a flourless chocolate cake served with Grand Marnier braised bananas in Amarula sauce and topped off with vanilla, pecan, and toffee ice cream. The cake itself was a self-indulgent abyss of rich chocolate, while the bananas and ice cream were gently sweet and did well to balance the almost overwhelming coco flavors. Finally we were served the last dish of the night, a Crème Caramel, a vanilla custard with warm caramel sauce and a burnt sugar crust. Although much more modest than the Chocolate Pave, this was my favorite of the two due to its simple, charming taste and its refined presentation.
All in all the meal ran just over three hours and ended with private tour of Jack Fry’s enormous kitchen. The meal was a pitch perfect prologue to the weeklong eating tour we were about to embark on. Susan graciously introduced us to the local ingredients, dishes and service we would enjoy over the next few days; and through her food, we received more than just a taste of the city, but a full course meal on Louisville’s culture, cuisine and farmer friendly community.Jack Fry's
is located at 1007 Bardstown Road in Louisville, KY.