A fabulous but fattening three days in six Louisville restaurants

Roux exterior courtesy Roux

Roux in the Highlands | Photo courtesy of Roux

There are worse ways than food writing to earn a living.

Some believe there are none better.

I say it depends on whom you ask, what day you ask and what the writer must eat or drink in the process.

Most days this is great work, and some days it stinks. But those stinkers are few and far between. When they are tough is when eating, drinking and writing becomes too much of a good thing for a 50-year-old man. If I eat to the point of discomfort, especially more than once or twice a week, my gallbladder complains bitterly. So I space out my restaurant visits when I can.

When I can’t, as happened between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, when I visited six restaurants in 72 hours, it’s a mixed blessing, a fate that led me to dub my trade “the blessed curse.”

It wasn’t my wish to have that many meals out, but that’s how several restaurants scheduled their week of openings and new menu launches. It’s my job to follow this stuff, to learn what’s new to eat and turn those bites into multiple stories built on the consumption of countless calories.

Which is the hardest part of all. I have to watch that stuff because during my 2013 physical, my doctor said, “Hmm,” when he read the results of blood work he’d ordered.

“Hmm,” he said. That was it.

I guess it beat, “Dayumm!” but I knew it wasn’t great.

“What’s, ‘Hmm,’ mean?” I asked, knowing exactly what he’d say.

He said my LDL cholesterol was up, and, “You need to watch that. And you could lose a few pounds, too, by dieting and exercise.”

Real news flash there. I didn’t need to pay him to tell me that. But he’s a nice guy, concerned and honest, and so I left with a truthful though trite, “Will do, Doc,” but without any concrete plan for how I’d see that through.

Long story short, I lost 17 pounds this year mostly through dieting. It was great to be back at my 1992 “date weight,” the place where I tipped the scales when I met the girl who’d become my wife.

She also got back to date weight this year, which left us both feeling pretty proud, but in this line of work, challenged also to keep it off.

Which brings me back to the blessed curse of a job and working in a city with a booming restaurant market: a really dandy and diverse restaurant market. A glimpse at my calendar for last week:

  • Strati Wild Italian opening, Sept. 30
  • Kill 90 minutes at Asiatique between Strati visit and Roux meal
  • Roux soft opening, Sept. 30
  • Patrick O’Shea’s, meet new chef, taste new menu, Oct. 1
  • La Coop Bistro a Vins, new menu rollout, Oct. 2
  • Coconut Beach Tacos & Cerveza, soft opening Oct. 2

The scope of cuisines on my to-do (to-eat?) list said it all about Louisville’s increasingly dynamic food scene: I’d visit restaurants serving Italian, Pacific Rim, New Orleans, Irish, French and Mexican cuisines.

Some capsules of what I discovered along the way — other than my expanding waistline.

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A cook at Strati Wild Italian making a wrap | Photo by Steve Coomes

Calm before the storm at Strati Wild Italian: It was still warm outside the day I visited, so the retractable doors were opened to let the Bardstown Road noise and autumn air roll in. The inline space seats about 60 at a mix of tables and benches, some of which are located outside and face the street.

The food is simple: straightforward Italian assembled to order in a fast-casual format. The menu (not online yet) includes a host of pasta bowls, wraps, lasagnas and salads. For those not inclined toward choice, there are many signature items created by operating partner and chef, Howard Richardson.

Richardson slipped me a bowl of Italian chili with molten mozzarella while we discussed the basics: A meal and a drink will run you about $10, give or take, and be in your hands just a few minutes after ordering.

He said crowds at the outset had numbered about a couple hundred per day, but that the restaurant is designed to serve five times that amount.

“It’s good that we’re starting off a little slow as we’re learning,” Richardson said. “We know we’ll be rocking and rolling before long.”

Hours are Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Always a pleasure, Asiatique: With nothing scheduled between Strati and Roux’s soft opening, I stopped at one of my favorite Highlands bars for a good cocktail. Co-owner Pabs Sembillo offered a mojito made with muddled raspberry and mint, rum and a float of Raspberry-Peach Grand Mariner. Super refreshing and light … so light I thought I’d have an appetizer portion of tea-poached eggs in sambal sauce. Not light, but delicious and sturdy enough to absorb a craft beer while I killed more time and checked email.

This would be a lovely place to enjoy a beignet and a coffee. Photo by Kevin Gibson.

Roux’s patio | Photo by Kevin Gibson

You should do Roux: Roux Louisville was already crazy by the time I arrived at 7. There was nothing soft about its soft-opening night. It was packed, and the cacophony of a live band in the upstairs lounge and Trombone Shorty on the stereo downstairs made it impossible to not smile upon entering the former Le Gallo Rosso. My dinner guest for the evening said, “I’m sure I could hang out here!”

Owners Dustin and Kyle Staggers have recreated a funky-free New Orleans vibe in the vividly painted two-story restaurant. Every wall not featuring the dazzling freehand graphics of Scot Winskye and Chris Chapell is covered in pictures of the Big Easy taken and framed by Kyle.

For the 90 minutes we stayed, servers hustled and the kitchen pumped out enormous quantities of food. Recommended are the crawfish étouffée, the blackened redfish and the French 75 cocktail. Our server urged us to eat more, but I was saved by a text from my son who needed a ride home from work. I was full enough for one night, yet vowed to return for more.

FYI, lunch hours Monday-Saturday are 11 a.m.-4 p.m., dinner hours are 4-11 p.m., the late-night menu runs from 11 p.m.-2 a.m. It closes Sundays at 11 p.m. The cash-only Beignet Window in the back opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 2 a.m.

Patrick O'Shea's

Patrick O’Shea’s

Irish eyes were smiling: Wednesday was easier — seemingly — with just one scheduled visit to Patrick O’Shea’s to sit with owner Tom O’Shea (easily one of the funniest and pleasant operators in town) and general manager Amy Milby. We discussed (for another story) their excitement over the forthcoming Old Forester Bourbon distillery.

Like many restaurateurs with operations near the KFC Yum! Center, the past few years have been tough on O’Shea. Locals weren’t quick to visit downtown restaurants outside of scheduled big events at the arena, and tourists steered clear of a restaurant without street parking and a scaffolding tunnel out front.

But according to Milby, Patrick O’Shea’s has become a highly sought special event space more than a restaurant destination, though its main floor restaurant still serves thousands of customers weekly.

As we talked, food began arriving at the table, treats from Patrick O’Shea’s new chef, Kyle Schwan. Since arriving late this summer, the Denver native ditched the longstanding unwieldy menu and replaced it with a streamlined gastropub lineup with dishes such as mussels, Scotch eggs made with chorizo, a top-notch braised lamb shank, and flash-fried pork belly with a sauce of sorghum and bourbon.

Refusing a dessert offer because I was full as a tick on a hound’s hide, we toured the entire operation, including its modern rooftop garden and lower level that opens onto Washington Street. I was amazed at the continued transformation of this superbly restored 19th century building — and the menu. Oh, my, how this young chef has already made a statement.

La Coop Burger (Photo by Steve Coomes)

La Coop Burger | Photo by Steve Coomes

To the Coop! After eating scarcely a thing for breakfast or lunch Thursday, I joined some other food writers at La Coop Bistro a Vins to taste executive chef Bobby Benjamin’s new fall menu.

Few chefs in town balance precision, control and technique as well as Benjamin. In the parlance of the kitchen, his food is “tight,” meaning it never gets crazy or over-the-top trying to tantalize with trickery. Ironically, making food this beautiful and flavorful requires immense restraint and an intense focus on ingredient quality. Ask any chef, and they’ll tell you such self-discipline is hard as hell.

What was hard as hell for our press group was keeping pace with the flow of dishes that came to the table — I lost count at 14 — such as escargot (really good, brightly flavored and tender snails that weren’t overly garlicky or rubbery) followed by crab cakes, then pork belly, bacon-and-egg salad and pecan salad (with freakin’ bleu cheese ice cream!) and coq au vin and steak frites … and on it went.

Despite the press group’s muted mentions of agony, the savage chef wouldn’t stop sending food! He said, “There’s only a little more coming out,” which was a lie. Minutes later he showed up with three HUGE burgers — it was Thursday burger night and all, and it wouldn’t be right, he said, to not get into the spirit of such an event — so we complied, chewed, moaned appreciatively because they were perfect.

And then he lied again, saying, “Just a little more left to come out,” and my gallbladder began an argument with my palate — which my palate won when warm petit skillets of bananas Foster bread pudding arrived alongside silky, rich chocolate pot de crème that I could not stop spooning.

Despite my complaint of another dinner visit left, the sinewy chef grinned mercilessly and said, “Oh, you’ll find some room. You’ve got time.”

Coconut Beach's posole (Photo by Steve Coomes)

Coconut Beach’s posole | Photo by Steve Coomes

Vamos a Coconut Beach! He was right. I had some time: a whopping 45 minutes between abandoning my fork at La Coop, dropping off a friend who lives near Coconut Beach Cerveza & Tacos, and the actual arrival of food at the table. (Click here for a recent story on this restaurant.)

Thankfully, my wife and son joined me with empty stomachs, allowing me to nibble at their selections while pressing my metabolism into unhealthful overdrive.

Following a jalapeno-accented margarita came a slew of tacos, empanadas, ellote callejeros (the savory grilled ear of corn made super popular at the owners’ first restaurant here, Guaca Mole), maduros (fried plantains with queso, crema and cilantro) and my lone choice, posole. The stew of tomato, pork and hominy was superb, though I could manage only about a half cup of it. Thank God for carryout cups.

With apologies to the Martinez family owners for not eating more, I slipped behind the wheel at about 9:30, my abdomen distended to the point of discomfort that was aggravated by the mere pressure of the seatbelt.

Yes, I’d over eaten — “I had to!” I told myself — and I knew the next day’s breakfast would actually be a lunch of tart yogurt with fresh fruit. Dinner would be vegetable centered, something light and fibrous. The binge cycle was over and it was time to rebalance.

Until the next week, when it started all over again.