Recently, Evansville Living traveled to four cities to explore the culinary heritage of some of the region’s best-loved restaurants. From the world’s hottest shrimp cocktail sauce in Indianapolis to pie so sweet we almost wept in Chattanooga, here’s the best of what we found.
By Laura M. Mathis – I never have had problems finding a great restaurant in my native Louisville. Maybe because during the first weekend in May when Kentucky Derby revelers converge from all over the world, Louisville wants to make a good impression. The derby lasts one weekend, but for the rest of the year, the culinary gems remain.
The Brown Hotel
Famous find: The Brown Hotel’s Hot Brown (recipe available here).
Built in 1923, The Brown Hotel’s second story lobby is a place you could imagine Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby taking up residence. The long and narrow setting is replete with luxury from its hand-painted coffered ceilings and carved columns to the antique furnishings arranged in conversational seating patterns. At the end of the hall is an intricately carved wood bar with an ample bourbon selection. Part of the newly formed Urban Bourbon Trail (www.justaddbourbon.com), the lobby bar serves a perfectly prepared Manhattan.
Across from the bar is the AAA Four-Diamond rated English Grill restaurant. In another elegant setting with rich wood-paneled walls and an equestrian flair, executive chef Laurent Géroli mixes his international culinary background at Ritz-Carlton properties with the best local ingredients. My husband, Mark, and I embarked on a decadent path of lobster macaroni and cheese prepared with Maine lobster, cavatappi pasta gratin, aged Vermont cheddar, and truffle oil; broiled diver sea scallops in a Riesling emulsion; pan-seared crab cakes drizzled with corn bourbon sauce; Kobe steak skewers; and tiramisu mousse. Secret ingredient: The crab cakes are infused with heavy whipping cream instead of the usual mayonnaise.
Since Mark and I spent our wedding night at The Brown Hotel, we would like to return for an anniversary and dine at the chef’s table at the English Grill. The table seats up to 16 guests directly in front of Géroli as he prepares seven courses of heavy appetizers complete with a bourbon cocktail and wine pairings ($150 per person).
335 W. Broadway, (502) 583-1234 or www.brownhotel.com
Seviche – A Latin Restaurant
Nation’s best: In 2009, USA Today named Seviche one of the 10 great places for Latino flavor and flair in the United States.
In the eclectic Highlands neighborhood, Bardstown Road offers some of city’s most adventurous dining opportunities. Seviche, which means “citrus-marinated fresh seafood,” serves creative Nuevo Latino cuisine in a stylish setting. Nationally acclaimed chef/owner Anthony Lamas produces flavorful and unique dishes: a blend of Latin and Kentucky cultures.
We started with Ostiones a la Lamas — a dish of oysters, spinach, smoked bacon, green chile crema, and manchego cheese baked to perfection. For our seviche, we chose a daily special: the wasabi-glazed seared salmon. The signature seviche is the ahi tuna with seasame, scallions, and ginger served in a fresh coconut.
For our entrees, I ordered the Churrascos De Argentina, a Black Angus skirt steak with chimichurri and new red potato mash. Hearty and flavorful, it was a welcome twist. Mark tried the Hawaiian tuna, prepared slightly seared on one side. We shared a piece of sinfully dense flourless chocolate cake.
1538 Bardstown Road, (502) 473-8560 or www.sevicherestaurant.com
Do the math: How many eggs has this restaurant served since opening in 2007? More than 1 million.
At Wild Eggs, executive chef J.J. Kingery offers a family and business-folk friendly meal that a grandmother on the farm would have made from scratch. With walls painted in robin’s egg blue and pale yellow and accented with hundreds of glass-encased wild eggs, the breakfast, brunch, and lunch restaurant feels like a sunshine-filled morning. I had Kalamity Katie’s Border Benedict, a Mexican version of the breakfast dish served with green chili cheddar corn cakes, topped with chorizo, two poached eggs, queso fundido, pico de gallo, sour cream, green onion, and avocado. This dish proves co-owner J.D. Rothberg is true to his mission: to continue his mother’s advice that no one should leave the house without breakfast, where you ate surrounded by family and friends. Bonus: I was full until dinner.
Along with the variety of egg dishes including omelets and frittatas, the restaurant serves French toast, waffles, and pancakes. For brunch, complement the rich flavors with a habañero Bloody Mary.
The success of this upscale breakfast establishment (a third opens this year) is due to Kingery. His egg recipes made him one of six “eggscellent” chef ambassadors for the American Egg Board.
3985 Dutchmans Lane, (502) 893-8005, and 1311 Herr Lane, (502) 618-2866 or www.crackinwildeggs.com
Two for one: Aside from the award-winning restaurant, Sullivan University also operates an upscale bakery that teaches students pastry chef skills.
Sullivan University’s culinary program feeds Louisville’s fine dining experience. The nationally regarded training ground for top chefs counts Wild Eggs chef J.J. Kingery among its alumni. Attached to Sullivan’s is Winston’s Restaurant, where students train during their final semester. At the helm of this artfully appointed and intimate dining spot is executive chef John Castro. In 2007, the American Culinary Federation designated Winston’s as the nation’s best on-campus restaurant at a culinary school.
My evening began with an aromatic cocktail, “Leap of Faith,” a combination of vodka, blackberry liqueur, and St. Germain (a French liqueur made from elderflower blossoms). I had faith a delightful meal would follow.
Dinner at Winston’s consists of small and large plates. I indulged in the small plate, “Lobster Louis,” infused with hearts of palm and saffron aioli and presented sandwich-style between two slices of tomato. I paired this with the half-large plate, “Not Brown,” Castro’s playful take on the famous sandwich. The combination of fried green tomatoes, shrimp, crab, bacon, spinach, and Mornay sauce was creamy and luscious. My favorite dessert beckoned — crème brulée. It was the best I’ve yet to try.
3101 Bardstown Road, (502) 456-0980 or www.sullivan.edu/winstons
Corbett’s, An American Place
Menu surprise: Cinnamon ice cream.
Business development has been abundant at Old Brownsboro Crossing in far eastern Louisville around Corbett’s in the last few years, but stepping onto the veranda of this 150-year-old farm house on the National Register of Historic Places took me miles away as my family prepared to enjoy Sunday brunch.
One of Esquire magazine’s 2008 Best New Restaurants comes from the vision of Louisville culinary king Dean Corbett, who opened the elegant and comfortable dining space in 2007. Corbett, who also owns the celebrated Equus and Jack’s Lounge, hails from Louisville’s epic Casa Grisanti, a fine dining establishment that opened in the 1970s.
At Corbett’s, Sunday brunch includes a three-course, prix-fixe menu ($25) with a choice of a starter, main course, and dessert. The array of first course items at our table included oysters Rockefeller, steel cut oatmeal brulée, and organic yogurt with fresh fruit and almond granola. My favorite samplings from main courses were the corned beef fingerling potato hash with poached eggs and truffled Hollandaise sauce and the vanilla mascarpone stuffed French toast. For dessert, everyone delighted in the carrot cake with orange cream cheese icing and the unexpected cinnamon ice cream.
Corbett’s exhibits gourmet splendor, but it’s not pretentious. This especially was true of the attentive servers with Southern graciousness.
5050 Norton Healthcare Blvd., (502) 327-5058 or www.corbettsrestaurant.com
By Louis La Plante – The culinary attitude in Indianapolis isn’t too different from the tone resonating in Evansville: plenty of chains and plenty of locally owned powerhouses steeped in history. Two restaurants caught my eye — and fed my appetite.
Menu surprise: Penne pasta diablo.
To a half-German Southwest Indiana native like myself, the inside of this 19th-century building just off Massachusetts Avenue feels like a chapel. As Indianapolis’ oldest restaurant, The Rathskeller should have a historic feel. The ceiling in the narrow Kellerbar (literally, cellar bar) reaches toward the heavens (like a church), though I didn’t eat in the Kellerbar — stocked with 12 imported draft and 50 imported bottle beers.
I dined next to The Rathskeller’s banquet hall: less noisy than the Kellerbar but with the same ambiance. The menu reads like mouthwatering Deutsch poetry (sauerbraten, jaegerschnitzel, and brat ’n kraut balls). The beauty of The Rathskeller menu is its ability to blend German fare with international flavors. Order the schnitzel Parmesan as proof. The pan-fried center cut pork loin comes topped with a thick marinara sauce. It doesn’t taste like a natural combination (like peanut butter and jelly), but the schnitzel Parmesan still works as an off-the-beaten path entree with decidedly German origins.
Outside in the biergarten is a crowd of full-bellied people with draft beer in hand. The biergarten resembles Evansville’s Germania Maennerchor — except with an impressive amphitheater where local bands play. From 1950s rock to 1970s soul, these musicians aren’t necessarily the German variety, so you may not have to raise your glass and yell “Prost,” but no one will mind.
401 E. Michigan St., (317) 636-0396 or www.rathskeller.com
Harry & Izzy’s
Be advised: The shrimp cocktail sauce is hotter than a Honduran red chili.
The shrimp cocktail sauce from St. Elmo Steak House is legendary — and with a 108-year restaurant history, the powerful potion used as a plump shrimp dip should be. A travel blogger, whose job is to eat, was overcome by the experience, and she named it hotter than anything else on the planet.
When St. Elmo’s owners opened a sister restaurant, Harry & Izzy’s, three years ago, they placed the cocktail sauce on the menu, but this upscale restaurant in Downtown Indianapolis has a few differences with its St. Elmo’s counterpart.
The interior has the feel of a restaurant in a Prohibition-era Circle City — with a caveat: Patrons surround a dark-wooded bar centered in the 9,000-square-foot restaurant. The American Grille menu is inclusive. The Izzy-style New York strip is 14 ounces of pan-seared meat rolled in cracked peppercorn, while in the seafood section is an aquatic plate with two grilled 8-ounce Australian lobster tails. From the brick oven comes a variety of pizzas; one topping is roasted Indiana duck served with a campfire onion marmalade and smoked Gouda.
The Prohibition era may have inspired the décor, but the wine list is plentiful.
153 S. Illinois St., (317) 635-9594 or www.harryandizzys.com
Our original story on culinary hot spots in Indianapolis included the upscale, romantic restaurant Scholars Inn (725 Massachusetts Ave.) in downtown Indianapolis. After we finished the piece, we learned the restaurant was closing. The news was saddening, but in mid-April, the Indianapolis Star reported that restaurateur Mike Cunningham had purchased the restaurant’s assets and leased the space. He plans to open a new dining destination, Mesh, in August.
By Kristen Lund – In 1969, the late CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite declared Chattanooga the nation’s “dirtiest city.” The unflattering description marked a turning point for Chattanooga. Now dubbed the “Scenic City,” the mountainous destination prides itself on green initiatives, tourism development, and fabulous food.
Bald Headed Bistro
Notable Decor: Fossils inlaid in the bar, floor, and walls, thought to be more than 55 million years old.
Confession: This restaurant is located in Cleveland, Tenn., a 40-minute drive from Chattanooga, but it’s worth the haul. After all, a little distance makes the heart grow fonder. That’s what Bald Headed Bistro owner and creator Allan Jones learned when he became enamored with Jackson Hole, Wyo. Jones brought more than the spirit of the West home to Tennessee: He brought 283 fallen logs from his ranch and incorporated them into the restaurant’s walls.
Bald Headed Bistro bills itself as offering “fine Western dining in the heart of the South.” After an appetizer sampler of crab cakes, ahi tuna, and Kobe tenderloin and a rich crab bisque, I ordered a filet and rotisserie sea bass entree served with vegetable ragout and crab macaroni and cheese.
Over dinner, I chatted with the delightful Melissa Woody of Cleveland’s convention and visitors’ bureau. After a mouthwatering dessert of bananas Foster flamed at our table, my group of full-bellied journalists gave her several leftover filets to take home and joked that someone could mug her for the estimated $150 of steak she was carrying. The food was just that good.
201 Keith St. S.W., Cleveland, Tenn.; (423) 472-6000 or www.baldheadedbistro.com
Easy Bistro & Bar
Menu surprise: Cucumber-infused gin.
For a restaurant with a quirky connection to the beverage industry (Easy Bistro & Bar is located in the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant), it seems fitting that much of the restaurant’s appeal lies in the drink menu. This sleek, stylish spot in downtown Chattanooga is “cool as a cucumber” — at least, that’s the name of a popular cocktail served there, made with house-infused cucumber ginger gin. My dining companions loved the drink, but I opted for another creative (and refreshing) concoction: a blackberry margarita.
Decorated sparely in black, white, and lime green, Easy Bistro radiates big-city chic, but the friendly atmosphere and the food exude Southern charm. While many Chattanoogans come for cocktails, the dinner menu impresses, too. Aside from a tantalizing list of meat and seafood entrees, Easy Bistro offers some surprising pasta selections: lobster with potato-mascarpone ravioli and truffled risotto with king trumpet mushrooms. It also is known for its raw bar of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and both coasts, a favorite choice of landlocked patrons.
203 Broad St., (423) 266-1121 or www.easybistro.com
Back Inn Café
Building history: A renovated Colonial Revival mansion.
In the late 1800s, the Bluff View neighborhood — modeled after a quaint European village — housed lawyers, doctors, and titans of industry. Nearly a century later, a Chattanooga couple with a passion for preservation transformed the area into a sensory feast. Bluff View now is a thriving art district (Chattanooga’s first) with three restaurants, including the upscale Back Inn Café.
The restaurant describes its menu as “upscale global cuisine,” and choices range from the exotic to the down-home Southern. Frog legs and sushi both appear on the appetizer menu, and entrees include everything from steak to shrimp and grits.
My dinner in one of Back Inn Café’s two sunrooms, awash in late-afternoon light, began with fresh-baked focaccia bread. The attention to quality ingredients showed in the day’s seafood special: turbot fish with a lemon emulsion and crispy parsnips, served with creamy lobster risotto. As for dessert, I solemnly believe that peanut butter and chocolate may be the world’s finest ingredients, especially together — and Back Inn Café’s peanut butter pie, served atop a crumbled Oreo crust, has me plotting a return trip to Chattanooga.
411 E. Second St., (423) 265-5033, ext. 1 or www.bluffviewartdistrict.com
By Kristen Lund – Tennessee’s third largest city is cultivating a reputation as a culinary haven, thanks in part to East Tennessee farms — many of which produce the fresh meats, dairy products, and veggies that end up on your plate.
Menu surprise: Cucumber slices in the water.
Seasons Café takes the “farm-to-table” concept seriously. On Saturdays, chefs step outside the restaurant to browse a farmers’ market in the parking lot. The seasonal produce, herbs, and cheeses they find become the alchemic ingredients in that night’s specials.
When I visited Knoxville last October, the cozy restaurant with a brick-and-wood interior — tucked away in a suburban strip plaza setting — seemed a perfect place for a fall indulgence. Seasonal ingredients created a bounty of earthy dishes: applewood smoked duck breast, braised venison, and sundried tomato-encrusted salmon. My hearty grilled pear and balsamic chicken entree was accompanied by a slice of pumpkin leek bread, an unexpected, savory twist on a sweet treat.
Of course, college football season demanded that Tennesseans show support for the University of Tennessee Volunteers (“Vols”). In addition to “Game Day Brulée,” a Cointreau and white chocolate crème brulée special, the fall menu (which changes seasonally) featured a thick, rich pumpkin bisque topped with fresh cream. The soup is an autumn classic, but in East Tennessee, the orange-and-white dish practically is patriotic.
12740 Kingston Pike, Suite 106; (865) 671-3679 or www.seasons-cafe.com
Be advised: Serves $5 appetizers until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The University of Tennessee gives Knoxville a youthful vibe. This city’s culinary appeal stretches far beyond college haunts, though: One decidedly grown-up destination is Le Parigo, an upscale French restaurant.
Le Parigo’s charming chef and owner, Cedric Coant, moved to Knoxville from Gennevilliers, France, a decade ago after falling in love with a Southern woman — now his wife. The European transplant longed to recreate the food he’d loved in his homeland; thus, Le Parigo, using all-natural ingredients, was born.
Located downtown near the pedestrian-only Market Square, this tiny restaurant evokes laid-back Parisian elegance in the heart of Knoxville. In true French form, the focus is on the food — and lingering for hours, if you want. (You will.)
My group shared a series of artfully presented appetizers, including seared pork belly, mussels à la Provençal, pan-roasted escargot, and a gleefully buttery lobster bisque. Like most French restaurants, Le Parigo isn’t cheap, but it’s the kind of place that inspires hours of lively conversation over glorious food and wine.
416 W. Clinch Ave., (865) 525-9214 or www.leparigo.net