Category Archives: LEO’s Eats

How is Le Relais like a high-school reunion?

Imagine, if you will, a high school reunion. A seemingly ordinary reunion, perhaps 25 years after you graduated and left town for new challenges. You return, eager to see old friends again. Hey, Jack hasn’t changed a bit! Trent and Joanie got married, gained a few pounds as they slouched into middle age. Ronnie is bald!

And then, across the room, a tall, slender form appears. It’s Lizzie! The cheerleader you had a crush on. She must be a beauty still. You walk over to say hello. She turns, smiles and … oh.
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Varanese keeps up its tradition

It’s hard to believe Varanese has been around for five years now, particularly when we consider that Azalea, the popular Brownsboro Road eatery that was Chef John Varanese’s culinary home before he moved into these quarters in 2007, still remains vacant and, frankly, is looking more than a little shabby. (An Indiana-based mini-chain called “Mesh” is said to be on the way.)

Meanwhile, Varanese, who settled into his eponymous new establishment (a former service station, later Red Lounge) without missing a beat, is going strong on Frankfort Avenue.
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Dress up and dine well at Henry’s Place

Want to go someplace classy for dinner and you don’t mind dressing up a bit to enjoy it? Consider Henry’s Place, which arrived last month with a “business casual” dress code in tow.

“We hope the ladies will want to dress up a bit and that the gentlemen will occasionally throw on that blue blazer that’s always handy,” advises its website. Shorts, T-shirts, ball caps, torn blue jeans and flip-flops are on the no-no list: “We would really like it if you saved your blue jeans for the more casual dining spots,” the dress code rules state, warning would-be style offenders, “Patrons who are not suitably attired will be offered space in the bar area, if available.”
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Elegance is made easy at St. Charles Exchange

What could be more elegant than the classy confines of a turn-of-the-century hotel bar? Turn of the last century, I mean – a scene more familiar through classic cinema than personal experience. I’m not that old!

Take Louisville’s new St. Charles Exchange, for example. Pull open the tall, heavy doors, and it’s like stepping back into another era – you suddenly hear the clop of horse hooves and the creak of buggy wheels replacing the drone of traffic on Seventh Street.
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Great Guac, great Mole, and more at Guaca Mole

Some guacamole walked into a bar, and the bartender said, “Hey! There’s a restaurant named after you.” “What? There’s a restaurant named Wilbur?”

Well, no. And my career as a stand-up comedian should probably end right there. After all, guacamole is nothing to joke about, or at least not much. And if you think guacamole is just some boring green stuff that you use as a dip at cheap Mexican restaurants, you might want to re-think that, too.
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Instant Restaurant Row in Cardinal Towne

Vegan "ribs" at Green Leaf
Vegan "ribs" at Green Leaf . LEO photo by Ron Jasin
People talk about “restaurant rows” all the time in this food-crazed town. We’ve been marking them with highlighters on the city map for the last 25 years or so, since Bardstown Road started to solidify as the city’s first such culinary concatenation with the arrival of the Bristol, Jack Fry’s and their neighbors in the late 1970s.

It didn’t take Frankfort Avenue long to get into the act, when the Irish Rover, El Mundo and Heine’s followed Deitrich’s and the original incarnation of Lynn’s onto the streetscape. And then came St. Matthews, and NuLu;, and before long they’re all probably going to start running together into one mass restaurant zone.

And now, out on the bustling northwestern corner of the U of L campus, we may have the city’s first purpose-built restaurant row. If you don’t get out to this area often and still have in your mind the image of the old barn-like venue that long housed Masterson’s, get set to recalibrate: The entire southern end of the block along Cardinal Boulevard (née Avery) between Third and Fourth streets is now filled in by a hulking Cardinal red building that includes fancy apartment housing for 540 students … and, at ground level, a spanking-new urban block of spiffy storefronts that’s chockablock with quick-service eateries. Now, that’s a restaurant row!

Clearly geared to student interests, this row focuses on simple dining, fast and cheap. Not that there’s anything the matter with this. You might stereotype it as geared to student tastes, too. You’ve got subs (Qdoba), burgers (Home Run), vegetarian (Green Leaf), wings and such (Cluckers), coffee (Quills), Vietnamese-Chinese (Saigon One), pizza (Papalino’s), more sandwiches (Jimmy John’s) and, for dessert, a delicious bowl of ice cream (Comfy Cow).

You’ll find no upscale bistros here, no pricey white-tablecloth dining; but it’s a good mix of attractive alternatives, and applause to Louisville’s Grisanti Group (with its ties to local dining through the old Ferd Grisanti’s) for offering a number of local operators space among the chains. Not to mention such other attractions as J. Gumbo’s, Bazo’s, Bearno’s, Santa Fe Grill, La Tapatia, and the iconic Wagner’s Pharmacy, among many more in the campus-Papa John’s Stadium-Churchill Downs zone.

The Cardinal Towne strip proved more than ample for us the other day, though, as I felt the siren song of good quick and cheap eats calling my name from every doorway we passed at lunch time. We finally settled on a three-course progressive dinner that began with perhaps the quirkiest of the bunch, Green Leaf Natural Vegetarian Bistro.

The shtick here is that everything is vegetarian and much of it vegan; and posters and flat-screen videos in this shiny, green room hammer on the health and general goodness of a meat-free lifestyle. The menu straight-facedly offers dishes like caramel ginger chicken, steak burgers, BBQ pork and, mm, mm good, ribs, but it’s all ersatz, of course, using soy-protein analogues in place of meat. This vegetarian alternative outraged Louisville Cardinal critic Nathan Douglas, who savaged the place in a review earlier this year, demanding to know why “… one would put themselves through eating imitation meat, which at Green Leaf, has the consistency and taste of wet paper towels.”

I like the kid’s style – he might have a future as a restaurant critic – and if he got a little too harsh, he wasn’t really far off in his overall assessment. While I didn’t hate the meat analogues – the “ribs” had a chewy meaty texture and good salty flavor, and the “chicken” bits were soft but tasted as much like chicken as, say, rattlesnake or bunny rabbit does.

I wasn’t overwhelmed with the preparation, though. Both our dishes, house special citrus “rib” ($6.50) and roasted salted “chicken” ($6.75) came in seemingly identical combos with broccoli, pea pods, onion strips, zucchini, green pepper and a few wizened bits of button mushroom and soy sauce in “stir-fries” done on a grill top with rice on the side. I’ve had better Chinese food with more smiling service at storefront chopsticks houses all over town, and much better vegetarian at Roots, Heart & Soy, Zen Garden and just about every Southeast Asian eatery in town.

I doubt I’ll be back, but at least it was a decent deal, $17.18 for two with a tall glass of bubble tea ($2.95), and the change out of a $20 for the tip jar.

Green Leaf Natural Vegetarian Bistro
309 Cardinal Blvd.
75 points

Hoping to bounce back from a less than satisfactory experience, we continued lunch at a sure bet, Papalino’s NY Pizzeria, whose Cardinal Towne branch offers the downscale mood of an off-campus pizza pub. Giant slices, one with spinach, goat cheese and roasted tomatoes, and the other with roma tomatoes on chipotle cheddar, made us happy and got us out for about 10 bucks plus tip. (I rated the original Papalino’s 88 points upon opening on Baxter Avenue in 2010.)

Papalino’s NY Pizzeria
337 W. Cardinal Blvd.

Of course we couldn’t leave without a quick dessert at Comfy Cow, whose Cardinal Town branch sticks with the mini-chain’s antique ice-cream parlor look and ice cream that we’d scream for. “Arnold Palmer,” a lemonade-iced tea sorbet with a whiff of ginger, was strangely good. Caramel mocha was just plain good. Two “kiddie scoops,” $5, which probably works out to about 1 cent per calorie.

The Comfy Cow
339 W. Cardinal Blvd.