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2817 Taylorville Road
How do I love Le Relais? Let me count the ways: Elegant art deco style, excellent service, and most of all, creative riffs on traditional French cuisine keep Le Relais consistently near the top of Louisville's restaurant competition. It's certainly Kentucky's best French restaurant; I would go a step further and rank it above Cincinnati's famous Maisonette, which loses points for a stuffy conservatism and old-fashioned pretentiousness that would have no place at Le Relais.
Psst! Want a good deal?
Try shifting your fine-dining calendar from Friday or Saturday night to a weekday, and you'll discover that some of Louisville's best restaurants - even high-end spots with white tablecloths - are offering special bargains to lure you in on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening.
Framed airline posters of the '20s and discreet art deco light fixtures enchance the effect. Large tables are double-draped in white linen and set with good white-linen napkins and fine flatware, with attractive brass-shaded votive-candle lamps to add a cozy glow, making this one of the most relaxing and elegantly comfortable dining venues in town.
The menu changes from time to time, but it's consistently French-accented and eclectic. It currently features 10 appetizers, from $6 (for a mesclun salad or Caesar salad) to $10.25 (for prosciutto and black Mission figs with caramelized onions, Boursin cheese crostini and field greens with apple cider vinaigrette, a seasonal treat that will probably disappear from the menu when fresh fig season ends). Nine dinner entrees range from $17.50 (for a vegetable Charlotte of zucchine, French lentil ragout and tomato fondue with a wild mushroom "purse") to $26.50 (for a sherry Dijon-glazed veal chop with Yukon gold potato salad).
For a taste of Le Relais' pleasures at a moderated price, consider dropping in for lunch, where the starter menu is essentially the same, but a luncheon entree menu offers similar-only-different main courses from as little as $9.50 (for free-range chicken with whipped Peruvian blue potatoes, summer vegetables and a lemongrass-basil velouté) to a still-affordable $13.75 (for a lunch-size version of the filet). The lunch menu also features a daily pasta dish and omelet at market prices.
The wine list (which recently won Wine Spectator magazine's Award of Excellence) wins this wine enthusiast's praise on the basis of both selection and value. The well-chosen list features a couple of hundred wines, mostly American and French, with a lot of interesting wines that you won't find on many city wine lists; and the markup is well under the double retail (triple wholesale) that seems to have become the local standard. Most wines range from $25 to $85, and many of them are from small, well-chosen minor properties rather than the more pricey big-name producers. (There's also a less impressive list of comparatively mass-market wines by the glass from $5.50 to $8.50, and a few half-bottles.)
I studied the list for a long time before choosing an intriguing recent addition, 1995 Domaine des Gartieux Pauillac ($48). Made by Chateau Pichon-Longueville, one of the top properties of Bordeaux, this wine is made from younger vines not yet considered capable of producing the best wines. At a fraction the price of Longueville, it is a very fine Pauillac indeed, showing plenty of good currantlike fruit and the classic "lead-pencil" aromas of good Bordeaux; it's still young and showing some tannic astringency, but just mature enough to make a fine match with both the beef and the lamb.
Early on, a server brought us each a single slice of baguette and a pat of butter. In the evening's only service lapse, he then disappeared, leaving us idly wishing we had another piece of bread or two during the fairly long wait for our appetizer course. With that sole exception, however, the service was perfect throughout the evening; formal but not pompous, courteous but not intrusive.
Special selections of the day tempted us away from the regular menu for both starters.
The soup du jour, tomato bisque ($6), was creamy and rich, a smooth and fine marriage of fresh tomatoes, butter and cream, with a bit of crumbled goat cheese sprinkled on top and a flash-fried basil leaf as garnish.
My choice, a lobster tail ($15), was beautifully displayed on a white stoneware plate: a whole, large grilled lobster tail was perched on a pair of gallettes (homemade waffle-cut potato chips) topped with peppery fresh radish sprouts, plated on a pool of bright-yellow beurre blanc with a scattering of bright-green fresh English peas. Everything was done perfectly, from the steaming, tender lobster to the silken beurre blanc (butter whipped into a reduction of wine and citrus juices until it mounts into a rich sauce) to the perfectly finished peas. The flavors played a symphony entirely in tune, with a slight snappy orange tang in the sauce making a natural harmony with the impeccably fresh, rich and sweet lobster meat. Even the colors made an artful match, a feast for the eyes and the nose and the palate. I could easily have eaten two, but it was best to save room for the main courses ...
The lamb loin ($24) was a generous portion, cooked exactly as ordered with a warm-pink rare center. It was sliced into tender medallions spread in an arc over a mound of just-wilted swiss chard with a tangy balsamic flavor, and a dollop of gratin Dauphinois, thin-sliced potatoes baked in rich cream and butter, all plated on sauce Espagnole, a classic French brown sauce, winey and dark. A single clove of roasted mild elephant garlic perched on top as a flavor accent, with fresh green pea shoots and a trio of crisp potato galettes artfully arranged like a butterfly's wings.
The filet ($26) was just as fine. Le Relais is no steakhouse, but the chefs can make a steak with the best of them. A large portion, the size of a hockey puck or maybe even a baseball, at least 1 1/2 inches thick, was precisely medium-rare as ordered, seared and caramelized on the surface, beautiful hot-pink in the middle, with seared grill marks almost hidden under a mound of maitre d'hotel-style parsley butter and a spray of pea shoots. Tender, tiny fingerling potatoes were plated around the steak, clock-face fashion, on a rich brown sauce topped with a ration of firm, crisp-tender fava beans.
Desserts were presented with panache, using three dishes separated by lacy doilies where less classy service would make do with one.
The crème brûlée ($5.50) added no fancy frippery to the classic form: a thin portion of eggy custard was served in an oval ramekin, topped with a crisp, glassy caramelized surface, garnished with blueberries and a large but rather pale strawberry.
Homemade fig ice cream, a daily special ($5.50) was a triumph of the season. Ice cream for grownups, it's not too sweet and more elegant than rich, three big scoops of lightly creamy fresh-cream ice cream loaded with chunks of fresh black Mission fig. The figs were frozen a bit hard and icy when served, but a few minutes on the table brought them around. (The ice cream was topped with an artful arrangement of strawberries and blueberries coated with a dusting of powdered sugar, served on a wafer-thin sugar cookie in a pretty "vertical food" presentation.
Espresso ($2.50) was bitter but rich, with the foamy crema on top that signals a well-made "shot."
Dinner at Le Relais is not cheap, but it's worth it. With the wine, our filling and impressive meal came to $143.10, plus a $30 tip for extremely competent service. $$$$