Caffe Perusa is a secret that can’t be kept

Caffe Perusa
Caffe Perusa’s “A Study of Oysters” features oysters prepared in six different ways, from a traditional oyster dressing to crispy with rosemary barbecue sauce. LEO photos by Jane Mattingly

LEO’s Eats with; Guest Critic Kevin Gibson

Walking into Caffe Perusa is a bit of a shock – it’s true that Louisville has a diverse and reputable fine-dining scene, but to find something like this in a strip mall is unexpected.

The wood floors, impeccable décor and crystal-adorned table settings in the main dining area are set off by a perimeter lined with booths that feature white Roman ionic columns and circular arches, set against accents of gold and red. The two-level, 10,000-square-foot restaurant also has four private dining rooms and a wine cellar that holds 10,000 bottles. Outside seating is being developed and should be open in a few weeks.

And, if a recent visit is any indication, the Continental cuisine more than meets the standards set by the upscale trappings.

The elegant Caffe Perusa – in which developer Rodulfo Pantoja reportedly has invested more than $2 million – has been a well-kept secret to this point. There is no website, and precious little has been written about the restaurant, which offers a relatively succinct but impressive menu to go with a diverse wine list.

Proof of its relative anonymity came from the fact that the place was more or less empty on a recent Saturday at 6:30 p.m. My friend Julia and I were seated immediately upon arriving, and for much of our meal we shared the dining room with only one other couple.

Our server, Ted, greeted us quickly with water, menus and a wine list, and encouraged us to take our time. We decided to order a bottle of 2006 Navarra Red Guitar (a Tempranillo-Garnacha blend from Spain, $20) and pore over the menu.

Caffe Perusa
Interior of Caffe Perusa.

While the appetizer menu is loaded with options, from lobster bisque to escargot, our eyes immediately hit on an intriguing option called “A Study in Oysters.” This appetizer (priced at $14.50) is a flight of six oysters on the half shell prepared in six different ways, from a traditional oyster dressing version to crispy with rosemary BBQ sauce, and each one sounded delicious. When Ted returned to the table with bread – fresh, white ciabatta as well as a walnut, cranberries and rosemary bread – we wasted no time ordering the “Study” to start.

We weren’t disappointed.

Six perfectly cooked, plump oysters (that tasted like standard but extremely fresh East Coast shellfish) gave way to not only a delicious warm-up for our taste buds, but quite a lot of fun in sharing and comparing. Julia and I are both foodies, so we kept track of our favorites and compared notes as we shared bite after bite.

The first we tried was the “oyster dressing with sage butter” version, which was reminiscent of Thanksgiving but with a noticeable sage kick; sage usually seems to stay in the background, but Caffe Perusa didn’t hold back in this dish. Second was the smoked bacon, parmesan and roasted red pepper oyster, which was just a bit bacon-heavy.

Bear in mind, it’s not that bacon isn’t delicious – “Bacon makes everything better,” Julia remarked – but in this case, it covered up the other flavors too much.

The next one on our plate became our hands-down favorite: It featured tender Portobello mushrooms and fried shallots, and was a perfect blend of flavors – the oyster really burst through. Next was the crispy oyster, cooked in a light batter that resembled country fried steak breading and blended with blue cheese and rosemary BBQ sauce. The shrimp, leek and chili aioli came next and was a close second to our favorite, boasting a deliciously interesting mix of flavors. Finally, we found the eggplant, crab and gruyere tasty but not as remarkable as our two top choices.

Overall, we couldn’t have been happier with our selection; we considered ordering two more and calling it a meal, but we felt more exploration was necessary, so we decided to opt for a cup of the lobster bisque ($5.95). It, too, was delicious. Bursting with lobster flavor – thanks largely to the chunks of plump, sweet lobster packed within – it was easily the best seafood bisque I’ve ever tasted.

Selecting an entrée wasn’t as easy as our first two choices, as there were several that looked luscious. We first considered the Shrimp and Scallop ($18.50), which featured jumbo scallops, crabmeat-stuffed shrimp, chipotle cheddar potato, mango relish and roasted corn butter, then looked longingly at the Red Snapper Meuniere ($26.50), comprised of broiled red snapper, salted fried capers, hon-shimeji mushroom, crab cream and meunière sauce. We also briefly pondered the Black Angus Filet ($37.50), which featured shiitake chips, roasted peppers, lemon veal jus and fried plantains.

In the end, we decided to split the Crispy Duck entrée ($19.50). Cooked until the skin was lightly crisp (thus the name) in raspberry bacon vinaigrette and presented over baby spinach, we found the duck to be tender and tasty – and the portions were quite large. Order an entrée for yourself and prepare to take some home.

If there was a complaint, it was that the vinaigrette was overpowering at times, although it blended beautifully with thicker chunks of the juicy duck. And if there was a nicer surprise than the three deliciously tart raspberries served as a garnish, it would be difficult to imagine. We almost begged Ted for more of those, but our pride won out. Scary part is, I don’t even like raspberries all that much.

From the atmosphere to the food to the preparation and presentation – and even the beautifully modern bathroom facilities, according to Julia – Caffe Perusa is something of a hidden Louisville masterpiece. And we mean really hidden, lurking behind H.H. Gregg a few blocks south of Hurstbourne Lane in Stony Brook Village.

But it is a treasure worth seeking out, and for a limited time, diners can enjoy a get-acquainted special that consists of a three-course meal and a complimentary glass of wine for $25. With a deal like that and the quality of the experience, it’s tough to imagine Caffe Perusa remaining a secret much longer.

Caffe Perusa
9200 Taylorsville Road
Rating: 91 points

Café Lou Lou Two and more

Chef Clay Wallace and Helen Wallace, owners of popular Café Lou Lou, are going for two: A second Café – to be called Café Lou Lou in the Highlands – will open at the Douglass Loop next month.

Wallace said the property, in the former home of Douglass Loop Deli, will offer “about 80 percent” of the menu at the St. Matthews location and will have limited delivery. He intends to spend most of his time at the new spot for the first few weeks, while his mother, Helen, will hold down the fort at St. Matthews “so there will always be a family member at both places.”

In a couple of other recent restaurant shifts, Caspian Grill has opened a smallish Persian spot next door to Day’s Coffee on Bardstown Road, and Asahi Japanese has replaced Sahara Café in its pocket-size spot on Lexington Road near Bauer Avenue.

Going one up on the recent restaurant trend of offering half-price wine on specific nights, Volare will offer half-price on a select list of 60 wines at the bar every night of the week, general manager and host Majid Ghavami reported. – Robin Garr