Diamante’s a diamond, but not rough


One bold statement may be made about Diamante Bar & Grill without serious fear of contradiction: It is surely the city’s best restaurant located in a former gasoline station.

But we don’t need to cut our definition so fine in order to praise this amiable establishment. Yes, it really is built around the original beige-tile facade of the 1920s-era Diamond Gulf Station, and once you know that, you can easily see how the big open squares that give access to the cozy bar might once have been fitted with overhead garage doors. Suddenly you wonder if a sputtering 1937 Maxwell might pull up next to your table with a happy yell, “Fill ‘er up!”

The casual, arty and urban mood of this Bardstown Road favorite is only the starting point. It’s not at all stuffy, but clearly a step – or several – up from your basic city saloon … (such as, for instance, the more downscale Diamond Station bar that preceded Diamante in this location, whose proprietor Randy Hedden, remains on board at Diamante with Chef Mike Driskell – late of Club Grotto – in the kitchen).

3 stars
Diamante Bar & Grill
2280 Bardstown Road
(502) 456-1705

Web: http://www.diamantebar-grille.com
E-mail: diamante@win.net

The long, narrow dining room stretches along Bardstown Road, affording the occupants of window tables a good view of the street scene. Lighted neon bar signs hang in the windows, communicating more of a bar-type impression from outside than you get within, where the mood, as noted, is casual but refined, with a high, vaulted ceiling, and philodendrons the size of small trees dangling here and there.

Service-station tiles aside, wood recurs in the decor, from the knotty-pine ceiling and walls to pretty, undraped wooden tables lined up in parallel rows with light-wood chairs to match, upholstered in a startling ’50s-look dark turquoise. Some of the tables have funky, maybe homemade lamps with a red brick as the base and small terracotta flower pot as lamp shade. Tables are set with simple stainless flatware, off-white earthenware plates and big, absorbent paper napkins.

The menu changes periodically and is available on the restaurant website. At the time of our visit a few months ago, it featured more than a dozen soups and salads, from $2.50 (for an iceberg lettuce salad) to $8.75 (for the house smoked-salmon salad, a starter of sufficient gravitas that my wife chose it as a light main course). A Diamante favorite, mussels in white-wine sauce with tomatoes and olive oil, is $5.25. Seven sandwiches cover a range of options, from a bison bratwurst ($4.25) to a chicken-salad sandwich with one side ($8.25); a particularly appealing vegetarian option featured grilled portobello mushroom and eggplant ($6.95). Eight entrees, all served with choice of two sides, were $11.25 (for calves’ liver with bacon and apples to $16.95 (for a house-smoked 12-ounce rib eye steak). “Shrimp and pasta,” a separate category, featured a quartet of appetizing options from $7.95 (for spinach fettuccine with peas, prosciutto and a light garlic cream sauce) to $12.95 (for an Asian-style shrimp-and-rice stir-fry).

The lunch menu covers similar ground, with the same apps, salads, sandwiches and pastas and what looked like a shorter version of the dinner entree list at lower prices for, one assumes, lunch-size portions. There’s also a late-night menu featuring lighter fare: Diamante is open for dinner until 3 a.m., making it one of the city’s favorite destinations for very-late-night dining.

We were told the wine list was undergoing major renovation, although I was happy with the old one, which offered a modest but interesting selection of about two dozen affordable wines that topped out at just $34 ($7 for a glass) of Coppola Diamond Series Sauvignon Blanc or Hedges Columbia Valley Merlot from Washington State. All the wines were available by the glass for a fair one-fourth of the bottle price.

We started with a pair of seafood appetizers: calamari tossed with olive oil, garlic tomatoes and Kalamata olives ($6.75), and garlic shrimp sizzle tapas ($5.50). Both dishes were excellent. The calamari came in a good-size soup bowl and consistend of properly chewy squid rings and a few tentacle bits, gently sauteed in olive oil with plentiful garlic, then tossed with chunks of fresh tomato and its juices and maybe a little white wine, finished with scallions and black, pitted Kalamata olives.

In the shrimp dish, a half-dozen jumbo shrimp, shorn of their shells and tails, nicely cooked in a literally sizzling oil-and-garlic bath, were served in a brown crock too hot to touch, each fitted with a toothpick for serving. It was perfectly cooked, and reminded me of memorable similar dishes I’ve enjoyed in Spain and Portugal.

Just as we were getting into these goodies, we realized how excellent it would be to have some good crusty bread to dip in the calamari broth and to squeege up the garlicky oil in the shrimp crock. Our friendly and very talkative server (not that there’s anything wrong with that) offered to bring us some, but it took so long that I started to wonder if he had to hike down the street to Kroger’s to get it. It was worth the wait, though.

As mentioned, we ordered the house-smoked salmon appetizer ($8.75) as one of our main courses. It proved to be a large, salad-like presentation in a wide, shallow bowl, a mix of fresh baby spinach leaves and field lettuces topped by a single large, thin slice of perfectly grilled eggplant, so good that my lovely but occasionally selfish bride wouldn’t share it; and a good ration of shredded salmon, smoked on the premises (actually in a black-iron smoker just outside). It was a little more aggressively smoky than my wife likes, although it was fine with me.

Our other entree, sort of a “cluck-and-surf” item, was tarragon chicken and shrimp ($12.50). A full, boneless, skin-on chicken breast had been butterflied, sauteed, and garnished with three nicely cooked shelled shrimp. It was served with a well-crafted, creamy velouté sauce that, based on its delicate pink color, might have been made with a stock fashioned from the shrimp shells. It was garnished with a broccoli “tree” barely cooked to al dente stage, and a good-size mound of potatoes – more “smashed” than “mashed” – with skins on, dense and creamy with abundant garlic.

We enjoyed an aromatic and full-bodied French white wine of good value, Mas Carlot 2003 Marsanne/Roussanne ($6.50 for a glass, $29 for a bottle). It went particularly well with the two shrimp dishes and well enough with the rest of the meal. (Unfortunately, the server mentioned that this was the last bottle in stock, so it may no longer be on the revised wine list.)

Desserts ($5.25) came in seductively generous portions. Italian cream cake was right on, full of coconut and walnuts and coconut, its creamy icing studded with more nuts. a wedge of pecan pie was enhanced by a sweet, Bourbon-laced filling in a well-fashioned short crust … pecans and bourbon make a great match, I mumbled, mouth full and happy. Freshly brewed coffee ($1.75) was strong and fine.

Diamante is a casual, comfortable place, and when the dining room fills up, even a little, service can show signs of working under pressure: The bread’s a little late coming, the main courses arrive a little too fast; coffee, oddly, seems to be made one cup at a time and served in shifts. But everything is so laid-back and casual that no one seems to mind. If you’re looking for “suave and sophisticated” service, you might find such lofty expectations aren’t well met. But if you’re looking for a very pleasant evening out with food that’s right on the mark, Diamante’s your place. And if you’re prowling the Highlands after midnight looking for something a little fancier than fast food, it’s a top choice.

A filling dinner for two, with two glasses of wine, came to an entirely reasonable $65.46, and our friendly if chatty server kept the change from $80. $$

(July 2005)

ACCESSIBILITY: Generally accessible to wheelchair users, except that the lock to the men’s room door would be impossible to reach from a chair.