I’ve never been tempted to sample fugu, the Japanese pufferfish whose internal organs are filled with poison so powerful that even a speck left in your sashimi by a careless chef can drop you dead after a few horrifying hours of pain. Plenty of Japanese gourmands will pay upwards of $200 for a fugu meal, but not me.
Why bring this up? Because the idea of sitting down for a meal at a local restaurant during this pandemic felt way too much like bellying up to a fugu bar. I needed to think it over before sitting down to something that’s sounds like fun but that could kill you.
And yet we did it anyway, settling in on the pretty, shady and very properly distanced patio at Selena’s at Willow Lake Tavern this week. We had a good meal and a good time, too, albeit against a backdrop of nervous unease perhaps similar to the emotions that fugu aficionados must feel.
But Kentucky restaurants are reopening, adhering carefully to extensive distancing and sanitation requirements. What could a food writer do? I had to put my fears in check and take part.
But where to go? Among a ton of good options, Selena’s jumped right out. This comfortable little joint in the old Willow Lake Tavern has been a favorite since it came to Louisville a dozen years ago. I like its food and its mood. It has a lovely, tree-shaded patio. And a quick look at its website and Facebook page made it clear that management takes our safety seriously, following all the recommendations set down by the state, city, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Among other things, the restaurant’s capacity is reduced by table spacing that ensures six feet of distance between customers. Laminated menus are sanitized after each use, and hand sanitizer is immediately available on request. All staff wear masks and gloves, and every worker signs a health questionnaire and has a temperature check at the start of each shift.
What’s more, employees must wash or sanitize their hands every 20 minutes during their shifts, Workers must change gloves or wash hands frequently. Frequently touched surfaces are sanitized every 20 minutes, and booths, chairs, and tables are sanitized again after every party leaves.
Outside, blue tape marks proper distancing if there’s a line. The front door is kept locked until a host wearing a mask admits you, and it’s one-way traffic from there around to the patio-door exit.
Several bottles of hand sanitizer were placed on the host stand, and tables were placed so far apart that the dining rooms looked strangely empty.
Out on the patio, round black-metal mesh tables and chairs are also carefully spaced. Even when people at nearby tables pushed back, they were still closer to 10 feet than a mere six feet away.
All this felt reassuring as we sat down to dine. On the other hand, you can’t eat with a mask on, so everyone around us was unmasked. I didn’t mind this much, thanks to distancing, until I had a scary fugu moment when I picked up on a woman’s perfume wafting from a table at least 20 feet away. If scent can drift that far, what else might?
A few arriving parties wore masks. Most did not. Happily, no one came close. Even the servers seemed careful about keeping their distance, reaching in from the far side of the table.
Selena’s menu focuses on a blend of Louisiana Creole and Italian-influenced delights. The lunch menu is similar to the evening bill of fare but a bit lighter and more thrifty. Selena’s also hosts a hugely popular weekend brunch with a separate menu.
Pricing hit my definition of reasonable, with nine sandwiches priced from $9.50 (for a three-cheese Sicilian cheese sandwich in a pita or a grilled or blackened chicken sandwich) to $14 (for an oyster po-boy). Fifteen lunch entrees, subdivided among seafood platters, pasta dishes, and New Orleans specialties, range in price from $9 (for linguine with tomato sauce) to $13 (for a New Orleans medley with jambalaya, red beans and rice, and shrimp-and-crawfish étouffée).
Spinach lasagna ($11.50) came in a hefty portion. It appeared to be a strange fluorescent orange color until we realized that sunlight filtering through the big red umbrella over our table was tinting everything, including us, a haunting sunny hue. Never mind. It was a classic meatless lasagna, with a half-dozen layers of wide pasta, chopped spinach, creamy ricotta, and grated romano cheese, topped with thick, smooth tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella. It was comfort food, Italian-style, and generous enough to provide ample leftovers.
Fish and chips ($11) featured two large chunks of thickly beer-battered, flaky and mild cod, freshly fried to a rich golden-brown. It came with a big pile of long, crisp, expertly prepared french fries, and a small bowl of finely chopped slaw swimming in sweet creamy dressing.
With a pint glass of delicious unsweet iced tea, strong and clear ($2.25), our tab came to $26.24, plus the 25 percent tip that I urge everyone to consider a bare minimum during these tough times.