Dining among the antiques

Bluegrass Bistro
The Bluegrass Bistro recently opened inside the Derby City Antique Mall in Buechel. Photos by Robin Garr

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Bluegrass Bistro, Hippo Wings, WingZone)

If you want to find a really good lunch in Louisville for a really good price, go shopping for antiques.

Here’s my theory: People who enjoy the hunt for serious antiques and who know how to distinguish the good stuff from junque are also likely to have a well-honed skill at scouting out lunch.

Evidence abounds. One of the best lunch spots in town is The Cafe at the Louisville Antique Mall on Goss Avenue. Shelbyville’s august Wakefield-Scearce Galleries boast the memorable Science Hill dining room. Middletown’s old Main Street, a major destination for antique-hunters, is well served by the estimable Alley Cat Cafe, and the new A Little Peace Cafe is earning good reviews at the Mellwood Arts Center. East Market and Main streets and Frankfort Avenue and Bardstown Road are all famous for both their antiques and their eateries.

Now add Bluegrass Bistro to the mix. It recently opened in the lower level of the Derby City Antique Mall in Buechel, where chefs Scott Schamel and Anthony Lorie – who until recently cooked everything but the sushi as chefs at glitzy RAW by night – now toil by day at yet another splendid lunchroom within a destination antique shop.

The building was originally the historic Hikes Graded School, and the Bistro – located down a long hall and a flight of stairs from the mall entrance – still carries a slight academic flavor with its walls of shiny ceramic-tile blocks in the traditional schoolroom pale yellow-green.

A tasteful overlay of antiques adds texture to the old-school feeling, with Victorian ceiling fixtures and lamps, ancient chests-of-drawers, old clocks and sundry knick-knacks here and there. Overall it’s comfortably low-budget but tasteful and attractive. About 16 tables are draped in coarse white cotton cloth under glass; simple side chairs, well-worn, aren’t all matched; you could probably buy a few of them to take home if you wanted to.

The Bistro is open only for lunch Monday through Friday and brunch on Saturday. The lunch menu features fresh and appealing dishes with international touches; it’s supplemented with intriguing blackboard specials daily. You’ll find about a dozen soups, salads and side dishes within a narrow price range of $6 to $7; single-serving flatbread pizzas are $5.79. If you’re graying, take note of the special on Wednesdays, when folks 55 and older get 15 percent off, a consideration that appeared to qualify just about everyone in the room.

A cucumber-tomato salad (99 cents) seemed as much like a cold soup as a salad, with thick-sliced cukes, skin on; chunks of ripe, juicy tomato and coarsely chopped red onion swimming in a cup filled with a sweet-tangy vinaigrette. It was good – the flavors worked – but I didn’t bother to spoon up all the juice after I devoured the crisp, cool veggies.

The soup of the day, pomodoro diablo, was a thin tomato-rice soup with a delicate roasted tomato flavor and just a touch of a warm red-chile burn at the back of your throat.

Sandwiches were excellent. Roast beef ($6.99) featured a good ration of thin-sliced, flavorful roast beef assembled on an excellent crusty baguette with fresh tomato slices, julienne strips of red, green and yellow bell peppers, sliced mild red onion and chopped green onions, held together with a piquant horseradish mayo.

I was intrigued by a daily special, a Buffalo chicken salad sandwich, visualizing a fiery, bright-red salad laced with Tabasco. What I got was a little more refined but still outstanding, creamy chicken salad in a thick, pale-pink dressing that was flavorful if a bit closer to one-alarm heat than five. It was served on a croissant of sorts, not your buttery, flaky French original but a light, tender, croissant-shaped roll, dressed with a juicy slice of in-season tomato and fresh leaf lettuce.

The menu urged us to save room for “our famous Possum Pie,” and we complied, without ever learning why it derives its name from the North American marsupial that rarely gets all the way across the road. It proved to be a refrigerator pie, served cold; a rich, crunchy graham-butter crust was filled with layers of cream cheese and dark, bittersweet chocolate-pie filling, topped with a discreet dollop of whipped cream, walnut chunks and crunchy graham-cracker crust crumbs. It was a tasteful portion, plenty for sharing, if not one of those insane portions that’s big enough to feed you and the horse you rode in on.

A filling lunch and tip left a little change from a $20, and we managed to get out of the antique mall without buying anything. Oh, all right, only one thing.

Bluegrass Bistro
Derby City Antique Mall
3819 Bardstown Road
84 points

Wings of fire

It’s football season again, and we all know what that means: snack food! Salty snacks, icy beer and a good game on TV or at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, what’s not to like?

Whether we’re tailgating or TV-watching, there’s just about no better accompaniment for couch potatoes than wings. It’s hard to go wrong with traditional Buffalo-style, simmered in butter and Frank’s Louisiana Hot Sauce. But a teriyaki wing can easily turn my head, or lemon-garlic, or bourbon-flavored or Southern fried, or even such exotic variants as spicy Thai or Jamaican jerk. Let’s face it, I’m a wing man, and I can eat a lot of these bite-size, spicy goodies.

Naturally I’m delighted about the recent arrival of two new wings eateries in town, both of them cunningly situated not far from U of L’s Pizza Bowl, er, Papa John’s. It didn’t take me long to flap my chicken-lickin’ wings over to Hippo Wings (502 E. Warnock St., 634-4477, http://www.hippowings.com) and The Wing Zone (905 Hess Lane, 636-2445, http://www.wingzone.com).

Hippo Wings
Hippo Wings, near the west side of U of L’s Belknap Campus, is a takeout joint offering up a dozen flavors of the popular munchy.

Hippo Wings is locally owned and operated by Roy Gifford, who says his wife, Rog, came up with the offbeat name. “We wanted something memorable for consumers and recognizable,” he said. “There’s nothing more recognizable than a big yellow hippo.” Gifford, who moved here last year from Nashville, once played right guard on the Middle Tennessee State University football squad. But he says he’ll bleed Cardinal red when his alma mater comes to town this year. “We love U of L,” he said.

Hippo Wings is just off the west side of U of L’s Belknap Campus at the curve where Crittenden Drive meets Warnock, a setting that can make it a little complicated getting into the small parking lot. The tiny building is geared for takeout – no table seating in the small ordering area – but it’s modern and bright, with a flat-screen television that’s usually tuned to sports programming, and a few chairs for relaxing while you wait.

“While you wait” is the operative term here: Well-made wings must be prepared only when you order them, not in advance, so a quality wing shop can’t qualify as “fast food.” If any wings emporium does not subject you to a 15-minute wait, it’s probably not making your lunch to order. Our experience with Hippo Wings was a bit slow even by that standard, though, closer to a half-hour. If you’re not really into televised sports, you might want to bring a book and a patient attitude. Or ask for delivery, which is available within the region bordered by Oak Street, the Watterson, Seventh Street and Goss.

Like most wings places, Hippo Wings offers a selection of snacks including fried or grilled chicken sandwiches or a burger (all $5.79), and fried mushrooms or fried pickles ($4.29). The wing’s the thing, though, and Hippo has a dozen flavors in batches from a half-dozen ($4.79) to 100 ($48.99). They’ll also cater up to 400 wings for $179.99.

You can’t mix-and-match flavors with smaller orders, so we tried six each of three flavors: Hot, teriyaki and umm … I asked for Jamaican jerk, but got home with something else … zesty orange, maybe? Not a big deal, they were all quite edible and went down the hatch fast. The “hot” wings were traditional Buffalo style, maybe a little light on the hot sauce. Teriyaki boasted a good soy-sauce flavor, and whatever the third one was, it offered an appetizing orange-peel scent and a bit of spicy heat. They come with small portions of celery and carrot sticks and creamy ranch dressing.

My main gripe here is that “Hippo” implies gigantic airfoils, but ours weren’t all that large. Indeed, 18 of them fell a little short of enough to satisfy two for lunch. That’s nitpicking, though. They’re fine examples of the wing chef’s art. Our 18-wing lunch came to $15.23.

Wing Zone
Wing Zone: serves up jumbo wings in more than 25 flavors, including Cajun Teriyaki.

Wing Zone is a national operation, based in Atlanta, with about 125 units in 25 states. The new Louisville branch faces Hess Lane on the corner of Preston Highway. It’s a small storefront designed mostly for takeout (although a half-dozen tables allow eat-in if you just can’t wait). Shiny red and yellow tile walls make for a bright and noisy scene, and here, too, you can watch sports on TV while you wait.

Alternative dishes include chicken sandwiches or half-pound burgers with “wedge fries” ($7.99), buffalo shrimp ($6.99 for 10 to $28.99 for 50), chicken fingers, salads and more. But who buys anything but wings at a wing store?

Wing Zone excels with jumbo wings in 25 flavors, many of them helpfully marked with a chile pepper icon rated from 1 (“Mild”) to 5 (“Hottest”). Traditional Buffalo-style wings range from Mild to Nuclear. They’re available in orders from five ($4.49) to 100 ($48.99) and catering orders up to 400 for $178.99.

We tried three orders of five and got them after about a 15-minute wait. “Hot” Buffalo-style were buttery and soaked in hot sauce, an authentic replica of the original. “Cajun Teriyaki” seemed like mighty sophisticated fusion cuisine for a wings joint, so I couldn’t resist. They were tasty enough, but a lot more teriyaki than Cajun. “Lemon Pepper Garlic” were a mouth-watering blend of all three advertised flavors in a combination that came close to addictive. Wings come with sealed tubs of ranch or blue cheese dressing; celery is optional at extra cost (99 cents).

For the record, Wing Zone’s wings were significantly larger than those at Hippo Wings. We’ll try them again to see if the size variation is consistent. In fact, just talking about those Lemon Pepper Garlic wings makes me want to head back out there right now. See ya!

Don’t be Petula-nt …

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown – no finer place, for sure
Downtown – everything’s waiting for you

If Petula Clark’s legendary advice works for you, then Fleur de Licious is just what you’ve been waiting for. The week of Sept. 18-23 brings Fleur de Licious, a new venture by Louisville Central Area Inc. that offers exceptional dinner prices as an incentive to get you to dine downtown. Participating restaurants – including Blu Italian Mediterranean Grille, Bristol Bar & Grille Downtown, The Flagship, Hard Rock Cafe, Jarfi’s Bistro, Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge, Raw Sushi Lounge and Yaching’s East West Cuisine – will offer a prix fixe three-course dinner for either $20.06 or $30.06. For details and up-to-the-minute info, check the event Web site, http://www.fleurdelicious.info.