Eating our way through the holidays

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes

OK, you’re going to shop till you drop – taking care to drop someplace where you can get something tasty and restorative so you can bounce back to shop again.

Or maybe you hate shopping as much as I do and would rather just forget the whole thing, buy your Christmas presents on the Internet, and eat your way through the holidays instead.

No matter which way you want to play it, we’ve got plenty of holiday-season dining advice for you. Tuck this column into your purse or your car. If you find yourself feeling a little peckish during a shopping venture, browse these quirky mini-reviews to find the places just right for you.

Let’s begin with the obvious: If hunger strikes so suddenly that you need immediate relief and don’t want to have to travel far, here are recommended refueling stops around the metro’s major malls.

Malling it

At Oxmoor Center, the choice is simple: Asian eatin’ is the life for me. Yang Kee Noodle is the place to be. This pan-Asian noodle shop has the shiny look of a chain, but it’s locally owned and operated under Chef John Castro, who’s also executive chef at Winston’s, Sullivan University’s white-tablecloth restaurant. My Yang Kee favorites include the Vietnamese-style lettuce wraps and the hot-and-spicy Firecracker Chicken.

If I’ve got to pick a second choice at Oxmoor, make it California Pizza Kitchen, which almost always packs in a crowd with its broad selection of trendy Pacific Rim pizza variations. The spicy Thai Chicken pizza – pad Thai on a pie – works for me.

At Mall St. Matthews, the popular choice is The Cheesecake Factory, a large, relatively recent arrival that curiously blends architectural elements of 1940s Los Angeles and Batman’s Gotham. I wouldn’t say no to a slice of their splendid cheesecake, but I’ve found Cheesecake’s main courses pricey and a bit lackluster. I’d suggest a short break for a quick trip to nearby Oriental House, where you should request the authentic Chinese menu, in preference to the old-fashioned Chinese-American goodies that our parents loved.

Farther out in the ‘burbs, it’s franchise country where it can be mighty hard to find a Louisville Original when you’re looking for lunch. In The Summit, Mitchell’s Fish Market, Martini Italian Bistro and Stoney River Legendary Steak usually exceed expectations for chains, and across the way in Springhurst, there’s fine sushi at Fuji Japanese. You might want to check out Liang’s, locally owned and operated Chinese in the space recently vacated by Peking City. My top picks for this neighborhood, though, are Tony Boombozz Pizza & Vino, and, prompting a difficult turn-left-or-turn-right choice when you enter this small strip center, Wings N Things, my pick for the city’s best wings.

There’s not much left of Bashford Manor Mall, a victim of social change and urban planning gone awry, but that’s no reason not to make a trip out Bardstown Road. There the region’s best Ethiopian restaurant, Queen of Sheba, serves an impressive and affordable lunch buffet and a stylish a la carte menu. Come prepared to eat with your fingers: They’ll show you how to do it delicately, picking up bites with small pieces of spongy injera bread – or they’ll give you a fork.

On the South Side, as in the East End, The Jefferson Mall is Chain Heaven, but if you’re in the mood for great cheap ethnic eats, it’s hard to go wrong along Preston Highway. It has become one of the region’s prime strips for Latino fare and more. Some of my favorites include Rosticeria Luna, which gives new meaning to simple roast chicken, and the original La Tapatia, where Spanish is spoken, mostly, but Anglophones are made welcome and a little simple menu-pointing aids helps communicate. Nearby, Thai Smile V has perked up under new management, Koreana II offers filling Korean fare and tiny Chez Seneba is worth the stop for those adventurous enough to sample Senegalese (West African) cuisine.

Chains dominate much of the Sunny Side, too, particularly the mall-rich stretch along Clarksville’s Lewis & Clark Parkway. If you’re shopping at Greentree Mall, you might consider Habanero’s, a sizable Mexican dining room where English is spoken well, the margaritas are large and the guacamole made at tableside. Or venture down Eastern Boulevard for a strip of intriguing, Spanish-speaking taquerias like the tiny, amiable La Herradura or, if you prefer something more Americano, Clarksville Seafood. Be careful here, though. In a living Hoosier joke, this little place is closed for lunch but opens in mid-afternoon. Cash or check only.


Two of the region’s top spots for lunch are located within antique malls, where you can dine surrounded by furniture items and knick-knacks that you might be tempted to pick up for dessert. In Buechel, the new Bluegrass Bistro graces the Derby City Antique Mall and offers light dishes with a touch of innovative flair. Back in the city, the gigantic Louisville Antique Mall, which sprawls over two stories of a 19th century cotton mill, houses the Cafe at the Louisville Antique Mall, where the soup, salad and sandwich options may be a little more traditional but are exceptionally well-made.

Treating yourself for the holidays

When shopping’s done, it’s time to relax. Expanding a bit on the top restaurant lists that I featured in LEO’s recent dining guide, let’s take a closer look at 10 of the top high-end local dining rooms that almost always make me happy. I expect they’ll have a similar effect on you.

For more than a quarter of a century, through a change of ownership that went as smoothly as a perfect baton pass in an Olympic relay, 610 Magnolia has been the place to go for foodies who want nothing but the best, and want it in as innovative a form as possible.

Another long-time favorite that has stood the test of time, Le Relais offers stylish French cuisine in the historic art deco environs of Bowman Field’s old administration building. Treat yourself to dinner here, and you’ll enjoy an edible Christmas present that you won’t soon forget.

Chef Todd Richards at the Oakroom, who’ll enjoy his 60 minutes of televised fame later this winter when he and his Seelbach Hotel team appear on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” has kicked this fine old dining room up another notch since he took over the Seelbach’s top spot last year. Put Richards’ innovative cuisine together with the elegant warmth of the nearly century-old Oakroom, and you’ve got a combination that’s hard to beat.

For those always searching for the innovative, three of Louisville’s hottest chefs who’ve earned considerable notoriety – and places in the city’s top tier – are Anthony Lamas for his Nuevo Latino dishes at Seviche, Peng Looi for his modern Asian fare at Asiatique and Anoosh Shariat for creative international cuisine at Park Place on Main.

Surrounded by chains in the East End’s Hurstbourne neighborhood, former Seelbach Chefs Jim Gerhardt and Michael Cunha are thriving with Limestone, which took the formula that had elevated the Oakroom to four-star status and re-invented it in the ‘burbs.

Traditional but never stuffy in St. Matthews, Equus and 211 Clover Lane earn their place in the white-tablecloth top 10 the old-fashioned way. Either of these fine establishments can rank No. 1 on any given night.

Rounding out the list, there’s no place in town any hotter than Proof on Main, which leapt into the top rank upon its opening in the spring. It gains a trendy edge from its location in the edgy, arty 21c Museum Hotel, but holds that position on the basis of innovative fare (a curious blend of Northern Italian and Kentucky Southern) and excellent service.

Elegance on a budget

Now Santa’s bag is all filled, but you spent so much on toys for the kids and romantic goodies for your sweetie that you just can’t afford a dinner as fancy as the Top 10 list.

This list of favorites may not drive the elegance meter all the way to the top, but they make up for it with excellent food and relative value.

The Clifton neighborhood and environs may be Louisville’s hottest eats zone, with the following seven spots all within a short walk of each other.

L&N Wine Bar & Bistro is not just one of Louisville’s best wine bars, it’s one of the best wine bars anywhere. It offers a fairly priced list of more than 100 wines by the glass, and excellent bistro-style fare made to match. Stylish, contemporary Volare and Danielle’s could both easily aspire to places on the top 10 list. (They were edged out only because we had to draw the line someplace.) On the more casual side but still strong contenders in the Clifton sweepstakes are North End Cafe and Bourbons Bistro; the latter, as its name implies, offers Louisville’s most magisterial selection of Kentucky nectar in its cozy bar. Maido Essential Japanese and Cafe Lou Lou, practically next-door neighbors on opposite sides of Pope Street, offer lovably idiosyncratic takes on Japanese small bites and sake, and Louisiana cuisine plus pizza, respectively.

Downtown, there’s Saffron’s for upscale Persian dining and suave, stylish service, and Primo for fine Italian in a business casual environment. The Highlands offers Palermo Viejo for fine Argentine cuisine, and Sapporo as the city’s most glitzy traditional sushi bar and arguably its best. Across the Ohio we nominate Bistro New Albany for upscale comfort food in a lovely, historic Southern Indiana hotel building.

Tapped out?

You’re so broke that you can’t even afford a mid-range dinner? You can still enjoy a fine meal on a tight budget at these favorites that range from ethnic to down-home.

Located in an attractive old commercial building in New Albany, La Rosita offers home-cooked Mexican fare in a truly bilingual setting that will give you an authentic food experience without any need to bring along your Spanish dictionary.

Don’t look for fancy Tuscan fare at local favorite Melillo’s. This is the home of comforting, hearty red-sauced Italian-American fare from Southern Italy by way of New Jersey.

Serious about Vietnamese? Head for the South End and Vietnam Kitchen, one of Louisville’s longest-lived Vietnamese eateries and still one of its best. If Cuban is your fancy, the immensely popular Havana Rumba offers real Cuban food and warm Cuban hospitality that will remind you of South Florida at its best. Another ethnic contender is the fast but delicious Persian cuisine at Shiraz Mediterranean Grill, which recently grew into a larger, more modern space in the new Clifton Lofts.

Just plain American food is what you crave? Let’s wrap it up with this sextet: Toast on Market, making artful use of a one-time movie theater and junk shop, packs in crowds for breakfast and lunch with tongue-in-cheek touches that make it like Lynn’s without the ugly lamps. The smokers behind Bourbon Bros. BBQ are just about as big as the tiny building, but the barbecue is as good as you ever ate. Seafood Connection St. Matthews is even smaller, but Chef Mike Hungerford has ample room to put together memorable seafood and fish dishes using the seafood shop’s freshest and best. Zap’s Gourmet Hot Dogs has made a new reputation for the humble dawg; and Flabby’s Schnitzelburg, a quintessential Germantown saloon, offers German-style pub grub and, on weekends, some of the best fried chicken around.

And if this whole thing makes you just want to blow town entirely, we suggest a quick drive out to Will Crawford’s Westport General Store, on the banks of the Ohio just a short drive upriver in Oldham County.

Bon appetit!