potato-crusted grouper

Gary’s on Spring has the ingredients for success

What does it take to turn a new restaurant into a sensation? Well, a cool venue is good for starters, and Gary’s on Spring certainly qualifies in that regard, settling comfortably into a stylish remake of the former Spring Street Meeting House in Irish Hill.

A creative chef with the chops to turn the ordinary into something special is another key criterion, and Harold Baker of Gary’s fits that bill, turning out an international menu that ranges from France to New Orleans while staying deeply rooted here at home.

An amiable host adds another grace note; the restaurant’s Greg Fearing circulated among the tables, engaging guests in easy conversation while effortlessly sensing when to back away from those who’d rather be left alone.

And then there’s location, location, location. Did I mention it’s in Irish Hill? This is not exactly restaurant row, even if you count nearby watering holes like Spring Street Bar & Grill or Willinger’s Beer Depot. But to keep things in perspective, Gary’s lies within a half-mile radius — a brisk 10-minute walk — from the Bardstown-Baxter strip (Baxter Station) or Frankfort Avenue (North End Café), and only a slightly more brisk 3/4-mile hike from Butchertown (Blind Pig).

Within three months of its midwinter opening, I’d say Gary’s stands in comparison with those favorites. And the city’s dining hordes seem to agree, keeping the place so busy that it’s hard to get in without a reservation. (We beat the game by showing up at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday during a heavy rainstorm, yet the main-floor dining room still filled up while we were there.)

The old Meeting House (originally a 19th-century neighborhood grocery) has lost its storefront look in favor of a stylish dining room with exposed brick and mocha colored walls; a long banquette lines one side of the room; track lighting illuminates white-matted historic Louisville photos in black frames to add local interest to the décor. A sociable bar upstairs is a bit more laid-back but still very much a grown-up scene, with an impressive selection of liquors and a shorter but well-chosen — and attractively priced — wine list.

Baker’s menu offers good variety and a range of prices appropriate to a reasonably affordable meal or a blowout. A dozen entrées start at $17, like the creative, and vegetarian, panko-breaded eggplant Napoleon, layered with tomato and topped with provolone and Parmigiano-Reggiano; or a roasted chicken breast with a white-wine sauce meunière. Prices rise to $32 for an 8-ounce grilled center-cut prime beef filet, sauced with sweet green-peppercorn brandy demi-glace and served with Provençal haricots verts — er, green beans.

It’s possible to assemble an even less pricey meal by grazing on apps, salads and sandwiches, which are mostly $10 and under and include such goodies as a half-pound Angus beef or bison burger, oyster po’ boy, baby Hot Brown, oysters Rockefeller and much more. There’s even a Cobb salad sandwich for those who just can’t decide.

We, however, had no trouble deciding, and as soon as we got our bumbershoots stashed and a bottle of Ferrari-Carano Sauvignon Blanc ($22) open, settled down to an evening of seriously good eats.

With complimentary house-made herb bread and pats of whipped butter, we shared a Caesar salad ($8) and oakwood-smoked salmon ($9).

The Caesar was excellent, heightened by crisp, flavorful house-made croutons and a properly creamy-tangy dressing with a distinct hint of anchovy that may not have been authentic to Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini’s original, but that suited me just fine nevertheless.

The smoked salmon appetizer was pretty on the plate and on the palate: Mild, sweet salmon was shaped into florets atop three halved mini-bagels assembled with the classic accompaniments: a schmear of cream cheese, diced hard-boiled egg, thin-sliced red onion and a handful of tangy capers.

A pork chop entrée ($19) was a flavor symphony. A thick, bone-in pork loin chop was slit and the pocket stuffed with dark, salty Kalamata olive duxelles, grilled and plated on a crispy potato pancake, surrounded with bright green spring peas and plated with a clear, slightly sweet Vermouth sauce with shallots, garlic, pancetta and halved red grapes.

An outstanding potato-crusted grouper ($21) may become a Gary’s signature dish. A boneless slab of sweet, fresh grouper was wrapped in a thin cloak of Idaho potatoes and baked until it was crisp golden brown and the fish was steaming. It was plated with sweet-spicy Dijon chive cream and surrounded with a ring of perfect sautéed brussels sprouts and topped with crispy sautéed leeks.

Any room left for dessert? Well, no. But we couldn’t resist a thick, dense wedge of a flourless raspberry-scented chocolate torte ($6) and were glad we succumbed. After all, there’s no shame in asking for a doggie bag. Dinner for two totaled $90.10, before tip, and was certainly worth the price.

Gary’s on Spring
204 S. Spring St.
Rating: 89