Jarfi’s finds a new home in former Lentini’s

Jarfi’s menu has changed a bit (it’s always evolving), but what is truly new here is the atmosphere. The fare ranges from that of a French-style bistro to a sushi bar. LEO photos by Jane Mattingly

LEO’s Eats with LouisvilleHotBytes.com; Guest Critic Kevin Gibson

Jarfi’s Bistro relocated from the Kentucky Center to the former Lentini’s Little Italy location on Bardstown Road in April. While it seems an odd metamorphosis for a place that, for more than 40 years, was Louisville’s epicenter of authentic Italian dining, Jeff Jarfi’s stylish international bistro is right at home in its new digs.

Jarfi’s menu has changed a bit (it’s always evolving), but what is truly new here is the atmosphere – whereas Lentini’s was upscale and old-world sophisticated, the new Jarfi’s is colorful, vibrant and ethnically diverse. Under one roof, diners can encounter a French-style bistro, a Moroccan lounge, a sushi bar, traditional formal dining and a Times Square-themed dining hall.

A first visit to the new location on a recent Saturday evening revealed a bustling, busy eatery in a bright environment. The main room was packed with happy diners, and the bar area swarmed with people sipping cocktails and socializing. Fortunately, my friend Julia and I had made an online reservation, so we were seated immediately. It was a sunny and mild evening, so we requested to sit outside.

We surveyed the hustle of Bardstown Road while chatting and sipping ice water. It took quite a while for our server to find us, but she immediately apologized for the delay and offered us menus, so we selected a bottle of South African-made Man Chenin Blanc ($18) and began making our dinner decisions.

One of the most attractive aspects of Jarfi’s menu is the potpourri of cuisines. One doesn’t often encounter a menu that includes both a Hot Brown and tobiki (flying fish roe) nigiri. We decided to mix things up and ordered a T.Z. Roll ($10.50) from the Jarfi’s Special Rolls sushi menu as an appetizer. After that, we decided we would split another starter from the primary menu and then share a dinner entrée (we wanted to challenge our taste buds); we chose the carpaccio ($11.50) as appetizer No. 2, and agreed on Wrapped Salmon ($23) for the main course.

The exterior of Jarfi’s.

Our server noted at one point that the sushi bar was “backed up,” so our carpaccio came out first, which was fine with us – even though it was a good 30 to 35 minutes after our arrival when we finally ate.

Not that we went hungry: A tradition at Jarfi’s is to offer diners a teaser of something from the kitchen. We were presented with complimentary samples of creamy potato and leek vichyssoise, served in narrow shot glasses. This is a nice touch for the dining experience, as well as an inventive way for the chef to tout special menu items or try out new recipes on an impromptu focus group.

The carpaccio, in addition to being beautifully presented, was delicious: Thin slices of rare beef tenderloin were topped with fried capers, olive oil and a tangy sauce that we couldn’t quite identify. The appetizer was garnished with fresh mixed greens and a tasty breadstick that elevated the experience – we discovered after a couple bites that eating the bread with the carpaccio was the key, equivalent to pairing your food with the perfect wine. When together, the flavors seemed to come alive.

Minutes after we finished the carpaccio, our server arrived with sushi: It was a traditional maki roll with crispy asparagus inside a nori and rice wrap, topped with deliciously fresh Chilean sea bass and sprinkled with red fish roe. The special “Jarfi’s Sauce” that was drizzled beneath the roll both pleased and perplexed us. It demonstrated a hint of sweetness but also packed an ever-developing spiciness that meshed well with our white wine; it was so good that Julia was dipping her finger in it for final tastes even after the sushi was gone. After much deliberation, we agreed it was “Thai food meets jerk sauce,” or something like that.

We asked our server what it was. She asked the sushi chef, who said it was a secret. She asked restaurant owner Jeff Jarfi, who told her, “It’s so secret even I don’t know what it is. He won’t tell me.” Now that’s a secret sauce. Whatever it is, it’s highly recommended.

It didn’t take long for our entrée to arrive – the kitchen was operating with incredible timing by this point – and the chef had split it onto two plates for us. It was served with fresh focaccia bread with olive oil, and the bread was delicious, a great surprise. It reminded us of an Italian version of old-fashioned cornbread, cooked brown and firm on the top and bottom, yet moist and soft on the inside, and cut into squares.

We each received a fist-sized grilled salmon steak, wrapped in a tender potato wrap, which was cooked to the point of being slightly crispy at the edges. The fresh salmon inside remained moist and tender. It was served with a mild dill beurre blanc sauce atop three huge stalks of crisp-yet-tender asparagus, which had us both raving.

“The asparagus is cooked perfectly,” Julia said. She loves her veggies and isn’t shy with her opinions.

Our server tried to coax us into ordering dessert, suggesting Hand-Rolled Almond Cigars ($5), a Jarfi’s specialty. Per the menu, these sound like the perfect Moroccan-style temptation for anyone with a sweet tooth: “Roasted almonds soaked in orange blossom and sugar, then rolled in crispy phyllo dough then drizzled with honey.”

But we had to admit we were filled to the top. Perhaps next time. Given the experience and the high quality of the food, atmosphere and presentation, a return trip is likely.

Jarfi’s Bistro
1543 Bardstown Road
Rating: 90 points

Ready for a glass of Jarfi’s finest?

Now that you’ve rediscovered Jarfi’s at its new location, how about a taste of host Jeff Jarfi’s personally labeled wine?

Adorned with a wacky label featuring a cartoon image of Jarfi wearing a Moroccan fez with a camel who looks very much worse for the wear, the wine has been available for some time through his catering operation.

Now he’s got it on the wine list at the new Jarfi’s Bistro, featured above, and, for the first time, at a very affordable $9.99 at two nearby wine shops, Old Town Liquors (1529 Bardstown Road) and The Wine Market (1200 Bardstown Road).

Are these Kentucky-made wines? Nope! They aren’t Moroccan either. We’re talking California here: The wines are made under contract using California grapes from the Rutherford Winery in Napa. Jarfi’s Bistro is available in the familiar grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and White Zinfandel.

Bottoms up! And watch that camel. – Robin Garr