Meeting John Barleycorn at Bourbons Bistro

Bourbons Bistro
Chef Michael Crouch of Bourbons Bistro offers thoughtful, creative dishes that may be rooted in down-home Ohio Valley flavors but travel around the world for inspiration. Photo by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eats with

We did an odd thing at Bourbons Bistro the other night. You might expect a place named after Kentucky’s native nectar to feature steak, potatoes and red wine, but we ended up with a delicious selection of seafood and vegetarian dishes.

That’s the delicious secret (although it’s not much of a secret) at Bourbons Bistro: Bourbon has outgrown its reputation as the potent, old-style liquor that your Old Grand-dad used to sip and has moved into the modern era. Bourbons Bistro, arguably bourbon whiskey’s No. 1 temple in the metro, provides fare to match, with Chef Michael Crouch turning out thoughtful, creative dishes that may be rooted in down-home Ohio Valley flavors but travel around the world for inspiration.

Located in a fine old Clifton commercial building, the Bistro’s interior breathes a sense of age worn gracefully; tables are simple, undraped black, with attractive wooden side chairs. Exposed brick walls are decorated with old photos of distillery scenes, and the tongue-in-cheek use of shot glasses as votive-candle holders carries out the boozy theme.

Of course, it would be silly to dine at Bourbons Bistro without trying some bourbon, and the menu makes it easy, proposing eight suggested “flights” of one-ounce samples; or you can pick any three you like from the 150-bottle list, add up the regular prices and then knock off $4 for the tasting set. We chose three from the “Small Batch” flight ($20), trying caramelly Ridgemont Reserve 1792, mellow Basil Hayden and strong, complex Bulleit, and enjoyed comparing their flavors alone, with a single ice cube and over ice.

Our meal started with complimentary Blue Dog levain bread wrapped in a white cloth napkin, with whipped butter piped into a white ramekin.

Fresh baby spinach salad ($7), with cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes and walnuts, was excellent, if rather heavily dressed, with an excellent, tangy mustard vinaigrette.

Seven small, perfect oysters ($9) were cloaked in a crisp cornmeal breading and deep-fried grease-free, the oysters steaming but not overcooked, served with lemon wedges and a dish of creamy, gently piquant horseradish sauce.

Our server highly recommended the pan-seared lobster cakes ($28), and I can see why. Think of rich, dense and perfect crab cakes the size of large marshmallows, then substitute shredded lobster as the central ingredient. Fresh and richly flavorful, they were studded with tiny dots of red, green and yellow bell pepper, topped with a thin coat of perfect lemony-tart Hollandaise and plated on a tangy-sweet orange gastrique sauce, with perfect home-fried potatoes and caramelized onions formed into a turban on the side and a small bundle of crisp-tender haricots verts. This is a memorable shellfish dish, and it was a stunning match with a full-bodied d’Arenberg “Hermit Crab” white wine ($7 for a glass).

Wedges of “chunky new potato and asparagus tart” ($17) were made with big chunks of perfectly roasted potato and thin-sliced fresh asparagus, sitting on and topped with melted Brie cheese and a silken lemon crème fraiche. The combination of flavors and textures was just incredible; add this one to the local Hall of Fame for vegetarian main courses. Grilled summer squash sliced lengthwise and grilled asparagus made a healthy springtime accompaniment, and it was a fine match with a fruity, slightly musky Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc.

For dessert we shared a favorite, chocolate pecan bourbon bread pudding ($7), a delicacy so fine that my long-suffering bride, who usually hates bread pudding, declares it one of Louisville’s best desserts. A block the size of half a brick, it’s saturated in chocolate and studded with tart dried cherries, laced with a haunting touch of bourbon. Moist, dense yet tender, plated on rich crème anglaise, it’s all beautiful flavors that go together perfectly.

The toll for two came to $109.18, not bad at all when you consider that it includes both a flight of high-end bourbons and two glasses of decent wine. Our server Jeremy’s confident and professional service made the customary 20-percent tip seem cheap; we rounded up to $140 and were glad we did.

Bourbons Bistro
2255 Frankfort Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 89 points