Oakroom chefs play with their food. Lucky us

Duane Nutter
Oakroom chef Duane Nutter: Photos courtesy of the Oakroom.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes

The writer Calvin Trillin once famously observed that the quality of the food in restaurants tends to be inversely proportional to the elevation of the eatery. In other words, stay away from building-top restaurants with a view.

Many traveling foodies in the United States would propose another reliable rule: Steer clear of hotel restaurants, where you’ll likely get boring, overpriced food fashioned to take advantage of a captive audience of tourist families who’d really rather not go out.

But this simple rule – the one about hotels, I mean – doesn’t work in Louisville, where for a quarter of a century now, the Seelbach Hotel’s Oakroom has gone from strength to strength. The Seelbach, which celebrated its 100th anniversary the year before last, had become threadbare and down-at-the heels in the 1970s, when the actor Roger Davis spent a fortune restoring the hotel, and returning the dignified old Oakroom to its Edwardian-era elegance. Davis eventually sold out to Doubletree hotels, and it’s a Hilton property now; but even under chain ownership, the Oakroom remains one of Louisville’s top tables, with very high quality matching top-tier prices.

During the ’90s, chefs Jim Gerhardt and Mike Cunha earned the Oakroom the American Automobile Association’s top five-diamond rating before moving on to start their own restaurant, Limestone, in 2003. Their successor, Walter Leffler, brought Hilton resort experience to town when he took over from this dynamic duo. When Leffler moved on two years later, the Seelbach promoted from within, naming Chef de Cuisine Todd Richards to the top chef’s post. With Richards and his colleague Duane Nutter at the helm, the Oakroom is thought to boast the only all-African-American chef team at a top-rated restaurant in the country.

With cutting-edge, creative and imaginative concepts and execution, Richards and Nutter have kicked the Oakroom up another notch, a move that hasn’t gone without notice on the national scene. This spring, Food Network will air their appearance on “Iron Chef America” (filmed in December and still held under tight wraps). Last Friday, the chefs – with Oakroom “mixologist” Jerry Slater – made their maiden appearance at New York City’s James Beard House.

Jerry Slater
Oakroom director Jerry Slater.

Beard House called it “a playful, contemporary menu that offers a surprising counterpoint to the refined Southern hotel. … inventive interpretations of American comfort food alongside decidedly modern cocktails.” We call it fun … and we call it great eats.

Last week, Nutter & Co. laid out a preview for local media. Eat ‘N’ Blog correspondent ANDREA ESSENPREIS was there, and wrote this mouth-watering report:

Oakroom Chef Todd Richards and his staff were headed for the Big Apple to present their take on regional cuisine to New York’s culinary elite, and I was lucky enough to grab a spot as they previewed the innovative menu they were to serve in Gotham.

At first glance, the menu for Friday’s Beard House dinner looked different, even a little bizarre. I could hardly imagine how horseradish caramel popcorn with smoked salmon would work as a dish.

Richards was confident, though, explaining the process behind creating such extraordinary fare. “Every plate we put out has to consider four elements – sweet, salty, sour, bitter – in addition to color and texture. The key is balancing each element and making sure we are telling a story with the food.”

This menu may seem offbeat, but it tells us something important about the Oakroom and its chefs: These guys are having fun, and it shows.

“When people eat here, we want them to leave business and worries behind and just have a fun experience,” Nutter said. Both chefs credited the entire team in the kitchen and noted every dish represents a collaboration among the talented staff, which hails from around the country.

The dinner began with a clever amuse-bouche, a sort of inside-out mozzarella stick. A creamy potato paste surrounded a cylinder of tomato gelee, which was then breaded and fried. The gelee melted into a sauce that oozed out onto the plate when cut. It kicked off the meal with the clear message that these chefs were playing with their food.

Todd Richards
Chef Todd Richards.

Every course featured a pairing with a creative cocktail developed by the Oakroom’s director, Jerry Slater, who’s billed on the Beard House roster as the group’s mixologist. Slater said his cocktail inspirations were inspired by Richards’ “comfort food” concepts. Every cocktail had a twist, and we don’t mean lemon. Slater’s “Grape Cool-Aide” was made with grape-distilled Ciroc vodka, fresh grape juice and frozen grapes. (For Friday’s dinner, freshly pressed Gew├╝rztraminer juice was to be flown in from California for this purpose.) One could hardly call this elegant cocktail reminiscent of the purple fuel of our childhood, but it was a tongue-in-cheek reminder of how much fun beverages can be.

As we noshed our way through the “snacks” course, I thought how wonderful it would be if we could pick up some truffle potato chips and pretzel-crusted quail for our next football party. The chefs said the horseradish caramel popcorn was a favorite snack in their kitchen, and it was easy to see why. The deep amber caramel was a surprisingly delicious foil for horseradish, smoked salmon and crunchy popcorn. In addition, the simply named Snack Mix combined a Concord grape gelee, vine-ripened raisins and an “instant peanut butter” powder that exploded on the tongue and then disappeared. It was a perfect bite of the essence of PB&J.

Dinner started with a course of fish sticks with roasted garlic aioli and fried capers in place of the traditional tartar sauce. This delicately breaded flounder was a far cry from Mrs. Paul’s, but the flavors still seemed comfortable and accessible, complemented by a tangy fennel slaw.

Fried chicken with rigatoni mac ‘n’ cheese and collard green gelee caught me completely by surprise. I was hardly expecting the “seven herbs and spices” to include curry and other exotic flavors from the East, and the Kentucky Sweet Tea cocktail (with Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint and strong brewed Assam tea) played a refreshing counterpoint.

The next course, pork ‘n’ beans, was a revelation, incorporating pepper-crusted pork belly with white bean puree and a bourbon molasses sauce that Richards credits to his grandfather. My favorite bite of the night adorned this dish: a shard of clear sugar with bits of bacon suspended within, called “bacon brittle.” Slater dubbed it “meat candy.” I just wondered where I could get more, as it was the most addictive combination of sweet, salty and crunchy.

The savory courses concluded with a decadently rich pot roast, a fork-tender piece of braised Wagyu beef with chanterelle mushrooms and celery root puree.

Dessert ended the meal on a spectacularly high note. The chefs’ interpretation of banana cream pie included lemony cooked banana, caramelized marshmallow fluff, an outrageously good pistachio paste and the tiniest of madeleines. I could just imagine the chefs in the kitchen combining pistachio and marshmallow to create the ultimate Fluffernutter.

As it turns out, Richards and Nutter said, the experiments that never make it out of the kitchen could just be the basis for the Oakroom’s next tasting menu. Nutter called it “kicked-up family fare.”

Until the airing of “Iron Chef America” (tentatively scheduled for March), Richards will be featuring the James Beard House menu at the Oakroom. Louisville is lucky to have such chefs who love to play with their food, and do it so well.