We put on that ole Southern drawl at Limestone

Michael Cunha
Limestone Restaurant chef and co-owner Michael Cunha dresses up Southern fare in a city suit. The suburban restaurant remains up there with the top spots in town. LEO photo by Nicole Pullen.

LEO’s Eats with Louisville HotBytes

Louisville, it is said, is the only Northern city that chose to declare itself “Southern” only after the South had lost the Civil War. This odd decision, some say, led directly to 100 years of stagnation, no major-league sports teams and a slow decline that eventually took us to the bottom of the nation’s top 50 media markets.

It was a hefty price to pay for the privilege of adopting an affected drawl and adding fatback, grits and greens to our culinary tradition.

I don’t know about you, but our family never ate that stuff at home. Ours was a steak-and-potatoes, spaghetti-and-meatballs, braunschweiger-and-kuchen urban household, and we liked it like that.

Nevertheless, Southern, aka “country,” fare dressed up in a city suit has become a staple in some of Louisville’s finest upscale eateries, and chefs Jim Gerhardt and Michael Cunha have been among the leaders in making it so.

Gerhardt and Cunha are the guys who turned the Seelbach’s Oakroom from a stodgy old hotel dining room into a gourmet-style destination; in 2003, they bailed out of the corporate dining sector to start their own restaurant, Limestone, and they’ve made it a destination in its own right with a similar formula.

Many of the dishes boast a distinct Southern drawl, like a Southern fried chicken livers appetizer ($6.50). But no roadside diner ever served liver-and-onions like this, prettily plated and yupped up with onion marmalade and pepper cream gravy. You can choose beef short ribs with traditional fixins including collard greens, white beans, country ham and hot water cornbread; but a fancy veal demiglace brings it all together.

Still, if the idea of fancified redneck grub doesn’t ring your chimes, you can lay down $42 for a grilled prime sirloin; or go international with saffron papparadelle pasta ($13) or Gerhardt’s take on a Northern Italian classic, veal ossobuco ($27).

Time flies, and although I’ve been by Limestone now and then in my civilian attire, I hadn’t visited in review mode since October 2003, shortly after its opening. It seemed time for a fresh look, so we summoned a couple of pals to make it a foursome and stopped in on a mild, drizzly winter evening.

The decor and the mood haven’t changed much: Limestone rises above its bland suburban location with a stylishly simple main dining room dominated by bright tropical-fish aquariums lined up atop a long, curving banquette. Tables are double-draped in white, with large white cloth napkins, fine flatware and quality glassware.

Our dinner began with an amuse bouche of fluted pastry tarts filled with a salty, intense country ham and olive tapenade topped with a round of pimiento-stuffed green olive. It was just a two-bite treat, but the flavor combination was masterful, a forecast of good things to come.

Warm rolls – Limestone’s homemade sour-mash bread – made another appetizing starter treat. These pale-brown rolls boast a distinctive malty-sweet aroma and flavor that reminds you of bourbon, but it’s subtle, not boozy. I could eat plenty of these.

Appetizers took a surprisingly long time coming out, a good half-hour after we placed our orders, during which time the servers pretty much put funnels in our mouths and poured down the first bottle of wine (an excellent Oregon “Dijon Clones” Chardonnay from Domaine Serene, $85). Seriously, I would just as soon pour my own refills as have someone top up every glass every time someone takes a sip. As a result, we ran out of wine long before the entrees came. What the heck … This was a blowout experience, so a second fairly upscale bottle (Louis Latour 2005 Chassagne-Montrachet, $89) seemed in order and went well with the mains.

Once the apps finally arrived, they proved worth the wait. Kentucky Limestone Bibb salad ($8) featured crisp, delicate lettuce in a mild lemon-shallot vinaigrette, topped with a round of mild Indiana goat cheese covered with slivered almonds, a chunk of tart-sweet apple poached in red wine, and shreds of anise-scented braised fennel.

“Shrimp ‘N Grits” ($9) was a well-fashioned variation of this Low Country classic, made regional with Kentucky freshwater shrimp and pan-seared grits “cakes” sauced with a traditional red eye gravy.

A daily special, a hearty appetizer dubbed “bacon and eggs for dinner” ($10), was a tongue-in-cheek variation on an Argentine-Italian tradition. A piece of blood-rare beef tenderloin about the size of a Zippo lighter was topped by a neatly trimmed egg fried sunny-side up and perched on a toasted slice of that excellent sour-mash bread.

Corn and crawfish chowder ($7) was assembled at table. A rich, creamy soup, more akin to a textured bisque than chowder, was poured over a ration of shelled crawfish and tender corn niblets. Subtle and gently spicy, it’s another of Limestone’s fancy takes on down-home food, with “down home” in this instance being Louisiana’s bayou country.

Two of our party succumbed to a daily main-course swordfish special ($25). Thick, sweet, veal-like swordfish steaks were simply prepared, pan-seared crispy on the outside, moist in the middle, plated on a dab of perfect lemon-herb risotto and topped with a little patch of peppery and delicious pea sprouts, radish sprouts and bean sprouts “microgreens.”

The seared sea bass ($29) is presented as a bouillabaisse. Pure, snow-white, tender sea bass was served with mussels and a piece of lobster tail.

Veal ossobuco ($27) was a delight. A large chunk of bone-in veal shank was braised until butter-soft and presented with an elegant, thin veal demiglace in place of the usual Italian-style tomato sauce. It was plated atop a small portion of risotto scented with truffle oil and garnished with crisp-tender, not-too-sweet shredded red cabbage.

Vegetable side dishes come in a la carte “family-style dishes” that provided enough for four to share. We enjoyed grilled asparagus ($12) topped with a discreet swash of Hollandaise; and perfect fried green tomatoes ($8), sweet-tart and thick tomato slices in a crunchy, grease-free golden-brown breading.

Two desserts were plenty for the four of us: The creme brulee trio ($8) included three small cups of contrasting flavors; the strange-sounding combination of peppermint mocha worked surprisingly well, but I could have inhaled the haunting hazelnut. Chocolate panna cotta ($8) – accompanied by a chocolate-bourbon shooter that probably can’t legally be served to minors – was fine, if a bit of a departure from the light and shimmery Italian original, an oblong block of rich, dense and almost fudge-like chocolate.

Espresso ($3.50) was OK, but a burnt-bitter flavor took it out of the awesome category.

A word about service: We felt well cared for, but to be frank, service overall was good but not great, letting way too many small things slide. Pacing was variable, empty serving plates weren’t taken away promptly, and no one thought to bring out small plates for sharing the vegetable side dishes. And while they were busy keeping our wine glasses topped off, I wasn’t offered a water refill until after dessert.

Despite these lapses, service overall was courteous and professional, although I might judge it three-star service for a four-star meal. Bottom line, I left happy, and the food … ah, the food. Limestone remains up there with the top restaurants in town.

Each couple’s share of an expansive meal was $190 and change, to which I added a $40 tip. (It should be noted, however, that this included two rather pricey bottles of wine. Without the wine, the dinner would have been about $100 per couple plus tip.)

Limestone Restaurant
10001 Forest Green Blvd.
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points