By Robin Garr
What? another year has gone by already!? How in the heck did that even happen?
We’re another year away from the Covid-19 pandemic that came out of nowhere to scare the hell out of us, and we’ve become so blasé that only a tiny fraction of Americans have even bothered to get the updated and curated 2023-2024 vaccine. (It’s your call, but I’ve got mine.)
Moreover, a year later, the restaurant industry continues to grapple with business issues that the pandemic brought into clear sight …
Increasing food costs, rising costs of labor – a good thing, as servers and cooks begin inching gradually toward proper compensation for their work – and a newly critical dining public with not unreasonable expectations of quality food and service.
That may sound a lot like bad news, but there’s a bright side, and it starts with B and that stands for booze. Well, Bourbonism. The Louisville hotel market has seen a significant increase in leisure travel associated with bourbon tourism since 2020, hotel industry consultant HVS reported in August, and it’s thanks to “demand generators” like bourbonism that the Louisville hospitality market has been able to recover most of its Covid-19 financial losses.
That’s good news for a restaurant industry that, long reliant on local diners plus convention traffic and an annual Derby Season boost, now finds business bolstered by bourbon-thirsty visitors year-round.
It’s surely no coincidence that the arrival of new hotels in Nulu and the Highlands, and strategic placement of new restaurants are converting the city’s separate dining strips into one sprawling tourist-friendly zone. From a tourist’s standpoint (and a local’s, too), the dining and entertainment areas from downtown through Nulu and Butchertown to the Highlands, Clifton, and Crescent Hill into an almost contiguous party zone. Economically, that’s a very good thing.
We’ll continue watching these developments. For now, though, as the old year slouches into the new, let’s mark 2023’s passing with a quick look back at some of the most delicious restaurant meals I’ve enjoyed during 2023.
Ginger soup at Banh Thai & M
Served steaming and refreshingly aromatic, this was a delightful sweet, tangy, and deeply ginger-flavored broth loaded with halved white mushrooms, strips of onion and julienned ginger, scallions and baby corn. It was profoundly appetizing, and a perfect choice for a chilly winter day. (Jan. 18)
Bahn Thai & M, 2226 Holiday Manor Center, 365-2776
Carnitas taco at El Mariachi
Built on a doubled corn tortilla, this tasty taco was filled with long-cooked, subtly spicy, shredded pork carnitas, simply dressed Mexican-style with chopped onions and cilantro on top and a lime wedge on the side. Thick house-made tortillas made for a sturdy taco that didn’t fall apart. (Jan. 31)
El Mariachi Restaurante Mexicano, 9901 Lagrange Road, 413-5770
Fried fish at The Irish Rover
Irish Rover’s magisterial fish and chips consistently rank near the top among scores of worthy local fried-fish competitors. An inch-thick, rectangular slab of flaky white cod was thoroughly beer-battered, then fried until a crispy, crunchy, sizzling hot, grease-free coating formed. This is a treat during Lent or any other time of year. (March 29)
The Irish Rover, 2319 Frankfort Ave., 899-3544
Vegetable Bolognese at Anoosh Bistro
This is an exceptional meatless dish that could please even the most ardent carnivore. A portion of spaghetti squash made a crisp base for a Bolognese-style sauce built on lentils in place of chopped beef, blended with cauliflower and portobellos into a complex, filling sauce. Chopped basil and finely grated Parmesan (which may be omitted for a vegan dish) completed a resounding flavor symphony. (May 10)
Anoosh Bistro, 4864 Brownsboro Center, 690-6585
Tempura cauliflower at Naïve
This vegetarian dish was spectacularly good, a splendid example of kitchen creativity. Oversize chunks of tender but not mushy cauliflower were encased in crunchy panko tempura breading and fried just right, then topped with pickled scallions, sweet-and-spicy maple chile dressing, crisp fried kale leaves, and delectable bits of popped sorghum on top just for fun. (June 21)
Naive Kitchen + Bar, 1001 E. Washington St., 749-7856
Charcuterie plate at Harvey’s
Works of edible art, Harvey’s a la carte charcuterie selections come in a satisfying combination of colors and textures – Some crunchy, some soft, some spicy, and some sweet. Our small plate featured salami slices neatly fashioned into flower shapes, surrounded by spicy pickled brussels sprouts; creamy mustard with a dab of wasabi; tiny cornichons; mini teardrop-shape red peppers; spiced pistachios in the shell; corn nuts; marinated black olives; dried figs and apricots; toasted seeded bread triangles and a stack of tiny square mini-toasts. (July 19)
Harvey’s, 2011 Frankfort Ave., 314-0432
The Uptown Café burger
A star of Uptown Café’s menu since the Highlands fixture began its run 35 years ago, this burger (pictured at the top of this page) is an excellent hand-shaped, homemade patty. Hot-pink medium-rare, exactly as ordered, it was served open-faced on a thin English muffin, with a dollop of blue cheese dressing. (Aug. 16)
Uptown Cafe, 1624 Bardstown Road, 405-8898
Shawarma spiced chicken thighs at Meesh Meesh
This spicy chicken-thigh dish Chef Noam Bilitzer’s Meesh Meesh, one of the best new restaurants of the year, dish was so good that even the scents wafting up from the plate inspired a powerful appetite. Three deboned thighs were coated with sumac and baked very crisp and deeply flavorful. Kicked up with the Levantine curried green mango condiment amba and fiery red schug, a Yemeni chili condiment, it was garnished with cilantro and mint leaves. (Oct. 25)
Meesh Meesh, 636 E. Market St. 589-5224
The Bollywood Taco at Tikka Tacos
Louisville’s only Indian-Mexican fusion eatery puts sticky, minty, cumin-and-citrus scented chicken tikka and a scoop of rice into a puffy, flaky Indian paratha flatbreads instead of the usual tortilla. Then it goes all South-of-the-Border with sliced avocado, pico de gallo, red onions, and fresh lettuce. All the flavors were wonderful, with that fresh. complex quality that makes Indian curry flavors pop.
Tikka Tacos, 3311 Preston Highway, 918-4606