I attended an event called Taste of Innovation at the Churchill Downs in late September, the same Churchill Downs that houses the famous Kentucky Derby every year. The event is the signature part of Idea Festival, which brings together a diverse array of the most creative chefs, restaurants, brewers, distillers and mixologists in the immediate area.
The theme this year was “Innovation Farm to Table,” to encourage chefs to use fresh ingredients from within a 150-mile radius. (LOVE this idea of course). The restaurants who participated included Anchorage Cafe, August Moon Chinese, Bourbon’s Bistro, Creative Gardens, Derby Cafe, Harvest (love the decor of this restaurant btw – old farm style wooden tables), Krispy Krunchy Chicken, Levy’s Restaurant, Le Gallo Rosso Bistro, Lilly’s Bistro, Marketplace Restaurant, Meridian Cafe, Proof on Main Street, Seviche, Shalimar Indian Restaurant, The Oakroom in the Seelbach Hilton and Volare.
Taste of Innovation celebrates not only taste, but preparation, presentation, health, sustainability, packaging and art.
While it was a bit of a slow and wonderful sprint from table to table to ensure we tasted at least a spoonful of what each chef had to share for the evening, most of which was uniquely prepared for this event only and not a regular on the menu.
A few things to tease you while you’re waiting for my top three picks.
Grits. Lots of them. While Kentucky isn’t the deep south, it certainly has southern influence and with it, comes grits. In Louisville, they seem to all use Weisenberger Mill grits, which are fluffier than the traditional grainier grits that you might be used to…Imagine fluffy grits that are almost whipped into a ball, served with Sapan Ditali Goat Cheese, house-cured ham and Garey Farms egg yolks?
To follow, I had a fabulous braised pork belly on sweet potato risotto cake with a basil and peach mustarde from Levy’s Restaurant, the mainstay of the Churchill Downs.
Since I was staying downtown, a stone’s throw from the trendy 21c Hotel and Restaurant, I ended up in their restaurant and lobby on more than one occasion. The opening reception was there, art galore plastered on every wall, and tons of fresh food for the tasting. At Taste of Innovation, 21c’s Proof Restaurant on Main, served a seared short rib with charred eggplant, yellow beans, oregano, pickled fresno and ricotta cheese.
Seviche Restaurant on trendy Bardstown Road, served Aji Rocoto rubbed shrimp with horseradish chimichum & pico de gallo.
Seviche was closely tied with my #3 pick and frankly, the “call” was tough since the food was top notch around the room, the ingredients were fresh and the chefs incredible people. In other words, hats off to them well beyond their “art.” Sustainability was a big theme in Louisville, particularly touted by Harvest farmer Ivor Chodkowski, the man who helped put the farm in Louisville’s farm-to-table movement. When he and partner, Peter Kuhl, started serving up farm-fresh omelets at the Bardstown Road Farmer’s Market, the legions of faithful fans who lined up kept growing (and growing). Harvest was born.
While their roasted beet, oven-dried tomato w/cucumber, pretzel crouton and basil vinaigrette didn’t make the top 3 cut either, it’s only because the choice was so tough AND because I selected them not just based on the quality of the food, but the overall experience I had WITH the food, which isn’t ingredients alone. I absolutely loved Harvest’s ambiance however and hope to return for a four hour meal when there is no flight or compelling panel waiting.
And now for my top 3:
1. Lily’s Bistro: Oddly enough, owner and chef Kathy Cary’s to-die for roasted butternut squash and apple bisque is the one dish I did NOT get a photo of. She served it with preacher ham, JD’s buttermilk & capriole goat cheese and cilantro oil. In lieu of that, I found a fabulous shot of her and her team.
Below, Kathy is on the left. She was a treasure to talk to given her passion for cooking and supporting local producers. To name a few, they work with the following farmers in the greater Louisville area: Fox Hollow Farms, Col. Bill Newsom’s Ham, Capriole Farm’s Goat Cheese, Marksbury Farm, Stone Cross Farm, Grateful Greens, JD’s Milk, Ashbourne Farm, Woodland Farm, and Country Girl At Heart Eggs.
Kathy told me of her early inspiration and how her sustainability “wings” started decades ago on her way to Maui with a stop over in San Francisco. It’s not surprising that San Francisco was an inspiration in the 1980s. Lily btw, is her daughter who is now grown, but only a small child when Lily’s in Louisville was born.
Additionally, she has been doing a cooking-and-gardening educational program for 18 years: From Seed to Table. The program benefits as-risk inner city teens at the Cabbage Patch Settlement House, through cooking classes, hands-on gardening experience, and field trips throughout the year.
2. Le Gallo R0sso – Chef Annette Saco. They served duck napoleon and as an aside, dark chocolate with pistachio. (the combination was out of this world, particularly if you happened to have a deep Cab or Zin in your glass rather than a Kentucky bourbon).
Annette was raised in a southern Italian family where the love of food, and the authentic preperation of each dish was central to every gathering. She began her journey with food as a child, each Sunday morning rising early to prepare the Sauce (gravy) and meatballs. Her mother, Ginger, and grandmother, Carmella, were very talented in the kitchen. They did everything from gardening, canning, baking, and candy making to making homemade bread, pizza and sausage with Uncle Joe. All these wonderful traditions were planted in Annette and now she brings this ageless knowledge to every dish she prepares, from her kitchen to your table. AND, this comes across in her preparation and style.
The chocolate was a nice touch.
3. Meridian Cafe – Chef Mike Ross served a delicious french toast with blue cheese and bacon. It may not sound like it goes well together until you taste the version that Ross whips up. I went back for thirds. Yes, really.
Meridian Café is a locally owned breakfast and lunch spot occupying a 1940’s two story home in St. Matthews, KY. The café serves Louisville’s freshest breakfast, and an eclectic mix of homemade vegan soups, specialty sandwiches, original salads and delectable daily specials. Favorite menu items such as “Heddie’s Best French Toast” and “Penny’s White Bean Burger” are popular among vegans and vegetarians, while “James’ Grilled Steak Sandwich” satisfies the heartier appetite.