A year ago on my first trip to Kentucky, I stopped into 21c Hotel’s Proof on Main in Louisville because it seemed like the happening late night place to hang out according to locals. Local acquaintances who would later become pals wanted to meet there for after dinner drinks and our opening reception for Idea Festival was in the 21c museum on the lower floor.
And so, I joined people for drinks and appetizers on more than one occasion…last year. This year, I ended up staying at 21c for an entire week, so it made sense to dive a little deeper into their food scene, especially since they have a relatively new chef: Levon Wallace.
I first met Levon and his culinary team before I ducked my head in to review the restaurant at the annual Taste of Innovation at nearby Churchill Downs, an evening full of one taste after another from the best restaurants in the greater Louisville area.
Like many of the Louisville chefs, he supports organic gardening, local farmers, artisanal producers and sustainable agriculture.
Since I was ‘tasting’ alone, I opted to sit at the bar so I could meet locals and ask opinions about dishes I wasn’t ordering from people to my left and right.
It turns out that the woman to my left worked in the White House and lived in Washington DC, so she definitely wasn’t a biased local, nor was her cousin the bartender. She raved about their mixed drinks, so much so I had to have a taste of her flavored martini.
For the rest of the night, I stuck to Cab despite the fact that the first dish they brought out for me to try was Kentucky Bison Tartare, which they served with egg yolk, frisee, caper, parmesan and parsley.
The dish was light, the spices were perfectly balanced and it was just about perfect except for my decision on the cab when in fact I probably should have been drinking a nice Pinot Gris or Sauvignan Blanc. Even a hearty Chardonnay would have been a better choice for the tartare as well as for the dish that followed: Pan Roasted Scallops.
They served it with a charred eggplant puree, tomato confit, baby basil and what they referred to on the menu as Squid Ink Pasta, however it was in fact an Israeli cous cous.
The bartender sounded proud when he added the fact that their baby tomatoes came from Woodland Farms, a local farm located 24 miles east of downtown Louisville. Woodland Farm is owned by 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, whose passion is to preserve the farmland of Kentucky by bringing heritage foods back to the table.
Woodland actively collaborates with the restaurant’s culinary team to provide the chef and his team with sustainably grown heirloom fruits and vegetables. The farm is also home to a sustainable bison operation, Kentucky Bison Company, which supplies Proof and numerous other restaurants around Louisville with hormone-free, grass-fed bison.
I thought about moving to bourbon after my seafood samples, however knowing that I still had a long night ahead of me, I decided to stick to wine. Given their proximity to Bourbon Country however, Proof’s bar does have an impressive selection of more than of Kentucky’s finest Bourbons, some bottled exclusively for their bar including special barrels of Woodford Reserve and Van Winkle. The bar itself is funky, artsy and chic, so dining in the bar itself has a much different vibe than the more classic and formal dining room with its white linen tablecloths. Besides, the bar also houses some great art, including male eye candy on the walls.
If you’re not a huge seafood lover, try their cured meat sampler: toscano, sopressata, Benton’s country ham, chorizo and lamb terrine OR their artisan cheese: Grayson, Castelrosso, Valdeon, Fiore Sardo and Cremeux de Bourgogne.
My neighbors split a portion of the Ricotta Gnocchi so I was able to experience their gnocchi as well. Served dante, the dish included Candy Cane Beets, heirloom carrots and wild mushrooms. Even though I was convinced I should opt out of the pasta since there was simply too many choices to try, the chef (and bartender) said that I HAD to try their Rye Pasta Carbonara, which they served with country bacon, farm egg, pea tendrils, creme fraiche and chives.
Note that the photo below doesn’t do the dish justice since it was shot on my iPhone in a fairly dark environment. It ended up being one of my favorite things on their menu, alongside their charred octopus appetizer, which they served with lime and toast. Yum!
Also recommended is the strip bison tenderloin and braised blue ribbon short ribs. The ribs are served with Weisenberger Grits, tomato confit and sweet garlic.
If you have a sweet tooth and love things colorful and decadent, go for the pretty n’ pink dessert, which is served with vanilla merengue, chantilly, rasberry gelato, rose and rasberries. I had the woodland farms apple-pear fritter, toasted oats and hay gelato with honey. (below). Not exactly low in calories, but it is a great dish to share.
Should you go next time you’re in Louisville? Absolutely. Proof on Main, even though it does get a lot of hype, too much say some locals, it is a hot destination for a reason. The bartenders know their stuff, the service is top notch, and there’s plenty of variety on the menu, all of which will leave your mouth watering for hours after you leave.
Photo credits: Bar shot from Proof on Main’s website, all other shots by Renee Blodgett.