Every year, I attend the annual Taste of Innovation in Louisville Kentucky, an event I go to as part of the Idea Festival which I’ve been going to now for around five years now. And, each year, I pick some of my favorite foodie experiences in this gem of a southern city, which is usually a mishmash of top picks from Taste of Innovation and restaurant reviews. Be sure to see my top five picks from last year (Top Restaurants in Louisville), my write up from last and this year’s Idea Festival, our write up on last year’s Taste of Innovation, from 2012 Taste of Innovation and 2011. Can you tell that we LOVE this event?
This year’s Taste of Innovation had an interesting twist to it – it was a Taste of Innovation + Bourbon, so fitting for a Kentucky based food event. This food lover’s event is always held at Churchill Down’s Millionaire’s Row, also fitting given that it’s the same venue as the infamous Kentucky Derby where people flock to from around to sip some of the finest bourbon in the country, wear exquisite hats that would make the Epsom Downs attendees jealous and watch horses win races that bring in millions. While every year they have bourbon vendors on-site, this year let bourbon led the way with taste and education.
Top bourbon experts were on site to answer questions and give pours, with Chef Dean Borbett acting as the Master of Ceremonies. With the help of the Kentucky Distiller’s Association and Kentucky Bourbon Trail, tastings were available from major distillers as you also walked through the history of bourbon and bourbon cocktails. Bourbon was also woven into some of the dishes, the best of which was the bourbon braised short ribs prepared Manhattan style by Churchill Downs.
New on my radar this year were two new restaurants I had not seen at previous events – Hillbilly Tea with Karter Louis as the owner and Manny & Merle with Tony Palombino as owner. While Manny & Merle may not be your 5 star dining experience nor do they offer a lot of variety, their tacos are out of this world and they also have live music throughout the week. At Taste of Innovation, they served a green chili pulled pork with green chili jam and roasted garlic crema, and they topped it off with cilantro and lime. Let’s just say that I went back for seconds.
Marketplace served Italian pork meatballs with a tasso ham sauce, polenta, feta cheese and granulated sumac. Everyone was talking about their perfectly made polenta all night and in fact I heard a few say, they’d return just to eat the polenta alone it was so delicious. I couldn’t agree more. Hats off to Chef Dallas McGarity and his team.
Churchill Downs served the bourbon braised short ribs Manhattan style. It didn’t look like much at first glance until you sipped down the juice at the bottom. The juice was made from bourbon, cherry bourbon gastrique (dried cherries, red wine, orange juice and sugar. They cooked it down and then added the Woodford Reserve bourbon to it and voila, your tastebuds pop. Two thumbs up!
I had been hearing about Rye on Market for the last couple of years but never had an opportunity to give them a try. Chef Tyler Morris was on site to wake up my palette with his hay smoked milk braised local heritage Berkshire pork, which he served with broken rice grits, turnips, red raffish and leek ash. The black flicks on top? Black island sea salt of course. It was delicious. My dinner on my last night in Louisville was even better so be sure to see our write up on Rye on Market for more details.
Lilly’s Bistro showed up again and every year, chef Chef and owner Kathy Cary surprises! I always try to get to her booth first since her dishes go quickly. While the Moroccan lamb with a dollop of sour cream on the top was lovely, it was the portobello mushroom soup that had me and everyone else coming back for seconds. A serious two thumbs up!
Proof on Main’s chef Levon Wallace served a fried chicken biscuit tossed in Kentucky honey and spice with a pickle on top. Levon always has some interesting dishes up his sleeves and in addition to his scrumptious dishes, he has a great sense of humor which I discovered this year. He’s also prolific on Twitter so if you follow chefs, add him to your list.
Harvest is known for their fresh farm-to-table approach to cooking and while their centrally located restaurant is somewhat spartan in its decor, don’t be fooled by its down-to-earth ambiance. Their dishes are top notch and will excite most foodies who pass through Louisville — thanks for the share Coby. They served a Tomato Chevre on a sea salt cracker with pepper jam and garlic chips. Yum!!
Provence was surprisingly good, meaning I didn’t expect much from cabbage and bacon. I was wrong! Talk about an unusual preparation – they went for a cabbage salad with a blue cheese vinaigrette, topped with a potato chip (yes, really – remember, it’s southern cuisine influenced), and bacon which they tossed with dark chocolate and a little bit of honey lavender bourbon glaze on the top. OMG! Then, they sprinkled fresh lavender on all of it, leaving a large bowl of it on the table if you wanted to add even more. I did btw and it exploded in my mouth — I left a very happy camper!
While we’re talking about unusual preparations, how about unusual names? Hillbilly Tea is a fabulous name isn’t it? Owner Karter Louis looks at things a little differently and Hungarian chef Arpi Lengyel blended the best of what he knows from his own culture with southern cuisine. The result is over-the-top delicious! Imagine this combo? Buttermilk ash biscuit (made with bamboo charcoal Arpi tells me) served with bourbon barbecue pulled pork, chow chow (pickled cabbage) and garlic mayonnaise on top.
If you are egging to get to Louisville, try to plan it in September so you can take in both Idea Festival and Taste of Innovation in the same week. You won’t be disappointed.
Restaurants we’ve written about over the years include Proof on Main at the well renowned 21c Museum Hotel, where I stayed this year, Seviche Restaurant (loved their seafood bisque – hats off to chef Anthony Lamas, Lilly’s (I love Kathy’s approach to cooking, her sweet potato gnocchi with country ham, kale and bourbon mustard cream sauce from a previous year was to die for as was this year’s portobello mushroom soup, although we have yet to review Lilly’s), Milkwood, Decca, Game (for every kind of game imaginable), La Coop Bistro, Mayan Cafe, Harvest, Jack Frys and The Blind Pig in Butchertown which is no longer open.
This year’s delicious picks include Basa Restaurant for Vietnamese Fusion style dishes and Rye on Market so be sure to read our review write ups we published in October. Also be sure to read our Kentucky Food section for more details. (Top Kentucky Restaurants / Best Food in Kentucky / Best Food in Louisville).
Photo credits: Renee Blodgett.