The 139th running of the Kentucky Derby took place last Saturday at historic Churchill Downs in Louisville.
The Derby is more than a horse race. It’s an American sports tradition—from the iconic twin spires that overlook the track’s homestretch to the 80,000 revelers packed into the track’s infield, and from the seersucker suits and frilly dresses worn by spectators to those iconic mint juleps.
But now that the race is over and the crowds have gone home, one can (and should) take the time to enjoy the culinary delights of Louisville, where Southern cuisine (both traditional and with a twist) dominates the local menus.
Because there are so many restaurants from which to choose, we’ve pared the list to three. And in honor of the Kentucky Derby, we present them in win, place and show order…
- WIN — 610 Magnolia
“Our menu is a modern approach to the Southern table,” says chef/owner Edward Lee. “We start with the best of local seasonal produce, the purest farmed animals and the historic foodstuffs that have defined this local landscape for generations. We then look at all these ingredients and traditions through a lens that is global, technical and provocative.”
Only 150 guests have the opportunity to experience Lee’s vision in any given week, as the restaurant seats just 50 people and is open only Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
The menu changes weekly, and among the dishes that have been featured are king crab with coconut-banana custard and cashew… line-caught Scottish salmon with broccolini and fingerling potatoes… and wild boar chop and braised shoulder with black eyed pea ragout.
A three-course meal is priced at $55 (plus $45 for wine pairings), and a four-course extravaganza goes for $65 (plus $55 for wine pairings). 610 Magnolia also has a short but well-selected wine-by-the-glass list, plus a bottle list packed with old favorites (Robert Talbott “Logan” Chardonnay) and dotted with a few delightful surprises (Stonefly Vineyard Cabernet Franc).
- PLACE — Proof on Main
Kentucky is known more for bourbon than for wine, and Levon Wallace’s Proof on Main is considered one of the essential stops on Louisville’s “Urban Bourbon Trail.”
But the restaurant also does a nice job with wine, no doubt the result of Wallace’s training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, not to mention his stint as chef de cuisine at the 5-diamond Maravilla at the Ojai (Calif.) Valley Inn.
Like at 610 Magnolia, the menu at Proof on Main changes often, as does the list of wines served by the quartino for pairing with selected dishes.
Wallace’s cooking has been described as “soulful and honest,” and showcases the bounty of the Ohio River Valley. “Our seasonal menus pay homage to organic gardening, local farmers, artisanal producers and sustainable agriculture,” Wallace says.
- SHOW — Jack Fry’s
The namesake of this Louisville dining landmark, established in 1933, passed away in 1987. Gone, too, are the bookmaking and bootlegging activities discreetly undertaken in the restaurant’s back room.
But with Stephanie Meeks as owner and Shawn Ward as executive chef, Jack Fry’s continues to be a favorite among locals and a consistent recipient of “Best of Louisville” awards.
The restaurant’s wine list seems to be tailor-made for Ward’s cooking; name a dish on the menu, and there’s at least one wine (and usually several) that would pair perfectly with it.
Among the starters that caught our eye (and delighted our palate) was the shrimp and grits — sautéed shrimp in a red gravy with shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and country ham, served over grits. Another that you won’t find anyplace else: spicy fried oysters with Kentucky country ham, green onions and creamy grits.
Ward transforms the humble pork chop into a culinary superstar. It’s herb encrusted and seared with a dry Vermouth glaze, and served with a medley of roasted new potatoes, asparagus, apple-smoked bacon, garlic and shiitakes.
He does the same for chicken, roasting the all-natural breast with cipollini onions, shallots, garlic, mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, served in a prosciutto almond jus.
And Jack Fry’s pumpkin bread pudding—concocted with cranberry compote, buttermilk ice cream and bourbon molasses sauce—is the best dessert in town.
For exceptional, memorable dining in the home of the Kentucky Derby, 610 Magnolia, Proof on Main and Jack Fry’s would be considered, in betting parlance, “prohibitive favorites.”