LOUISVILLE — It was really only a matter of time before Louisville became a culinary destination. Sure, the Kentucky Derby — which takes place May 6-7 — brings throngs of revelers. But tourism overall contributed $13 billion to the state’s economy in 2014. You can chalk a lot of that up to bourbon. And where drinks enthusiasts go, they’re sure to insist on adventurous food options, too. Locals accepted the challenge. In the last five years, creative dining has become the norm. Chef Edward Lee, a Brooklyn expat, local restaurateur, and familiar face from “Top Chef,” has a straightforward explanation.
“There’s this love for all things bourbon-related and food,” he said. “Lousiville’s different from any other place in the world because chefs gear their food so it pairs well with bourbon, not just wine.” Add to that the fact that the rents seem like pocket change to East Coast restaurateurs and you get a culinary movement that embraces risk. Here’s a selection of restaurants where those risks pay off in dividends.
Edward Lee went to the Derby in 2002 and that was it. He was smitten. After cooking for eight years in New York, the Brooklyn native moved to Louisville the next year and opened 610 Magnolia, a relatively upscale farm-to-table destination. Lee, who authored the cookbook “Smoke and Pickles,” went back to his Asian roots in 2013 when he opened MilkWood, a casual subterranean eatery where he sends Southern soul food on a fast train to the Far East.
What you’re eating: The house-smoked pork shoulder with coconut rice, edamame, and Lee’s signature barbecue sauce, made with fermented black beans, captures his cross-cultural mind-set.
What you’re drinking: Each cocktail is classified by its flavor point — sweet, salty, bitter, or sour. The umami drinks, like the Smoke & Pickle (Scotch, Pernod, brine, mesquite), will inspire more tweets than the rest.
316 West Main St., 502-584-6455, www.milkwoodrestaurant.com
Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood was once an industrial expanse of slaughterhouses. Today it’s entrepreneurs who are making a killing, populating the area with artisanal food operations (bourbon barrel-aged soy sauce, anyone?), restaurants, and even a distillery. Chef Bobby Benjamin, a Rhode Island native whose cooking career includes stints at noted restaurants in Beverly Hills, Chicago, and Nashville, opened this classy yet cozy seasonally focused spot last fall. In a space dominated by raw and polished wood, a mind-boggling collection of vinegars line shelves that frame the open kitchen. Drawing from his experiences and passions — New England seafood, Tennessee barbecue, the health-minded, agriculture-worshipping dogmas of LA cuisine — he arrives at a menu that’s clever and engaging.
What you’re eating: The mom ’n’ pop Italian joints of his Rhode Island youth instilled in him respect for gnocchi: “It takes a lot of finesse — a lot of passion — to get it right,” he says. His own finesse is evident in the pillowy morsels he serves. Another crowd favorite is the pecan salad — Asian greens tossed in pear-praline vinaigrette and topped with jalapeno bleu cheese ice cream.
What you’re drinking: The bar has a bourbon selection worthy of the ZIP code, but for something more eccentric, there’s a supper club-like bar upstairs offering original cocktails, each named for a Tom Waits song.
1076 E. Washington St., 502-742-8315, www.butchertowngrocery.com
In 2013, Larry Rice, a 22-year Louisville bar industry veteran, opened the wildly popular Silver Dollar, a bourbon bar that pays homage to the outlaw attitude of the Bakersville sound (see: Merle Haggard). He followed it up in 2013 with this nouveau cantina, where the kitchen turns out enhanced renditions of Mexican standards and a gleefully colorful space that blends 1980s surfer chic and Day of the Dead memorabilia.
What you’re eating: Origami skills come in handy when you opt for the popular cochinita pibil, a make-your-own-taco plate with fresh masa tortillas, 24-hour-marinated achiote roasted pork shoulder, grilled kale, and pickled onions.
What you’re drinking: With more than 60 tequilas, 25 mezcals, and a roster of tiki-style drinks, El Camino feels like a vacation from bourbon country.
1314 Bardstown Road, 502-454-5417, www.elfreakingcamino.com
Gralehouse, opened in January 2014, completes a trifecta at its location: The Holy Grale, an expansive cathedral-like hot spot offering craft beers, draws crowds at night, and three thoughtfully curated rooms make up the relaxed Euro-esque inn upstairs. This cafe fills daytime cravings with a menu that has a Southern accent and a European-deli soul.
What you’re eating: The house-smoked porchetta sandwich and biscuits with duck gravy epitomize the Gralehaus ethos.
What you’re drinking: Owners Lori Beck and Tyler Trotter also own the Louisville Beer Store, which stocks more than 600 largely European brews, so you can bet the bottles here (available to stay or go) have been carefully selected. Beck endorses sipping suds with lunch; the coffee-infused beer, formulated with an elaborate process, makes daytime drinking justifiable.
1001 Baxter Ave., 502-454-7075, www.gralehaus.comLiza Weisstuch can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @livingtheproof.