Restaurateurs who ignore their numbers are doomed to lose

I had dinner recently with the operating partner of a casual, burger-centered Louisville restaurant. The food and drink weren’t fancy, but each was perfectly done. The menu was clever, focused and uncomplicated, and the bar program was first-rate. The facility seats about 100 guests and its annual sales are approaching $2 million per year. Continue reading

The EDT Podcast – Hopcat Preview, DiFabulousness at DiFabio’s, Bourbon Voyage with Trey Zoeller

Steve and Rick were getting a little giddy in the studio this week after enjoying a walk-thru at the spectacular new HopCat. It’s a HUGE new enterprise that will surely add to the foot traffic in an already crowded section of Bardstown Road. The Michigan-based chain chose Louisville for its ninth location, and spent nearly $5 million on great decor that beer and music aficionados will love. We tried to imagine how long it would take to sample all 132 beers on tap and were amazed at the size of the keg room. And the food, at least based on the menu, has great promise as well, including Detroit-style pizza. Steve unearthed news of another potential opening in social media, with news that Ryan Rogers of Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken is researching pizza ideas. So when are we reaching the saturation point for new, independent restaurants? We’re hoping it’s not anytime soon, because we love attending their soft openings, but a Nation’s Restaurant News piece points to the possibility of a restaurant recession in 2017, signaling that the industry may have overbuilt.

One of Rick’s favorite tastes of the week was at DiFabio’s Casapella on Frankfort Ave., where Jon Riley and Caiti DiFabio treated him to a spectacular dish of ice cream made in-house, and paired with a Maker’s Mark and Ballotin Whiskey Manhattan. Hear about the couple’s unusual meeting story and how the family business traces its way to Madisonville, Ky.

Steve’s interview with Trey Zoeller is a real treat. The Jefferson’s Bourbon owner and master blender tells of a lengthy voyage two barrels of his product coasting down the Ohio and several rivers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama the flavor effect of the rough ride and weather on the product. And Steve talks about the best pulled pork sandwich he’s ever tasted, from Muddy Piggs BBQ in Princeton, plus the sip he had of a $300 a bottle Booker’s Rye. All this and more on our 12th episode of the EatDrinkTalk podcast.

EDT12DiFabio

Jon Riley and Caity DiFabio at their Frankfort Avenue restaurant

EDT13Trey-Zoeller photo

Trey Zoeller

2016-07-28 10.17.04

First peak at the main bar at Hopcat

Almost the Weekend Edition – Hop to It in Louisville

If you’re going to open a restaurant with the intention of keeping 132 beers on tap, this is the kind of room you’ve got to have. Steve and I got a sneak peak at the new Hopcat, a HUGE new bar and restaurant opening Saturday on Bardstown Road at Grinstead.

Hopcat’s founder, Mark Sellers, is a big music fan, so you see specially commissioned art featuring rock and roll icons, art made of vinyl records and even a wall of album covers. But the best decor may be the hallway of photos of Muhammad Ali posing with music legends.

Keep an eye out here at EatDrinkTalk for Steve’s take on the place.

Too Much is Not Enough: Yes, we’ve been to a lot of soft openings lately, and we are hearing and talking about more new independent restaurants coming to the ‘Ville. But a new Nation’s Restaurant News article warns that a tipping point may have arrived and next year may see a recession for restaurateurs. The story speculates that the industry may have overbuilt in recent years.

Worth Walking For: Mark your calendars for Sept. 3, the date for the 3rd annual benefit for Alzheimer’s hosted by DiFabio’s Casapella. Proceeds from that night’s dinners in both Louisville and the family’s Madisonville restaurant will go toward supporting the Alzheimer’s event at Waterfront Park Sept. 10. And listen to Jon Riley and Caity DiFabio on this week’s EDT podcast.

Rooms with a View: Open Table analyzed surveys from diners who left five million reviews of 20,000 restaurants and came up with a list of the 100 most scenic spots in the U.S. — It includes one in Kentucky — the Rivue atop the Galt House. It does have great sight lines of the city and the Ohio River, but we could certainly add to that list.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 2.56.51 PMSubscribe for Good Coffee: As a proud member of the Dollar Shave Club, I’m surprised more subscription services for quality products haven’t caught on. I hope this one does — Good Folks Coffee Co. now offers its “expertly sourced coffee beans” by subscription. You can have it delivered to your home, starting at $14 per 12-oz. bag.

Quickies From The Internets: A C-J review of a Norton Commons’ lone Mexican spot, Citizen 7, credits chef Allan Rosenberg (of Fontleroy’s fame) with creating food that’s “assertive and fun.”. . . Not sure why you’d spend a day in New Albany, but if you did, here’s how to do it. (Louisville Distilled). . . Three years ago, Laurent Geroli left as executive chef of the Brown Hotel, creating an opening for chef Josh Bettis there (you heard from him on last week’s EDT podcast.) Now, Geroli is back in town as executive chef at the Marriott East (Biz First). . .

2016-07-24 20.53.10And a Drink To Try: I was fortunate to attend the Flyover Film Festival’s opening Sunday, featuring a beautiful documentary on Wendell Berry. The after-party was held at 21C, and that was all great too. But the best part was this drink called a Hot to Trot, which was served in a julep cup with Four Roses, Dry Curaçao, Fernet-Branca, cayenne, Demerara sugar, mint, Aztec chocolate bitters. I don’t know what some of those ingredients are, but I highly recommend the drink.

 

 

 

Commentary: In modern restaurant journalism, the details are ‘softened’

As a journalist, I’ve covered dozens of sporting events, yet at none of these was I asked to pay for my seat on press row. Far as I know, no other reporter has either. It’s assumed that if you work for a credible media outlet, you can “get credentialed” with a free pass that gives you some of the best seats in the house and walk-around access to places fans only dream of going.

No matter what happens at those events, reporters are expected to write it as they see it, even when things turn ugly. It even seems that part of a sports reporter’s job is to find fault so as to appear objective.

My career as a restaurant reporter is lived in a markedly different fashion. People in my trade used to follow the old saying, “Never accept more than a cup of coffee” so you’d never get too friendly with your subjects. If they were restaurant critics with any integrity, they couldn’t even accept that, and the publications they wrote for reimbursed all expenses.

Author Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

Author Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

But a paradigm shift is underway in restaurant reporting. Due to the continued paring back of staffs at all publications, more and more freelancers are employed to cover this industry. Those freelancers are not only paid low sums for their work, they’re rarely reimbursed for meals, drinks, tips or the miles rolled up driving to dinner and home.

And yet as reporters, they’re expected to be non-biased chroniclers of what they eat and what they learn about the people who serve those meals. They’re expected to become experts in their understanding and recollection of the subject matter, which requires a significant investment in time if they’re going to be good at that work.

In 2016, here’s where things get a little tricky: Restaurateurs now regularly offer reporters free meals to get them to write about their restaurants or post web pictures of those meals. I’m one among many who’s accepted freebies under these terms. Outside of true restaurant critiques, this is increasingly how the business is covered.

Why? Because no freelance writers I know make enough money to cover every opening, menu change, wine dinner, fundraiser, etc., like a staff reporter at a large publication would do. In fact, I know no local staff reporter given such a budget to accomplish that.

So restaurateurs have smartly recognized the benefit of a meal given quid pro quo as cheap advertising. The actual cost of food to a restaurateur for a $100 free meal is about $30, yet the exposure gained on the pages of a well-followed web or print publication could cost five, 10 and 20 times more. This new arrangement, without a doubt, is a good deal for all involved. Reporters get to do their jobs and enjoy the work, restaurateurs get broad and inexpensive exposure, and restaurant fanatic readers learn more about the options available to them.

But how truthful is the reporting when a meal is given for free?

My answer ties back to a college class I had that dealt with the issue of situational specifics, where you can’t apply common black-and-white rules to every situation. You first have to assess the context of the situation prior to making an evaluation. In the case of restaurant reporting, situational specificity is highly fluid.

Take, for example, the increasingly common soft-opening meal. These are dress rehearsals in which a restaurant’s staff gets a chance to experience the pressure of cooking for and serving actual guests without the pressure of real criticism. In other words, if the food comes out slowly, it’s expected the staff gets some grace from guests because its learning and because the meal is free. Guests are also asked to reserve comments for managers and owners, and post no photos on social media.

Well, that last one changes if you’re a reporter. If the food is pretty, and your plate rarely isn’t—because you’re a reporter or photographer—you’re encouraged to use those images in your story. It is, after all, your duty to show it like it was.

But if things aren’t perfect, you’re asked not to write about those miscues because it’s a training exercise. The same rule applies to any guest of such events.

I respect and accept those wishes for the benefit that I get out of the meal: All the material I need to write a story, take photos of the meal and make a living doing both. I tell people what’s new, what the space looks like, what I ate and drank, and they’re free to decide whether they want to go.

But not so long ago I ran into a predicament when one soft-opening meal was not good on multiple levels, yet I wrote about it anyway, touching only on the good points of what I ate and what the restaurant looked like. I didn’t write that the service staff was unskilled and likely not to improve anytime soon. I sidestepped several other shortcomings that, if mentioned here, would give away the restaurant’s identity, so I’ll keep those to myself because the meal was free.

A friend who dined with me that night said I was too soft in my reporting on the soft opening experience (though he’d enjoyed the same free meal), and that made me wonder: Should I have treated that story like any sports reporter and given the vivid critique warranted by such an underwhelming performance?

Probably not, and here’s why:

Athletes spend their entire lives improving their abilities, whereas many restaurant employees are transient sorts who don’t always become experts in those roles. In short, I lower my standards.

Athletes also tend to play for large, well-funded organizations that have no problem carving out some precious seats for reporters. Restaurateurs hosting soft openings, however, give away tens of thousands of dollars of food away in the process, money that comes straight from their pockets.

In this context, a reporter’s job is to write it straight as possible by telling readers it was a soft opening, and then listing what was seen and tasted. By all means let readers know that this is a free practice session.

Let the serious critics keep their niche, and let reporters and restaurateurs keep this happy relationship as long as it works. Fact is, the ultimate reviewer is the guest, which is the way it should be.

 

EDT’s Weekend Options – Try a New Spot, Revisit an Old One, and . . . Oysters

It’s Friday, so let’s get in weekend mode and plan some nights out on the town. Make the right call and choose from the ‘Ville’s burgeoning supply of brand new restaurants, including the new Louvino in Middletown (discussed here) and the 502 Bar & Bistro in Norton Commons (see our write-up here). We also dig the new meat pies at Cooper & Kings (hear our podcast with founder Joe Heron here).

The Blues are back, too, and we hear the barbecue available at the Water Tower for the Blues, Brews and BBQ party is first-rate.

With some 60,000 people expected to tour Homearama at Norton Commons in the next week or so, expect big crowds at the 502 Bar. And if you want to see some million-dollar homes, complete with off-the-charts design, plan to take in some of the 24 new homes on display there. One includes barn wood reclaimed from Lexington’s Claiborne Farm. You can hear from the Building Industry Association’s new chief executive, Pat Durham, on this week’s Rusty Satellite Show.

Now, some other news:

2016-07-21 18.19.19Not Just the Hot Brown: Every tradition needs an update now and then, but what they’re doing with food service at the Brown Hotel is truly amazing. Rick enjoyed his first experience at a Chef’s Table Thursday, and recommends the Eggplant Canelloni (pictured) and the Roasted Sea Bass (above) from the new menu. Adding Troy Ritchie (Corbett’s) and Andrew Welenken (Buck’s, the Goat) to the home team is a real plus for Chef Josh Bellis’ staff.

And what you don’t know is that the Brown is developing the space on its roof for private parties and events. From what I was told, the view is spectacular from 15 stories high, including a sight line extending up Fourth Street to the Ohio River.

FOR SALE: HISTORIC DOWNTOWN HOTEL: When we told you about the Oakroom’s temporary shutdown a few weeks back, we heard rumors that the historic Seelbach was for sale, but couldn’t confirm the rumor.  Now Insider Louisville reports that the only AAA Five Diamond (not four, like the IL story says) luxury hotel in Kentucky is indeed on the market.

Oy, Oysters!  We love oysters at EDT. Raw, fried, grilled, stewed, you name it, we can put a beat-down on some bivalves. Our own Steve Coomes claims that to have “stopped myself” at 20 Gulf oysters on a visit to New Orleans in 2009. And that was after his press tour group had already been to three restaurants.

Now if that isn’t oyster love, what is?

So we’re excited that John Varanese’s two riverside restaurants are celebrating National Oyster Day on Aug. 5. Yes, what is arguably the ugliest shellfish ever scraped from the muck of a marsh bed will be the featured and gorged-upon star of the evening at Levee at the River House and River House Restaurant and Raw Bar.

According to a release, River House will serve $1 Chesapeake oysters from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Chef John Varanese will conduct an educational demo about oysters at the Raw Bar at 11 a.m., 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. Both River House and Levee will offer a special on New Zealand Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc for $7 a glass.

What’s more, guests who visit before Aug. 5 can sample three oyster recipes at the Levee, and vote on their favorite. The one receiving the most votes gets a spot on the menu in August.

How About Sunday Supper?: We love a good meal on Sunday, and if it benefits a great cause and features locally famous guest chefs? We’re in.

Fond of Louisville chef/writer/photographer Madeleine Dee is organizing the seven-event series to benefit Dare to Care. From Dee: “Each local guest chef will prepare a six-course meal for 12 diners based upon whatever inspired him to become a chef. These dinners will be artistic, carefully-prepared, and very special because they will only happen once. The chefs will personally describe each dish to the diners.”

Certainly seems a great value at $95 per person. Contact Dee here to make reservations. Here’s the schedule:

  • August 7th – Griffin Paulin
  • August 14th – Eric Morris
  • August 28th – Ethan Ray
  • September 11th – Nick Sullivan
  • September 25th – Dallas McGarity
  • October 9th – David Scales
  • October 23rd – Allan Rosenberg

More of the New, Plus Chats with Copper & Kings entrepreneur Joe Heron and Brown Hotel Chef Josh Bettis

Of course there are plenty of restaurants opening in town, again, and Steve and Rick take a look at  few more. We start with the new Louvino in Middletown, the 502 Bar & Bistro in Norton Commons, and then we run through a few more that illustrate the diversity of the ‘Ville’s dining scene, both geographically and by cuisine. For some, the big news in restaurants this week was the publication of health inspection grades, so we talk about how important they are and how the inspections are done.

Steve is still licking his lips after having a grilled Berkshire pork chop at the 502, and he talks about fitting in at the Nachbar, where he sipped an Obsidian Stout Beer, and you should listen closely for an explanation of what “nitro” is as it relates to beer. Rick was looking forward to a Chef’s Table event at the Brown Hotel Thursday night with Chef Josh Bettis.

Chef Josh Bettis

Chef Josh Bettis

Bettis has been in charge for the Brown’s food operations for three years now, and tells Rick in his interview about his excitement over a few new members of his team. Steve interviews Joe Heron, an entrepreneur extraordinaire who has done pharmaceutical sales in South Africa, Europe and the U.S. Of course, that’s not all, as Joe and his wife Lesley created and sold Nutrisoda, then created and sold Crispin Hard Cider, all before creating the fabulous Copper & Kings brandy distillery in Butchertown. As you may recall, we sampled the meat pies there for last week’s show.

There’s plenty more eatin’ and drinkin’ to talk about, so join us for a fun-filled episode of EatDrinkTalk, and check out the EatDrinkTalk.net web site.

Brown Hotel adds All-Stars to its Restaurant Team

More on the new duo at the Brown, plus details of a fine Chef Table I attended, coming soon to the site. Listen to Chef Josh Bettis on today’s episode of EatDrinkTalk, the podcast. News release from Estes PR:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (July 22, 2016) – – – The Brown Hotel’s iconic English Grill is happy to introduce the additions of chef de cuisine Andrew Welenken and manager Troy Ritchie to its restaurant team. The timeless establishment melds the 1920s with today for a modern take on what fine dining should be. For the past few weeks, Welenken worked with Brown Hotel executive chef Josh Bettis to update 1920s standards to be served by Ritchie’s deft and dependable staff.

Chef Josh Bettis

Chef Josh Bettis

“Our motto is ‘what’s old is new,’” said Bettis. “Chef Welenken and I want to bring English Grill guests back in time for a luxurious dining experience while utilizing current ingredients and technique.”

Chef de cuisine Andrew Welenken comes to the Brown Hotel after several years as executive chef at Buck’s Restaurant and a stint at hip East End outpost The Goat. The Sullivan University graduate returns to his favorite field, fine dining, and is thrilled to have the opportunity to work in such a storied location.

One of Louisville’s best known sommeliers, Troy Ritchie spent more than a decade at Equus and Corbett’s before joining the English Grill team earlier this year. He brings unmatched knowledge on wine and high-end hospitality to the Brown. By incorporating tableside presentations and cart service, his updates to the English Grill’s service program honor the past and maintain rigorous standards that have made it a AAA Four-Diamond venue for 22 consecutive years.

The English Grill is open Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. For more information or to make reservations, call 502-583-1234 or visit brownhotel.com.

New and updated menu items include:

Crab cakes with cream cheese wonton, scallion-ginger relish and bourbon sweet and sour gastrique

Eggplant cannelloni with goat cheese risotto, grilled asparagus, macerated grape-tomato chutney and balsamic reduction

Tableside Caesar salad with Grana Padano, anchovy and croutons

Prime cut Wagyu beef filet with charred tomato espagnole and crunchy mushrooms

Cocoa-crusted pork chop with bourbon-blueberry coffee sauce and apple butter

Moroccan-spiced lamb loin with mint pesto and white bean hummus

Roasted sea bass with spring pea cream, spiced carrot broth and pomegranate-port reduction

Seared Verlasso salmon with cherry-fennel slaw and blood orange butter

First Look: 502 Bar & Bistro opens tomorrow in Norton Commons

Word to the wise: Don’t believe everything you hear about a restaurant before it opens, regardless of whether it’s street talk, hearsay, employee chatter or even info straight from an owner’s lips. Plans change, designs shift, permits push back deadlines, budgets shrink and real-world thinking kicks in. Continue reading

First Look: LouVino to open beautiful Middletown location July 20

Like our parents told us about making friends, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

That logic applies to the new LouVino in Middletown (11400 Main St., in Douglass Hills), where completion of the lot outside the restaurant building is well behind the interior. Had I not been invited to the soft opening, I’d have assumed a ribbon cutting was on the August calendar.

But once you enter the restaurant, it’s obvious owners Chad and Lauren Coulter knew waiting for landscaping was unnecessary. The business is fully operational, decorated beautifully in a contemporary blue-gray motif contrasted with wood floors and modern lighting fixtures. Diners relax at a mix of booths, private and communal tables. The luckiest get tables with super-comfortable, high-backed Queen Anne chairs.

Down the main room’s middle is a dividing wall and wine rack resembling a broken honeycomb. In its pockets is a wide range of full wine bottles, an effect that’s both colorful and thematic.

For those not familiar with the concept launched and hammered out at the original Highlands location, LouVino is a restaurant specializing in wine by the glass and small plates. Wine sold by the bottle and entrée-like portions are available here, but by and large, customers come here for an array of sips and bites.

Having enjoyed dinner at its original location, I opted to visit the new site for Sunday brunch. The restaurant’s executive chef is Sarah Rockwell, wife of Tavis Rockwell, who captains the Highlands kitchen.

Servers offer a generous $10 mimosa (replenished up to three times), bloody Marys and coffee, and for those certain it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, they’ll bring a beer and wine list.

The brunch menu is mercifully modest at eight items, all of which can serve as individual portions or shared bites. Prices range from $8 to $16 for things like Biscuit ‘n’ Gravy with house-made goetta (a German sausage that’s beloved in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati) gravy and a sunny-side-up egg ($8); Maple Eggs Benedict (soft-poached eggs, grits cakes, country ham and spiced maple hollandaise, $10); and Filet and Eggs (petite filet mignon, hash browns, sunny-side-up egg with gruyere mornay, $16).

My wife and I shared a delicious Crispy Potato Hash Browns with smoked salmon, dill sauce, roasted tomato caper relish and with sunny-side-up egg ($10.50), and the savory Chicken Biscuit Sliders with bacon, poblano aioli and pepper jack cheese ($11). As a sort-of dessert course, we split the Stuffed French Toast with vanilla mascarpone, cinnamon, berry jam and bourbon maple and whipped cream. Three dishes for two (plus a pair of good draught beers) was more than an enough for a nap-inducing midday meal. We didn’t bother preparing dinner until almost five hours later.

According to Chad Coulter, LouVino’s Highlands spot has done exceptionally well and better than forecasted. (A third LouVino is even scheduled to open in Fishers, Ind., in the coming months.) That first restaurant was fashioned from an overhaul of the space that held De la Torre’s for 26 years, but this newest restaurant is purpose built with a much larger kitchen and a private dining area. Given its location near some well-to-do neighborhoods, the lack of any similar competitor nearby and the quality experience it’s already delivering, I predict this new location will enjoy sales numbers that far exceed the original.