Fork & Barrel brings elevated Southern food, sophisticated cocktails to Clifton

I thoroughly enjoyed Basa Modern Vietnamese, and

Not your Basa anymore. New eye-catching colors coat the wood-sided exterior of Fork & Barrel.

Not your Basa anymore. New eye-catching colors coat the wood-sided exterior of Fork & Barrel.

though I never visited it frequently enough, when I learned it was ending its 10-year run at 2244 Frankfort Ave., I and many others were saddened.

But all good things must come to an end sometime, right? And nothing makes that so abundantly clear as a dramatic makeover like the one given that space for the opening of Fork & Barrel last week. No former fan of Basa will look at the quaint, wood-sided Clifton building and recall its former tenant. The battleship gray exterior now bears a scheme of muted orange, tan and black, colors carried over to the mix of rustic and modern tones and textures inside. You’ll find yourself asking, “This was Basa? Really?” and then struggling to find elements connected to that concept.

“We wanted it to have its own look in every way possible,” said Geoffrey Heyde, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Emily. “That took more work than we expected, I’ll have to say, but I think it’s worth it.”

Emily's Garden, a delish gin cocktail to start.

Emily’s Garden, a delish gin cocktail to start.

In conversations I’ve had with Heyde over the past two months since the opening was announced, he’s described his cuisine as elevated Southern and classic American. The dinner-only menu reflects a blend of both notions with multiple beef, lamb, chicken, pork and regional fish dishes, though it veers toward the East Coast with mussels, crab cakes—before taking far eastward to the Mediterranean, with charred octopus. With the backing of Nick Sullivan, longtime chef de cuisine at 610 Magnolia and, most recently, chef de cuisine at The Oakroom, such off-theme excursions are both welcome and expected.

That carries over to the bar menu as well, where just two of seven house cocktails listed use bourbon as their base spirits. Head mixologist Karla Jean clearly likes clear spirits, leaning on gin, tequila and vodka to create several clever offerings including my choice, Emily’s Garden (gin, ginger syrup, lemon juice and rose water). (Worry not, brown spirits fans, there’s lots of that to draw from.)

Charcuterie board with foie gras bonus.

Charcuterie board with foie gras bonus.

Food prices range from $8 (parsnip soup) to $39 for Border Springs lamb chops, but the majority of the plates are priced at the middle of that spread. A couple could easily get out for $50 or ratchet up the spend to triple that with a bottle of wine, so the experience is easily tailored to your mood and appetite.

Invited by Heyde for a soft opening (meaning food guests’ food is free, but tax, drinks and gratuity are on them), a friend and I shared a pair of appetizers including the super lump crab cakes ($12 with sauce gribiche, avocado mousse, red vein sorrel and chili oil), and charred octopus ($16, white beans, country ham, rutabaga, flash-fried greens and haricot verts). Both were great, but I was taken with—as I always am—the eight-legged creature. Such a treat to find tender versions like this one. The assorted charcuterie ($14) was delicious as well, especially the bonus foie gras.

The cornbread and buttermilk salad ($9) could double as a savory dessert should Heyde want to scoot it around the menu. The buttermilk was actually a strip of delicate buttermilk panna cotta served atop sweet corn puree and blistered corn kernels along with tufts of mache, strawberry slices and crumbled cornbread.

Our entrees were straightforward Southern: mine a pair of cornmeal-encrusted Lake Barkley carp ($24) fried and served atop a Rappahannock clam chowder and roasted vegetables; my friend’s, roasted veal loin ($26) with celery root, mashed potatoes and veal jus. Hearty and substantial, but well prepared. Great cooking technique is always appreciated, but occasionally lacking sometimes in kitchens.

Barkley Lake carp over Rappahannock chowder.

Barkley Lake carp over Rappahannock chowder.

Not only were we too stuffed to even look at the dessert menu, we both had separate engagements afterward, so we bid our solid server adieu and headed out.

Long story short: There’s nothing in Clifton like Fork & Barrel. It’s its own breed in a neighborhood collection of upscale Italian, relaxed American, rustic Irish, dive bar chow and full-on trendy spots. Maybe the closest comparison I could make is it’s a bit similar to Harvest, where ingredient selection and classic technique are hallmarks. It’ll be fun to see what personality Fork & Barrel develops over the coming year. Heaven knows adequate talent is under roof to make it a solid spot on the local scene.

Fork & Barrel, 2244 Frankfort Ave. Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Call 502-907-3675 for more information.

Nick Sullivan joining Geoffrey Heyde in kitchen at Fork & Barrel

This will make for a lot of culinary talent in the same room.

Nick Sullivan, who recently left his post as chef de cuisine at The Oakroom, and formerly longtime chef de cuisine at 610 Magnolia, will join Geoffrey Heyde in the kitchen at Fork & Barrel, when it opens in early spring.

Heyde, the longtime executive chef at Village Anchor Pub & Roost, who last was executive chef at SET, is the owner of Fork & Barrel, which is under construction in the spot held by Basa Modern Vietnamese at 2244 Frankfort Ave. in Clifton. Eat Drink Talk broke the story of the new ownership in January.

Heyde said he’d interviewed a lot of candidates for the job, but that Sullivan’s application stood out as much as it gave him pause. With experience in the high-end restaurants listed above, not to mention time at Corbett’s: An American Place, Heyde wondered whether Sullivan would enjoy cooking the intentionally non-pretentious American food set to populate Fork & Barrel’s menu.

The longtime home to Basa Modern Vietnamese will become Fork & Barrel in March, and be run by chef Geoffrey Heyde.

The longtime home to Basa Modern Vietnamese will become Fork & Barrel in March, and be run by chef Geoffrey Heyde.

“I really was hesitant at first—his creativity is outside the box, it’s awesome,” Heyde said. “I was wondering if our visions would mesh. But we’ve met probably three or four times, and I really think they’re going to.”

In his first effort as a restaurant operator, Heyde also wanted a strong personality in the kitchen, someone who could lead the crew and execute plans to his standards while he’s involved in all areas of the business.

“I need a leader, not a follower, and that’s what I really saw in Nick,” he said. “I want somebody to bounce ideas off of and challenge me as I want to challenge him.

“I’m still going to be very much in charge of the kitchen and in there more than not, but I think we’ll work well together.”

Since leaving SET some time ago, Heyde said he’s missed the culinary collaboration of the kitchen, but that Sullivan is already filling that gap. He said the two are already feeding off each other with ideas for the new restaurant, as well as keeping each other informed on larger culinary issues.

“I’ve really missed … those conversations about what’s happening outside of here, talking about trends, what’s happening in other cities, and what we do in Louisville,” he said.

Eat Drink Talk reached out to Sullivan for comment, but he did not respond by press time.

Before Heyde hired Sullivan, he asked him about his professional goals. Knowing Sullivan’s talent level and desire to have his own restaurant, he wanted to be sure the chef was going to stay a while before seizing the next opportunity that arrived.

“He said realistically he’d be here for a couple of years,” Heyde said. “He said he wants to learn as much from me as I want to learn from him.”

Heyde said the projected late March opening of Fork & Barrel remains largely on course. He expected the changeover from Basa would produce some delays, such as the cumbersome and costly update of a new grease trap, but that no major roadblocks have appeared.

“Even though it was a restaurant beforehand, we definitely had to think about changing the décor and the organization and flow of the restaurant to optimize it to its fullest potential for what we’re doing,” he said. “That and the grease trap might have set us back some, but nothing significant or really unexpected.”

Seelbach’s Oakroom repositions and reopens for sneak peek reveal

Spoiler alert: If you’re wondering what happened to The Oakroom amid its three-month summer hiatus and mostly secret makeover, the answer is not much—at least that’s immediately recognizable.

Occasional visitors like me will still be taken aback just walking into the historic dining room; it’s always a breathtaking space. As before, it’s as stately as Batman’s Wayne Manor and as acoustically soothing as a funeral parlor.

Several tables were removed from the dining room to make room for a small cocktail lounge. | All photos by Steve Coomes

Several tables were removed from the dining room to make room for a small cocktail lounge.

The carved wood columns and substantial wood paneling remain, as do its elegant old school, roomy dining chairs. No switching out of the ancient for the trendy, or ponderous for perky. It is and remains, as a friend said to me this morning, “Arguably the most beautiful dining room in town.”

But as you relax and look around at the space, the subtler changes emerge: large flower arrangements—long a requirement for a AAA 5 Diamond distinction—are gone and replaced by globes with a single flower bud floating on water. A small bar has been moved to the front of the dining room for cocktail making, while several tables nearby were taken away and replaced with cozy high-back chairs, loveseats and cocktail tables positioned as if formed for a discussion circle. The reconfiguration looks like an old-time hotel lobby, where some guests would dine while others sipped drinks, and where the background clatter of a bartender at work would add energy to the room.

Perfectly tender charred octopus.

Perfectly tender charred octopus.

“That’s what they were after,” said chef de cuisine Nick Sullivan. “They goal was to make the room more relaxed, a place where you could walk in, get a drink and some small plates, or have the full dining experience if you liked. It gives people a choice.”

My wife and I visited (as guests of the restaurant) last Friday, for a soft-opening run that saw just a handful of tables occupied. The room was quiet, of course, but I imagined for a bit what it would be like with the liveliness of a cocktail crowd on one side, the new chef’s table full with eight guests, happy noise emanating from a well-lubricated private party in the Capone Room, and the clatter of plates and glasses being delivered to and taken from dining tables at the center.

It could work. And it should work.

Silver carp sashimi, straight from Kentucky waters.

Silver carp sashimi, straight from Kentucky waters.

Starting with a good dose of marketing and a selling proposition convincing enough to get local customers 1. downtown, 2. willing to part with some green for an elevated experience, and 3. believing that it’s not nearly as formal a restaurant as it used to be—even though it looks that way.

(But let’s be fair: It’s practically impossible for such décor not to look sophisticated when “industrial” and “steam punk” themes still influence the looks of modern restaurants’ innards.)

For me, trumpeting the “Hey, we’re not what we used to be” message starts by talking up Sullivan’s extraordinary food. After a six-year stay at 610 Magnolia, where he was chef de cuisine, he came to The Oakroom in April, only to be furloughed from July through September. Clearly, the time off didn’t harm his skills.

The chef's table, just beyond the kitchen door.

The chef’s table, just beyond the kitchen door.

His menu features just two pages: eight small plates choices ($10-$21) on the left; seven “Mains” choices ($31-$52) on the right. (A separate and limited dessert menu is presented at meal’s end.) A diner could easily stick to the small plates side, eat amazingly well and for not a ton of money. The $13 charred octopus tentacle was a perfect example: served with Israeli couscous, harissa, chimichurri and piquillo pepper, it was spicy, savory, explosively flavorful and unimaginably tender. A lighter, but no less outstanding dish was the Kentucky silver carp sashimi ($10) with red Fresno chiles, cilantro and yuzu vinaigrette. For $10, I’d have eaten two.

The seared foie gras ($21) with smoked barley, red curry gastrique and memo chive was too enticing to overlook. It was tangy and rich and delivered a delightfully sneaky sting. The big surprise in the bison tartare ($15) wasn’t the braised mustard seeds and pastrami spice interlarded with the minced meat. Rather it was the freaky-fun twist of Dijon ice cream tucked below the nest of frissée covering the whole.

Seared foie gras.

Seared foie gras.

We coulda-shoulda been done, and woulda been done were we on our own dime, but Sullivan didn’t let up. Out came miso-glazed cobia ($36) in a blistered tomato emulsion and garnished with lotus root chips, as well as a delicate wild mushroom ravioli ($31) served in a cool weather-rich sauce of butternut squash and dollops of fromage blanc. Of course, both were exquisite, yet also more expensive than the four small plates ($67 for mains vs. $59 for smalls). And given that I like to graze, I’ll go all smalls on a return trip.

Dessert was forced on us, too, by Troy Westrick, a veteran Oakroom server from the days when Adam Seger was general manager and Jim Gerhardt was executive chef. (In case you’ve not had a good service experience lately, let the likes of Westrick or Cesar Perez [Corbett’s] or Jonathan Tarullo [Volare] remind you what it’s like to be guided through a meal. Just refuse your menu and say, “Go!”) He brought us a single plate of dark chocolate mousse, bourbon-vanilla marshmallow, fresh honey comb, smoked fluid gel and graham cracker ice cream garnished with French marigolds ($11). Such whimsy and precision reminded me why I smartly ended my chef career after eight years.

Wild mushrooms, butternut squash and sage.

Wild mushrooms, butternut squash and sage.

Sullivan and manager Liz Carson also have created cocktail pairings for most plates, a treat in which we didn’t indulge that night, but will on a return trip. Such pairings are happening in larger restaurant markets, and the trend is worth watching as bartenders figure out how to batch paired drinks smartly and economically. In the meantime, I recommend getting a firsthand look by visiting The Oakroom for yourself.

The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday, 6-10 p.m. Call 502-807-3463 to make a reservation or just walk in. You don’t even have to dress up anymore. Smart casual is just fine.