Not every plan works out. As promised in 21c Museum Hotel Trifecta – The Plan, we tried to visit Proof on Main at the 21c in Louisville. Unfortunately, weather got in the way. As we were traveling back from Virginia, winter storm Titan hit Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, among other states and we were forced to take a more southern route, bypassing Louisville.
We went to Proof on Main a couple of times in recent years, though, and would like to take this opportunity to re-review that fine restaurant in the context of this trifecta… here we go.
Proof on Main
The first time we arrived at Proof on Main, we looked forward to a good meal and were not disappointed. It had come highly recommended by friends and received great reviews from reputable sources. The Proof kitchen, then and now, is in the hands of Levon Wallace, an alumnus of Charlie Trotter’s, which served its last meal at the end of August of 2012 — an event that threatened the cancellation of our entire 2012 MagoGuide Winter Tour since I have always wanted to eat there and now could not. However, the goddess Addephagia rewarded our persistence by giving us a chance to savor an aftertaste of Chef Trotter’s legendary skills at 21c.
The restaurant is named Proof owing to its location in a former Bourbon storage area and it is possible to order flights of artisan whisky or have a meal with various Bourbons paired to each course. We wisely chose an excellent Catalonian Tempranillo instead.
The meal began quite well. I have always liked the way they serve bread at Proof. A half baguette comes to the table partially cut and clad only in a small paper loincloth. You get to tear the bread apart with gusto at table while perusing the short but well-thought out menu.
We decided to implement a favored MagoGuide Team approach and ordered only appies and sides with the single exception of a buffalo burger, which we requested cut into three pieces. Our waiter enthusiastically supported our efforts and complied obligingly with our request to bring the dishes as they exited the kitchen, which meant a bit more work for him but insured that no food lingered under heat lights. It also created quite a contrast between our spontaneously celebratory table and the rest of the space, which had been occupied by Louisville aristocracy in gowns and tuxes obviously dining prior to some gala event elsewhere. I got the feeling that both the kitchen and wait staff voted in favor of the Montucky delegation in their Carharts and cargo pants, who spent their time photographing each dish as it appeared and pounding Tempranillo to the semi-disguised annoyance of the well appointed patricians moving through their staid comestible progressions.
The first wave out of the kitchen consisted of a great charred octopus dish that put Lola’s offering (see 2012 MagoGuide Winter Tour) to shame along with bison tartar and a warm ricotta concoction. The octopus was correctly par cooked and then finished on the grill, giving the noble cephalopod the perfect combination of smoky crunch and chew. We also had excellent charred octopus at the Metropole, though, and I have to give the nod to the Metropole for this dish.
The bison tartar consisted of tiny cubes of meat, a product of good knife skills in the kitchen as well as a lamentably rare understanding that tartar should never be made with ground meat. The traditional treatment (anchovies, capers, Dijon mustard, etc.) fell just short of spectacular due to the virtually inexplicable absence of a raw egg quivering atop the mound o’ meat. The wagyu beef tartar at the Metropole edged out Proof’s by virtue of including an unctuous raw egg yolk to complement the exquisitely marbled meat, but I think that I would like the buffalo tartar better (should it be so garnished) due to its superior flavor and the fact that I like a little chew in my tartar.
However, the whole issue of tartar at both restaurants has become rather complicated. It seems that Chef Wallace recently won a Starchefs.com award for a dish of Australian wagyu tartar. Proof soon replaced the bison tartar with the wagyu winner on their menu. The Metropole also features a very similar wagyu tartar. While Team Mago approves of the addition of a raw egg yolk to the dish and it is no hardship to substitute bison for wagyu beef, we did find the menus at Proof and Metropole on a rather distressing convergent path. Just as each 21c hotel is very different from its siblings, the same should hold true for its restaurants. 21c may very well operate the best hotel chain in the country (that’s what MagoGuide thinks anyway), but they should definitely not take the trend into a reductio ad absurdum harmonization of their food across all three excellent and separate restaurants.
The ricotta dish was a disappointment only because we had assumed that it would be baked with olive oil in a wood fired oven (a traditional Sicilian preparation we have become addicted to over the years). Instead we got a creamy dip accompanied by toasted slices of a sour dough boule (the second great bread of the evening and a nice touch in not simply repurposing the pregame baguette).
The second wave contained a very commendable goat merguez, an excellent buffalo burger and fries, as well as a fantastic butter bean salad. The goat sausage suffered only in comparison to Stephanie Izard’s treatment of this increasingly haute meat (see Stephanie Goat-Girl).
The bison burger was not only cooked to a perfect medium rare, but the best tasting specimen of its type that any of Team Mago had ever sampled making it head and shoulders above the burger we tasted at The Hive. The secret, of course, is that Proof mixes enough beef leaf lard into the grind to get the lean to fat ratio into the 70 to 30 range. The fries were good, but faced stiff competition from the Metropole, where we awarded their fries BFFE (that would be best french fries ever).
The butter bean salad was voted dish of the evening by 2/3 of the MagoGuide Team, with my vote for the bison tartar rejected (as usual). Let’s just say that this retro gem is not your mama’s butter bean salad, usually assembled by opening various cans of cellulose mush fast approaching their expiration dates. No, this dish clearly started with fresh beans and contained roasted cauliflower, judicious employment of herbs, and an unapologetic hit of garlic.
The third wave was a bit uneven and the source of non-trivial bickering amongst Team Mago, which was eventually resolved with another half baguette and more Tempranillo. The braised greens were not very well received by my dining companions who, due to their deep southern roots, believe only collard and mustard greens worthy of the appellation. The use of tomato-based pot liquor further muddied the waters, although no one at the table objected to the inclusion of excellent artisan bacon in this dish. While my teammates eyed the greens suspiciously, I devoured them in their entirety and sopped up the pot liquor with the scantily clad baguette. The traditional collards we sampled at The Hive, however, were much better and contained nary a hint of tomatoes.
My problems lay with the crispy fingerlings, which were neither fingerlings nor crispy. My gaffer grows four varieties of fingerlings in Montana and the potatoes that came to our table were at least three times the size of Russian Bananas, which are the largest type he plants. In addition, these potatoes were apparently boiled, smashed and then finished in a hot pan to impart a nice crust. As a dish of smashed and roasted potatoes they were exemplary, but they were not crispy fingerlings.
The meal now threatened to disintegrate into senseless bickering over authenticity concerning the terms “greens” and “fingerlings,” but we came to our senses with the realization that not a molecule remained of either dish. Unable to contemplate more food, we had one more glass of Tempranillo and then wandered off to enjoy the interactive and often erotic art scattered throughout the hotel before retiring.
On a subsequent visit to Proof we sampled they kitchen’s marrow bones. These babies were large and packed with God’s buttah. Their size, preparation, and the fact that they were cut in horizontal cylinders rather than split vertically made them far superior to those on offer at The Hive.