Special to the Courier-Journal – By: Marty Rosen
It used to be that every downtown in America was home to one or more unpretentious restaurants that could be relied on for an order of soft-poached eggs, a good burger and a bowl of soup, all prepared without flash or drama, but competently — and quickly enough that a harried downtown office worker could dash in for breakfast, head back for lunch, and always be back to the office in time for the next meeting.
We live in an era when the dining scene is increasingly separated by a great divide. On one side of the culinary chasm, there is an enormous amount of “upscale dining” — some formal, most casual, all characterized by an upfront emphasis on showcasing a chef’s personality, viewpoint and advanced culinary concepts, for which customers always pay a premium price.
On the other side, are hosts of mostly interchangeable chain restaurants that cultivate a reliable, though boring, mediocrity.
Meanwhile, the middle ground has disappeared, and those few moderately priced diners and short-order palaces that remain are taking on the beleaguered feel of an endangered species.
When the Delta Restaurant closed last spring, after a half-century of serving meals downtown, it seemed just one more step down the road to extinguishing that style of dining.
But now comes Dish on Market. Truth to tell, Dish on Market doesn’t look or act anything like a greasy spoon diner — nor does it smack of upscale ambitions (though in these early months, it’s showing signs that it may eventually grow into an excellent downtown eatery).
The expansive space hasn’t changed much under the new owners. It’s a long, narrow dining room with a handsome old bar on one side, comfortable booths on the other, a dining room off to the side and plenty of seating upstairs. There are new hardwood floors and pale green accent walls.
And the management team has upscale credentials. Owner Anderson Grissom, for instance, has worked at Asiatique, and chef Dave Nelson counts the now-closed Nios and Ferd Grisanti’s on his résumé.
And yet, what they’ve done at Dish is create a pragmatic version of those old reliable restaurants, added some notes well-suited to contemporary tastes, kept the menu simple and efficient and held prices at a level that’s pretty darned cheap in a downtown context.
A plain omelet starts at $3.25 and can be custom-filled with more than a dozen ingredients (from 50 cents to a buck each). A couple of eggs with bacon or sausage, crispy hash and a biscuit will set you back $4.75. Add $2.50 for coffee (which might seem steep until you realize they’re pouring an excellent blend from Sunergos).
One morning, I breakfasted on smoked salmon hash — big chunks of intensely flavored smoked salmon served in a bowl with tender chunks of lightly browned potato, minced onions and pieces of green pepper. I prefer a more crispy, less mushy hash, but I suspect most folks would have been pretty happy with this dish, especially since the two poached eggs perched on top were just right — whites done, yolks running yellow. Best of all, there was no undue delay in getting the dish ($5.75). On multiple visits, servers always seemed quick to take and fill orders, though post-order niceties (like refilling coffee cups, or simply coming around to check on things) often went undone.
The salad selection is small but attractive: Bibb lettuce with cayenne pecans, oven-dried tomatoes, blue cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette ($5); a Caesar ($4.75) that can be enhanced with grilled, blackened or fried chicken ($2.25); and others.
The day’s soup (one day it was a smooth, comforting carrot purée subtly seasoned with a bit of coriander) runs $2 for a cup, $3 for a bowl.
And the list of sandwiches and entrees offers plenty of options in the $6-$7 range, with only a single item that rises to double figures (grilled salmon with vegetable risotto and a lemon beurre blanc).
This is not food that’s designed to awe — or even distract — a diner. Rather, they’re perfectly calibrated for business lunches. You want to talk over the phrasing of a legal brief, argue the terms of a mortgage, talk about your new marketing campaign or sit by yourself and read the Wall Street Journal? The food’s perfect for that.
The Dish Burger ($6.75) won’t blow you away with its enormous size or a tall stack of toppings; but it’s an honest, hand-patted burger that’s grilled just right and comes on a sturdy, nicely toasted bun with lettuce, tomato and pickles (if you want cheese, bacon or another patty, you can have them).
Other sandwiches include tuna salad ($6.50), a grilled chicken club ($7.25) and a shrimp po’ boy ($7.50). Fish and chips ($9; $6.50 for a half-order) brings a thick, juicy filet of what’s described as line-caught cod in a crisp, lightly seasoned panko breading (a tangy slaw and a handful of fresh-cut fries are part of the deal).
Breakfast is served throughout the day, until 5 p.m., when a limited happy hour menu kicks in (go for the smoked salmon spring roll — a nicely constructed rice paper roll filled with chunks of very fine fish; $7).
Looking for Mr. Goodlunch
Two new spots — Dish on Market and Hillbilly Tea
If dinner is about dressing up, hitting the town and unwinding at the end of a long day of work, lunch has more to do with packing as much enjoyment as we can into a breather from the toil. Two recent arrivals downtown do a worthy job of satisfying the crave.
Dishing at Dish
Dish on Market is heir to its predecessor, the Delta Restaurant, which was for many years a virtual clubhouse for attorneys and pols fleeing the nearby courthouse and City Hall. It boasts the strong presence of Asiatique bartender Anderson Grissom as owner and host, and Dave Nelson, formerly of Nio’s and other local eateries, as chef.
Beneath Dish’s freshened lines, you can still see the shape of the old Delta, in the red-brick walls, the lofty ceiling and the long, narrow room lined with booths and a Cheers-style bar. The menu, though, veers toward bistro-style, serving breakfast dishes, plus soups, salads and sandwiches for lunch.
Breakfast ranges from $2.75 for a build-your-own omelet (adding 50 cents to $1 for each ingredient) to $6.75 for the low country shrimp and grits. Lunches hover between $6 (for a Monte Cristo or roasted tarragon chicken salad on sourdough bread) and $8.25 (for fish and chips made with sustainable, line-caught cod).
The shrimp po boy ($7.25) consisted of a generous ration of tender shrimp fried in a light tempura-style batter, served with Creole rémoulade on toasted ciabatta. The soup of the day, $1 with lunch, was an artfully prepared cup of cold cucumber-melon soup topped with a dash of jalapeño oil.
The fish and chips ($8.25) consisted of two beautiful cod planks, golden-brown and grease-free, with French fries that appeared hand-cut.
Later in the afternoon, Dish adds a growing list of happy hour small plates (all $7), including smoked salmon spring rolls, sorghum goat cheese fritters and a steamed mussels dish that’s the buzz of the courthouse. With $3 well drinks, I think the Delta’s old crowd of barristers will keep on coming.
Lunch for two just crossed the $20 line, with a $5 tip.
Dish on Market
434 W. Market St.
Robin Garr’s rating: 87 points
Let’s get one thing straight: As a deeply rooted Louisville native whose family has been around here since it was just a smallish river town, I’m not sold on the notion that we’re either Southerners or hillbillies. Institutions that buy into these shticks to build a brand personality don’t impress me.
But I got over it sufficiently to approach Hillbilly Tea with an open mind, and I’m glad I did. Although we found the food and the friendly but offbeat service a bit hit-or-miss, when Hungarian-born chef Arpad Lengyel is on, he’s right on. The best of the dishes we tried were impressive indeed, and the worst weren’t bad.
Hillbilly Tea bills itself an Appalachian-themed “Tea Café” with a variety of fresh, organic whole-leaf teas and a menu of “wholesome mountain-inspired comfort foods.”
The downtown storefront offers an unpredictable mix of urbane sophistication and tongue-in-cheek Appalachian themes. Daisies in delicate bud vases stand alongside iced tea served in Ball canning jars. Elegant matted photos depict staples of country life, such as old trucks and rows of rocking chairs lined up on the porch. A heavily tattooed server with nose rings and a big smile brought us a menu that lists pine-smoked bison ($7), succotash ($3), smoked tofu ($6) and a vegan ’billy veggie burger ($6).
We noshed our way through a startling swath of the menu, taking a lot of it home in boxes.
Crawdad and shrimp chowder ($5) was intriguing in concept but disappointing in execution. A couple of good-size crawfish in their shells looked impressive but, soaked in soup, were difficult to disassemble by hand. The few small shrimp were overcooked and rubbery. They swam in a thin, spicy curry broth that was good eatin’ but not chowder by any reasonable stretch of the definition; and the nearly raw chunks of broccoli added at the last minute may have been healthy but seemed an odd, out-of-place addition.
Mary’s pine-smoked buffalo ($7), sliced from roulade-style Kentucky bison and stuffed with spinach and pine nuts, was more convincing. The bison was flavorful and mostly tender, with a few chewy bits, but I’m not convinced that pine smoking is an idea whose time has come.
I took a chance and satisfied my inner vegetarian with a dish of barbecued tofu — look, I like tofu, OK? — braised in a bourbon barbecue sauce ($6). Five or six pressed and smoked slices formed a protein base for a decent, glossy tart-sweet barbecue sauce. It wasn’t pulled pork, but I ate it with enjoyment.
The baked sweet potatoes were tender and savory. My wife approved of her braised greens ($3), and a ration of crispy fried liver bites ($3), chicken livers done tempura-style, were addictive and filling. The multi-layer caramel cake ($5) made for a splendid wrap-up.
Our bill on a first pass through the line was $27.45 plus a $6.55 tip. Mary went back up to try more sides and a slice of caramel cake, adding another $11.66 to the toll.
120 S. First St.
Robin Garr’s rating: 83 points