Tuesday, March 9, 2010
LOUISVILLE ROAD TRIP - Part III - LILLY'S
It's always nice to have a cab driver who knows his or her way to your desired destination. The gentleman and his wife who drove us to dinner at Lilly's knew much more than that. A former limo driver, Bob had driven to - and dined at - many of Louisville's best restaurants. He pronounced Lilly's one of the city's "top tables," and offered a number of additional recommendations I'll keep in mind for future trips. "Top Table." Is a reputation like that a blessing or a curse? Does it unduly raise a new customer's expectations? I had heard great things about Lilly's seasonal and French-inspired Southern farm-to-table food for years. With foodie friend Cindie as my dining companion, this was finally my opportunity to try it. I had initially suggested Lilly's for lunch - the 3-course $15 prix fixe sounded like a grand bargain. But after weighing timing and traffic issues to attend Kentucky Crafted and haggling over other dinner options, we settled on Lilly's for our Saturday night dining indulgence. To Cindie's dismay, we were shown to a small two-top where one of us (it ended up being me), was seated in the narrow path from the hostess station past the tiny bar to the majority of the restaurant's tables. When Cindie requested another unoccupied table, the hostess informed us that "her" seating that evening was "compromised" due to a number of special occasion reservations. We dutifully took our assigned seats, and I tried to ignore being jostled as customers were led to their tables. While Cindie and I negotiated over wine possibilities, we both had one of the restaurant's featured drinks, a white grape Cosmo. Lovely to look at (bad blogger - I failed to take a photo), the pinkish Finlandia vodka cocktail was garnished with frozen grapes. I think Cindie enjoyed it more than I did (ok, but not what I'd call a memorable craft cocktail). However, props to our server for bringing us tastes of two different wines so I could persuade Cindie to go with a red. And for comping Cindie's second Cosmo, which came only after she finally caught his attention and had to remind him she had ordered it. Cindie is all about the grits. So for her starter, she ordered the oysters and Weisenberger grits over sauteed spinach with chipotle butter. The perfectly fried oysters and cheesy grits made this one of our top two dishes of the evening. I, of course, couldn't resist the foie - in this preparation served over light miniature corn pancakes with a pear compote and something crunchy on top. The corn cakes were my favorite part of the dish, which didn't quite sing to me as a whole, or fulfill my foie expectations. Smelling the thick fries cooked in duck fat and served in a humble coffee mug at the next table, I might have been guilty of bad ordering. For our mains, Cindie chose the sea scallops over pancetta-flecked pumpkin risotto. They arrived cold in the middle. Our server apologetically whisked them away and returned with them warm, but they were more moist and mushy than she expected from a seared scallop. Cindie also wasn't a fan of the sweet pumpkin risotto, probably made sweeter by apple cider and brown butter, and said she would have been happier to have had a couple more plates of the grits and oysters she'd had for her first course. I have a tendency to gravitate to lamb, so when it popped up on the evening's menu (it wasn't on the online menu I'd been drooling over), I leapt for it. It wasn't until we were well into our red wine sampling and negotiations that I fully registered that this would be a braised lamb shank, not a cut I could order rare. And it would be huge. Still, it came with Weisenberger grits and was topped with the same thin white and green straws of fried onion-y goodness that had garnished Cindie's oyster starter, which we learned from our server were leeks. (Note to self: must try to make fried leek slivers at home.) I knew I would have to stop mid-way through my Flinstonian hunk o' lamb if I was to have any hope of trying dessert. A good thing I did. This chocolate lava cake with house-made pistachio ice cream, a drizzle of caramel sauce, and a small fresh thyme garnish there in the upper left-hand corner turned out to be our other top two dish of the night. Fortunately, it's offered in this "mini" size, which we split. Props again to our server, who comped dessert after our "mixed" experience. Still, service overall felt a little awkward. I didn't expect stuffy service from Lilly's, but what we got seemed more amateur than what I would have hoped for. It's nice to have a hefty bill reduced if the restaurant gives you a freebie or two, but mark-downs can't elevate a middling experience to a memorable one. So . . . did we hit Lilly's on a bad night? Did we just order badly? Was our experience deflated by inflated expectations? Were we given short shrift as two women dining alone, or neglected in favor of regular patrons commanding more attention? And, darn, why are my photos so crappy? Simple inexperience? Or amplified by nervousness trying to photograph unobtrusively in a high-end restaurant? Relieved to change into our sweat pants back at the hotel after a far more circuitous return cab ride (at least the cab driver was playing the WFPL Saturday night blues show on the radio), we compared answers to these quandries. But the real question was: Would we be up for an all-you-can-eat brunch the next morning?