Friday, April 8, 2011
Bison and Red Penguins: Serious Food, With a Side of Whimsy
“You went there to eat bones?” asked Cindie’s husband when she called him from Louisville the day after our dinner at Proof on Main. Rolling her eyes, Cindie tried to explain. “They’re like what we give the dogs, only they’re cooked.”
Not quite! Roasted bison marrow bones were just one of two spectacular dishes friend Cindie and I shared for our first course at Proof on Main the first night of our recent getaway to Louisville.
Proof is the restaurant in the 21C, the boutique hotel/museum in downtown Louisville that is also partnering with 3CDC to create a similar venue in Cincinnati. Plans are in the works to renovate the Cincinnati’s Metropole Hotel adjacent to the Contemporary Arts Center and across from the Aronoff.
Owned by wife and husband Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, collectors of contemporary art, Louisville’s 21C museum/hotel is unlike any place I’ve ever encountered – even in the many years I’ve gone to museums with my architect/art historian father. Brown and Wilson also happen to own a bison farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, where the restaurant’s original gardens on the roof of the hotel have been relocated.
On our first trip to Louisville together a year ago, Cindie and I stopped by the 21C, not knowing much about it. Relying on Cindie’s GPS, we figured we’d found the place when we spied these red penguins, such unexpected accoutrements to an historic building we simply had to ask about them.
We were told the owners first saw the Red Penguins, by the Cracked Art Group, at a public art installation in Florence (Italy, not Kentucky) and bought 40-45 of them after the show was over. In addition to those perched atop the hotel and above its entrance, a hotel employee told us, “We have about a dozen we play with.” Repeat clients with a known sense of humor might discover a red penguin in their shower, for instance. Or a couple staying at the hotel for their wedding might open the door of their room to be greeted by penguins dressed in wedding dress and tux. The 21C recently offered a special package for Lady Gaga’s Louisville performance, so who knows what other costumes the red penguins may have donned for that occasion.
The 21C plans to commission additional penguins for its upcoming hotels in Austin, Texas, and Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as Cincinnati. But each city’s penguins will be a different color. I hope Cincy’s aren’t yellow as in this artist’s rendering, since yellow has nothing to do with Cincinnati. And I personally hope they aren’t pink, although Cincy is known for (pink) flying pigs. Too bad red is already taken.
The Cincinnati Art Museum is exhibiting a show from the 21C’s collection through May 15 if you’d like to catch a glimpse. But I can’t help but think seeing the same works of art in Cincinnati's stately museum in Eden Park would present a much different experience than seeing them in their "native habitat" in Louisville.
The gallery spaces, on 21C’s entry and lower levels, are free, visible, and accessible to anyone entering the building. You need not book a room to feel welcomed into this quirky venue, which in addition to its acclaimed restaurant offers lots of activities – from yoga to poetry readings to its annual pajama party – to keep the locals engaged and happy to return. Many of the galleries feature video and interactive installations; others offer cozy spots to sit amongst the art, perhaps with a beverage in hand. Even the restrooms are an award-winning work of art. Exhibits in the main galleries change frequently. This fantastical chest of drawers from the current show of contemporary Cuban art was just one piece that caught my eye.
When Cindie and I were in Louisville last March, we poked our heads into Proof on Main, the 21C’s bar/restaurant. It looked like a vibrant place, but we were there in the middle of the afternoon and already had reservations for dinner. This time Proof was at the top of my dining agenda, and Cindie was happy to oblige.
Here is one of those movable red penguins at Proof.
On to the food. In addition to a selection of six or so first course options, Proof’s menu features a “For the Table” section, where you can choose your own mix-and-match combination of house-made charcuterie and artisan cheeses, at $15 for three selections or $21 for five. (Surprisingly, none were from nearby Capriole, although Capriole Goat Cheese is apparently used in other dishes and is listed on the menu as a friend/purveyor.) Cindie and I easily agreed, even before heading to the restaurant, that we’d opt for five, then asked our server to describe the current offerings in more detail.
Also in the (online) menu’s “For the Table” section were Roasted Bison Marrow Bones,which immediately drew my attention. Finding them absent from the menu presented to us at the restaurant (there were a couple other discrepancies in the menus Cindie and I each received as well), I was assured by our server I could have the bison bones. When he returned to our table, he apologized for not knowing they had in fact been 86’d (he'd just returned from a foodie trip to Charleston) . . . but with the good news that the kitchen still had one order left, and it would be mine!
Given that bison is a lean game meat, it may seem a contradiction to order it for the fatty marrow. But those of you who know me also know I never pass up an opportunity to try something new, especially when it comes to game. I'm also happy to know this kitchen and the bison farm from which it came are celebrating, rather than wasting. We had to ask for appropriately small utensils to extract the marrow, and had better luck getting it out of the bones once the temperature had cooled a bit.
After indulging in our filling starters, I suspected I wouldn’t have room for an entire entrée. Besides, as usual, I was more tempted by several first course options. There was no way I was passing up the KY Bison Carpaccio with Farm Egg Ravioli, Sunchokes, and Tartufelo. I also had my eye on the Chick Pea and Country Ham Fritters. When I asked about portion sizes, our server was right in his estimation that the two would make a reasonable combination to sub for an entrée, and I was thrilled with both.
I’m always a sucker for carpaccio, and this was of bison. However, what made it truly spectacular was the marvelous runny-egg filling of the single raviolo oozing onto the meat. I also loved the contrasting crunch of the sunchoke chips.
When my fritters arrived at the table, I looked at the plate mounded with greens and had to remind myself what I'd ordered. The plate was covered with way more red and green Treviso than it needed to be, especially for someone like me, who is not all that fond of raw bitter greens. But when I uncovered the fritters beneath “the hair,” I loved what I found. Crisp-fried on the outside and cut into rectangular logs of fritter goodness that would make your high-school geometry teacher proud, the slight sweetness of chickpeas accented with bits of salty country ham paired delectably with a mustard crema on the plate underneath.
Cindie, alas, was not as satisfied with what she ordered. She had her taste buds set for the Braised Short Rib special served every Friday (and Thursday). Our server had informed us earlier that the kitchen was out of chicken (an Amish chicken with wheatberries, cashews, raisins, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower pickles). But it wasn’t until we were ready to order our “mains” that we learned they were also out of short ribs. It was only 8:00 on a Friday night, and Cindie was not a happy camper. So she settled on the Grilled Rib Steak with grit cakes, cipollini, and salami butter.
Cindie, true to her own preferences, asked for “regular” grits in place of the grit cakes and was told they would be happy to make the substitution. When her dish arrived, however, grit cakes were on the plate, and it took longer than she would have liked for her side of grits to arrive. Meanwhile, I was the delighted recipient of her grit cakes, which I enjoyed very much – especially with a bit of her salami butter.
One of the best things about eating, and traveling, with an old friend (Cindie and I have known each other since eighth grade, but refuse to think of ourselves as "old") is that we've learned to "go along and get along." We respect each other's differences of opinion, and know there are certain subjects we're better off not discussing (politics), while we can engage in frank discussions even when we don't come to the same conclusion in other arenas (including restaurant food). Although our dinner at Proof was my favorite of that weekend, Cindie preferred our dinner Saturday night (to be spotlighted in a later post).
One thing we both agreed on after this dinner, our late afternoon drive to Louisville, and the acknowledgment that we needed to pace ourselves for the weekend, was that we would forgo dessert. But guess what came with our check.
Cotton candy. Definitely pink. Tasting of cinnamon. So much more ethereal in texture than whenever I last tasted cotton candy, and made in Proof's own open kitchen. I've never been a fan of cotton candy, but I couldn't help but smile . . . especially as I passed a red penguin on my way outside . . . into torrential rain . . . and a cheery young valet appeared out of nowhere, proffering an umbrella to help me to Cindie's car.