News broke recently in a story I’ve been keeping my eye on, and I couldn’t be happier. Chef Edward Lee’s new restaurant at Actors Theater of Louisville is slated to open in mid-February. And Cincinnatian Kevin Ashworth will head it up!
An alum of Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State, Kevin also has a degree in business from the University of Cincinnati and helped with the start-up of area Dewey’s Pizzas before heading to Louisville. He landed a spot in Chef Lee’s kitchen at Louisville’s 610 Magnolia after the two worked together at the annual MCI fundraising extravaganza known as “1 Night, 12 Kitchens,” which attracts a heady group of local and regional chefs and, I hear, tests the mettle of the MCI students who assist them. (Tickets for this year's “1 Night, 12 Kitchens,” April 21, available here.)
Lee’s second restaurant will be called Milkwood (after Dylan Thomas’s "Under Milkwood," the first play produced at ACL by its acclaimed former artistic director, Jon Jory). Milkwood is being described as a “speakeasy-restaurant” with “comfort food with an Asian pantry.” (You can read more from Eater Louisville here.)
Thanks to the help of my friend Stephanie Boertlein, who knows Kevin from their days together at MCI and writes the Cincinnati-based food blog Small Girl Adventures, I had the good fortune to meet both Kevin and Chef Lee when I ate at 610 Magnolia last year. It was one of the most outstanding dinners I experienced in 2012, and I’m going to take this opportunity to share it, with thanks to Chef Kevin and Chef Lee, who were both cooking that busy night.
610 Magnolia was on my Louisville “list” long before Chef Edward Lee appeared on Season 9 of Top Chef. Even before he bested Iron Chef Jose Garces in Battle Tongue and Cheek in 2010. Named for its address in Old Louisville, 610 Magnolia deservedly garners reviews for being one of the best restaurants in Louisville and has earned Chef Lee not just television appearances but acclaim as a James Beard Finalist for Best Chef Southeast.
When Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert were scheduled to appear in Louisville last winter for their “Good vs. Evil” road show, my friend Joyce Pinson, from Pikeville, KY, and I both had the same idea: To learn more about Chef Lee during our road trips to the 'Ville that weekend. Joyce scored an interview with Lee (which she wrote about in her column for the Appalachian News-Express here and on her blog here and here). I, however, got to taste his food!
The menu at this reservations-required venue changes weekly, and what you’ll find on the 610 Magnolia’s web page is merely a suggestion of what will be on offer any given Thursday through Saturday (the only nights it serves). Although the dishes change, 610 Magnolia’s menu structure and price options remain straightforwardly the same. Diners choose among three to five options each for three courses at $55/person (wine pairings an additional $45) or four courses at $65 (wine pairings, +$55). An 18% gratuity is added to all checks, so you’re spared the need to do restaurant math.
When I heard 610 Magnolia’s food described as Asian-Southern fusion, I had trouble wrapping my brain around what that might be, other than thinking of the soy sauce products aged in reclaimed bourbon barrels from Bourbon Barrel Foods (a favorite of Chef Lee’s, by the way). But I was all in for exploring what Chef Lee and his team had in store.
Whether you opt for three courses or four, you’ll also receive the evening’s amuse-bouche. The amuse trio that night included beef rillette with mango, game sausage with Dijon, and the signature 610 BLT, with applewood smoked bacon, gouda, tomato, and the best part: foie gras.
For my first course, I couldn't resist these briny Kumomoto oysters, with American sturgeon caviar, watercress, leek, and champagne sabayon.
The second-course offerings included one of the few dishes that evening whose menu description spoke with a pronounced Asian-meets-Southern drawl, the pork belly with collard greens, kimchi, and black-eyed peas with a honey-cinnamon gastrique and braised mustard seeds. But this dish, with some of my favorite ingredients, captured my attention instead. The thinly sliced beef tongue accompanied by three kinds of heirloom baby beets drizzled with 50-year olive oil, a fabulous mustard ice cream, and caperberries was one of my favorites of the evening.
For my entrée, I went with this duo of beef, featuring short rib and rib-eye, with broccoli puree and florets, Okinawa potato, and horseradish cream, a refined riff on Asian stir-fry, pointed out with its soy sauce "froth." (I had to laugh when my server lapsed momentarily and said, "Froth, foam, air? What are we calling it tonight?")
Dessert was one of the highlights of the evening, not just because it was delicious, but because it was served to me by Kevin Ashworth himself! He barely had time to introduce himself and the dish: "Meyer lemon panna cotta with orange sherbet fluid gel, olive oil pound cake, vanilla-tonka bean powder, and whipped sassafras," before he had to return to the kitchen. But this smart young man with a gleam in his eye impressed me more in those two minutes than I would have thought possible.
As I sipped the last of my port and nibbled on the green tea and cranberry truffles served as mignardises, my kind server let me know she was aware I'd hoped to meet Chef Lee. She said he would try to make it, but he'd been running back and forth to the restaurant's Wine Studio, which was hosting a private event that evening. (It wasn't until I read Joyce's blog that I realized Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert were likely right across the street.) Just before my cab arrived, Chef Lee appeared out of nowhere and I had a couple of starstruck moments to introduce myself and blather my thanks to him for an amazing meal and all he does for food here in the middle of the country.
The next evening when I met Joyce and her friend Rhoda for dinner before the Bourdain-Ripert show at Harvest (another excellent Louisville restaurant), we were both still on a high from meeting Chef Lee. In typical Joyce fashion, she kept her cards close to the vest until she could write up her interview. When she asked me how I would describe Chef Lee's food, the one word that came to mind was "thoughtful." Not a very articulate or "foodie" description, but that's what stood out to me about my dinner at 610 Magnolia. Every component on every dish seemed to be there for a reason. And I'd guess as much thought by Chef Lee and his team went into what to leave off as to what to include. This was no forced mash-up of Asian and Southern flavors. It was just really, really delicious food, without contrivance. Joyce's newspaper column would include this quote from Chef Lee: “I don’t define my style; I think that if you are an expressive cook you cook whatever you are; whatever you have become; you are the sum of all experiences. You evolve. I am a New York native, born of Korean immigrants that now lives in Kentucky and embraces the South. However that translates is how I am.”
When Milkwood opens at Actors Theater of Louisville next month, I anticipate it will be more casual and less exclusive than 610 Magnolia, but in a similar vein. Another step in the culinary evolution of both Edward Lee and Kevin Ashworth, with food that, whatever it is, first and foremost tastes really good. And I can't wait to taste it for myself!