- 702 W. Main St., Louisville, KY, 40202
- (502) 217-6360
- Overall User Rating:
- (4 ratings)
- Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m. Friday through Saturday. Late-night menu, 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday; 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
- Official Web Site:
Whether it’s the Red Penguins, the golden David, the world-renowned men’s room (where the urinal basin faces a one-way mirror), or the extraordinary galleries of contemporary art, there are reasons aplenty to visit the 21c Museum Hotel.
Heck, it’s as much a landmark for out-of-town visitors and guests as the Louisville Slugger Museum bat and the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
But even if the hotel weren’t a vibrant cultural center — one of the city’s most compelling public spaces — its restaurant, Proof on Main, would rank among the city’s finest.
Proof’s founding chef, Michael Paley, left Proof earlier this year (to take a post at Metropole, the restaurant at 21c’s new Cincinnati hotel). Paley’s place was taken by Levon Wallace, an award-winning chef with roots on the West Coast (and experience at some of the country’s best restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s).
That’s a major change, but service and atmosphere at Proof have changed little since the beginning (though now Proof is a full-service restaurant, offering breakfast as well as lunch, dinner and a popular bar and bar menu).
At present, the dining room closest to the kitchen (a great space where you can smell things cooking) exhibits a remarkable collection of traditional Venezuelan baskets — all painted with corporate logos by artist Pepe Lopez as a thought-provoking commentary on the interplay between global commerce and traditional craft.
General manager Rachel Cutler’s front-of-house staff is professional, efficient and assured (though I was taken aback when the $45 bottle of Gruet I ordered was out of stock and a beverage manager dropped by to suggest an alternative that was quite a bit more expensive).
A few months into Wallace’s tenure, two things are clear: There’s been a seamless transition, and the kitchen is flourishing under new leadership.
From the beginning (Proof opened in 2006), the culinary program blended exacting continental techniques with regional ideas and a commitment to local ingredients. Diners can still feast on meals that include seemingly unlikely choices like charred octopus (with notes of oregano, chilies, garlic and fresh lime, served in a sizzling cast-iron skillet, $15) and Weisenberger grits enriched with a hefty dose of taleggio and a bracing peppery edge ($7).
In fact, Proof on Main may be one of the few fine-dining restaurants in the world where for under $15 a diner could dine on what amounts to a gourmet Depression-era feast: grits and greens (in this case, braised kale and a generous dose of house-made bacon, $7).
Yes, only a bold — and eccentric — gourmet would do such a thing, but still …
Of course, a meal of grits and greens would require skipping over the rest of an outstanding menu. Fine-dining restaurants are delicate organizations, and it’s never easy to predict the outcome of a major leadership change, but if anything, I’d say Wallace and his team are reaching new heights. The cooking is inspired and authoritative, but never self-consciously fussy — it’s just deeply satisfying.
A case in point: a plate of ricotta gnocchi ($20). I think it’s fair to say that all gnocchi-lovers harbor in their imaginations a gnocchi-fantasy. That fantasy revolves around a physical impossibility. What we imagine is an engineering miracle along the lines of a suspension bridge built from spider webs — a dumpling so light that it barely supports itself, but is somehow substantial enough to carry all the flavor in the world.
It seems like a hopeless fantasy — until you tuck into these gnocchi at Proof. I don’t know what kept them from floating off the plate during the trip from the kitchen (maybe they were magically attached to the accompanying beets and carrots, or maybe the wild mushrooms added just enough weight to hold them down), but they didn’t stay on the plate for long — and I expect to remember them for a long time as the definitive gnocchi benchmark.
For that matter, several dishes set benchmarks: A butter bean salad ($8) featured not only the title ingredient, but florets of roasted cauliflower, a sprinkle of herbs that shone like green stars and crunchy grains of garlic. Another salad ($10) featured beets and Capriole goat cheese — touched up with crumbles of cocoa, a pale pistachio cream and spear-tipped beet leaves, their delicate burgundy veins serving as a vivid garnish.
Our friend Cathy was generous enough to share some of her pan-roasted scallops (I’m not sure I’d have been so free, had they been mine). The golden discs looked spectacular on a plate accented with a black filigree of squid ink. And quartered sections of white grapes were a surprising and delightful foil for the seafood ($29).
A bone-in pork chop ($29) was wrapped in a paper-thin layer of country ham and served with perfectly prepared hominy and braised cabbage. Those simple facts are sufficient to make the case that it was a perfect winter feast — but just to be clear, it was phenomenal.
The desserts are pretty amazing, as well, including a cranberry-orange sorbet and a chocolate torte with cinnamon ganache (and house-made “Cracker Jacks”) or the whimsically equine “I’ll Have Another,” an apple-pear fritter with oats and — yes — hay gelato.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.