- 812 E. Market St., Louisville, KY
- Overall User Rating:
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- Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. (the bar is open earlier and later).
- Official Web Site:
Decca is a magic word, at least among music lovers. For country music fans, Decca means Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline. But jazz fans know that Decca made the first 63 recordings of the Count Basie Orchestra — and if the label had never done anything else, those sides alone would have made an indelible mark on 20th century music.
The partners running Decca (a collaborative group that includes Chad Sheffield, Robin Norris, Kelsey Norris and Reid Norris), the newest addition to NuLu’s restaurant row, are making a pretty impressive mark as well.
The restaurant has been a long time coming; it’s been in the works since 2010, but given the ambitious scope of the project, and the challenge of reimagining and renovating a 19th century space (once a tailor shop, then a grocery, and more recently part of the Wayside Christian Mission complex), the duration of the project was probably inevitable.
What wasn’t at all inevitable was that the result would be such a spectacular success. But the spaces — designed, I am told, by the late Charlie Gabhart of Jasper, Ind. — are extraordinary.
The main floor bar and dining areas are calmly appointed with a cork floor, quiet colors and whimsical accents (like a long, bare tree limb adorned with little lights). There’s a dimly lighted cellar lounge and an attractive upstairs dining room.
And there are two cunningly designed patios — one at street level, the other on the second floor. Both rank among the best outdoor dining areas in the city — though I’d give an edge to the upstairs, which offers a unique loft-level insight into this vintage portion of Louisville’s urban core.
And throughout, you’ll discover plenty of whimsical details (not least a vintage Rock-Ola jukebox).
The food and cocktail program live up to the setting, and if the service hasn’t yet reached the same level of excellence, it will surely get there. Service is enthusiastic and expeditious, but in these early days, you might still find servers who don’t have full command of the wine list, which seems an unfortunate lapse given that the bottle list, though smartly selected (by Clay Reynolds), seems a bit pricey. Bottles start at $35 (Revelry cabernet sauvignon), and there are plenty of luxurious options at higher price points — and a few affordable choices (perhaps moderately priced carafes of a decent table wine) would give a good reason to linger.
Happily, the nicely developed beer program and some well-wrought cocktails (like The Waysider — bourbon, mint, lime and ginger beer, $10) are well aligned with prevailing Louisville prices.
And then there is the outstanding menu, created by chefs Loretta Keller (of San Francisco’s Coco500) and Annie Pettry (Pettry is actually executing the dishes in the kitchen).
Decca’s opening menu features some of the most intriguing flavors in the city. It will be a long time before I forget the first dish I saw and tasted. There was a time when asparagus and hollandaise sauce was an icon of extravagant vegetable dishes. Not any more: Pencil-thin spears of asparagus were delicately scarred with marks from their time over a wood fire. Planted atop them was a cloud-white scoop of sabayon, light as could be, fragile enough that it might melt away at the first touch, but with a lively citrusy edge that served as an angelic white foil for the earthy green vegetable, and scattered over the affair were fine shavings of good Parmigiano ($8).
Duck liver terrine ($10) wrapped in a slender sheath of fat and served with a long orange chili, pickled celery root, dark crimson pickled cherries, crunchy grilled flatbread and an excellent condiment — grainy, burgundy-colored mostarda — looked and tasted just as good. And other starters have as much appeal: grilled chicory with a 5-minute egg ($12), for instance, or mussels with crispy potato coins ($12).
The menu isn’t extensive — a few pastas and a handful of main dishes — but everything is impeccable. After the intricate starters, white shrimp and chunks of dense chorizo with baked gigante beans (pale, tender lozenges as big as the name implies) might seem almost too subtle at first — but start playing with the food, let the spices start to work, and before long you’ll be won over ($19). For a more immediate blast of flavor, pappardelle and lamb, spiced up with a deft mix of Mediterranean flavors — and the sunny intensity of preserved lemon — is a delight ($17).
And though the phrase “beef cheeks” may sound off-putting, in the world of nose-to-tail cuisine, it’s one of the best things a beef-eater can find on a menu (if the name bothers you, think of them as barbacoa, which is what they’d be called on a taqueria menu). They’re intrinsically tough — which means they have to be braised for a long, long time. And when that process is done properly, you wind up with an end product as richly flavored, tender and satisfying as the best pot roast in the world. Wrap that meat in a delicate crust, finish it so the exterior is almost charred, put it on a plate with some horseradish crème fraiche and a big mound of peppery watercress, and you have the makings of a classic ($21).
After that, a dessert might be anticlimactic, but still, you might try the buttermilk panna cotta — or maybe some olive oil cake.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.