Familiarity often dulls our awareness of the delights and surprises to be found in downtown Louisville’s urban landscape, but even the most jaded pedestrian is likely to be wowed on a first visit to Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant.
From the bustling sidewalk on West Main Street, visitors descend a flight of stairs and find a shady sunken oasis of green. There’s a fine batch of magnolia trees, a splendid indoor-outdoor dining area that’s bounded by old-fashioned garage doors. If the weather is nice, those doors are raised and the entire area blends together.
You can still hear street noises — and the occasional rumble and roar of trucks and motorcycles — but the sounds are muted and distant, and you’re more likely to hear the burnished sounds of a big-band brass section or a post-bop tenor sax piping through the sound system at a level that won’t interrupt your conversation.
This space, once part of a parking garage, now repurposed by the Al J. Schneider Co., is decorated with stained glass from a classic Louisville building (the Brennan Building), vintage chandeliers and a variety of cool fixtures (not least a splendid back bar that welcomes guests with a coppery glow).
There are three related businesses in this subterranean alcove. There’s an ice cream parlor called 2 Dips and a Shake and a very nice grab-and-go food shop called 321 Deli.
And there’s Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant, a lovely full-service restaurant with an emphasis on casual new American cuisine — and bourbon. The bar and restaurant are helmed by Christian Hattemer, whose academic background includes The Ohio State University and the Culinary Institute of America, and whose cookery is informed by stints all over the country.
And though the Al J. Schneider Co. is well-known to Louisvillians as the operator of properties like the Galt House, the food and beverage programs at Down One menu seem to reflect a very personal vision that emphasizes local sourcing, house-made crafts and excellent execution.
Try a plate of pickles ($3.99) — a spicy, refreshing mix of pickled melons, cherries, florets of cauliflower and orange planks of carrot — and you’ll get the idea. Vibrant colors, crunchy textures and brisk flavors make this a great starter or bar snack (and during a meal, there’s a pretty good chance Hattemer will walk by and ask how you like this particular dish). “We take our pickles pretty seriously around here,” he said one recent evening.
You could also snack or start with cubes of mellow feta, sprinkled with flakes of crushed red pepper, lemon, parsley and olive oil — ready to smear on crusty bread ($6.99), or join with friends in grazing on a wooden platter of cheeses ($13.99), meats ($13.99) or both ($18.99). These are serious platters — and come to think of it, most of the dishes at Down One are presented on sturdy wooden platters, a note that adds a pleasantly rustic touch to the meal.
The menu isn’t long, but it’s very well planned. Beyond the starters (which also include bacon-wrapped, Gorgonzola-stuffed dates, $4.99, and Korean BBQ roasted chicken wings, $8.99), there are a handful of salads. A salad built of roasted beets ($5.99), Swiss chard, arugula, creamy chunks of Gorgonzola and pistachio vinaigrette sounded pungent and looked spectacular — and very likely might have lived up to its promise, except that we’d just finished devouring those spectacular pickles — and after those, even the most rockety of rocket salads was destined to seem a bit muted.
Downtown office dwellers will want to check out the lunch menu, with several sandwiches in the $7-$9 range (beef brisket with caramelized onions and smoked provolone; roasted turkey with Granny Smith apples, red onion and cranberry mayo; fresh mozzarella, tomato, arugula, roasted peppers and eggplant with basil aioli).
But dinner is good enough — and a good enough value — that many are likely to dub the Down One as their favorite downtown eatery. A flavorful, perfectly roasted chicken breast (on the bone) was served ready for carving, alongside chipotle aioli, excellent guacamole and pico de gallo, ready for assembling into a stack of tortillas. If our otherwise attentive server had dropped by to ask, we’d certainly have requested more guac and pico ($14.99).
Dinner entrees include a pan-seared flat-iron steak ($17.99), shrimp and (Weisenberger) grits ($15.99), and a sandwich that sounds like a porcine conspiracy, and involves roasted pork belly, pulled pork, bacon, mustard-based sauce, pickles and slaw ($8.99).
My advice to life and health insurance companies: Stop worrying about whether policy holders fly planes or have pre-existing conditions. Instead, you probably need to add a surcharge for folks who get addicted to Down One’s bourbon and sorghum glazed pork belly ($15.99). This is one magnificent pork dish, crunchy and fatty, brilliantly complemented by the earthy and ethereal flavors of sorghum and bourbon. Hattemer’s crew plates that pork with a fingerling potato hash, then tops the whole thing off with a fried egg that — on this occasion — was daringly arranged with its bright yellow yolk suspended precipitously over the edge of the pork — a culinary cliffhanger if ever I’ve seen one.
The beverage program includes a massive collection of bourbons (smartly broken into useful historical categories), some very fine craft beers and an affordable, useful wine list.
For dessert, we strolled over to 2 Dips and a Shake for a scoop of Blue Bell Southern Blackberry Cobbler ice cream.