Dana McMahan


Review: Don’t Resist Decca

February 28, 2013

I resisted going to Decca. Yes, I heard all the swooning, but I wasn’t buying it. I blame my stubborn Kentuckian side. We have plenty of good chefs. Plenty! We don’t need somebody to come in from California to show … Read Story


REVIEW: Feast BBQ a Candidate for Last, Great Meal

January 3, 2013

The last thing you’d eat on Earth—should you have the choice—is a weighty matter. It’s no small decision to pick the food you’d go out on, and I keep a tight rein on my own shortlist. But the list grew by one when I crossed the river to New Albany on a dark December evening to visit Feast BBQ.

The former saloon was already packed at 5 p.m. Struck dumb by the barbecue selections presented on the tall blackboard wall, I joined forces with my husband Brian to order a bit of nearly everything. You place your orders at the bar—actually, to a member of the staff who meets you at your place in line, iPad (in a clever holder designed to look like an old-fashioned slate board) in hand, so there’s no dilly-dallying while you decide. We considered the lineup of four presidential meals, with portion sizes increasing in correlation with the bulk of their namesakes. The Taft ($23) weighs in at two pounds of meats and sides. We each ordered a Roosevelt ($13), the second-to-smallest meal of two quarter-pound meats and two sides, plus cole slaw (choose creamy or vinegar—creamy, duh), pickles, red onions and roll.

Just in case this wasn’t enough—brunch was so many hours ago, and besides, how could you not order something so alluringly named?—we asked for crispy pork cakes ($6), too. I looked longingly at the tater tots, but had to be realistic about my stomach capacity.

We took seats at the bar, partly because no tables were open, but also because it’s endlessly entertaining to watch the goings-on at a lively bar. Ryan Rogers, the classically-trained chef behind Feast who hails here by way of the Oakroom and Zanzabar, hustled behind the bar along with “head master” Chip Hartley, also from the Oakroom (which provided a pastry chef, to boot). Working in the back, Ryan told me, is a former Sonny’s BBQ manager. French Culinary Institute pedigree or no, there’s no pretension around here.  As we waited for our food we watched bourbon flow—a lot of Old Forrester that night, the $3 bourbon of the week. They like to give Feasters the chance to discover new bourbons here, and as the only thing small in this place, the price tag draws fans. I ordered a Maple Bourbon Sour ($7), a slightly sweet and easy-drinking cocktail recommended by Chip.

Our hefty platters arrived soon. Brisket, chicken, pulled pork, smoked tofu, sweet potato fries, mac and cheese, baked beans, collard greens—dish after dish. I tore into my plate with full intentions of finishing all of my dishes and tasting everything. And it was a valiant attempt. “I am impressed,” my husband said in reverent tones as I plowed through the spread.

The food was so very, very good that it didn’t take any particular skill on the part of this professional eater to polish off a significant portion. The creamy, peppery mac and cheese led perfectly to the crunchy cole slaw, which was the perfect segue to the savory, succulent pulled pork, followed by the surprisingly complex tofu and capped off with the perfectly crispy, sweet and savory sweet potato fries.

As an intermission to every couple of rounds, I dug into the meal’s crowning glory, those crispy pork cakes. For me, the ideal (and most addictive) food incorporates sweet and salty tastes, crunchy and creamy textures, tang and heat. And pork. This dish was created for me.  Imagine the best crab cake you ever ate. Now, instead of crab meat, begin with beautifully smoky pulled pork. After the cakes are fried to crunchy ecstasy, rest them on a blanket of sultry barbecue sauce. Now scatter some cole slaw. Do you see? No matter how tight and round my tummy grew, I couldn’t stop eating the crispy pork cakes. I may have even swatted away my husband’s fork at one point, despite how generously he shared all of his food with me.

In the end, I met my match. I couldn’t finish my feast. I took home enough meat and sides for an abundant lunch the next day. But I cleaned the aluminum pan bearing the pork cakes till it fairly shone, declaring it—just maybe—my choice for last meal. And on the way home plotted how soon we might cross the river again, because Feast is well worth the trip.

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How Prohibition Changed the Cocktail

November 29, 2012

It’s hard to believe there was a time when it was illegal to produce, sell and ship alcohol. Then again, in some places Prohibition might well have never been repealed. I lived in a dry county (Pulaski) myself, where I had to drive 50 miles to buy wine. The inhumanity! My delight at moving to Louisville, a block from Old Town Liquor, must have been something like the elation tipplers felt on Dec. 5, 1933, when the experiment known as Prohibition was repealed.

Prohibition may have made it difficult for those who liked to step out to the store for a pint of their favorite drink, but it also created a cocktail renaissance of sorts.  

“Some people say Prohibition was the greatest thing to happen to liquor,” says Colin Blake, creative director at Louisville’s Distilled Spirits Epicenter. “After Prohibition, everything changed.” 

People developed a taste for sweet drinks during the years that sugar and fruit juice was added to home distilled spirits. Evidently, bathtub gin didn’t exactly taste good. We see that legacy now in contemporary cocktails like the lemon drop and cosmopolitan, as well as in the mid-century explosion of Tiki bar culture, when returning WWII soldiers helped exotic rum drinks, now cocktail bar staples, cross over into the mainstream. 

By the way, if you think—like I did—that people were brewing up tubs full of spirits, that’s not the case. People filled jugs with neutral grain spirits they sourced from local stills or Canada, according to Blake, and topped them off with water. The bathtub was merely the only spigot tall enough to fit the jug. (Besides, a bathtub full of juniper-scented liquor would’ve been a dead giveaway that something nefarious was going on.)

To make these home concoctions palatable, the would-be mixologists of the time created punches heavy on sugar and fruit. At speakeasies around the country folks imbibed in sweet creations still drawing fans today.

“They’re so fruity and delicious,” Blake says of Prohibition-era punches.  

At one point, some 30,000 speakeasies served drinks in New York City alone, Blake says. And plenty of stills fueled the appetite for spirits. I wondered how people knew how to distill liquor back then—it’s not as if they could watch a YouTube video to learn. But working on the still was just another farm chore from our nation’s earliest days, Blake says. In fact, some 10,000 distilleries dotted the original 13 colonies.

Today the Epicenter carries on the tradition with their Greasemonkey Distillery. Enthusiasts who would like to learn more about the spirits of Prohibition can come to the center’s Moonshine University. A two-hour class on Repeal Day, December 5, from 6-8 p.m. will focus on bourbon, gin and cocktails of the era. The class is $100.

For those who’d rather celebrate than take a history and science lesson, local bars offer a chance to toast the end of Prohibition.

December 3. Housed in a former bourbon distillery, the St. Charles Exchange (113 S. 7th St.) will host a Repeal Day Party from 5-7 p.m. Period attire is encouraged. They’ll feature a Prohibition-era cocktail, the Opera—with a twist. It’s aged for about a month in a bourbon barrel from Bluegrass Barrels. The drink is an experiment, as it’s the first time beverage director Colin Shearn has aged a cocktail. He’s optimistic though. “It was good going in!” he says. The drink features gin, Dubonnet and maraschino liqueur.  

December 5. At Proof on Main (702 West Main St.), bartenders will create a one-day-only special list of classic cocktails inspired by the Speakeasy era. Costumes are encouraged and mustaches will be provided.  A soundtrack of Twenties and Thirties music will frame the mood. Festivities begin at 4 p.m.

December 5. Rye (900 E. Market St.) will serve up classic cocktails side-by-side with their own take on the original so guests can compare the two.


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REVIEW: Silver Dollar Brunch Satisfies

November 1, 2012

Food serves many roles. At a minimum, it’s sustenance, but it can also nourish, nurture, heal—and sometimes it can revive. I went in search of all of these things when my husband Brian and I stepped into the Silver Dollar (1761 Frankfort Ave.) on a nippy Sunday morning for brunch.

I was feeling a bit over-served after some Halloween festivities the night before, and in search of food that could re-ignite me for the day. I needed a meal that was hearty, carb-heavy and maybe just a little greasy. And just because I wasn’t in tip-top shape didn’t mean I loosened my standards—the food should taste really good.

This was my first time to the honky-tonk restaurant housed inside an old fire station on Frankfort Avenue, so I took my time looking around from my cozy little nook under the stairs. The Silver Dollar is themed around the Bakersfield Sound era—think hardscrabble times set to a soundtrack of old-time country music, with a south-of-the border menu flair.

Themed restaurants can easily turn out hokey and awkward, but the cheerful colored lights, retro coffee mugs (exactly like some my grandma had) and vintage Merle Haggard made for a lively—but not over the top—atmosphere. The Dustbowl migration launched the Bakersfield sound, and having lived in Oklahoma as a kid, with my roots in a bluegrass-playing family, I felt right at home.

I would’ve liked to have raided the buffet table set up for a private party, as I eyed every plate that passed in my line of sight with longing. Waffles, scrambled eggs, bacon, sopes—they all sparked a hankering.

The toughest call to make at brunch is sweet or savory. In the end I decided to go for both, with a fried green tomato and bacon sandwich dubbed the Texas Toast Stack ($9) and a half waffle. The half waffle is not strictly a menu option, but pleading with the waiter for a taste of a waffle will net you two triangles, with accompanying warm fruit compote. At $4.50, it’s half the price of the full dish. Brian chose the enfrijoladas ($12), a smoked chicken and black bean plate.

I sipped a zippy, house-made ginger beer ($2) while we waited—it was too early for one of the creative cocktails. The fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3) Brian chose was a sweet, pulpy wake-up call to go along with his coffee ($2).

I was a bit embarrassed when my food arrived because the two plates barely fit in front of me. It was too late to ask for my waffle to come after my sandwich, as it would have made a fine dessert. Then again, if I’d known about the homemade desserts on offer, I might’ve gone for one of them instead.

My sandwich was just what the doctor ordered—two thick, toasted slices of bread that satisfied my visceral need for carbs and melted cheese, and tall enough that I had to squinch it together. The crispy bacon and the fried green tomato were topped with a fried egg sliding off the side, sweet caramelized onions and a slick of basil mayo. It was marvelously messy and so good I didn’t want to share. But that would’ve been rude, since Brian let me try some of his enfrijoladas. He praised the smoky, succulent chicken smothered in earthy black beans, with a generous topping of queso fresco and sour cream, all served atop corn tortillas.

I didn’t put my sandwich down once, pausing only a couple of times to try the side of sweet potato fries, which, sadly were a disappointment. They’re difficult to master—I certainly haven’t done it. These were overcooked yet still limp, the worst possible combination. But I had plenty to eat, so I didn’t fret about the fries.

Once I polished off my sandwich, I turned to the waffle. It wasn’t warm, so the butter didn’t melt nicely, but no matter. I dredged it through the crimson fruit compote and dipped it in maple syrup for a happy mash-up of crunch and sweet. I could’ve easily had the whole waffle—light and airy, it wasn’t especially filling—but eating only a half allowed me to preserve some dignity. It was perfectly cooked, and filled the craving born the previous night of one too many bourbons and reminiscing about late-night trips to the Waffle House.

My brunch served its purpose: I was ready now, at noon, to face the day. The food was well worth the $37 tab, and (calorie bomb though it was) I enjoyed it so thoroughly that it was worth the calories, too.

The Silver Dollar. It’s worth the trip.

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