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 us what good food is. We know from good food here.
But I kept hearing about it, and every word I heard was a rave. Curiosity got the better of me and I caved, so my husband Brian and I went for dinner (812 E. Market St.) on a cold weeknight in February. I hoped for a pleasant meal.
And then. Then I turned into a gushing fool at the table, fawning over every course, every bite. Maybe my start to the dinner, the Bitch’s Brew ($12), a deceptively mellow cocktail of bourbon, orange curacao, apple cider and bubbles, turned up the dial on my appreciation. Brian proclaimed his drink, a concoction of mezcal (smokier and aged longer than basic tequila), absinthe, and egg white called The Apothecary ($12), “dangerous.” I called it a licorice-flavored Peep smoked in a campfire—all things I like. But even without the culinary version of beer-goggles from the high-proof libations, the meal was flawless, the service impeccable.
Despite feeling a bit guilty for loving the creations of an imported-from-California (even one who hails from the South originally) chef, I marveled at the the dishes, beginning with the bliss I found in a perfectly correct, hand-chopped steak tartare ($14) that, though miniscule in size, sang with flavors as boldly as the best I’ve had in Paris. But it wasn’t just a copy. The ruby red tidbits delivered a pronounced zing of garlic unlike any tartare I’ve tasted.
I roam the globe in search of dining experiences that make me this happy. With memories of meals from some of the world’s top tables, it’s no small feat to serve this unashamed food snob a meal that sparks such delight.
As we waited for our second course, we eavesdropped on the next table — scant inches away — as they debated the proper temperature of their Loire Valley wine and requested that the waiter chill it further. He granted their wish with grace. The lights in the spare, elegant dining room dimmed and the volume on the room’s Bluegrass soundtrack bumped up.
We ordered a ravioli called Love Letter ($14) to share. The surroundings required I behave with civility, but I had to restrain myself from physically claiming the dish as my own after the first bite. Clearly handmade pasta, as ethereally light as anything I’ve had in Italy, it was dressed in a delicate chevre sauce brightened with a hit of Meyer lemon. The combination rendered me nearly speechless. I could only shake my head and smile ear to ear as I surreptitiously swiped my finger around the bowl for the last flecks of sauce. Love letter, indeed.
The server promised to give word of my adoration to the chef. He easily managed that fine line of balancing warm and friendly interaction with the professional demeanor you’d expect from a restaurant of this caliber, answering my numerous questions (Where does the steak come from? “Marksbury.” What about the coffee? “A tri-continental blend from a west coast roaster.” Who’s Dave the Mountain Man on your list of providers? “The big strong guy that brings us firewood.”) without a trace of annoyance — in fact, with good humor.
What makes us call food “good?” I found myself thinking. Sometimes meeting a primal desire for sweet, salty, or fat is enough. But there’s another league. In this league the balancing and mingling of pure flavors, simple but perfect preparation, and a subtle introduction of an unexpected note result in a dish that’s nothing short of sublime.
I don’t often order fish in a restaurant; frankly, it’s often boring. But the seared grouper ($24) promised Ras Al Hanout, a Moroccan spice blend I hoard in my own pantry, purchased on visits to the bazaars of Marrakech and Fez. Roughly translated, it means “head of the shop,” and the intriguing blend of 30 or more spices and roots varies from one shop to the next. The aroma brings back the heady sensation of the markets, watching the spice dust-tinged sun and shadows play on the heaps of star anise, cloves, mace, nutmeg, turmeric and cardamom. I’ve never seen it on a menu in Louisville.
The exotic flavors danced with the caramelized cauliflower and sweet roasted grapes accompanying the tender fish. I didn’t want to tear myself away long enough to try the unctuous pork cheeks ($25) on my husband’s plate for more than a couple of bites. Fish does not have to be boring, my friends.
We’d eyed the shiny R2-D2-looking contraption at the bar throughout dinner, admiring the scent of espresso wafting from it in our direction, so couldn’t resist the Affogato ($7) for dessert, just to see the Italian device cranked up one more time. As we swirled biscotti in the cup of malted chocolate ice cream melting into the espresso, my husband asked if I’d ever dipped toast in hot chocolate. After 16 years of dining together, I’d never heard of this childhood treat of his. This was a lovely grown-up version of the sweet mental image I now have of him at the kitchen table.
My guilt long-since evaporated in the glow of the locally sourced ingredients, I was reluctant to leave the site of such a splendid meal. The server gave me reason to linger a bit longer when he brought me a second tiny dish of caramel bourbon kettle corn after seeing my enthusiasm for the first when it arrived with the bill. I had to talk him out of his kind offer to bring me a take-home bag, because I’d have consumed it all before getting out of the car.
I can admit when I’m wrong. I didn’t want to love Decca, but I was powerless to do anything but swoon like the rest of their fans. I’m plotting already when I can return.