702 West Main St.
Last January I’d booked a long weekend at the 21c, a 90-room boutique hotel and contemporary art museum in Louisville, as a birthday surprise for my husband. Bad weather forced us to cancel, and we didn’t find the time or opportunity to get there before another birthday rolled around – this time mine.
Located in a former tobacco and bourbon warehouse, the hotel is not just home to a spectacular art museum, it also houses the award-winning restaurant Proof on Main, which I’d heard great things about and was really looking forward to visiting.
While Chef Michael Paley serves up unique meals featuring locally sourced items on an ever-changing menu, the artwork in the restaurant is more permanent. My eye was drawn to a mixed-media projection called “Tete-a-tete” by Zilla Leutenegger, which features a person sitting at a long table eating bowl after bowl of soup. It made me feel less gluttonous as I ate my way through the menu.
I started off with Woodland Farm peppers ($5) from their relishes list. This small dish featured plump, sweet sultana raisins, spicy watercress, and tangy goat cheese paired with a selection of roasted heirloom peppers. It was just okay. While I liked the accompanying players, the peppers were surprisingly tough and after ten minutes of sparring with them I gave up.
Next up was the Bunch Beet Salad ($9). I don't normally like beets, and only ordered it because it was the lone vegetarian item on an appetizer list that included chicken liver pate, yellowfin tuna, and griddled bottarga. I almost eschewed an appetizer altogether and am really glad that I didn't, because it has caused me to completely rethink beets. Consisting of sweet, baby striped bunch beets with pickled carrots, crunchy pistachios, watercress and goat cheese, this salad knocked my tastebuds into the stratosphere. Rarely am I at a loss for words, as I'm sure Steve would agree, but wow, this splendid marriage of flavors left me speechless. So good I nearly wept.
I can't say as much for the Garganelli entrée ($18), which had too many different textures going on in the mouth. Consisting of penne pasta with sage, brown butter, walnuts and a few putty-like hunks of sweet potato, the dish was dry and rubbery, and the crunchy walnuts further detracted. Had I known how good that blessed bunch beet was going to be, I would have opted for the roasted beet risotto instead, which was the other vegetarian item on the entrée list.
Service at Proof on Main is second to none. Diners' needs are anticipated and taken care of with the friendly professionalism that one would expect from one of the nation's top-rated restaurants. Our server was knowledgeable on every aspect of the menu, was attentive without hovering, kept our champagne glasses filled and the breadcrumbs cleared, and made sure we had a very pleasurable dining experience.
Although the menu changes weekly, there are a few (non-veg) standards: bison marrow bones on the starters menu and Kentucky bison burgers on the entrée list, both courtesy of the Kentucky Bison Company in Goshen. Having never tried buffalo before, Steve was intrigued by the bison burger, which came topped with smoked bacon and Tillamook cheddar. He found the meat a bit too gamey for his liking and the charred bun was inedible. At $15 it was the least expensive entrée, but he wished he had shelled out another $10 and gotten the roasted Amish chicken instead.
The dessert menu consisted of a selection of house-made sorbets and gelatos, and our awesome server brought out a trio of them in honor of my birthday.
Steve and I are big fans of contemporary art, especially Op-Art a la Bridget Riley, and we were more impressed with the quality of the works on display at 21c than we were with the Proof kitchen. One of our favorite pieces was the hotel-commissioned, site-specific exhibition called “Going Home,” which celebrates El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead).
This exhibit was inspired by the story of 14 Mexican immigrants who died while trying to cross the Arizona desert. Created by Mary Carothers’ students at the University of Louisville’s 2-D design class, the 10,000 hand-cut butterflies symbolize migration, while the traditional marigold flowers symbolize the path between the living and the dead.
Exhibits we loved but that were too difficult to photograph included “Text Rain” by Camille Uterback and Romy Achituv. This interactive installation near the hotel elevators projects letters falling from the sky, and visitors are encouraged to become part of the exhibit. I LOVED it and had great fun slinging letters at a fellow waiting for the elevator. When he caught on to what I was doing he couldn't stop laughing.
Another permanent exhibition we liked was mounted to one of Proof's exposed brick walls. “Baker’s Apprentice” is a 3-D sculpture of a person struggling not to drop the armload of egg cartons she’s carrying.
21c has unique, eye-opening and provocative contemporary artwork from 21st century artists, the best bathrooms in the state of Kentucky (I won't ruin the surprise), and by far the most happening bar in town. I wanted to be as blown away by Proof on Main as I was by the hotel and museum, but I found the food hit or miss. I'm glad they have several vegetarian items to choose from, and their commitment to local farmers is commendable, it's just too bad that our entrées couldn't live up to the beauty of that simple salad.
Husband-and-wife owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown are bringing the 21c/Proof concept to Cincinnati by 2012, in the former Metropole Hotel. I'll be very interested to see how Cincinnatians deal with pieces like the full-frontal Jackie-O in 21c's lobby.