Photos by Wales Hunter
Mac and cheese goes gourmet at La Coop: Bistro a Vins
The couple next to us is celebrating their anniversary. From where they sit in the small room—the appropriate word is intimate—they can see nearly everyone in the restaurant, which is how Allen Grunier, a downtown attorney, recognizes a woman he went to grade school with. “Pull these tables together!” he shouts gleefully, if mischievously, while his wife, Donna, tells my wife and me about the bees she keeps in her yard.
None of this comes as a surprise in Kentucky, with its cordiality and openness. But it’s more than Southern hospitality; it’s the fact we are in a bistro on East Market Street in Louisville’s NuLu District, ground zero of trendiness in Louisville’s burgeoning arts and, especially, gastronomical scene. The reason La Coop: Bistro à Vins is so good is because it authenticates a truly European experience.
Chef Bobby Benjamin serves not only cuisine française authentique, but an experience in authentic French joie de vivre. The room, vivid with voices, is warmed by soft lights housed in birdcages (this is La Coop, after all) and decorated in traditional French designs of stripes and damask. But there is also a decidedly industrial overture as evidenced by the snaking metal pipes and the central iron column shouldering the thick wooden joists of the eco-friendly Green Building. It’s 21st century America meeting 19th century Paris, toe-to-toe.
But the food! First comes a charcuterie of country pâté, chicken liver mousse and Genoa salami, all served on a shard of black slate along with apple chutney, fig jam and a spicy mustard. Besides that, two crab cakes with a rich, creamy sauce. And that’s only the appetizers.
Dinner is even more ambitious. For me, the coq au vin in a steaming red sauce with pearl onions and carrots; for my wife, a baked salmon steak smothered in truffle butter. Kate, our server, somehow convinced us we might have found the portions small, which was ludicrous, really, but we were glad to have ordered the pommes frites and a macaroni and gruyere cheese with chunks of pork. With the wine, this made for a filling dinner, if by filling we mean the full range of connotations. It is fair to say that I have dined this richly far too rarely, with one such dinner being on a rooftop in France itself. And before we could even weigh the merits of what we’d just experienced, Chef Bobby sent two desserts: the traditional trois fromages and a ridiculously rich banana crepe, swollen with a chocolate-macadamia sauce.
This is representative of the new sophistication sprouting along East Market Street in downtown Louisville. Chef Bobby has cooked in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York for the likes of Tom Cruise, Kanye West and Taylor Swift. But the sophistication has nothing to do with stuffy collars and the correct fork; the new dining of NuLu is all about casual.
“I want you to walk into the restaurant and feel like you’re the most important person,” Chef Bobby tells me. “I want every single person to feel that way, that when I give you a dinner, it’s absolutely delicious, it’s hot, it’s affordable, and when you leave, you’re excited.”
He considers hanger steak by way of example, for it’s hard for him to not talk food: “I want to make sure that I’m basting every single one the same way, where I’m introducing as much flavor, as much love, as I could put into that ingredient.”
Having cooked at Louisville’s The Oakroom prior to his stint at La Coop, and having met many of the city’s chefs, Bobby has seen the change portended in the success of his restaurant neighbors Decca, Harvest, Rye and especially the Mayan Café. “Eventually, I think that this will probably be the food destination for the city,” he muses. “I don’t think it is yet; I think that there are other restaurants in the city that are great restaurants, but as far as an area with several restaurants that becomes more of a destination, I think that this will definitely be the place.”
That place began with the Mayan Café. Or perhaps it began, really, on the Yucatán Peninsula, where Chef Bruce Ucán was born in 1968. What he remembers was a veritable food paradise in a tropical climate, where fresh food was the norm. Living in a predominantly rural area, he grew accustomed to an economy of trading. “People traded food,” he recalls. “I could say to a farmer, ‘I need three or four pounds of corn, and I’ll give you a chicken.’ Or beans, or pumpkin seeds, or squash.”
By the age of 11, despite doing well in school, Bruce was sent off to work. In the culture of the Mayan Indians, where work is valued above education, and having come from a large family that could not afford his upkeep, this was the norm. He began washing dishes in Cancún.
By 1996, he was serving his food in Louisville, first out of a food truck—the Gypsy Van—and later from a storefront on East Market Street; then, the restaurant was known as the Mayan Gypsy, and Bruce’s concern was simply to keep his business afloat. The business prospered. In 2008, he saw the film Food, Inc., with its sharply critical attitude toward the corporate food industry, and something in him woke up. “That’s when I realized I had to do something different,” he says.
From this realization came the Market Monday Nights, where what by then was called the Mayan Café began serving fresh food that came directly from local farms. These Monday nights found staff serving more people than the weekend nights. This, according to the chef, changed everything. “Once we started using the fresh produce … well, have you felt like when you eat something you remember places? Or family? That’s what happened to me. I thought, why are you not doing this full time?
“That’s the part that was missing,” he says. “I think finally I’m getting my memories back of tasting food when it was so fresh. You can’t compare it. And honestly, people say, how come that food is tasty? Because we buy it fresh. As a chef, we just need to be careful how we cook it.”
What Ucán remembered was his childhood in Mexico, how wonderful food could be when it was not just a shiny bell pepper bought from a typical grocery store. The success of the farm-to-table idea was a landmark. “It was the right time,” he says, and from there the Mayan Café has continued its movement toward being a restaurant that serves seasonal, locally sourced food. It’s not uncommon to find Chef Bruce at local farmers markets looking for his next ingredients. “Every Saturday, you see me on Bardstown Road, just hustling, trying to get produce,” he admits with a grin.
The great belief of the Mayan Café—a belief that has infused the businesses up and down East Market—is sustainability. “We started meeting more farmers and building our relationships,” Bruce says. For his part, Bruce started learning all he could about seasonal foods and flavors. “I realized we had to learn to adapt to an environment where this is what we have; this is what we do,” he says. Farmers are his allies, and, to him, “the more allies we create, the easier for us our job will be. Sustainability, I think, goes everywhere—relationships with families, brothers, sisters ... you need to create allies that will be sustainable.”
Because of this, the Mayan Café makes for a very different dining experience, which my wife and I found out firsthand on a Valentine’s Day dinner. First, the appetizers: papadzules, a pair of smoked chicken taquitos in a pumpkin seed sauce and served with poached egg, arrive with black bean and goat cheese empanadas in a mulato-ginger sauce. For the main course: cochinita pibil, a small mountain of slow-roasted pork in achiote sauce, served atop a pim tortilla stuffed with goat cheese and beans and scattered with tok-sel lima beans (the server, Caroline, insisted on their goodness). Also, there was locally raised rabbit, oven roasted in a tamarind chili sauce, dolloped with caramelized carrots, again piled high on the pim tortilla.
The choices were easy, especially for the customer willing to support local farmers—the menu outright tells the diner from which farms the food comes. The room, too, small and warm, is hung with large photographs of food preparations in the Yucatán, “Mayan home cooking,” as it were: tortillas warming on a metal plate balanced over a fire atop a cinderblock, or men making pan dulce in simple tropical huts.
At the close of dinner, leftovers go home in biodegradable containers, and the glass bottles are dutifully recycled. “Everything we learn as we go along, but it has to be affordable and sustainable,” Ucán says of their efforts. “It might take a little while, but we [will] get there. Then we ask, ‘What can we do next?’ ”
Ucán firmly believes “food is medicine,” and a healthy diet is more effective than doctors and prescriptions. To that end, he envisions a commissary in Louisville’s West End, where kids simply don’t have access to healthy foods. Many of them, Bruce knows, have never even seen a farm. He wants to teach them about farmers, gardening and preparing healthy food. “The best thing we can ever give to the kids today is the opportunity to have the best fresh food you can possibly get,” he insists, “and giving the opportunity to them to try what good food tastes like—not this crap you buy in fast food. This is how we have to do it. This is the generation that’s going to move this stuff around.”
For now, he has no plans to open any more restaurants anytime soon. He’s happy to be in the small building in NuLu that has been the Mayan Café’s home for nearly a decade. “My guts told me I’m staying here,” he assures me. “This is a good place. I feel a good vibe. I feel really good in this building, very positive. Sometimes, things happen for a reason.”
On a snowy February night, I am sitting in the large window of Decca, looking into the fat flakes falling through the glow of streetlights. It’s bitterly cold outside, but inside the restaurant is warmed by geothermal heat, radiating upward through a recycled cork floor. It’s one of the touches that makes Decca a place to visit, even if only for a look. The stained-glass wooden doors hung about the room came from the Studebaker Mansion in South Bend, Ind. The giant vegetables on the walls are fashioned of clay, sculpted by a local artist. Even the silverware stands out: mismatched, replated vintage pieces.
And then there is the building, a Louisville landmark. The full flavor of this Civil War-era building, which has alternately housed a tailor shop, a Quaker grocery store, offices for The Courier-Journal and, most recently, the Wayside Christian Mission, has been lovingly restored to its glory during a 2½-year restoration by owner Chad Sheffield—with a bit of help from his father, Jeff. From the basement lounge, with its carefully renovated brick floors and limestone walls, to the second-floor dining room’s pocket doors and fireplace, Decca brags of Louisville’s history.
“We chose natural materials and a simple design to feature the history of the building, which dates from the 1870s,” says Sheffield. “We were fortunate to be able to utilize original limestone, wood and brick in the cellar. We wanted a vintage feel without overt nostalgia and wanted a design that wouldn’t seem dated or trendy or that we would get tired of. We chose a lush, organic layout for our patio space, with a fire pit, water feature, and intimate seating areas.”
The food reflects the restaurant’s eclectic surroundings, which include antique mirrors, wooden banisters and contemporary art. You can look at a local photographer’s black-and-whites while savoring the food I enjoyed that cold night: hand-cut steak tartare with quail egg and garlic crostini; Brussels sprouts and kale salad, topped with citrus, local pecan, and manchego cheese in a buttermilk vinaigrette; and for the main course, braised pork cheeks with wheat berries, rutabaga, apricot and pistachio. The beer is a German pilsner, the music a combination of Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and Janis Joplin. When it comes to the coffee ice cream served alongside the chocolate devil’s food cake and meringues for dessert, I’ve not had better.
The interplay between the familiar and the unexpected is the design here. “We want to create an environment where people want to come because they feel comfortable here,” says Chef Annie Pettry. “In many aspects, they feel comfortable coming here for food that’s comforting yet exciting, for good music, for great cocktails. We just want to be a great neighborhood restaurant.”
Sheffield seconds the sentiment: “We want Decca to be seen as a culturally engaged, inspired and welcoming place to be.” NuLu is, in fact, a neighborhood. Decca expects to build a bike rack for local commuters soon, and anyway, this place is more than just a restaurant—it also hosts a basement bar, poetry readings, live music, and a bookstore that now sells records, many from the 8,000-album-strong collection of Sheffield himself.
As with La Coop and the Mayan Café, that sense of community extends to Kentucky farmers. “All of us are using as much local stuff as possible,” Chef Annie says. “If I can get it locally, I will. It’s getting really, really good ingredients and then just treating them well, not doing too much to them.
“We change the menu whenever we get something new or get a new idea, or when the season changes, and it’s flexible. Kind of on a natural progression of the seasons, which is really fun to do ... We have an open-door policy. All the farmers that I meet, the local distributors, I tell them: If you have something great, don’t be afraid to call me or stop by. We have people coming by with things they’ve grown or they’re really excited about, and we buy them and put them on the menu or on special. We’ll work with the farmer.”
It is the ingredients that make for the fine dining experience, that and the sense that every bite helps grow a new culture of Kentucky farming, aiding the local economy. For Chef Annie, whose French technique training is tempered by years of more rustic cooking in North Carolina and San Francisco, the combination makes for a unique dining experience.
“We have high expectations for our service staff and our kitchen staff and for our food, but we want the people to come in and expect the best but to feel comfortable with it,” she says. “If you want to lick your plate, that’s fine. We’ll be excited that you enjoyed the food.”
In only four years or so, NuLu has grown from a few spare businesses to a thriving center of art galleries, specialty shops and exquisite new American dining. All the chefs agree that it will only grow from here.
One such growth, and one few see, is the herb garden climbing the trellised wall in the back of The Green Building, where La Coop is housed. What was formerly the loading dock for this old building now has a tree growing in the middle of it, and in the far back of the plain, undeveloped space is the cooler Chef Bobby uses to keep his imported French cheeses and lobster risotto. Today, he is waiting for sea urchins, beef cheeks, and authentic polenta—some things that he can’t get in Louisville now, but he hopes he someday will. But this is the end result of eating local, and the chefs know it: buying local creates a demand and a market, and more and more farmers will respond.
I think back to my night at La Coop, lunches I’ve enjoyed at the Mayan Café, beers with local poets at Harvest, with its large portraits of local farmers, or nearby Garage, with its vintage mechanic shop feel and wood-fired pizzas. Every time, the places have been bustling with activity and energy. The chefs, for their part, harness that energy and, in return, become magnets, drawing more people into this new district where the renaissance of the city has begun. The future, it seems, is in a plate of well-tendered food, good drinks and a table of friends new and old.