I recently visited my folks in my old hometown of Louisville, Ky., and was pleasantly surprised to learn how the city’s culinary offerings have begun to take off. For too long, the River City seemed to rely on old-fashioned Southern traditions — and little else — to feed its citizens. You still find the city’s favorite local creation, the Hot Brown, turkey and bacon slathered with a mornay sauce, not to mention the meat stew burgoo on many menus, but you can also find a more diverse array of ethnic options and a growing number of places with exciting, inventive menus.
At the forefront of this growth is Edward Lee, James Beard Award nominee and author of the hot new cookbook, “Smoke and Pickles” Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” (Artisan, $29.95). Sure, it capitalizes on the trend of honoring Southern cuisine, and Lee offers a host of decidedly different dishes with a dash of humor, such as his Bourbon-and-Coke Meatloaf Sandwich. But he takes it a step further by merging old favorites with a Korean touch that comes from his upbringing. (His recipe for Grilled Kalbi is below.)
I had met Lee briefly when he was in San Antonio to film “Top Chef Texas” a couple of years ago. He was serving up pickles with a bowl of chili, which isn’t traditional, to say the least, but it worked surprisingly well. His main restaurant, 610 Magnolia, was where I had dinner on prom night, though that was decades before Lee bought the place and took it to even greater culinary heights.
Given all that, I was interested in seeing what he was up to on his own turf. The weekend I was there, the local paper, the Courier-Journal, ran a review of his second restaurant, MilkWood, which opened in the cellar area the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was a homecoming of sorts, because I had spent a lot of time in that venerated theater when I was high school, as both a patron and a volunteer.
I make an early reservation, so early that I found myself nearly alone in the cool, relatively dim interior. I slid onto a comfortable banquette and slipped into Lee’s menu of “comfort bar food with an Asian pantry,” as he calls it on the theater’s website.
The fun started with an umami cocktail that featured a lively blend of chartreuse and lemon with a seaweed sheet crumbled on top. The end result filled my mouth with a welcome mix of sweet-tart-salty that was great by itself but also went well with my dinner.
The parade of dishes started with a pair of Southern favorites upended in style.
Lee got chicken and waffles right by finding the right balance between sweet and spicy, which is what gave the traditional dish its appeal. It’s also where most other chefs get it wrong: They’re afraid of the heat, so they omit it, leaving an unappealing, sticky mess on the place. Lee’s version is actually more like a salad with nuggets of fried chicken sprinkled with sesame seeds before they were tossed with waffle bites and a garnish of tomatoes, cilantro and radish over a buttermilk ranch-type sauce.
At almost the same time, a plate of rock shrimp sausage and buttery Texas toast arrived. I could image this as a shrimp sandwich, only one that the chef somehow rearranged on the plate with the sausage on the outside of the plate, the bread at the center, and an Asian slaw scattered about.
I had planned on making a meal of small plates. Another contender from the menu paired smashed potatoes with something called octopus bacon, which a waiter explained to me was octopus with all the water pressed out of it and then cured like bacon. Sounded great, except I can’t have the potatoes.
I was questioning my move when I heard the waiter address a group of six people who had been seated across the aisle from me. He politely explained the vegetarian options on the menu and finished by saying that the smashed potatoes could be ordered without the octopus.
I left my food bubble and noticed that several of the people sitting at the table were wearing robes. It led me to think they were recently arrived from the Dalai Lama’s appearance, which I had heard was taking place at a nearby convention center.
I didn’t give it a second thought because my plate of caramelized scallops with pork belly arrived. The fat, juicy scallops had been seared until the tops and bottoms were lightly crispy, while the salty pork belly added a fatty unctuousness of a different texture to the plate.
I looked up while enjoying it to see the man in the center of the table opposite me watching me for a moment while I ate. He was smiling at me and continued to do so for a moment until he rejoined the conversation going on around him. I didn’t give it a second thought until I saw the front page of the next morning’s paper: That had been the Dalai Lama sitting across from me. And I hadn’t a clue.
Go figure. I was more absorbed in Lee’s culinary transcendence. It’s not the first time that’s happened. I doubt it will be the last.
Fans of Korean food know how good the traditional grilled short ribs, known as kalbi, can be. Edward Lee’s shares his family recipe in “Smoke and Pickles”:
“It took me forever to get this recipe from my mom. She doesn’t write down measurements, so whenever I asked for a recipe, she’d say something like, ‘Add a little bit of this and just enough of that.’ But even without a recipe, her kalbi always tastes the same, and it’s always a treat to have her make it versus eating it at a restaurant. I guess that’s just a mother’s touch. Finally, to get her recipe, I had to sit and watch her make it, taking notes as she mixed her ingredients together. Nowadays, I make this when my friends want traditional-style kalbi. And I’ve stopped using measuring cups, too. The marinade keeps well, so you can make it in advance to save time.”
1 1/2 cups soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup mirin (sweet rice wine)
1/2 cup Asian sesame oil
1 small onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
A small knob of ginger, grated (use a microplane)
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 pounds bone-in English cut short ribs, cut about 1/2-inch thick (you can have your butcher do this)
Cooked white or brown rice
Napa cabbage kimchi
To make the marinade, combine the soy sauce, sugar, brown sugar, mirin, sesame oil, onion, garlic, ginger, scallions, sesame seeds and red pepper flakes in a blender and pulse to a chunky purée; you want a little texture. (The marinade can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.)
Layer the short ribs in a casserole, pouring some of the marinade over each layer and making sure every rib is nicely covered. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or for as long as overnight.
Remove the ribs from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature.
Prepare a very hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill; a quick char is what you want here.
Grill the ribs for about two minutes on each side until charred on the outside but still a touch rare in the middle. Serve with the rice and the kimchi.
Note: The grilling part of this recipe is key. You really have to watch the ribs because, depending on the thickness of the meat, it can overcook in seconds. You can broil these, if you do not have a grill, but be mindful, because the broiler can also quickly overcook them.
Makes 6 to 8 servings as a main course.
From “Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” by Edward Lee