I had the pleasure of attending a media preview event for the soon-to-open Butchertown Grocery on a recent, sunny Tuesday afternoon. I pulled up to the curb at East Washington and Buchanan Streets, curious to see what was hiding behind the large, paper-covered, brick-encased windows of one of Butchertown’s most notable buildings. Word had just been released of the partners behind the intended restaurant slated to inhabit this ample structure, an unexpected cast of characters made up of a chef, lawyer and famous musician. And while this grouping of unique minds may not seem like the most typical of Louisville restaurant foundations, I would soon learn that the premise of Butchertown Grocery, this newly minted restaurant, was anything but status quo.
The familiar airiness of the building greeted me upon entry, light streaming in—despite the window coverings—and spilling onto the miniature black-and-white tiles dotting the floor. With Bittners at the helm of the design, the concept was to embrace what was existing in the space versus what wasn’t there, shades of gray soothing in tone without overpowering the eye. Directly to the right of the door is a vast brick wall emblazoned with an homage to the building’s historic tenant, Gunkel’s Grocery. This new mural serves as the backdrop for the bar and is where I found the brains behind the operation, Chef Bobby Benjamin, political lawyer Jon Salomon and Patrick Hallahan, famed drummer for the beloved My Morning Jacket. Each took time to tell us about themselves, what brought them to this project and why it has become a passion bordering on obsession.
Themes of collaboration and marriage began weaving their way into the conversations, the multitude of odds and ends making up this project all binding together in what they believe will be a cohesive experience. Whether it is the pairing of food and drink, the clear affinity the partners with vastly different backgrounds have for one another, or the anticipated synergy between the guests and their Butchertown Market experience, all elements have been poured over, picked apart and reconstructed into something that promises to be special.
Post introductions, our tour began in the kitchen, a semiopen space that is sure to fill the main dining room with tempting scents. I found myself happily familiar with several of the dishes we sampled, the dollop of freezingly addictive bleu cheese ice cream atop a pecan salad and the over-the-top, piping hot escargot, transporting my taste buds back to Le Coop, Chef Bobby’s most recent stomping grounds (closed January 2015). When the familiarity of these dishes is mentioned, Bobby is quick to point out that these ingredients have been in his culinary arsenal for years, the salad following him since he was 26 years old. This isn’t to say he doesn’t intend to change things up and he has plans in store for that ice cream, after tasting a jalapeno bleu cheese from Kentucky-based Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese.
Plenty of original menu items are highlighted as well, some of which will be restaurant mainstays and others that will rotate with the seasons, as sourcing locally is a value Bobby embraces. When I asked him what menu item he is most excited about, he offered a large smile and shook his head. A seemingly impossible question to answer, he said he is really excited to dig into making things from scratch, handcrafting pasta, gnocchi and charcuterie, while experimenting with his custom-built rotisserie where he plans to—among other delicious ideas—wrap the spit with housemade dough, butter and spices to create what will have to be very best “Cinnabon” experience in the city. Additional samples of decadent seared foie gras served with banana French toast, pillowy, hand-rolled gnocchi with shiitake mushrooms, and a sweet blueberry buckle with vanilla ice cream were served, offering a taste of what Butchertown Grocery has in store for its diners.
In keeping with the theme of collaboration, the cocktail program has been designed to pay homage to the classics, while remaining understated enough as to not overpower the food, which is the focal point above all else, stressed the Butchertown Grocery partners. Two libations were stirred for us. The first was a refreshing and purposefully light Americano, consisting of delightfully bitter Campari, sweet vermouth and club soda. The second was more dramatic on the palate and offered a bit of a surprise: the apertif Bonal blended with Quills Coffee espresso-infused Cynar, lemon juice and club soda. While the espresso made a considerable statement, there was a balance to the drink only found when crafted by a master of the cocktail. Butchertown Grocery has found its cocktail master in Marie Zahn, beverage director. Marie is developing one of the most exciting elements of the restaurant, the bespoke cocktail program, where guests will be offered a list of fresh ingredients, along with spirits and general flavor descriptors, from which they choose the preferred elements of their drinks. Every cocktail will be custom, a creation between bartender and guest, fostering yet another happy marriage at Butchertown Grocery. Guests will also be offered custom dining experiences via the chef’s table being installed, a bar made from reclaimed Whisky Row wood, large enough to seat 12 patrons.
Our tour continued to the second level, accessible via a staircase on the exterior of the building or by a new lift installed just around the side. This is where things begin to take an exciting turn, food still at the heart of the space (late-night goodies like chicken biscuits, beignets and ham plates will be available until well past the midnight hour), but the creative nature of the partners’ intentions becomes clear. The main space is open and airy, in keeping with the vibe of the first level restaurant, but it is decidedly more cozy, which is exactly what is intended. “We want this to be like your living room,” shares Patrick, “a place where you can come to chill, to hear good music or to watch a comedian.” Indeed, the heart of the second level is in the desire to give back to the community through artistic performances of all kinds, be it live music, spoken word or standup. Patrick likens his concept for this space to Largo in Los Angeles, and is excited to see it take shape in an organic manner, noting that the acoustics are fantastic and he expects artists to take up residence there, performing regularly for specific periods of time. Jon shared that Patrick is very good at creating experiences and they believe this addition to the Butchertown neighborhood is important. Jon is the driver behind the community outreach aspect of Butchertown Grocery and helped launch the social action arm of the business, B.S.A.P.C., which stands for Butchertown Social Aid and Pleasure Club, under which they will give back to Louisville in the form of arts and cultural promotion, among other causes.
Scheduled to open next month, there is still plenty to be done within the varied walls of Butchertown Grocery, and it appears that an all-hands-on-deck approach will be required if they are to meet this deadline. However, it seems that collaboration and cohesion just may be these partners’ specialty. We can’t wait to see, taste and hear the final product.
Butchertown Grocery is located at 1076 E. Washington St., Louisville. It is set to open on November 18.