The $10 Challenge: Lilly’s — A Kentucky Bistro

Photo courtesy of Southern Food Alliance via Flickr.

First, an apology to Lilly’s — A Kentucky Bistro.

I had dismissed this upscale Highlands restaurant long before my first visit this week.

Lilly’s evaded my list of future blog subjects because of my prejudices against the more tony qualities of this establishment — crisp tablecloths, reservations recommended, even an endorsement from Emeril Lagasse. This type of fine dining seemed out of my reach. I had resigned myself to the fact that my budget is more suited toward casual eateries, diners and cafés.

Lilly’s lunch menu, however, revived my faith that fine dining at affordable prices is attainable in Louisville — as long as you have time for lunch.

A midday meal is a gateway into the fancier side of eating in our fair city. Check out the lunch menus of some of the big-name restaurants — Proof on Main, Bristol Bar and Grille, and Equus & Jack’s Lounge, to name a few. A $10 bill goes a long way between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Lilly’s is no exception. The restaurant provides a respectable selection of food on its lunch menu that will please the dollar-conscious diner and provide an accurate impression of what evening meals there have to offer.

The prix fixe lunch alone is a frugal way to sample a selection of Lilly’s cuisine. During my lunch this week, the prix fixe included vichyssoise, seared ruby red trout on eggplant and sherry salad topped with gremolata, and dulce de leche cheesecake. This is three courses of food I’ve only seen on Top Chefand it was just $16.

The prix fixe and other lunch menu items combine Southern tastes with French staples. I was tempted to try the Kentucky pulled pork barbecue sandwich made with local pork piled on a pretzel bun ($9) or the crepes ($9), a savory dish of sautéed spinach, mushrooms, Gruyere cheese and shrimp.

After a chewing on a couple of slices of warm bread (it was so good, my friends and I ate two plates of it), I settled on the grilled croque-monsieur with Gruyere cheese, Béchamel sauce, Preacher Ham, caramelized onions and bacon ($8). In $10 Challenge terms, this was a fancy, hot, ham-and-cheese sandwich, a dish that began with as proudly French and ended in down-home Southern charm thanks to the addition of Kentucky ham and onions.

The taste of the croque-monsieur lingered on my mind and tongue for the rest of the work day. My infatuation began with the bread, two crunchy slices thick enough to hold the pile of pork and dairy. Then there was the salty bacon, thick cut and perfectly fatty. And the ham, salty hunks that were carefully arranged. And the onions, sweet rings of brown delight. And finally, the Bechamel, the sticky sauce that married the ingredients together into the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted. The Béchamel combined with the Gruyere and oozed from the corners of the bread and coated my mouth as I chewed. Its creaminess balanced the rough texture of the ham and bacon and took the sandwich to a level of perfection I had never experienced at lunch.

The croque-monsieur was a dream.

Unfortunately, my camera on my phone froze before I could take a picture of my dish. But no worries — I will return to Lilly’s, and I will have the croque-monsiuer again.

It turns out that I can afford another lunchtime trip. I just hope Lilly’s accepts my apology.

Lilly’s — An American Bistro, 1147 Bardstown Road, Louisville

Grilled croque-monsieur: $8

Water: $0

Total (with tax): $8.48

Mission: Accomplished

Emeril Lagasse loves Louisville, and so should you

Chef Emeril Lagasse cooks some pork chops, potato salad and cucumber cocktails during a demonstration Sunday during the Fork, Cork & Style festival at Churchill Downs.

Emeril Lagasse’s history with Louisville is as rich as the cherry cornbread pudding he created during his visit to Derby City.

The chef, TV host and creator of kickin’ it up a notch was in town Sunday for the inaugural Fork, Cork & Style festival at Churchill Downs. I had the opportunity to ask Emeril a few questions before his first cooking demonstration at the finish line of the Churchill Downs track.

In person, Emeril is more toned down than what viewers saw on Emeril Live, the show that catapulted the chef into superstardom. Instead, the Emeril I met reminded me of the man I watch on Essence of Emeril – passionate about food, but more approachable and subdued.

During my few minutes with the chef, I learned a lot about his relationship with Louisville, his charitable works and his desire to promote more farm-to-fork eating:

Emeril’s connection with Louisville goes way back. Emeril said he was on the board of Sullivan University “back in the day” (a gentleman never reveals his age, I guess). At the time, Lilly’s Bistro was the go-to spot for culinary innovation. Since then …

“Louisville has just evolved tremendously as an American city,” Emeril said. The chef, who has 12 restaurants of his own, said he is impressed with the gastronomic presence that has emerged in Louisville. The night before Fork, Cork & Style, Emeril had a meal at Proof on Main. “I felt like I was in SoHo,” he said of the restaurant.”It’s incredible what’s going on in town. There’s a lot of exciting things happening in Louisville.”

He’s never been to a Kentucky Derby. Emeril hasn’t witnessed the most exciting two minutes in sports because the race takes place during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He’s lived in New Orleans for 28 years, so I understand his allegiance.

Emeril’s favorite Kentucky dishes? Spoonbread and trout. Emeril is also a fan of bourbon, which he said he poured on his French toast that morning (just joking, right?).

Anyone can be a good cook. For chefs-in-the-making, Emeril said it is important to find a mentor, listen to their advice and taste everything you cook. Follow these tips, and “you might be able to whip up a sandwich,” he said.

Between building a cooking empire, Emeril gives back to the community. The Emeril Lagasse Foundation “supports non-profit organizations that provide educational programs, life skills development, culinary training and cultural enrichment, creating opportunities in the communities where Emeril’s restaurants operate,” according to the foundation’s website. Emeril said the foundation is in the process of buying a farm to teach kids about where their food comes from and the importance of local agriculture. “They have to know that orange juice doesn’t come from a carton, it comes from a tree,” he said.

The chef promoted farm-to-fork eating before it was trendy. Emeril said he has always been passionate about using seasonal, local ingredients at his restaurants. “If you have great ingredients, you have great food,” he said. His latest book, Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh, is a testament to his work.

3 reasons why Emeril will draw a crowd at Fork, Cork & Style

Good news: I am writing articles about local food events for Louisville.com. I’ll occasionally post articles from the website on the blog and vice versa. Here is an article that appeared Friday about celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse coming to Louisville.

Food, wine and celebrity chefs will take to the track this weekend as part of the inaugural Fork, Cork & Style event from 1 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Churchill Downs. Restaurants from across the country will offer up regional favorites that have been featured on TV shows from Man v. Food to Saturday Night Live. High-end vintners will pour the good stuff at a grand wine tasting.

But the highlight will surely be scheduled cooking demonstrations by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.

It’s been nearly two decades since Emeril debuted his first show, How to Boil Water, on the Food Network. Since then, he’s become a superstar chef with a full resume that certifies the talent behind his fame. Here are three reasons why Emeril is and will continue to be one of the best celebrity chefs:

  • He brought entertainment to the kitchen. In the heyday of Emeril Live, Emeril had a house band, celebrity guests and a full studio audience on deck just to watch him create in the kitchen. Cooking became theater, and everyone wanted a ticket.
  • He created his own cooking catchphrases. You didn’t see Julia Child yelling when she threw a palmful of spices into a pan. “Bam” and “kick it up a notch” crossed over from a Food Network soundstage into the pop culture lexicon, right up there with “bling” and “fo shizzle.”
  • He bounced back from failure. Anyone remember Emeril? This sitcom was as smelly as two-week-old buttermilk, and it was canceled after 11 episodes. But that was back in 2001. Since then, Emeril left behind the scripts and went back to the stove. The chef is now on five TV shows and one radio show, proving that his venture into comedy wasn’t the shark-jump of his television career.

For more information about Fork, Cork & Style and to buy tickets, visit the event’s website.