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Louisville Steps Out of Its Comfort Zone

By Jeffrey Urquhart

Comfort food has come to mean goodies like grits and smoked pork shoulder. But drop by bourbon country nowadays and you’ll find your collard greens nestled next to octopus bacon and napa kimchi.

Kentucky’s Louisville is ground zero for a new brand of progressive comfort fare, one that evokes the traditional trimmings of the South while working within the less stuffy idiom of the gastropub.

Visitors to chef Edward Lee’s recently opened MilkWood, for example, can sample atypical ingredients from a small-plates menu organized not by course but by cooking method (low ‘n’ slow, from the skillet), while knocking back a shot of black truffle–infused bourbon.

Lee, who helmed the city’s 610 Magnolia for years before a run on Top Chef Texas, has witnessed Louisville’s palate evolution firsthand.

“Nine years ago, when I first took over 610, it was: ‘I hear the food is different; I’m not sure I want to go,’” he says. “Now people say, ‘I hear the food there is different; I can’t wait to try it.’” Lee describes MilkWood as “a modern take on Southern comfort food with an Asian pantry.” Translation: Vietnamese lamb sausage with heirloom grits and green tomato relish, or a crispy-skin duck for two dressed with an apricot-spiked hoisin sauce.

(Bartender Doug pours a drink at Rye)

Look elsewhere and you’ll find Rye head chef William Tyler Morris offering a bone-in pork loin with smoked yams and green kale. At their new joint, Game, the team behind popular gastropub Hammerheads goes high-end with elk and wild boar burgers, available with a foie gras topping. And San Francisco chef Annie Pettry brings a West Coast sensibility to the New American fare at Decca, which showcases premium ingredients from local farms. Her braised pork cheeks with rutabaga and pistachio? Glorious.

Of course, you’re still in bourbon country, so expect the same nasty hangover. The food you’ll eat to cure it, though, will be better than ever.

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