“Do you know a guy named Michael, um, Gristini, I think?” asked Charles Reed, chef and partner at Henry’s Place, the upscale-casual restaurant opened last month in the old Mike Best’s Meat shop on Rudy Lane.
“You mean Michael Grisanti,” I clarify, adding, “He’s one of the guys who deserves much of the credit for starting the modern restaurant scene here.”
“Oh, cool, because he really liked our food,” Reed said. “He said my pork chop was better than the one at Jack Fry’s. I took that as good.”
You are correct, Mr. Reed. Any time the man whose restaurant, the venerable Casa Grisanti, closed in 1991, says one of your dishes is better than a creation of Jack Fry’s chef Shawn Ward, that’s saying something. Even if you don’t know who he is.
Not knowing Grisanti is a forgivable slight given Reed isn’t from here.
The 50-year-old Colorado native has spent the past four decades traveling the Northern Hemisphere cooking in country clubs, hotels and on cruise ships. When visiting his sister in the River City between gigs, he got to know his brother-in-law, Pat McGinnis, who approached him a half year ago about opening Henry’s.
While he’s got a lot to learn about local faces, his culinary chops are sound.
“There was another guy who came in and looked kinda like Tom Selleck from that old show in the ‘70s (“Magnum P.I.”). He was wearing shorts and looked like he just walked off the Miami Vice set,” Reed said, adding to the long list of local restaurateurs visiting Henry’s.
When he told me “the guy owns Porcini,” I explained that the man was Tim Coury. “Oh, OK. Nice guy. I comped his desserts.”
Agostino Gabrielle (chef and co-owner of Vincenzo’s) and either Steven or Michael Ton (owners of Basa and co-owners of Doc Crow’s and La Coop) have been in the house, too, which makes clear that Henry’s is on many of his competitors’ radars. Just like local foodies, they’re also out to see what’s new.
“I’m not sure why all these restaurant people are shopping our little restaurant,” he said, “but it’s cool.”
To me, it’s obvious why they’re coming: Henry’s Place is solidly on target. Everything about it: food, service, décor, location and fundamental operating smarts. It’s a complete package from the get-go. For example, when its June opening date drew near, Reed said McGinnis (the co-founder of Trover Solutions, who sold the business in 2007) gave him a detailed spreadsheet he wanted filled out daily to track the restaurant’s progress.
“When I said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of information,’ Pat joked, ‘You don’t have to count the salt granules, Charley,’” Reed said. McGinnis’s business smarts and his ample capital have been exceedingly helpful, Reed added. “The point of that is to watch every cost so I can give him an analysis of how we’re doing. He’s even told me to spend more on certain things, but I don’t want to get carried away.”
During a recent visit (full disclosure: it was a media event, held on a normal night of business), I challenged myself to find a loose end, some overlooked detail of décor, some out of place element that screamed “Amateurs!” some contrived concoction from the kitchen that looked like the chef was trying to show off.
None could be found, at least by me. And no one at my table seemed to say much other than, “Oh, this is really good.” Subsequent visits may reveal otherwise, but the talk among the trade is it’s well ahead of the curve of a five week-old restaurant. It’s already an old soul among its peers—and well ahead of some longstanding places.
Credit Reed’s site choice with part of that achievement: an affordable building with modest rent (about $3,000 a month vs. $7,000 he was offered for a NuLu spot one-third the size) with a basement for storage and offices. It’s located on the cusp of Indian Hills (and the O’Jays sang, “Money, money, money mo-ney, MO-ney”), directly off the Watterson Expressway and has lots of parking.
Henry’s Place has a tasteful, but modest bar and a dining room that seats 80: a manageable number for a restaurant that pays attention to details, not to mention a number that’s easy to fill even on slow nights. (To wit, I spoke with Patrick Roney, chef at Avalon until it closed Sunday, who said, “The days of 300-seat independent restaurants are over. … The model that will survive for a long time is a 60 to 80 seat restaurant that keeps a small, consistent and well-trained staff, and a chef who changes the menu frequently to make keep things interesting.” I couldn’t agree more.)
While nothing Reed cooks is flashy, it’s all thoughtfully and skillfully done. His food is wrought from top-quality ingredients and exacting, Old School techniques: precise knife work, classically correct sauces, beef dry-aged in house and copper service tools where appropriate. Nice touches that don’t go unnoticed by restaurateurs like the aforementioned lot.
“Cooking that way is all I know, so that’s why I do it,” Reed said. “I don’t serve hard or soft flavors—I heard a chef talk about pan-fried fish with chilé-grape Sriracha sauce. Wow! That’s stretching and stretching, just trying to be different! Diners don’t get that! Look at their plates. They don’t eat their food.”
Termed “pan-European cuisine,” Reed’s food is born largely of American ingredients that get a French treatment in the kitchen. (Click here to see the menu.) Stocks begin with roasted animal bones reduced to demi-glazes; fish soups begin with classic fumés seasoned to varying, though delicate degrees of complexity.
“I use (American Culinary Federation) classical techniques in order to paint on a modern culinary canvas,” Reed said. “When we focus on mis en place (a French term meaning, basically, “ingredients correctly made and in place for service”), the food will always be good. … And we’re not killing them on price, either. I’m two bucks higher than Texas Roadhouse on my steak!”
Pasta is made fresh in-house from semolina flour and duck eggs (“because you get two yolks from every duck egg, and I wanted that tighter bind,” he said), chocolates are handmade, as are cookies that can be boxed to take home. His walk-in, where he butchers all his meats, is a dry-ager, not just a fridge. Again, nice touches.
An admitted hard-driving perfectionist, Reed is all smiles talking about his kitchen staff.
“I don’t know how I got so lucky, but they’re fantastic,” he said, adding a fun tale about a recent catch. When he was driving home from a rock concert in Cincinnati, he stopped at a Waffle House at 2 a.m. and saw a lone short-order cook preparing all the busy restaurant’s food. “I walked up to him and said, ‘I’ll pay you $14 an hour if you come to Louisville and work for me. You’re incredible!’ The guy came in the next day and I hired him on the spot.”
(For what it’s worth, ask any professional chef who the industry’s bad-ass cooks are, and they’ll say short order cooks. Anthony Bourdain devotes many a paragraph in “Kitchen Confidential” to the virtues of the short-order cook.)
My visit was on Monday night — a night typically duller than an hour of C-SPAN — and Henry’s Place was full for its first turn. That says something.
Well-dressed moneyed folk owned the tables, and they were sipping good cocktails, apps and entrees — definitely not the coupon crowd.
Sure, these early months mark a restaurant’s honeymoon period, when everyone wants to try “the new place” and squeezes in when they can. But this also is the same period when new restaurants commonly make mistakes as staffs gain experience—the time period I like to avoid, frankly.
So it’s one thing for me to say that, from my perch at the media table, there was no sign of that struggle at Henry’s. But it’s another completely to hear so much positive talk from industry veterans saying the same. Remember, these are people whose livelihood could suffer if their customers go to Henry’s instead of their place.
Don’t take my word for it. Go ask Michael Grisanti, Tim Coury, Agostino Gabrielle and Steven and/or Michael Ton.
I’d say they’re trustworthy.