Pool tables to the left, dining tables to the right. That's the layout of the game center cum restaurant known as The Hub in Clifton. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Pool tables to the left, dining tables to the right. That’s the layout of the restaurant cum game center known as The Hub in Clifton. | Photo by Steve Coomes

It’s been a busy week for Louisville-area food writers. Openings, new menu intros, special events, you name it. So much that I and some colleagues had to turn down at least one event because of schedule conflicts. Too much of a good thing for sure, but it definitely beat cooking at home.

Monday: Before Clifton’s newest restaurant, The Hub, opened officially on Wednesday, Jan. 20, owners Talmage Collins and Eric Wentworth hosted a Monday soft opening for a handful of reporters, swells and their lucky guests. Just walking around the rambling 6,300-square-foot space was enough to burn off a few calories after a dandy meal.

Modern and spacious, industrial yet comfortable sums it up. Seating combines metal chairs and padded, high-backed yellow leather booths, while standing room is ample for this restaurant-cum-game center.

The Hub's brined spicy chicken wings. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The Hub’s brined spicy chicken wings | Photo by Steve Coomes

The building is essentially divided into thirds. The left third is a game room with three pool tables, a large tabletop shuffleboard game and a jukebox. The far right third is a traditional, casual sit-down restaurant with a large private dining space. And in the middle is the bar area, which could probably hold 90 people were they fine with standing. According to our table’s opinion, this likely will occur.

“I think they’re going to be packed here when it really gets going,” my friend said. “Only issue they’ll have is parking.”

True, true, especially when the place is surrounded by restaurants and residents already battling for spots. At least The Hub is attempting to address the problem by providing $5 valet parking. Where those autos go, I don’t know.

Food (click here for a menu) and cocktails were delicious. Executive chef Jeff Brantley has created an incredibly approachable gastropub menu that’s big on flavor, long on protein and, for the most part, can be eaten with your hands if you’re so inclined. (I say such relaxed dining fits well in a casual bar.) Prices average about $10-$12 per plate.

The Brined (and fried) Chicken Wings were delicious, and the Quail Saltimbocca was a savory delight. Braised Short Rib Poutine disappointed no one, and the Buttermilk Pie and Chocolate Cheese were rich, but not cloying. The ample portions on our five small plates were more than two of us could manage. We wanted to finish every bite, but couldn’t. Count us as eager to return for more.

Wednesday: Unlike some chefs who announce new menus with a press release, Bistro 1860 executive chef Michael Crouch went big by inviting about 25 scribes and lucky guests to try the new lineup for themselves.

Fried pig's ear with pear and arugula. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Fried pig’s ear with pear and greens | Photo by Steve Coomes

The simply spoken and frank chef told guests, “I’ve invited this group tonight because you’re all people who support my restaurant. … And if you like the food, tell me. If not, just lie to me.”

Known for its three-tier menu featuring bite-size, appetizer and entrée portions, Crouch sent the group 10 bite-size courses that included fresh oysters, lamb tartare, crab cakes, fried pig’s ear (yep, he did), 72-hour braised short rib, marlin sashimi and much more. There’s nothing like having one’s palate dazzled with such variety yet without the cost of over-stretching the stomach.

Though my photos don’t do his food justice, Crouch’s cuisine is as dazzling visually as it is on the palate. Check out his Facebook page if interested.

Oh, and as expected, no one had to lie about the food to him, but thankfully, he didn’t ask me about the pig’s ear. I nearly ate every cut of pork, but ears … not my thing.

Pappardelle pasta with shaved black truffle. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Crouch’s pappardelle pasta with shaved black truffle | Photo by Steve Coomes

PS: Service was amazing. Great staff. It’s not easy serving a bunch of well-watered diners over the course of nearly four hours, but the Bistro’s team was friendly, fantastic and efficient.

Thursday: To celebrate being the first Indiana restaurant to receive a private barrel bottling from Old Forester, The Exchange Pub + Kitchen hosted a special dinner for about 50 guests who — again — included some press, fans of the restaurant and fortunate hangers-on. Co-owner Ian Hall said the scramble to reserve those seats was so instant that another Old Forester dinner has been scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m. (Call 812-948-6501 if you want to go.)

“We knew it was a big deal to be the first in Indiana to get a barrel, and a lot of other people did, too,” Hall said.

As you’d expect, the four-course menu featured tastes of the Exchange’s private barrel selection, in addition to cocktails and foods flavored with the historic bourbon. Featured guest and Old Forester master distiller Chris Morris talked about the selection process and the flavor individuality of each barrel selection.

The Old Forester Room at The Exchange pub + kitchen. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The Old Forester Room at The Exchange Pub + Kitchen | Photo by Steve Coomes

“Demand is so high for these right now that it takes at least a year to get one,” Morris said. The contents of the chosen barrel are lowered to 90 proof, which was founder George Garvin Brown’s preferred proof. “The flavors that lead in some barrels are wood driven, in others, spice driven, in others fruit driven. That uniqueness is what makes choosing just one so special.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve had several Old Forester single barrel picks in the past two years that did nothing for me — and I’m a big fan of Old Forester Signature. This one, however, was quite good, packing lots of spice and caramel yet with zero burn.

Morris also told fans to expect three new Whiskey Row expressions to come out in 2016. Currently the lineup includes the 1897 Bottled-In-Bond and the 1870 Original Batch.

If you’ve not been to The Exchange, you need to. It’s a looker of a spot. Hall, wife Nikki and New Albany real estate developer Steve Resch created the look based on the Halls’ restaurant experience and photos of unique restaurants taken by Resch while traveling.

Combining industrial, resto-historical and distressed looks, its main dining room is wide open, has an open kitchen and a soaring ceiling that allows a glimpse into its second story opening dining room.

The Exchange's spicy mussels seviche with ginger brittle. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The Exchange’s spicy mussels seviche with ginger brittle | Photo by Steve Coomes

A new addition, where the dinner was held, has its own bar and is walled on two sides by retractable, glass garage-style doors. Not surprisingly, Hall wants to name the space The Old Forester Room. Nice touch.

If you’ve already seen and like this Hall-Resch collaboration, you’ll be glad to know they’ve almost completed their second work, Brooklyn & The Butcher, set to open Valentine’s Day.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.