2014-champagne-new-year-backgroundI talk a lot with people about what they like and don’t like about restaurant food and drink, and inevitably, the issue often comes down to timidity. Somebody’s grossed out by this food or has bad memories of (over-consuming) that liquor. Or they think of restaurant meals as fuel rather than entertainment and have convinced themselves that Pizza Hut is every bit as good as Coal’s and costs half the price.

Ugh. Such conversations make me wish I’d practiced taking fake cell phone calls so I could bail out and find someone else to talk with.

A lesson my 15-year-old is finally learning is this: Good things come to those who experiment at the dinner table. Sadly, too few adults apply that advice to their own lives and, consequently, they miss out on really delicious food and drink.

In a city loaded with options!

When I see jam-packed chain-restaurant parking lots, it’s safe to assume too few people like venturing out for unique food, something they haven’t had or couldn’t cook at home. Some equate going to the town’s more interesting restaurants and bars as unsettling, a trip into the unknown where food might not be predictable or, worse, not discounted by a coupon.

If you’re one of those types, don’t feel badly. You can overcome your food and drink fears in 2014 by making a resolution to support local restaurants and bars and try something new. Broaden your palate with new flavors and discover what all the fuss is about, i.e. why national press and Food Network shows are coming here to explore one of our town’s marquis industries.

It won’t cost much; you can try just one new thing a month. You’ll have no shortage of people to join you and you just might end up having fun.

Below are eight suggestions I think make a good starting point.

1. Belly up to a multi-course wine dinner. If you’ve ever wondered whether one of these feasts is worth the expense, time and one-day-only destruction of your health and fitness goals, then wonder no more. They are, so just find one and go.

Glasses of Red and White Wine
Try a multi-course wine dinner

Some are amazingly affordable, such as those put on at least monthly at Varanese for around $65. Trust me, you go to one there and you’ll wonder how chef-owner John Varanese makes any money off them (he’s assured me he does).

Asiatique hosts some great ones as well. If you’re like most people who know little about pairing wine with Asian food, you’ll learn a lot here.

Corbett’s moves the price needle up a bit for its wine dinners, but the service and surroundings make it worth the nickel. Put the English Grill in this category as well.

Some that feature pricier wines can cost $125 per person, but ahh, well, sometimes you just gotta do it.

If you decide to go, be wise and secure alternative transportation home. (We regularly pay students in our neighborhood $30 to drop us off and pick us up.) Not only will you be tasting several wines, the evenings can run a bit long and fatigue can set in.

2. If you haven’t tried sushi, get some chopsticks and buck up. Sushi and sashimi are amazing, edible works of art, and Louisville has a more-than-ample supply of great places to get it.

California rolls sushi
Don’t fear the sushi

If you want to wade in to tasting the sea’s best, then start with cooked pieces. No shame in ordering a California roll or vegetable roll, the training wheels of sushi eating. Part of the learning curve is becoming familiar with those textures of rice and nori (compressed seaweed that holds most sushi rolls together) in order to move to spicy tuna or salmon rolls.

Sit at the sushi bar and tell the chefs you’re new to the game but that you want to learn. Good ones love matching options to customers’ preferences. Bring a sushi-loving friend who can guide you.

(If that person tricks you into ordering sea urchin, that person officially sucks. Uncool.)

The sushi bar is the best seat in the house anyway because you get to see the chefs make it.

No, I’m not recommending you tackle sashimi (thin slices of fresh raw fish served on warm rice) just yet. Work your way up to that. Trust me, you’ll get there and wonder what took you so long.

Go to Tokyo (on Lime Kiln Lane) for excellent traditional sushi, or try Wild Ginger for the rule-breaking stuff. Somewhere in the middle is Sapporo (the one on Bardstown Road is far better than the Fourth Street location).

3. Learn to drink bourbon like a pro. No, not by doing shots. You’re past such frat house stupidity. Did you forget that it practically ruined you on drinking for good?

Do this at home: Pour an ounce of good bourbon into a rocks glass and let it sit a few minutes. Swirl it a bit like you would wine to release its aromas, and sniff gently to capture all that invisible goodness you’ve kept hidden beneath Coke and ginger ale.

Then sip just a bit and let it roll around your mouth for at least 10 seconds and swallow slowly. And then wait to see what other flavors emerge.

Repeat the step above without adding ice or even water. Sipping this way gives you the truest expression of the spirit, which will deliver vanilla, caramel and citrus notes through the smoky overtones. Good stuff, no?

If you need a cube or two of ice or a couple drops of water, add them, swirl it a bit and then see what else appears.

Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau Urban Bourbon Trail 2009
Bourbon: Hold the Coke

4. Tell the chef, “Surprise me!” Seriously. The next time you go to a chef-driven restaurant, tell the server to keep your menu because you’d like the chef to choose three or four courses for you.

Be honest and tell him you hate foie gras or that shellfish will send you into anaphylactic shock, but otherwise let the tall toque choose for you and see what comes to the table. Not only will every course be a revelation, chefs who have time (meaning this is likely best done on slower nights) will create some one-off dishes that aren’t on the menu. There’s almost no way to make dining more adventurous than this.

If your server is super wine-savvy, let him choose a pairing for each course. Tell him a paired cocktail would be cool also, if appropriate.

You really want to go big? Get a reservation for the annual Lights Out Dinner at The Mayan Café. The entire meal is eaten blindfolded. It. Is. A. Blast!

5. Go to restaurants where English is the staff’s second language. Some of the city’s best Mexican food is found on the south side of town near where Preston and Outer Loop intersect. But few reading this blog have ever gone there because: 1. they’re lazy Louisville drivers who think a 15-minute ride is a journey (my hand is raised); 2. they think Bardstown Road is the be-all, end-all restaurant strip; or 3. they’re terrified of going to a restaurant where they’re the only ones speaking English.

No need to fear. You can hardly screw up at these places because ALL the food is good and absurdly affordable. OK, you might need to steer clear of menudo (tripe stew) at Mexican places, but by and large, all else is delicious. You could darn near point blindly at menu items and be guaranteed good grub.

Same for great Asian spots like Vietnam Kitchen, where most of the food is featured in color pictures.

6. Learn to drink tequila like a pro. Only the ignorant lick salt from their paws and shoot tequila. (Yep, calling myself out here, too—moron—did that a few decades ago.)

81240050376
Casa Noble Blanco Tequila

Start with good tequila, which means only those made from 100 percent blue agave. Milagro silver is a bargain at $24 a bottle. Casa Noble Blanco is even better at $32.

Pour an ounce in a small wine glass or champagne flute and let it rest a few minutes, then swirl vigorously like you would wine. If you have one of those snazzy spirits aerators, use it.

Just as with bourbon, sniff gently and take in the aromas; do it at least a few times. Then take a small sip and let it roll around your mouth. Good tequila will put forth some peppermint/spearmint, citrus accents, cinnamon, maybe some background honey (which is really cooked agave) and some barrel notes (such as caramel) if it’s a reposado or añejo.

If you like bourbon and you’re trying good añejo, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Dang, this tastes kind of like bourbon!” because most aged tequilas get extended rests in used bourbon barrels.

Unlike bourbon, however, there’s no need to add ice or water. Room temperature tequila is perfect—no brilliant—on its own.

Distilled-Spirits-Epicenter
Distilled Spirits Epicenter

7. Take a spirits course at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter. For heaven’s sake, you’re in Bourbon Country, so you’re expected to know at least something about Kentucky’s native booze. Even if you’re a teetotaler you should at least be able to make conversation about it with your tippling friends and business colleagues. It’s just like a visitor to Louisville expecting guidance on horse race betting: they expect you know that game and bourbon, too.

The bourbon courses at DSE are always sell-outs, but they recently held a—gasp!—gin class that was excellent. (Heck, we even made our own gin, and the thing cost just $29.) These classes are a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

8. Spend a day eating and drinking in Germantown. Bardstown Road, NuLu, Clifton, all good. But Germantown has become the new fun food and drink frontier.

Just park your car and set off on an all-day progressive dining and drinking experience. Share some nibbles and a beer here, some more nibbles and a cocktail there. No hurry, no worry, all relaxed.

Between Eiderdown and Hammerheads on the higher end, Four Pegs and The Comeback Inn in the middle, and Check’s Café and the Nachbar on the lower end (and we’re leaving out many more stops in between) it’s hard to beat a day in a neighborhood with so much to offer with so little effort.

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.