Ward 426 is now open at the corner of Baxter and Lexington.
Ward 426 is now open at the corner of Baxter and Lexington. | Photo by Steve Coomes

It happened.

Finally!

The long-awaited, twice delayed opening of Ward 426 actually occurred at 11 a.m. Monday, though you may not have known it. Other than a Facebook post, there wasn’t an announcement of its doors swinging wide — a move likely designed to allow its staff a chance to practice feeding smaller crowds before the big ones come.

And they will.

The extreme makeover of what for decades was The Brewery ended with a flourish on Nov. 30, when 80 guests attended a private dinner toasting the yeoman’s toil of owners Dean Corbett, Nirmesh Agrawal and Shawn Ward. The space they visited was no longer a sports bar cluttered with wide-screen TVs, and what they ate wasn’t tater tots or chicken wings.

Guests saw a dramatic reconfiguration and redecoration of the space by Bittners, a clean, well-lighted place with simple, modern furniture, an off-white and black color scheme, bare wooden tables and beautifully restored wood floors, a blend of austerity and elegance. Though the enormous wood bar itself wasn’t touched, just the careful arrangement of top-shelf liquor bottles along its mirrored back reflected deliberate effort.

The striking bar inside Ward 426 | Photo by Steve Coomes
The striking bar inside Ward 426 remains intact. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

When the new owners took over The Brewery in April, they believed a new menu and some simple tweaks to the setting was all it needed.

Unfortunately, executive chef Shawn Ward’s food was strikingly out of place in a sports bar — so discordant within that setting that guests came but didn’t return.

So instead of diminishing Ward’s intentional and thoughtful food to fit the sports bar, the partners sought to remake the building in a way that honored it. That effort required a large but unspecified six-figure investment into new plumbing, wiring, an exterior paint job, a completely redesigned dining room and expanded kitchen that surely is the envy of many local chefs.

Power Creative was hired to create a re-imaging campaign that would feature Ward’s prominent name as one of Louisville’s best regarded chefs, and the 18-year veteran of Jack Fry’s Restaurant got free rein to create a signature lineup of upscale-casual contemporary American dishes.

“We knew that’s where we had to go, to showcase Shawn’s food,” said Dean Corbett, investor partner in the restaurant and owner of Corbett’s and Equus. Unmistakably, Ward 426’s look and feel was heavily influenced by Corbett’s other property, the red-hot St. Matthews watering hole and nosh spot, Jack’s Lounge. “None of us could’ve gone the other way for long. This kind of restaurant is in our DNA.”

The main dining area is broken up into three spaces: a center room of large and small tables, a couch-filled lounge area and a stretch of dining tables near the bar. An auxiliary dining area lies between the front room and the outdoor deck in back and seats about 20. According to co-owner and front of the house manager Nirmesh Agrawal, the front of the house seats only about 80 customers, half the number crammed inside the same space during The Brewery’s run.

The small dining room | Photo by Steve Coomes
The small dining room | Photo by Steve Coomes

“We wanted it to be comfortable,” Agrawal said. “When we first did the lounge area up front by the windows, when it was still The Brewery, people didn’t seem to want to sit up there. I have a feeling it will be the best place to sit now.”

The new kitchen required a complete retooling and expansion. To equip it, Corbett searched the used equipment market and found a single-stop treasure trove of nearly new, top-of-the-line culinary tech toys for pros. He wouldn’t disclose where he got them, “but everything you see came from one place that didn’t need this kind of equipment anymore. It was one of the luckiest finds I’ve had in my career.”

Ward’s not only happy to have such equipment at his disposal, he’s thrilled to be cooking again, something he’s not done within the space in almost two months. The changeover began with a September shutdown that owners expected would end in a few weeks. But the kitchen reconfiguration alone revealed significant wiring and water issues that pushed that deadline well into October … and then November.

“We realized we were in deep,” Corbett said, “but since we’d gone that far, we figured the best thing was to keep going and do it right.”

While Ward’s menu does feature shrimp and grits, arguably his signature dish at Jack Fry’s, little else echoes the lineup served at that city standard. Ingredients and dishes draw from classic French, Mediterranean and even Latin traditions reshaped by Ward into hybridized American treats.

Chicken & the Egg combines a soft-boiled egg, confit, chicken wings and a garlic puree, while the Scallop Ceviche combines persimmon puree and forbidden rice on the same plate. There are entrees of roast rabbit, lamb and barramundi, a six-item vegetarian menu — even country ham and Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheese tasting menus.

Asked about the importance given the menu’s vegetarian offerings, Ward said he’s more than willing to placate the growing number of diners who want more than a slapdash grilled vegetable plate.

“There are more people who eat that way than ever, and I want to be prepared for them, ready to give them something good rather than something thrown together in a hurry,” he said.

His answers to that growing demand include a delicately assembled Ratatouille, spinach pasta tossed in a browned butter vinaigrette with mushrooms and eggplant, and a sturdy salad of farro, kasha, steel-cut oats, pumpkin, granola, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.

The dessert list alone is worth the visit for its inclusion of an olive oil cake with browned-butter pears and pomegranate coulis, Ward’s twist on s’mores, plus homemade ice cream flavors of roasted banana and Dreamsicle.

With drinks, dinner including appetizers, entrées and desserts can easily exceed $100 per couple. But no one says you have to eat that much if you’d like to spend less.

“We really wanted to make a statement with our food, and Shawn’s done that, done it in spades,” Corbett said.

That Jack’s is so successful as a casual spot where guests can order from Equus’s menu convinced Corbett and his partners there was more demand for something similar across town.

“After Jack Fry’s, Ward is the last stop before you get to food of that quality until you get to NuLu,” he said. “I really think it’ll stand out.”

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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.