People-watching at Porcini makes you wonder if the air conditioning at the country club petered out during dinner rush, leaving members to jump in their cars and head in a caravan to the Frankfort Avenue restaurant.
That’s neither a jab at country clubs, where I gladly go when invited, nor at Porcini, where I gladly go as often as possible.
The country club reference doesn’t mean Porcini is permeated by an exclusivity that causes staff to whisk away the welcome mat when they see a not-so-preppy, non-regular customer come to the door. In fact, despite the well-heeled crowd in studied casual dress, Porcini pulls off an egalitarian camaraderie that has been a pleasingly infectious Louisville phenomenon for almost 25 years.
If I were executive chef John Plymale, I would more frequently escape the kitchen to go into the dining room to be hugged and kissed by fans who might toss aside their menus and put their plates in his hands to do whatever he wanted.
Plymale isn’t a flashy, self-promoting chef, so he doesn’t have the high visibility enjoyed by a few chefs who are considered the local crème de la crème. But, he’s one of the city’s most talented, accomplished chefs. His menu is diverse and well-balanced, and his cooking is nuanced and flawlessly executed.
That he uses guanciale (just think Italian bacon), Gruyere and brown butter in one dish places him solidly on a pedestal of delicious excess in my mind. Those feed-yourself-with-indulgence ingredients are combined with heavenly sweet potato gnocchi and roasted sweet potatoes in the Gnocchi Gratinata ($12).
Other antipasto are equally teasing: Tortelloni alla Matriciana ($11), cheese stuffed tortelloni with prosciutto, mushrooms and tomato cream sauce; Bruschetta con Funghi ($10), wild mushrooms, caramelized shallots and fontina on grilled garlic bread; and Capasante ($14), seared scallops with braised greens, polenta cakes and sweet and spicy pepper jam.
Lest you believe I like only food that the dietary police would put under lock and key, I’m here to tell you Porcini’s Mista Elevata ($8) puts healthy and fresh on its own pedestal. The salad is chock full of kale, toasted pistachios, shaved Brussels sprouts and sun-dried cranberries. (There is pancetta in the salad, but as long as you hide it under the Brussels sprouts, it shouldn’t count as a health demerit.)
I refuse to eat Penne Carbonara ($20) that has chicken, sun-dried tomato pesto and tomato cream sauce. That isn’t Carbonara. It’s pasta with chicken, sun-dried tomato pesto and tomato cream sauce. I don’t doubt that Plymale turns out a very nice dish when he adds pancetta and peas, but that won’t prevent me from ranting about the permutation to the classic dish.
His Linguini Gamberi Palermo ($24) is a flavor boost of grilled shrimp, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and basil. I’m not forgetting the garlic. Neither did he. There was a moderated touch that accented everything else without leading the way.
For me, a not-too-sweet sauce is the hallmark of outstanding chicken Marsala. The silky, full-bodied sauce of Porcini’s Pollo al Marsala ($22) brought out the best in the earthy mushrooms and chicken breast. On its own, a chicken breast can be a bland, beg for flavor. In this dish, the chicken was succulent and tender. Mashed potatoes were exquisitely gravied up by the sauce.
The menu features four other pastas ($18 to $24), five pizzas ($14 to $24) and other entrées such as veal scallopine, New York strip, grilled lamb chops, grilled veal rib chop and smoked bacon-wrapped filet, ranging from $24 to $39.
Desserts (prices vary) change frequently. On the night we were at Porcini, the dessert headliner was Torta di Formaggio. I succumbed to the double delivery of peanut butter cheesecake under crumbled peanut brittle.
Throughout dinner, which was unhurried and relaxing, I couldn’t help notice that some tables were dressed with cloths; others were bare. Finally, I asked our server about the difference.
“If you want a table cloth, you have to call ahead and ask for one,” he said. Surely, I had misunderstood. I asked him to repeat himself. He repeated the ridiculous policy. Now you know what only the restaurant’s regular patrons know. At Porcini, there are linen haves and have-nots. I left fuming over such half star-cutting stupidity, but upon reflection, my reaction softened. Barely.
You’ll see here that Porcini is a four-star restaurant. That’s because of chef Plymale’s superb food and my evolved, liberal tolerance of the linen absurdity.
Reach restaurant critic Nancy Miller at email@example.com.