This article appears in the May 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
It’s hard to imagine a place truer to the “neighborhood restaurant” concept than Hammerheads. Walkers ambling down Swan Street stop out front to chat and, if the picnic tables near the massive curbside smoker aren’t occupied, take a seat and grab a drink. Those who descend the front stairs into the belowground restaurant greet others with easy familiarity, perching at the long bar or captaining a table with an implied air of ownership.
“There are older people who’ve told us they came here in the 1950s, when it was the Dugout,” says Adam Burress, who co-owns Hammerheads with Chase Mucerino. The veteran chefs both logged time at Seviche, Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse and Blu Italian Grille before venturing out on their own last December. “A lot of the people you see hanging outside are friends of ours, and that really reflects t
he vibe of who we are,” Burress says. “It’s a laid-back place to just come and chill.”
Maybe in the dining room, but unlikely in the kitchen. Inattention to detail never creates good food, and it’s easy to see and taste serious effort in most every dish here. Flavors are bold and presentations are clever without being crazy.
The PBLT sandwich ($6) is a good example of both. Thick slices of smoked pork belly, dressed simply with lettuce, tomato and a mild aioli, are collected between slices of nicely browned Texas toast, all of which elevates this standard to another level. The pan-seared smoked-cheddar grit cake ($6) also added a new dimension to a potentially pedestrian dish. Served with a zesty barbecue vinaigrette atop a bed of spring greens, the otherwise starchy slab was a delightful vegetarian option quickly gobbled up by our three-person party. Same for the smoked duck tacos ($9), easily my favorite Hammerheads dish. Thin slices of duck were perfectly smoked and served on pairs of soft white-corn tortillas moistened under a drizzle of bright lime aioli, studded with pico de gallo and speckled with cilantro.
Other dishes were equally ambitious, though not as well-executed. The barbecued lamb ribs ($9 half rack, $16 whole rack) were incredibly tender and smoky but surprisingly salty. Just the opposite were the crispy macaroni and cheese balls with hollandaise ($7). Nicely fried orbs of panko-coated macaroni and cheese lacked seasoning and were lightly laced with a sauce more akin to mayonnaise than the promised buttery hollandaise. Though piping hot, crunchy and fresh, the smoked catfish ($8) didn’t bear even a wisp of smoke.
The venison burger ($11) stirred a debate among my group one night: One really liked it, another thought it fine and I wasn’t crazy about it. The patty’s density was firmer than meatloaf, which isn’t uncommon with ground lean meats, and an assertive combination of seasonings overwhelmed the meat’s delicate flavor. The house-made chorizo burger ($8) was better: flavorful and tender but still richly seasoned for my tastes.
Too full to try dessert on my first visit, I left room on the follow-up for the bacon brownie ($3). Oven-warmed just short of gooey, the brownie was capped with bits of bacon whose flavor unfortunately disappeared amid the dense chocolate, dulling the sweet-salty-smoky interplay I’d anticipated.
Hammerheads definitely lives up to its owners’ aim of being no-frills relaxed. Were you merely interested in a cold microbrew and a snack, the hand-cut fries would more than satisfy. On one visit we chose an order lashed with vibrantly fragrant truffle oil ($5), and on a return trip we got two: one seasoned with slightly sweet Grippo’s spices ($4) and another tossed in garlic and herbs ($4). Most items arrive not on china but on borderless wood slabs (reminiscent of “sandals” used for sushi in Japanese restaurants) that encourage sharing. Other than sandwiches, many dishes would work perfectly as tapas.
Burress said he and Mucerino wanted “to start small with our first restaurant and get our feet wet showing Louisville what we can do.” Indeed, the place might hold 60 patrons cozily, which definitely adds to its rec-room charm. And if the business pace remains steady, their next goal is likely a done deal. “If we do well like I hope,” Burress adds, “then we’ll upgrade later.”