This article appears in the July 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Gary’s on Spring’s chef, Harold Baker, and owner Guy Sutcliffe have been friends since they met at Louisville’s Walden School at age 12. For decades, they have talked about sharing a dream: to open a restaurant together.
The conversations leading to Gary’s on Spring took place across several state lines. Baker worked his way up from restaurant dishwasher in Minneapolis to executive chef at a restaurant in Atlanta before returning to Louisville as Westport General Store’s original chef. Sutcliffe took a different path, making money as an investor while staying in Louisville. The two remained friends, with Sutcliffe learning about restaurant life by listening to Harold’s kitchen tales. As the men entered their 40s, Sutcliffe decided he was “mature enough and had enough knowledge” to open an eatery.
With Gary’s on Spring, Sutcliffe focused on the front of the house while Baker took charge of the kitchen. Glenn Hubbuch, from the family who’s been known for high-end interior design in Louisville since the 1930s, made sure their ideas meshed. He took the 125-year-old brick structure (originally the site of a family-owned grocery store) and created sumptuous, relaxing spaces upstairs and downstairs, while working with Baker to create the kitchen of his dreams. Kitchens, actually. The one in the basement is responsible for the restaurant’s bread and desserts.
“I have the Southern roots,” Baker told me when asked about his cooking style. “I’m kind of rustic, but upscale.” On a recent visit I enjoyed his “baby” Hot Brown ($8), a take on the classic Louisville late-night dish that’s suited for sharing because the toast points, diced tomatoes and chunked turkey breast were so easy to divvy up. The charred and bubbling Mornay sauce was as delicious as it was attractive, even on a blisteringly hot evening dining at one of Gary’s two outdoor spaces. The caviar impérial ($9) featured Kentucky paddlefish caviar on buckwheat pancakes, topped with sour cream and green onions. The pancakes were fluffy and light but too big for the tiny caviar and cream dollops, their delicate fish and tangy cream flavors buried in giant bites of earthy buckwheat. The crunchy chicken fritters ($8) tasted fresh but were a bit bland for a dish that included green chiles and red peppers. The curry, red-chile-chutney sauce barely hinted of any heat.
Gary’s has a clean, clubby atmosphere, with large prints of Louisville scenes gracing a pale-walled, white-tablecloth dining room on the first floor. Upstairs, a brick-and-wood lounge and bar is less formal. “I saw a place in Chicago with fine dining on the first floor and a lounge on the second, and as I thought about it, I realized I wanted to go that way,” Sutcliffe said. While he told me he “left the food to Harold,” he did say he insisted on simple greens. “Harold wanted some fancy salads, but I wanted a spinach, a chopped and a Caesar.”
Both of the salads I had were excellent. The Caesar ($8) was exactly what it should be — crisp Romaine lettuce spiked with bold garlic and anchovy flavors, plus the crunch of house-made croutons. I’ll admit I couldn’t detect anything “innovative” — that’s the menu’s adjective — in my spinach salad’s ($8) mustard-and-bacon dressing. But I appreciated the kitchen’s delicate hand, leaving the rich, bacon-flavored dressing barely coating the spinach’s delicate leaves, sliced mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs.
Open for dinner only, Gary’s does offer a selection of sandwiches, including burgers and an oyster po’ boy ($10). I regret that I didn’t sample those on my recent visits, not only because it means I’ve yet to taste Baker’s house-made sandwich bread. It’s also because I found my entrée choices too big and busy to completely enjoy, though I do think the kitchen shows some real competence and insight.
Baker described my Kentucky bison rib-eye ($29) as “a nouveau rendition of an Old World classic of a steak dish.” It came expertly grilled medium-rare to order, the low-fat steak topped with buttery and crisp tobacco onions. But the dish was overly sauced, with a faintly tarragon-flavored béarnaise battling a salty brown demi-glace. On another plate, a pork chop ($19) was perfectly cooked, but the salty kalamata olives in the duxelles stuffing dominated the dish, the oddly sweet sauce of vermouth, shallots, garlic, pancetta and red grapes smothering what should have been a crusty, buttery potato pancake. The roasted chicken ($17) was a juicy, char-seasoned “airline” portion (a breast with the first wing section still attached). Its simple, underlying bed of fettuccine Alfredo and sautéed English peas was like getting an extra entrée.
I sampled every one of the desserts available, thanks to the canny bargain of “the buffet,” a $10 “tasting portion” of all the desserts. Since each of them is $6 and the tasting portions are generous, if you’re ordering two or more sweets, the buffet is the way to go. However, you might want to spend the extra couple of bucks and get two separate servings of “The Big Apple” ($6). Dried apples gave texture to a soft, sour-sweet cheesecake supported by a thick, buttery graham crust. A nice caramel sauce added another layer of sweet chewiness. Add a cup of hot black coffee, and you’ve got a great way to enjoy apples year-round.
“The Big Apple” showed that Gary’s on Spring can do excess well, though my entrées showed that, sometimes, the kitchen makes food excessively complicated. In the future, I hope that Baker finds the balance to determine the difference.