Penguins, Bourbon, Art, & Haute Southern Cuisine come together in Louisville.
Much more than a place to lay your head, 21c Museum Hotel with locations in Louisville, Cincinnati, Des Moines, Chicago, St. Louis, Lexington, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Durham, and Bentonville, Arkansas, is a total immersion into art or, maybe better put, it’s a night in the art museum.
In Louisville, it started when I spied a 4-foot penguin at the end of the hall as I headed to my room but 30 minutes later when I opened my door, the rotund red bird was there in front of me. “Don’t worry,” said a man walking by. “They’re always on the move.”
The migratory birds, sculptures first exhibited at the 2005 Venice Biennale and now part of the collection of 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville add a touch of whimsy. But with 9,000 square feet of gallery space and art in all corridors and rooms, three-fourths coming from the owners’ private collection valued at $10 million, 21c is a serious museum.
Carved out of five former 19th-century bourbon and tobacco warehouses, 21c is both part of the revitalization of Louisville’s delightful downtown and a transformation of art from backdrop into upfront and thought-provoking.
The sleek, minimalist interior — uber-urbanism with linear white walls dividing the main lobby and downstairs gallery into cozy conversational and exhibit spaces — is softened with touches of the buildings’ past using exposed red brick walls and original timber and iron support beams as part of the decor. Named by Travel + Leisure as one of the 500 Best Hotels in the World, 21c is also the first North American museum of 21st-century contemporary art.
I find more whimsy on a plate at Proof on Main, the hotel’s restaurant, when the waiter plops down my bill and a fluff of pink cotton candy — no after-dinner mints here. For more about the cotton candy, see the sidebar below. But the food, a delicious melange of contemporary, American South, and locally grown, will please even the most serious foodinista. It’s all creative without being too over the top. Menu items include charred snap peas tossed with red chermoula on a bed of creamy jalapeno whipped feta,
And, of course, the Proof on Main staple since first opening. 8 ounce patty, char grilled to your preferred temp (chef recommended medium rare), served with smoky bacon, extra sharp cheddar and sweet onion jam to compliment the game of the meat nicely. Local Bluegrass bakery makes our delicious brioche buns. The burger comes house hand cut fries. For the ending (but it’s okay if you want to skip everything else and get down to the Butterscotch Pot De Créme, so very luxuriously smooth and rich pot de creme with soft whipped cream and crunchy, salty pecan cookies.
House-cured pancetta seasons the baby Brussels sprouts, grown on the restaurant’s 1,000-acre farm. Local is on the drink menu as well with more than 50 regional and seasonal Kentucky bourbons.
A meal like this demands a walk, so I step outside (more art here) on Main, a street of 19th-century cast-iron facades, the second largest collection in the U.S. Once known as Whiskey Row, it’s refined now as Museum Row on Main. To my left, a 120-foot bat leans on the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, across the street is the Louisville Science Center, and nearby are several more including the Muhammad Ali Center.
Heading east, I take a 15-minute stroll to NuLu, an emerging neighborhood of galleries, restaurants and shops. I’ve come for the Modjeskas, caramel-covered marshmallows created in 1888 in honor of a visiting Polish actress and still made from the original recipe at Muth’s Candies. On the way back to 21c, I detour through Waterfront Park, a vast expanse of greenway on the Ohio River, taking time to bite into a Modjeska and watch boats pass by.
21C MUSEUM HOTEL, 700 W. Main St., Louisville, Ky., 502-217-6300, 21chotel.com
As an aside, the idea for the cotton candy originated with co-founder Steve Wilson. Here’s the story, from the restaurant’s blog, Details Matter.
“A memory that sticks with Steve from his younger years is the circus coming to town. Steve grew up in a small town in far Western Kentucky along the Mississippi River called Wickliffe He distinctly remembers the year the one striped tent was erected on the high school baseball field. Certainly not the large three ringed circus many others may remember, but the elephants, the handsome people in beautiful costumes…they were all there. When Steve sat through the show he got a glimpse into a fantasy world he didn’t know existed. A departure from reality. Oftentimes, after his trip to the circus, when he was sad or frustrated, he would daydream about running away to the circus. In fact, he’ll tell you he used to pull the sheets of his bed over his head, prop them up in the middle and pretend to be the ringmaster in his own crazy circus tent! In his eyes, the circus was where everything was beautiful, and no one would cry.
“Fast forward many years later, Steve met Laura Lee Brown at a dinner party in Louisville. He was immediately smitten and wanted to impress her. SO naturally one of his first dates was a trip to the circus at the KY Expo Center. Whether she was impressed or not, it seems to have worked.
“Years later, as Steve and Laura Lee were working on the development of 21c Louisville, they took a trip to Mexico City. At the end of one particularly memorable dinner, the server ended the meal with pink cotton candy served on a green grass plate. It was sticky, messy, and immediately brought back memories from Steve’s childhood. It was a feel good memory he wanted to last.
“Steve often says 21c makes him actually FEEL like the ringmaster in his own circus, so as the restaurant plans were getting finalized, he wanted to incorporate cotton candy as an homage to that feeling. As we opened up each new restaurant, the cotton candy continued, each time with a color and flavor to match the color of the hotel’s resident penguins. Eight operating restaurants later, the hope is that each and every diner ends their meal a little sticky, a little messy, and feeling nostalgic about good childhood memories.”
Recipes courtesy of Proof on Main
2 cups self-rising flour
½ tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk
¼ heavy cream
6 tbsp butter
2 tbsp Crisco
Pre-heat oven to 350F. Grate butter on the coarse side of the grater and put butter in the freezer along with the Crisco. Mix all dry ingredients together in a bowl. Mix cream and buttermilk in a separate bowl. Once butter is very cold combine with the dry ingredients with hands until a coarse meal is made. Add the cold dairy to the mixture and fold until just combined. Roll out dough on a floured clean surface and cut biscuits with a ring mold cutter. Layout on sheet trays 2 inches apart. Bake for 8 minutes and rotate set timer for 8 more minutes. Once out of the oven brush with melted butter.
SMOKED CATFISH DIP
This recipe makes a lot, but you can easily divide it—or put the extra in a mason jar and give to a friend as a holiday gift.
YIELD: 1 QUART
1 lb. Smoked catfish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 cup sour cream
3 Tablespoons small diced celery
3 Tablespoons small diced white onion
Juice and Zest of One Lemon
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt and black pepper to taste
Fresh dill for garnish
Flake the fish with your hands until it is fluffy. Combine the mustard, sour cream, celery, onion, parsley, lemon juice and zest and the mayonnaise together. Combine with the catfish and mix until it is well incorporated. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve cold with fresh dill and lemon wedges, your favorite hot sauce and pretzel crackers.
“This is a slightly complex variation of a margarita, adding smoky mezcal, bright cilantro and tangy mango-tamarind syrup. It was created as a play on the Mexican sweet treat, the Mangonada, with mango, a tamarind candy stick, and Tajin seasoning.” – Proof on Main Beverage Director, Jeff Swoboda.
3/4 oz Banhez
3/4 El Jimador Blanco
1/4 oz Cynar 70
1 oz mango-tamarind syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
big pinch of cilantro
Shake together with ice, strain over fresh ice and garnish with a Tamarrico candy straw.
Proof on Main’s Mint Julep
1 cup mint leaves, plus a sprig or two for garnish
1 ounce sugar syrup
2 ounces bourbon
Crushed ice to fill glass
In a rocks glass, lightly press on mint with a muddler or back of a spoon. Add the sugar syrup. Pack the glass with crushed ice and pour the bourbon over the ice. Garnish with an extra mint sprig.