The $10 Challenge is brought to us by Ashlee Clark Thompson
First, an apology to Lilly’s — A Kentucky Bistro.
I had dismissed this upscale Highlands restaurant long before my first visit this week.
Lilly’s evaded my list of future blog subjects because of my prejudices against the more tony qualities of this establishment — crisp tablecloths, reservations recommended, even an endorsement from Emeril Lagasse. This type of fine dining seemed out of my reach. I had resigned myself to the fact that my budget is more suited toward casual eateries, diners and cafés.
Lilly’s lunch menu, however, revived my faith that fine dining at affordable prices is attainable in Louisville — as long as you have time for lunch.
A midday meal is a gateway into the fancier side of eating in our fair city. Check out the lunch menus of some of the big-name restaurants — Proof on Main, Bristol Bar and Grille, and Equus & Jack’s Lounge, to name a few. A $10 bill goes a long way between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Lilly’s is no exception. The restaurant provides a respectable selection of food on its lunch menu that will please the dollar-conscious diner and provide an accurate impression of what evening meals there have to offer.
The prix fixe lunch alone is a frugal way to sample a selection of Lilly’s cuisine. During my lunch this week, the prix fixe included vichyssoise, seared ruby red trout on eggplant and sherry salad topped with gremolata, and dulce de leche cheesecake. This is three courses of food I’ve only seen on Top Chef, and it was just $16.
The prix fixe and other lunch menu items combine Southern tastes with French staples. I was tempted to try the Kentucky pulled pork barbecue sandwich made with local pork piled on a pretzel bun ($9) or the crepes ($9), a savory dish of sautéed spinach, mushrooms, Gruyere cheese and shrimp.
After a chewing on a couple of slices of warm bread (it was so good, my friends and I ate two plates of it), I settled on the grilled croque-monsieur with Gruyere cheese, Béchamel sauce, Preacher Ham, caramelized onions and bacon ($8). In $10 Challenge terms, this was a fancy, hot, ham-and-cheese sandwich, a dish that began with as proudly French and ended in down-home Southern charm thanks to the addition of Kentucky ham and onions.
The taste of the croque-monsieur lingered on my mind and tongue for the rest of the work day. My infatuation began with the bread, two crunchy slices thick enough to hold the pile of pork and dairy. Then there was the salty bacon, thick cut and perfectly fatty. And the ham, salty hunks that were carefully arranged. And the onions, sweet rings of brown delight. And finally, the Bechamel, the sticky sauce that married the ingredients together into the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted. The Béchamel combined with the Gruyere and oozed from the corners of the bread and coated my mouth as I chewed. Its creaminess balanced the rough texture of the ham and bacon and took the sandwich to a level of perfection I had never experienced at lunch.
The croque-monsieur was a dream.
Unfortunately, my camera on my phone froze before I could take a picture of my dish. But no worries — I will return to Lilly’s, and I will have the croque-monsiuer again.
It turns out that I can afford another lunchtime trip. I just hope Lilly’s accepts my apology.
Lilly’s — An American Bistro, 1147 Bardstown Road, Louisville
Grilled croque-monsieur: $8
Total (with tax): $8.48