On a recent evening at Louie's Wine Dive, one of my dining companions complained to me that the noise level in the room was "obnoxious." At least I think that's the word she used. I had to read her lips.
This new, 84-seat restaurant can indeed turn a dinner conversation into a silent movie without the title cards. But that's the price one pays for eating in the most popular new bistro in the city. Since it opened October 31, Louie's has drawn sufficient crowds to ensure that there's often a one-hour wait for a table, even on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night. Really? For a place that calls itself a dive?
Now, a dive — in my book, anyway — is a somewhat sordid place, a refuge where you can fall off a bar stool or vomit on the floor with impunity, then get up and order another cocktail without losing a shred of dignity. Louie's is quite a bit more genteel than that. It is, well, a wine bar. (And, no, there's no Louie. The name is just a whimsical touch.)
And wine bars do have their charms. At this one, for instance, the service is excellent, some of the food is impressive, and diners don't have to be oenophiles to appreciate the wine list's 100 or so vintages. Better yet, any bottle in the house can be opened, as long as you commit to buying two glasses. (The rest of the bottle is then featured as a by-the-glass special for anyone else in the restaurant.)
What's the price for those glasses? "We divide the cost of the bottle by a fourth and add a dollar," says co-owner Aaron Shields.
That's not bad, even if the markup here is generally greater than you'll find in an actual dive. "Some of them are marked up really high," says Cellar Rat's Ryan Sciara. I showed him the wine list from Louie's, and he didn't seem impressed: "There are a couple of surprising choices on the list, but it's mostly familiar wines."
"It's an accessible list," Shields says. "It wasn't designed for wine nerds, although we'll be adding nerdier wines later on."
People seem to like that accessibility. Louie's already has become a neighborhood hangout for a Waldo and Armour Hills crowd looking for a new alternative to the Well or Remedy or the Gaf, the Irish pub just up the block. And it's a relief, at least for the neighboring businesses, that there's finally a halfway decent restaurant in this location, which has been the setting for several third-rate failures (such as Jenny's and the unlamented Cantina del Ray). "Customers keep thanking me for opening in this spot," co-owner Cory Gonzalez tells me. "I guess there was a lot of turnover here in the past."
Shields and Gonzalez seem to know how to scout a location. They opened their first Louie's Wine Dive in Des Moines, and they plan to put a third in Omaha. The Kansas City menu is similar to the one in Des Moines, but Shields and Gonzalez have hired chef Jaci Shelby to run the kitchen here.
Shelby's dinner menu is ambitious for a dive. A real dive, if it serves anything to eat at all, might offer burgers and fries. The crispy, thin-cut fries at Louie's can be ordered poutine-style, covered with a seafood gravy and chunks of lobster. The "daily burger," featuring meats ground in Alex Pope's Local Pig butcher shop, isn't your ordinary chuck. On one of my visits, the beef was mixed with pork belly. It's a $13 burger, though, so you expect it to be a little classy.
My server one night sized up my own classiness level and directed me away from the burger, advising me instead to order the corned-pork Reuben. I was grateful — it was an outrageously good sandwich, with house-cured Berkshire pork jumbled with crunchy pickled red cabbage under a slice of Swiss cheese. The dressing was house-made, and the bread was grilled Farm to Market.
My tablemates and I started that meal with this place's spin on fritto misto (one of the few vegetarian-friendly choices here), a mess of fried Broccolini, onion rings and squash straws dusted with rice flour and then lightly flash-fried. It came with a terrific, punchy habanero aïoli and a mediocre marinara that was, on this night, cold.
The deviled-egg appetizer was fine, if heavy on the mustard. Each tidy little egg was sprinkled with a few Missouri River black sturgeon eggs. They call it caviar. I call it a modest Mighty Mo garnish.
I preferred the lavosh flatbreads, especially the combination of pulled pork, roasted butternut squash, ribbons of balsamic onion, chopped apples and a squiggle of lime sour cream. That one was so good that the version with roasted tomato and fresh mozzarella seemed too tame.
Shelby needs to work a little harder on the porchetta, a Berkshire pork shoulder stuffed with La Quercia prosciutto in a very good fontina-cheese cream sauce. The one I tasted suffered from too much gristle. Attention is also needed on the "Baked Louie" pasta, which the menu claims is served in a "house-made Alfredo sauce." If there was a single drop of cream in the plate I was served, I'll eat my hat.
I'd rather eat the first-rate macaroni and cheese. The version I tasted was made with portobello mushrooms (sautéed in truffle oil) and some bits of prosciutto. That dish really was blanketed in a supple, cheesy cream sauce, and it was excellent. (It and the wild-mushroom ragu are made with vegetable stock, so vegetarians can order them without the meat and feel safe.)
By the time our server was ready to recite the selection of desserts, Louie's had become deafening. She had an old-fashioned visual aid, though: a tray of sweets (some of them kind of sorry-looking) presented for consideration. I tried a poached-pear tart, made with feather-light phyllo pastry and topped with a tiny scoop of honey frozen custard. It was delicious — and much better than the little ramekin delivered to us that allegedly contained "pumpkin mousse." I would have loved to taste pumpkin mousse, but this dish had the dense consistency of traditional pumpkin pie. It needed a serious whipping.
Of course, I could have shouted, "Whip it good!" and no one would have noticed. "We're discussing ways to deal with that," Gonzalez says about the undeniable din at Louie's. "There are a lot of hard surfaces in this room."
But the joint isn't a whine dive, and if the acoustics here are unforgiving, I'm not. Louie's is congenial as hell, and no other restaurant in this space has come close to giving off this kind of vitality. In a market where diners can be pretty fickle, I'm rooting for Louie's to sustain its impressive early popularity. That might keep this little wine boîte noisy, but that's OK. I've learned to read lips.