21c Museum Hotel’s restaurant thrives in a creative atmosphere
By Remy Sisk
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
Surely, most locals tell their out-of-town guests that 21c Museum Hotel is renowned for its striking artwork. The massive, golden rendering of Michelangelo’s “David” seems just as much a part of our downtown streetscape as the Mercer building (formerly known as the Aegon Center but renamed 400 WEST MARKET in 2014).
However, there is more to 21c than the exquisite art and superior rooms and suites. Proof on Main, the hotel’s restaurant, is one of the city’s finest and most innovative dining establishments. With its diverse, primarily locally-sourced menu, Proof continues year after year to be a destination for locals as well as those visiting the city.
Executive Chef Mike Wajda has been with Proof for three years. He was originally intrigued due to its farm-to-table foundation as well as the art aspect of the restaurant and how it worked in tandem with that of the hotel. “I kind of dug into the culture of 21c and what they stood for as an art museum hotel,” he remembers. “It really resonated with the things I think about when it comes to food and restaurants.”
When Wajda joined the team, Proof was known for its creative Southern cuisine under the brilliant leadership of Levon Wallace. But Southern isn’t really Wajda’s style, though he can certainly appreciate it. As 21c considers all of their hotels’ eateries to be chef-driven, they allowed Wajda to mix it up.
“I grabbed a bourbon, and I walked through the hotel and said, ‘21c: What are the boundaries and what does it stand for?’” Wajda recalls. “And there was nothing defining what 21c was. We use any art we want and any artists we want, and there’s no box. You just have to be a living artist in the 21st century – that’s it. So I said, ‘We’re going to do the same thing with the restaurant.’”
Thus, the menu at Proof became extraordinarily eclectic, featuring dishes that took inspiration from across the globe. But they had to avoid looking like a restaurant with an identity crisis and a phonebook-sized menu. Wajda insisted that, while they could use any cooking style or technique, the ingredients, as much as they could, had to come from the Ohio River Valley.
Though Wajda says there was a bit of skepticism about his plan, the gamble proved fruitful as Proof has consistently continued to reap praise from critics and diners alike for its commitment to innovation and artistry as well as flavor profiles and execution. A good deal of that has to do with the primarily locally-sourced ingredients and the chef’s dedication to the farm-to-table concept. Wajda is eager to take what the farmers bring and find ways to use it to the fullest extent.
For example, the team recently received a whole hog from Woodland Farm. The belly and loin went to porchetta, the head to head cheese and the shoulders to braise for pasta, which left Wajda the trotters. With the freedom and innovation that is inherent in Proof’s identity, Wajda deboned the trotters, left the skin and hoof on, rolled down the skin and stuffed it with Calabrian chili sausage. He subsequently rolled the skin back up and roasted it at a high heat to make the skin especially crispy and then served a cutting on top of a vindaloo curry with chickpeas, double creamed spinach and charred eggplant. It is an absolutely remarkable dish.
Part of why this creativity abounds is no doubt due to the fact that Wajda and his team are literally surrounded by it. The dining room is adorned with an art exhibition, which motivates the culinary side to maintain the brand’s supreme aesthetics. “You eat with your eyes first, and we say we’re dining with art, so we want the plate to look just as aesthetically pleasing as the things that are around us,” he says. “So hopefully, you’re being wowed by the presentation of the food as well as the flavors that go along with it. The same way some of our artists in the hotel are being presented, we’re doing the same thing in the kitchen, as my cooks are artists as well.”
As Wajda continues to infuse his menu with the art that is synonymous with 21c and Proof’s identity, he hopes that this sort of culinary philosophy will set a new precedent in Louisville. “I hope to pave the way for other great restaurants to come into the city and do more refined food,” he contends. “I think being able to elevate the dining scene in Kentucky with all the other great restaurants here, collectively, would be the best thing that could happen.” VT
Proof on Main
702 W. Main St.
Pork Trotter and Sausage
Crispy pork, Calabrian chili sausage, vindaloo curry with chickpeas, finely chopped double-cream spinach and charred eggplant.
Heirloom Tomato Salad
Blue Dog Bakery sourdough topped with triple-cream bleu cheese; local tomatoes dressed with squash oil, lemon juice and za’atar spice; pickled garlic scapes or “dilly scapes”; and sunflower shoots.
Roasted Heirloom Squash (Vegan)
Meatless harissa tamale, eggplant, squash, aged-tomato jam and pea tendrils.