Review: Louie in Clayton
The only signage announcing Matt McGuire’s superb new restaurant is an unassuming lighted box protruding from the building’s façade with Louie printed in no-nonsense capital letters. Walking up one drizzly night, the sign’s soft white glow was a beacon cutting through the noirish mist. I liked this Louie place instantly.
Once inside, the only connection to McGuire’s previous restaurant, the beloved King Louie’s, is a collection of decorative plates along the dining room wall, all autographed by chefs, musicians and celebrities who flowed through the restaurant during its 13-year run before shuttering a decade ago.
Nestled in the historic DeMun neighborhood, Louie took over part of the massive Jimmy’s on the Park, which closed in 2016. The long, skinny space features custom floral wallpaper behind a tufted leather banquette, some impressive deer antlers from McGuire’s farm and a back bar constructed from old postal sorting bins. The space seats a manageable 77 at David Stine Woodworking tables and custom bar with an adjoining marble counter that offers the best view of the wood-burning pizza oven surrounded by white marble walls. The result is a warm, relaxed and inviting room bathed in an aura of graceful informality.
It’s a neighborhood spot as much as it is a destination – comfortable enough for an older woman of means, possibly from one of the swanky high-rise apartments nearby, to tuck herself in at the bar and read a thick book while supping on mussels and white wine. The dining room is strictly reservations only, but bar seating is first come, first served. It’s a great place to perch for dinner, which is convenient since it’s dinner only at the bar until an hour before closing.
The focused, 20-ish-item menu is Italian-influenced but much more rustic than traditional Italian. To find that balance, McGuire assembled a solid kitchen crew, including Sean Turner (an alumnus of Blood & Sand, Brasserie and Lincoln Ristorante in New York) as executive chef and Josh Poletti (formerly at The Libertine and a 2014 One to Watch) as chef de cuisine.
Dining at the bar one evening, having neglected to make reservations, I tried a beautiful Italian salad full of baby gem lettuce, radicchio, chickpeas, sweet peppers and coarsely chopped Castelvetrano olives. The bright, lemony, briny dressing clung to the nooks and crannies of the compact leaves, and fat Parmesan shavings added a pleasant, gritty texture and nutty taste.
The house-baked bread proved noteworthy not only for its quality – lofty, airy chunks topped with garlic, sesame, red pepper flakes and salt, perfect for dipping in the extra-virgin olive oil – but also for its price: complimentary. Our entrees were likewise noteworthy; both were actual meal-sized portions, not just miniaturized versions of something you’d want more of while feeling guilty for spending too much.
The roasted chicken at Louie, comparable to the juicy airline cut I love at Reeds American Table, is cooked to a similar burnished copper hue and served with an equally fragrant pan jus. Even at nearly 2 inches thick, a fist-sized, bone-in pork chop was impeccably grilled, juicy and gnawable; the dollops of chermoula sauce (parsley, lemon, garlic) surrounding it perfect for dipping bite after bite. The accompanying bumper crop of blistered shishito peppers – some mild, some spicy – provided enough for leftovers. An order of creamy polenta, generously enhanced with earthy roasted mushrooms and savory grated Grana Padano, made an excellent complement.
As the bread indicated, anything beginning as dough is a good bet. Pizzas are basically Neapolitan-style but slightly thicker and baked a bit longer. Of the four pizzas available, I tried the Margherita and Diavola – the former with classic basil, garlic and buffalo mozzarella; the latter with soppressata, sliced potato, pickled red onion and pecorino. I found the Diavola too pungent and salty, but both pies had perfectly blistered collars, beautifully charred undersides and plenty of that crispy-chewy tug that makes yeasty bread so great.
I overheard a bartender describe the pastas as “manageable” to a couple fast- talking guys from Italy who were already devouring a pizza each. They ordered both agnolotti and the one I chose, chitarra (“guitar”): spaghetti simply sauced with tomato, basil, chili and Grana Padano. You can’t go wrong with either.
McGuire knows wine. The list is full of Italian bottles that pair beautifully with food. Glasses of good house wines range from $7 to $10 – practically unheard of these days – with many bottles less than $40. The beer list is strong, and the cocktail list is fun, as well.
On all my visits, Louie was filled with chatty couples and groups of friends enjoying the vibe as decibels soared – a testament to the level of hospitality McGuire has fostered among his service staff and the superb quality of the kitchen. To diners around in the late ’90s and early ’00s, King Louie’s was known for its simple approach and talented cooks, making it legendary in local restaurant yore. Clearly, McGuire has nailed it again.
Don’t-Miss Dishes | Roast chicken, pork chop, pizza
Vibe | Warm, fun, boisterous space that reflects owner Matt McGuire’s aesthetic sensibilities
Entree Prices | $21 to $28
When | Monday to Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.
Michael Renner is a longtime contributor and food critic for Sauce Magazine.
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