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    Eat & Swig

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    Fernando Martinez’s restaurants have already made the highlight reel of Louisville’s culinary culture. His Olé Restaurant Group is behind many of Louisville’s most successful eateries, including two Mussel & Burger Bars, Guaca Mole and El Tacho Luchador. Martinez himself is a legendary industry veteran, a one-man restaurant-opening machine.
    Because of this reputation, expectations for Martinez’s newest project, Artesano Vino Tapas Y Mas (now open in Westport Village), have been understandably high. Perhaps more-so because in 2007, Martinez opened Mojito Tapas Restaurant, a business in which he no longer has a stake. Tapas is a style of dining featuring small Spanish dishes meant for sharing, typically in conjunction with drinks.
    If Mojito was the rough draft, Artesano is the magnum opus — the culmination of years of effort and inspiration. “I love the tapas concept,” says Martinez. “Since I left Mojitos, I wanted to do tapas again. I had seven to eight [years] of creating Artesano in my head. We wanted to replicate the lively ambience at tapas restaurants in Spain.” In fact, enjoying an evening at Artesano is like savoring Fernando Martinez’s greatest culinary hits, arranged for your taste buds.
    Artesano’s front porch, featuring a fire pit and striped curtains, leads to a lush interior with an open kitchen and bar.  Design+ Architects helped realize Martinez’s plans to set the stage at 1321 Herr Lane. “In Spain, at tapas bars, they have most of the food ready on the counters at room temperature, and you order whatever you want from their selection. In the states that’s not possible, so we thought by having the open kitchen people could see their food being prepared, and so far they are loving it.”
    Photographs of Spanish bullfights decorate the walls and the head of a real fighting bull named Manchego is mounted over the front door.  The warm red and gold palette of patterned tile floors and walls sets the tone for Artesano’s main event: the food.

    Tasting the Tapas

    The menu at Artesano is divided into seven sections, and one could easily make a case for visiting Artesano seven different times to try every item from every section. The chef’s selection of quesos ($18) comes on a pig-shaped wooden plate, accompanied by a variety of house-made accouterment for each cheese: spiced quince paste, apricot honey, sundried tomato pine-nut relish.
    There are very few garnishes in any Martinez restaurant that do not serve a function, texturally, aesthetically and tastefully complementing the flavor of the main attraction. For instance, the Excalidaba en Conserva ($8) —a roasted mixture of onions, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers in a jar (think, a savory jam) — arrives with three little fried goat cheese croquettes, topped with swirls of pink pickled onion. This jar echoes the ones served at Martinez’s short-lived, but much-lauded Place Downstairs in J-town; more evidence that Artesano’s menu is the distillation of years of experimentation and refining.  
    Less adventurous diners might gravitate towards Artesano’s Brussels sprouts ($7) with crispy chorizo and caramelized walnuts, or the Carrilleras de Res ($12), tender beef cheek with butternut squash and a sunny side egg. The portions are generous and everything from the Berenjena Frita ($6 for three thick slices of fried eggplant with truffle honey) to the Chuleton de Buey ($36 for a thick slab of bone-in rib-eye with baby potatoes and black trumpet black truffle chimichurri) are easy to share.
    Pastry chef Christian Cobos’ dessert menu nicely punctuates the end of a meal at Artesano. His olive oil almond cake (Torta de Santiago $8) and ice cream cone trio (pistachio, almond and Nutella $8) stand out, as do the details of each dessert: a flushed orchid perched on a chocolate crème brûlée ($8), scarlet slices of figs atop a Manchego Torta ($8).

    Craft on Draft

    An excellent bar program is integral to the success of a Louisville restaurant, and Artesano’s delivers. “I spent a lot of time on Artesano’s wine list, about a year,” admits Rick Moir, Director of Operations at Olé Restaurant Group. Moir and Cristina Martinez developed the bar program at Artesano. “We wanted the list to be fun, different and affordable, which I think we accomplished. I got to visit a few warehouse tastings.” At one of these tastings Moir was given free reign to open whatever wine he wanted, “I just so happened to have a wine key on me and went to town. I guess I was an expensive date because they had to put the brakes on that train.”
    Artesano also has craft cocktails on draft. Moir read about a few bars in Chicago [that were] keeping kegs of cocktails and became interested, as “quickly, I realized [that] consistency, time for a guest to get a drink and time our bartenders can spend with guests would improve.” From the craft on draft menu, the La Matadora ($9) is a zesty take on a margarita and the Pamplono ($8) is gin-based, smooth and herbal. Artesano also has sangria, mocktails, traditionally-made cocktails and beer.

    Service Secret

    When asked for the secret to his success, Martinez is quick to give credit to his staff. Reliable restaurant workers are hard to come by in Louisville these days, so Olé Restaurant Group invests extra time in careful training. “Our staff loves the food, that’s also a plus,” according to Moir. “[We] harp on the little things and try to get everyone to realize it’s an experience.”
    Martinez is also meticulously informed about the day to day happenings at all his businesses. Every night, the closing manager of each restaurant writes an email to keep the team informed with “basically anything that happened at the restaurant that day,” says Martinez. “I don’t go to sleep until I read that blast, and the next day we call our managers to see what was done.”
    “Every morning, the first thing I do is read all the reviews about the restaurants on Facebook or social media, and sometimes personally answer… to me, it is a tool to see how restaurants are doing, most complaints have valid points. To me, it’s really important to listen to our customers. They don’t need us. We need them.”  
    Accepting the myriad complaints of the internet as constructive criticism is obviously working for Martinez. Artesano Vino Tapas Y Mas has certainly been shaped by this willingness to give the people what they want; and if wait times for a table are any indication, the people are pleased. 
    Images courtesy of Elizabeth Myers
    Elizabeth Myers's picture

    About Elizabeth Myers

    Big fan of bacon and bourbon, deep fried anything, sweet tea and sweet nothings.

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