Post-vaccine life keeps getting better. My first indoor restaurant outing after vaccination was with a former work colleague at a casual neighborhood place. We had good drinks and mediocre food and felt liberated from the worry that a deadly, invisible killer might be lurking close by.
A couple of weeks later, four of us tried a newish restaurant in another neighborhood, and that experience moved me even closer to what felt like pre-COVID dining.
Then I made it to downtown’s Khora, one of the truly hot spots in this year’s foodie firmament. That night, out with a larger group of friends, everything came together to remind us all of why dining out can be so much fun. It was a taste of what we are all longing for: “back to normal” social life.
On a warm Friday evening, the restaurant was fully booked and lively with young couples on dates, pairs and foursomes of friends and the occasional family group. The décor is thrillingly modern — open, accented with greenery and bold artwork, and beautifully lit with natural light augmented by different-sized hanging lamps that almost seemed to float above our heads. Banquettes and other surfaces are covered in a rich and soothing deep-purple palette, contrasted with neutral tones elsewhere in the space.
The restaurant occupies part of the ground floor of the new Kinley Hotel, one of only two in the boutique chain thus far; the other is in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Khora garnered a lot of advance publicity before its October 2020 debut, thanks to the track record of its owner, Louisville restaurateur Edward Lee, and the culinary team he had assembled. But the unfortunate timing of the opening was worrisome and I hoped the new venture could weather the miserable COVID winter and emerge ready to wow us. Judging from the full house we joined in late April, I think they made it.
Across the hotel lobby there’s a bar and cafe called the Exchange, which operates daily from early morning until 10 p.m. and provides coffee and light meals, mostly for hotel guests.
The inspiration for Khora’s dinner menu, according to Executive Chef Kevin Ashworth, builds on the Midwest’s culinary history. They wanted to focus on pasta, but did not intend to open an Italian restaurant. Instead, they use unusual grains that look like typical semolina pastas but have their origin in whole-grain flours milled in small batches by Ohio farmers. The duo’s research found that these flours from ancient grains make especially tasty noodles.
In addition to Lee and Ashworth, Khora has attracted an outstandingly talented pastry chef, Megan Ketover — formerly of Orchids at Palm Court under AAA five-diamond chef Todd Kelly, among other prominent kitchens. Whatever you do when you dine at Khora, absolutely save room for dessert.
We resisted any urge to order dessert first and had a couple of savory courses before the sweets. We chose four (out of five) pasta dishes as our main course and two items listed as “Entrees,” which was a fair sampling of the restaurant’s offerings. We shared four of the six starters, too. With the help of these five genial friends, I therefore was able to taste more than half of what’s on the menu.
The kitchen sent out many more hits than misses, with one or two outstanding successes at each course. Dry-aged beef tartare ($18) topped the starters; the meat was properly chewy and seasoned with smoky notes and a pop of acidity from sauerkraut kimchi mixed into the ground beef. A salad of berries and goat cheese ($12) tossed with arugula and a light poppyseed vinaigrette was refreshing, and we were surprised by how much we liked the French onion dip and chips, which was dressed up (and priced accordingly) with a topping of caviar ($22). Fried feta ($11) over mint, cucumber and yogurt suffered from an overload of super-spicy harissa, though.
A delicate agnolotti made from buckwheat flour and stuffed with sweet and savory ingredients ($33) outshone the other pastas. It featured morel mushrooms, that seasonal treat, and piled on with mascarpone cheese, salty pancetta and another springtime delight, English peas. Garganelli with sausage, red pepper and broccoli rabe ($23) is a preparation I love but this version was too light on the broccoli rabe for my taste and made the dish heavier than it needed to be.
One of the restaurant’s signature pastas is gemelli “Cincinnati style,” which the staff has called their take on a 3-way ($25). With lamb ragout, pumpkin seeds and caramelized goat cheese, I wouldn’t mistake it for a chili parlor meal, but it’s quite delicious.
The one pasta that we didn’t finish was bucatini, listed as sauced with spring flowers, cheese and pepper ($23).
Seared scallops ($31), an entrée, were slightly undercooked, and I didn’t care for the couscous (with green olive, pickled blueberries and watercress) preparation that it came with. In contrast, the Atlantic black bass ($26) came together nicely with a variety of accompaniments, including a potato waffle, apple slaw and Brussels sprouts.
And then, dessert: four were offered, and we ordered one of each ($13). It got a little confusing on my small plate crowded with portions of the tarts and cakes that we passed around. Yet I zeroed in on two standouts. The chocolate caramel tart nailed every element you’d want in a sweet treat, with a deeply chocolate, creamy filling and the contrasting textures of toffee puffed grains and cocoa nib bark.
Completely different but equally enticing, the cornmeal cake is not to be missed, with each ingredient subtly spiced to create a veritable symphony of fragrant tastes. My mouth waters as I recall that delectable ending to a meal that felt like another giant step toward pre-pandemic “normal.”
Khora, 37 W. Seventh St., Downtown, khorarestaurant.com