Joy Luck is a promising new venture at 1285 Bardstown Rd. (taking over the space vacated by Kashmir’s move), that exudes spirit and the vitality of a cross-generational collaboration. Alvin Lee wanted his parents Pauline and Fu Tsun Lee, who have extensive experience with restaurants in Tennessee and Kentucky (including the Asian Pearl in Louisville), to try something different. Alvin proposed the family go back to its roots in Taiwanese cuisine and present it in a modern setting coupled by an excellent craft cocktail program.
“There’s no gold and red. There’s no phoenix and dragon motif,” Alvin Lee said. referring to the clichés of Chinese restaurant decor. “What I wanted was what mom used to make for us at home, traditional Taiwanese comfort food. She would always be cooking up three or four dishes and I would always be bringing home four or five friends from school to enjoy it.”
The Lees have converted what previously seemed a somewhat dark, cloistered space into a bright, chic, welcoming environment featuring light orange walls covered with chalk quotes, and a cozy bar area, which is bordered by an intimate enclosed porch with sofas and chairs looking out over the street-side deck. Patriarch Fu Tsun Lee, affectionately dubbed “Uncle Lee,” manages the kitchen. His wife Pauline, overlooks the quality and delivery to the tables, while Alvin, with maitre’d Justin Schwartz, handle the front of the house.
Alvin, 26, casually dressed in Levis, Wellington boots and aviator sunglasses typical of his Lexington upbringing where his parents settled after emigrating in the 1980’s, enjoys mixing with customers, and exudes the charm that bespeaks both the challenges of Taiwanese history and optimism of America.
“I’m ‘ABC’, American-born Chinese, but what my parents grew up in and mastered in Taiwan was a cuisine that involved at least three different Chinese styles of cooking along with a Japanese influence,”
Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, is a consummate “foodie” town offering the breadth of world cuisine as well as dozens of streets dedicated to snacks. Joy Luck does a good job presenting both.
It befits the spirit of Joy Luck (named not for Amy Tan’s novel but for Alvin Lee’s feeling about his family’s good fortune) to drop in for one or two or the many inventive cocktails and just explore the appetizer list.
Pork buns come out steamy, soft and chewy with plenty of flavor. Soup dumplings, served with rice vinegar and pickled ginger, reveal several tablespoons of surprising broth with meat and onions when you bite into them. Formosa Chicken Roll, wrapped in a deep fried soy wrap, lends crunchy chewiness to the oniony insides. The Taiwanese Sausage Roll, featuring a sweet pork sausage imported from Taiwan wrapped in a deep-fried soy flour wrap, is another experience of complex flavors, textures, and heat.
Once oriented to the alternatives of savory, sweet, sour, and umami, soft, chewy and crunchy, there are more substantial offerings. Three different styles of duck are featured, ranging from Beijing-style on gua bao, soft, grab-and-go buns typical of that city’s energy and pace, to Cantonese, to a bone-in, Taiwanese style which is marinated in honey and herbs for two days and then slow roasted to a crispy delight.
“I respect my father’s skill as a chef and what he can do with a wok, knowing how to adjust the temperature for different ingredients and cooking stages,” Lee said. When he and his friends visited his parents’ home and ate his Father’s cooking, they realized that there was a lot of Asian cooking done with only high-temperatures and a lot of oil. “The results can be really mediocre.” Lee said. “I don’t think food like (we’re presenting) is readily available anywhere in this (Kentucky) region.”
Fall-off-the-bone short ribs, marinated in garlic, hoisin, soy, and oyster sauce served with black beans is another standout, as is the Formosa chicken roll with fresh herbs and spices. The Kentuckyaki chicken or beef uses local Bourbon Barrel Foods sauce to create a fusion entrée with modern flavor roots in the Ohio Valley.
Braised pork belly (Loru Fan), cooked with five spices including star anise spooned over rice, represents an epitome of Taiwanese comfort food. So revered is this dish that last year Taipei mounted an “It’s Ours” campaign after the Michelin Green edition mistakenly attributed the dish as originating in Shandong Province in mainland China.
Complimenting Joy Luck’s emphasis on traditional Taiwanese food is a creative and playful drink menu masterminded by bar manager Gary Dubord. Nearly a dozen creations offer both surprising takes on old favorites (like an Oriental Fashion using ginger-infused syrup with orange bitters) as well as novel mixes (try a Magnificent Lee with bourbon, Fernet and Tuaca, or a Ming Dynasty made of honey, pear and pineapple-infused vodka with lemon juice and shaken egg white). Dubord has created some perfectly matched cocktails for the Joy Luck food experience.
“We’re presenting domestic Taiwanese cooking experienced by two different generations,” Lee said. It took a lot of discussion, but when you reach an understanding it’s a truly beautiful blending of concepts—hand crafted, local, not out of freezer bags, and unique.”