A repast with a past

Last week, I got to spend a night at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill during my jaunt to Lexington. (Actually, Shaker Village is located in Harrodsburg, about 30 minutes south of Lexington, if you want to get technical about it. But why split hairs.)

Trustees Office

Shaker Village Trustee’s Office inn and restaurant

For those unfamiliar, Shaker Village is the largest restored Shaker community in the country, dating to 1805 and active for more than a century back in its heyday. Those Shakers were some busy peeps, noted for their innovative farming methods, communal living practices and religious fervor. Touring through this collection of refurbished buildings is really interesting, and costumed interpreters are on hand for craft demonstrations, Q&A sessions and general color. Think Conner Prairie, but bigger. And with hiking/biking nature trails running throughout the beautiful rolling countryside, production gardens, overnight accommodations and a well-reputed restaurant. The grounds are crisscrossed with rustic stacked stone walls built by Scottish/Irish immigrants.

Although kitted out with period furnishings and décor, my room was surprisingly up-to-date with a nice bathroom, Wi-Fi and a flatscreen TV. As part of my overnight I enjoyed a very pleasant dinner at the Trustee’s Office Dining Room with the Shaker Village communications manager.

The vibe here is definitely rustic, as you’d expect, yet the huge hurricane candles on each table created a warm, romantic glow. For me, this was a friendly business dinner, but I could see how folks of a certain age might come here for a special occasion meal or a date night.

Shaker Inn dining room

In keeping with the theme and setting, the menu features home-cooked “seed to table” fare, and many offerings are made using ingredients straight out of the gorgeous gardens you can see from the dining room windows. Most of the dishes feature traditional Shaker recipes, such as the tomato celery soup that’s always available. Among the half dozen or so dinner entrees ($15.95 to $22.95), you’ll find classic skillet-fried chicken, country ham steak, pot roast, fried catfish, and a quiche-like vegetable tart. Sauteed Gulf shrimp seemed the most modern option, but even it’s served on toasted croutons made with old-school salt-rising bread.

relish

relish tray

All dinners are served with charming retro touches like a relish plate to get things underway; a basket filled with warm rolls and cornbread sticks; and bowls of roasted potatoes, glazed carrots and corn pudding served family-style. All good stuff, just like grandma used to make. It’s a lot of food to take in. You may want to consider skipping lunch.

ham steak

country ham steak with red eye gravy

For my main, I went with the ham steak with red eye gravy. I know country ham is inherently salty by nature, but with the gravy, this was almost a little too much so. Still, the meat was tender and tasty, and the corn pudding on the side was rich and luscious.

fried chicken

skillet-fried chicken

My dining companion ordered the fried chicken, a ginormous three-piece serving, and after a valiant effort, ended up taking half of it home.

desserts

dessert selections

Don’t even think you’re getting out of here without dessert. Our server brought over a tray laden with four options to tempt us — chocolate pudding, pumpkin spice cake and two kinds of pie. I know, I know… you think you’re too full and don’t have room. Get over it.

lemon pie

Shaker lemon pie

I got the Shaker lemon pie, and it was unlike any other lemon pie I’ve ever had. Lest you think this is going to be some of sort of curdy, mile-high meringue, nope. It’s a double-crust pie with a thick fruit filling made from whole lemons, peel and all. It’s not sour, but it’s not overly sweet. The server had warned me that not everyone likes it. I did. Nothing fancy, but different and unusual. My friend ordered the pumpkin spice cake, just to taste. It was good, too, a sheet cake-style slice with a light whippy topping. Like something you’d get at a church dinner or bake sale, and I mean that in the best possible way.

To drink, there’s a small but nicely vetted selection of wine, beer and… bourbon. Of course. I washed things down with an expertly made Buffalo Trace Manhattan.

Shaker Village isn’t trendy or fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re looking for an interesting dining experience with historic flair and delicious, accessible comfort food (lots of it), it’s worth putting this place on your radar for a road trip.

The Trustee’s Office Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. For more information, visit www.shakervillageky.org.

A dinner of Titanic proportions

Another adventure in my I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-what-I-get-to-do-for-a-living life… last week, I traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky and my beloved Bourbon Country. A professional contact and friend invited me down for a preview of the new Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition opening this weekend at the Lexington Center Museum.

Titanic sign

This exhibit came through Indianapolis several years ago for a stint at the Indiana State Museum, but I somehow managed to miss it, so I was glad for this second-chance opportunity. So worthwhile. We’ve all seen the movie and heard the tragic tale, but looking first-hand at dishes, still-partially-filled bottles of champagne, postcards and personal effects collected from the actual shipwreck two and a half miles down in the north Atlantic is both chilling and amazing. Kids will love the chance to touch an iceberg, a self-regenerating block of ice that will stand throughout the exhibition’s run.

Displays put a face on the Titanic story with lots of details about the folks who sailed on the ship that fateful night in April 1912. Visitors are given a “boarding pass” when they enter, detailing the name and background of one of the actual passengers; at the end, you consult a wall that contains the names of everyone who survived or perished to find out if you made it. Sadly, I was the only one of our group who didn’t.

place setting

Following our sneak preview, we enjoyed an elaborate Titanic-themed dinner in the attached Hyatt Regency. This was so cool — the chef and his staff recreated a four-course meal of period recipes that might have been served aboard the Titanic. We kicked off the repast with era-appropriate cocktails like Sidecars and Planter’s Punch, garnished with ice cubes shaped like the ship itself. Appetizers included mini beef Wellingtons and crab-stuffed deviled eggs that our small group couldn’t stop raving about.

soup

potage of winter vegetables

After we took our seats, the chef came out to give us a quick primer on the menu as servers came around pouring wine and offering herb biscuits. First up, a delicious potage/soup made of winter vegetables like carrot and parsnip and garnished with two toasted bread croutons. Maybe not as visually appealing as what was still to come, but delicious with a spicy kick I wasn’t expecting. This is just the kind of thing I’d love to eat a big bowl of on a rainy autumn night with some cheese, some nice bread and red wine.

Waldorf

Waldorf salad

The salad course was a duo of traditional Waldorf salad and a few leaves of Bibb lettuce with candied pecans. Pretty as a picture, and very tasty. I remember my mom making a basic Waldorf salad on occasion way back when with chopped apples, celery and walnuts mixed with Miracle Whip. Chef’s dish elevated the recipe, of course. His Waldorf was more like a creamy apple slaw with halved grapes. So good, especially when I sprinkled the candied nuts over the top.

steak

Filet Mignon Lili

For the main event, we got to choose from three entrees — Ballotine of chicken supreme, filet mignon Lili, and poached salmon mousseline. Everyone at our table ordered the filet, except for one brave gal who broke the mold and got the chicken.

chicken

Ballotine of chicken supreme

The tender, flavorful filet was cooked to order and served with a rich demi-glace, thinly sliced potatoes, a few spears of asparagus, and a tiny marrow bone filled with carrot hash. The woman who ordered the chicken sat next to me; her dish consisted of a chicken breast wrapped around a forcemeat filling and then poached, I believe? It looked good and she liked it.

dessert

“The Iceberg”

Dessert… ah, dessert. The menu described it simply as “the Iceberg,” and the chef was mysterious avoiding further description, so we were all immediately charmed when the plates arrived. We each got a sugar cookie decorated to resemble the Titanic herself, plated beside a scoop of bourbon ice cream that had been covered in toasted meringue to look like an iceberg. Both items sat in a small pool of coconut-ish blue curacao in lieu of the ocean. A little disturbing if you think about it too much, I suppose, but sooooo creative. And even though I was completely stuffed by that point, I could not stop eating that bourbon ice cream.

Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition is on now and running through Jan. 26, 2014 at the Lexington Center Museum right next to Rupp Arena. For more information, visit www.lexingtoncenter.com.

I believe the Hyatt Regency (where I stayed) might be offering package deals in conjunction with the exhibit. The hotel is first-rate, located in the heart of lovely downtown Lexington and connects directly to the Center. If you’re looking for a great weekend away, definitely check it out — www.lexington.hyatt.com.

24 hours of eating and drinking in N’Awlins

A fortuitous journey is just seeing me home from 24 hours in the Big Easy (well, more like 22 hours to be exact, but who’s counting).

NO

How do I even begin to describe New Orleans? She’s a grand old dame of a city, showy and decadent and seductive. Historic and storied. Mysterious. Dangerous. Excessive in everything from the lacy ironwork that adorns the endless balconies to the rivers of booze that flow through the French Quarter to the ungodly sticky weather. The thick, honeyed Acadian patois of the local residents is as mellifluous and musical as the jazz and blues and zydeco that waft from the street corners. There’s a stink to the streets, distinctive and not entirely unpleasant. A survivor, like the mighty river that flows along, as it always has and always will. There’s nowhere else like it.

I’d been to NoLa twice before, and had a few ideas about how best to spend this short amount of time in the city. My traveling companion had never been here, so a quick tour of the main highlights was in order. We pulled into town on the train around 3 p.m. and were out and exploring by 4.

hurricane

Pat O’Brien’s hurricane – a New Orleans tradition

Our first priority was a stroll down Bourbon Street, stopping in the fern-filled courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s for a signature cocktail. That means one thing. A hurricane. This is where the near-lethal rum concoction originated (4 oz. of rum in each serving – ouch!), cleverly disguised to taste like punch. So you don’t realize exactly how quickly you’re getting drunk. A couple of these babies will take you from “Hm, this tastes good.” to “Hello. I’m wasted.” before you even get around to nibbling the maraschino cherry. I’m proud to say, my friend did an admirable job of drinking hers down without any ill effects.

sazerac

my Sazerac

I ordered a Sazerac, a retro cocktail made with rye, bitters, licorice-y anise-flavored liqueur and a lemon twist. Icy cold and heavenly on a hot day.

After more wandering and explorations that included a quick pop into Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop and photo ops of the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square and the riverfront, we started searching for food. For me, New Orleans means Cajun food and seafood, often simultaneously. The sheer number of restaurants in this town makes deciding where to eat a downright dizzying task. In spite of soliciting a dozen or so suggestions before we’d arrived (which we forgot and left back in the hotel room), we ended up just picking a place in the French Quarter near the pub where our ghost tour was due to kick off shortly after. Pere Antoine’s. Not bad. Not great. I figure this is a typical example of the Cajun Creole fare most places in the city serve, some better than others.

BBQ shrimp

barbecued shrimp at Pere Antoine’s

I ordered barbecued shrimp, and if I’d known ahead of time how much work they were going to be, I’d have gotten something else. I knew I’d have to peel them myself, but naively, I figured they’d already have the heads removed. Nope. This was a whole plateful of huge full-bodied prawns atop a scoop of white rice with a couple pieces of greasy garlic bread to sop up the broth. The shrimp were overcooked and although the broth was spicy, it didn’t have the depth of flavor I’d hoped for. Sticky up to my elbows with shrimp juice running down my chin, I gave up wrestling with the whole thing halfway through and called it quits.

jambalaya

Pere Antoine’s jambalaya

Janet got the jambalaya, the better of our two entrees. My fork kept sneaking into her dish to snag bites of her sweet small shrimp and kicky tomato sauce.

Another round of drinks in the hotel bar after our ghost tour entailed a hurricane for me (much more fruity and sweet with pineapple juice flavor than Pat O’Brien’s version), and a strawberry margarita for Janet. It had been a long day and night, and these nightcaps ensured we’d sleep well.

Breakfast was a no-brainer. When in New Orleans, you HAVE to come to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets. If not for breakfast, then any old time; the place stays open 24-7. Beignets are insanely simple but addictively delicious squares of puffy fried dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. You can get them elsewhere in town, but really, why would you?

cafe du monde

beignets and a cafe au lait

Part of New Orleans’ original French Market, Cafe du Monde has been continuously operating since the 1860s. They serve coffee (black or au lait) and beignets. That’s it. And they do an excellent job. They churn plates out like an assembly line – I actually got a peek at the deep-fry station when I went to the restroom, and they are just popping these things out of the grease non-stop so that every order is served fresh and still-warm. When you add in the historical factor, quick service and the fact that an order of three plus coffee will only set you back about $5… well, you’ve just got to come here. That’s all there is to it.

staircase

Palace Cafe staircase

We lunched today at the Palace Café, a New Orleans dining institution from what I understand. Situated in a former department store in the warehouse district and part of the Brennan’s fine-dining empire, this place cuts a dashing figure with a gorgeous staircase that winds through the main-floor dining room up to more seating on the second level. This seems to be a popular destination for business lunches and jazz brunches, and I can see why. The food was outstanding. Classic old-style New Orleans dishes like shrimp remoulade, gumbo and pan-roasted oysters made it hard to decide what to order.

oyster salad

the Werlein salad with fried oysters at Palace Cafe

Janet got the Werlein salad, a house specialty that looks and sounds for all the world like a Caesar, with big chunky croutons and fried oysters scattered around the edges. She enjoyed it, and the oyster I tasted was piping hot and delish.

crawfish

Caprese salad with popcorn crawfish tails

I went with a special appetizer composed of popcorn-fried crawfish tails atop an heirloom tomato Caprese salad. Yum. The crawfish tails weren’t at all greasy or overpowered by spice and breading, just sweet little bites of meat. If you didn’t know it was crawfish, you might think it was tiny tender shrimp. The tomatoes and mozzarella underneath were fresh and flavorful. There was so much crawfish, I’m sad to say I couldn’t even finish it all.

crab

a “side” of crab

Palace Café also lets diners order “sides of seafood.” I LOVE this idea. Let’s say you really want to order a shrimp entrée, but the jumbo lump crabmeat sounds tempting, too. The seafood sides are basically a small bonus dish of whatever seafood you want to taste without having to order another full entrée of it. Like seafood a la carte. Janet and I split a side of sautéed jumbo lump crabmeat, and it was fabulous.

And with that, my whirlwind trip to New Orleans came to an end and now I’m heading back home. I certainly won’t miss the 95-degree/75-percent-humidity weather, and I could never imagine myself living here (and wouldn’t even dream of bringing my son). But I’m sure at some point, that sweet temptress of a city will once again start singing her siren song, and I’ll find her impossible to resist. Until then, au revoir, ma chere.

Latin love at Seviche

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for being so remiss in tending to my blog in recent months…. But I just had a meal so truly transcendent, I feel inspired to share. Immediately.

I think I may have mentioned my love for all things Louisville a time or two? Well, I’ve had the privilege of spending the past few days here for the Midwest Travel Writers Association conference, and dinner at Seviche for last night’s dine-around has just taken our relationship to a whole new level.

Image

Seviche entrance

Chef Anthony Lamas has been bringing Latin flavors with Southern flair to Louisville since he opened Seviche in the hip and trendy Highlands neighborhood in 2005. I met him on a trip here last year for another travel conference (see earlier post about the show taping for “Secrets of Louisville Chefs” and Chef Lamas’ fabulous chorizo with grits and orange bourbon barbecue sauce demo). We’re now Facebook friends, so I get to stay up to date on Chef Lamas’ doings and dishes. In 2011, he won the title of Food Network’s “Extreme Chef,” a Survivor-meets-Top Chef-style show in which chefs are dumped in the middle of the desert or jungle with, like, a can of tuna and told to prepare a gourmet meal for 50 people. That should tell you something about how bad-ass this guy is.

We arrived last night ready to be wowed, and were ushered to a semi-private dining room in the back of the restaurant (created, along with a new lounge area, in a recent expansion). The interior is sleek, done up in rich neutral shades, and I loved the jars of pickled fruit and veg lining the shelves that served as decor. Chef Lamas kept a sweet 80s soundtrack playing in the background, which we later found out was his own iPod. This, of course, only made me like him even more.

mojito

My mojito

We started with drinks, as you do, and I ordered a mojito. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with this libation, usually sticking instead to wine, beer and bourbon, but I figured this place probably knows how to do ‘em up right. My suspicions proved correct. The drink arrived in a tall glass, loaded with muddled lime and mint. Sweet, but not too sweet. Tart, but not too tart. Totally fresh and refreshing with a big spike of sugarcane to gnaw on in lieu of a swizzle stick. So far, so good.

Chef Lamas had pre-planned a multi-course tasting menu for us, a smart move because so many things on the menu sounded delicious, we might have been there all night just deciding what to order. An avalanche of small plates soon started arriving, all beautifully presented and each tasting even better than the last. Seriously, I felt like a Top Chef judge, and found myself wondering how Padma does this all the time and still maintains such a hot bod.

First up, the starters. We received sharable family-style dishes here — a plate of grilled shishito peppers with ponzu sauce and a little sesame, and fried bison-filled empanadas with an avocado-jalapeno puree and pico de gallo.

shishito peppers

blistered shishito peppers with ponzu and sesame

Our server Daylon (I apologize if I’m butchering the spelling of your name here, dude), who ROCKED by the way, described these peppers as a Russian roulette of heat. Some are mild, some will blister your sinuses, and like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get until you bite in. My pepper was mild, and I liked the texture – sort of like a banana pepper or giardinera. It had a little toothsome bite left, and the sesame ponzu was a nice touch.

bison empanadas

bison empanadas with pico de gallo and avocado-jalapeno puree

I like making empanadas at home every now and then, although I bake mine instead of frying, and I’ve never had them filled with bison. Both great ideas. These cute buffalo meat hot pockets had good flavor, but what made the dish for me was the avocado jalapeno puree. I’m an avocado junkie anyway, and the tingly heat from the jalapeno provided a much-appreciated kick. Think spicy pureed smooth guacamole. Only way better.

tuna ceviche

tuna ceviche “Old Fashioned”

Next up was a little glass of tuna ceviche “Old Fashioned.” This was my favorite item of the evening; and a day later, it’s the one I’m still daydreaming about. Sushi fans take note, this was AWESOME. Gorgeous colors and a perfect balance of flavors – chunks of buttery soft tuna, sweet tiny diced pineapple and an orange supreme, a wee splash of bourbon, sesame, salty soy sauce, verdant cilantro, and something addictively spicy that left my lips tingling after I’d dug out every bit with my chopsticks. I very nearly tipped the glass up to drink the few precious last drops of juice in the bottom. I can’t tell you how much I loved this. I wanted to make out with this food.

halibut ceviche

wild halibut ceviche

For comparison, the next dish was a wild halibut ceviche. This fish was chunkier, soft and mild, with a little corn, onion, microgreens and garnishing sauce I couldn’t quite place. Good, but didn’t nearly blow me away to the same degree the tuna ceviche did.

swordfish risotto

grilled swordfish over mushroom risotto with crispy leeks

One member of our group had requested the swordfish, and that’s what showed up next – a small square of perfectly grilled fish over a spoonful of mushroom risotto with crispy almost onion-ringy leeks and a lobster truffle sauce ladled around the plate. This fish was so tender, it practically melted in my mouth, and the risotto was a luscious earthy complement.

scallop fideos

seared scallop over fideos with goat cheese, artichoke and asparagus

As much as I liked the swordfish, I went crazy over the grilled scallop that we received afterward. I’ve been hit or miss with scallops in the past, some too rubbery, gritty or just plain meh. This one was stellar, nicely browned and tender enough to cut with my fork. It sat atop fideos – a nutty tasting, Spanish-style pasta that looks like short strands of angel hair spaghetti — with pine nuts, goat cheese, an asparagus spear and a chunk of artichoke heart. I think the sauce had truffle in it, but I was so distracted by this sexy scallop, I didn’t care.

churrascuro

Churrascos and chimichurri, oh my.

My tummy was starting to reach capacity at this point, but there were still more good things to come. Such as a Churrascos-style bite of grilled skirt steak with garlic mashed potatoes, a dab of demi-glace, and a bold herby chimichurri sauce I had trouble not licking straight off the plate.

desserts

sweet finales

A dessert trio platter ended things on another high note. Liquid nitrogen frozen caramel corn lent a unique crunch factor. The housemade macadamia nut ice cream was rich, creamy and perfect. The bourbon butterscotch pudding smooth and decadent. But I couldn’t get enough of the avocado ice cream, another Chef Lamas trademark dish. Imagine, if you will, avocado flavored ice cream (don’t hate – it is DELICIOUS) that’s prepped to look exactly like an avocado. See the pic below – the ice cream is scooped into a thin chocolate shell with a bourbon ball truffle nestled into the middle just like a real avocado pit. All edible. What else is there to say about this, really? Genius.

avocado ice cream

Seviche’s signature avocado ice cream

Thus, our feast came to a reluctant end. Not a misstep in the whole shebang. Chef Lamas even graciously came out and spoke with us after the meal, politely answering our questions and submitting to our endless photo requests even though I’m sure the kitchen must have been completely slammed behind the scenes.

Chef Lamas

Chef Anthony Lamas himself. Rock. Star.

To stay on our event schedule, we only had about 90 minutes or so to spend at Seviche in total, so everything felt a little rushed. This was the kind of meal I would have liked to savor over three hours or so. Still, I was grateful we got to taste as much as we did, and I have a pretty good idea what I’d order again on my next visit. And bank money on it, there WILL be a next visit. Soon, I hope. I’d drive two hours to Louisville again just to eat here. So should you.

For more information about Seviche, check out www.sevicherestaurant.com.

Seviche on Urbanspoon

Nick's still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Nick’s still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Proof is in the pudding

Each fall, for as many years back as I can remember, my mom made persimmon pudding. This was no small undertaking. First, you have to find a source for the persimmons. My mom had the hook up; always managing to know someone with a persimmon tree. Every October or so, when the dusky orange plum-like fruit would fall to the ground, my mom was right there, poaching. She swore you had to wait until the messy persimmons ripened, turned squishy and fell off the tree, otherwise they’d be tart enough to make you pucker if you made the mistake of biting into one too soon.

A full day of processing then ensued, washing the persimmons and straining them through a food-mill contraption mom reserved solely for this once-a-year purpose. After that came the ceremonial baking of the persimmon pudding, a recipe my mom gleaned from her mother, and very likely, her mother before that. You get the idea. Persimmon pudding was a fall tradition in my house, and one I’m ashamed to say I eschewed. I never ate the stuff. For some reason, I decided to turn up my nose at it when I was little, and stubborn as I am, I never tried it again.

Spring Mill Inn at Indiana’s Spring Mill State Park

So it was with no small amount of irony that I attended the opening Candlelight Tour that kicked off the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival last night at Spring Mill State Park. Part of the package was a stay at the lovely Spring Mill Inn, and dinner at the on-site Millstone Dining Room, a buffet packed with all the good old-fashioned comfort foods you most likely grew up on, if you grew up in Indiana during the 1970s like I did. Think roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans stewed with chunks of ham… And the piece de resistance — while it’s typically just a seasonal fall dessert for many, persimmon pudding stays on the menu here year-round. They don’t always have it out on the buffet, which puzzles me, but all you have to do to score a piece is ask.

persimmon pudding at Spring Mill Inn’s Millstone Dining Room

In keeping with tradition, my pudding arrived in a cute little square topped with a generous dollop of Cool Whip. Grabbing a fork, I scooped up a big bite, toasted my mom and tucked it into my mouth. Tasty, I must say. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have guessed it to be pumpkin – the consistency and flavor were exactly like a mild, creamy pumpkin pie filling. My friend Janet liked it, too, even in spite of harboring a pumpkin pie grudge of her own that went way back. We both cleaned our little plates, pleasantly surprised, and vowed never to judge a dessert by its cover again.

The Spring Mill Inn persimmon pudding is nothing like I remember my mom making, though. Mom’s was much more spongy and cake-like, nearly like a very moist gingerbread.

Sadly, the elaborate persimmon pudding-making process I never took part in was abandoned when my dear mom passed away ten years ago. I know I still have the family recipe somewhere, and I’m thinking I might just have to bring it out of hiding this year for old times sake. (Fortunately, it’s not hard to find pints of already-processed persimmon pulp for sale around Indy, if you know where to look.) Here’s hoping I’ll make my mama proud.

For more info about Spring Mill Inn (which is every bit as nice as the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County, if not nicer, IMHO), visit http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/inns/springmill/

For info on the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival, go to http://persimmonfestival.org/

Round 'em up

Another fun place I visited as part of my Fox River Valley tour earlier this summer was Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

This character-rich brewpub is an offshoot of the original brewing operation in Warrenville, owned by — you guessed it — two brothers. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Aurora roundhouse is a really cool historic site and the oldest existing limestone facility of its kind in the U.S., once a bustling 40-bay servicing operation for various locomotives.

Two Brothers Roundhouse dining room

These days, the massive circular structure encloses a lovely courtyard area, brewing operations, unique banquet/event spaces, bars and a darn tasty restaurant. The owners have wisely preserved much of the original décor to give the whole joint a rustic casual feel, the perfect backdrop for some delicious pub grub.

Cheddar goat cheese dip

Our group stopped in for lunch and beer tasting on a sunny weekday. We kicked things off with a round of sharable appetizers — a smoked cheddar and goat cheese dip with toasted bread, tempura-battered green beans with a ranch dipping sauce, and soft pretzels served with a stone-ground beer-spiked mustard. All very respectable and done well.

soft pretzels with beer mustard and cheese

The cheese dip was rich and creamy with a good smoky depth of flavor, and the mustard with the soft pretzel was seriously addictive. The green beans might have been my favorite, though, nicely crispy without being greasy.

Tempura green beans with ranch dipping sauce

Honestly, I’d eaten so much on this trip, I filled myself up just sampling the appetizers and left it at that. Everything else the group ordered around the table looked delish, though… particularly the skirt steak taco small plate with ancho chili sauce, the Dover Sole fish tacos (a house specialty), and the grilled veggie sandwich. I did nibble a couple of the housemade potato chips off my neighbor’s plate. Yummy.

Dover sole fish tacos

Looking back now, I’m not sure if the beer serves as the perfect foil to the food, or if it’s the other way around. In either case, the two components play very nicely together. Our server brought out first one six-beer flight for us to share and sample. Then another. For lunch. Yikes. I picked a few I specifically wanted to taste and politely declined the rest. I did have a four-hour drive home ahead of me, after all. Otherwise, I could have happily sipped away, and perhaps grabbed a little catnap in the sunny courtyard afterward as I slowly sobered up.

Two Brothers beer samples

Between the house brews and a collection of bottled brands, there’s a big selection of beer here. I can’t even remember everything that was included in our tasting, but the flagship brew seems to be the Domaine DuPage, a French country-style ale. Very drinkable and refreshing. The porter was good, too, with the suggestion of chocolate and coffee flavors. I’m not so hip on IPAs or bitters, so I shied away from those and stuck to the more German strains of pilsners and lagers. All in all, solid beer. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even pick up bottles and growlers on the way out at a fill station near the entrance.

I’ve seen Two Brothers beer, particularly the Domaine DuPage, making a few guest appearances on several taps around Indy. Look for it and give it a try. And if you happen to find yourself near Aurora, stop in the roundhouse for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.

For more info:
www.twobrosbrew.com

Two Brothers Roundhouse on Urbanspoon

Round ’em up

Another fun place I visited as part of my Fox River Valley tour earlier this summer was Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

This character-rich brewpub is an offshoot of the original brewing operation in Warrenville, owned by — you guessed it — two brothers. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Aurora roundhouse is a really cool historic site and the oldest existing limestone facility of its kind in the U.S., once a bustling 40-bay servicing operation for various locomotives.

Two Brothers Roundhouse dining room

These days, the massive circular structure encloses a lovely courtyard area, brewing operations, unique banquet/event spaces, bars and a darn tasty restaurant. The owners have wisely preserved much of the original décor to give the whole joint a rustic casual feel, the perfect backdrop for some delicious pub grub.

Cheddar goat cheese dip

Our group stopped in for lunch and beer tasting on a sunny weekday. We kicked things off with a round of sharable appetizers — a smoked cheddar and goat cheese dip with toasted bread, tempura-battered green beans with a ranch dipping sauce, and soft pretzels served with a stone-ground beer-spiked mustard. All very respectable and done well.

soft pretzels with beer mustard and cheese

The cheese dip was rich and creamy with a good smoky depth of flavor, and the mustard with the soft pretzel was seriously addictive. The green beans might have been my favorite, though, nicely crispy without being greasy.

Tempura green beans with ranch dipping sauce

Honestly, I’d eaten so much on this trip, I filled myself up just sampling the appetizers and left it at that. Everything else the group ordered around the table looked delish, though… particularly the skirt steak taco small plate with ancho chili sauce, the Dover Sole fish tacos (a house specialty), and the grilled veggie sandwich. I did nibble a couple of the housemade potato chips off my neighbor’s plate. Yummy.

Dover sole fish tacos

Looking back now, I’m not sure if the beer serves as the perfect foil to the food, or if it’s the other way around. In either case, the two components play very nicely together. Our server brought out first one six-beer flight for us to share and sample. Then another. For lunch. Yikes. I picked a few I specifically wanted to taste and politely declined the rest. I did have a four-hour drive home ahead of me, after all. Otherwise, I could have happily sipped away, and perhaps grabbed a little catnap in the sunny courtyard afterward as I slowly sobered up.

Two Brothers beer samples

Between the house brews and a collection of bottled brands, there’s a big selection of beer here. I can’t even remember everything that was included in our tasting, but the flagship brew seems to be the Domaine DuPage, a French country-style ale. Very drinkable and refreshing. The porter was good, too, with the suggestion of chocolate and coffee flavors. I’m not so hip on IPAs or bitters, so I shied away from those and stuck to the more German strains of pilsners and lagers. All in all, solid beer. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even pick up bottles and growlers on the way out at a fill station near the entrance.

I’ve seen Two Brothers beer, particularly the Domaine DuPage, making a few guest appearances on several taps around Indy. Look for it and give it a try. And if you happen to find yourself near Aurora, stop in the roundhouse for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.

For more info:
www.twobrosbrew.com

Two Brothers Roundhouse on Urbanspoon

Breakfast of champions

Lifelong Richmond resident and Pearl Harbor survivor Paul Brittenham passed away last October at the ripe old age of 94, but his legacy lives on at the popular northside diner he founded back in 1948.

Paulee Restaurant in Richmond’s historic Depot District

 

Brittenham opened Paulee Restaurant several years after returning home from his military service tour. A businessman first and foremost, he knew his profits depended on frequent turnover. With just 10 seats to work with, the crusty Brittenham discouraged dawdling, often telling customers to “eat and get out!” His loyal patrons didn’t mind, and the good food and fair prices kept them coming back. The restaurant still draws crowds of devoted regulars, some who’ve been known to come in for breakfast and return a few hours later for lunch.

An on-site fixture for decades, Brittenham retired just a few years ago at age 89, passing the torch to Jenny Orbik, a loyal employee who had worked for him for 20 years and didn’t want to see the restaurant close.

my dear old dad, fitting right in at Paulee’s

 

Not much has changed at Paulee through the years, except perhaps for the addition of some nifty murals on the exteriors of the neighborhood buildings. There are still just 10 seats in the whole place and the joint still serves the same straight-up-good, no-nonsense food in a nostalgic diner atmosphere, much as it did when it opened decades ago.

a basic breakfast at Paulee’s

If you’re in the mood for a hearty basic breakfast, this is the place to go. Eggs come any way you want alongside toast and meat choices that include bacon, fresh or smoked sausage, ham, chopped steak, pork chop and even tenderloin.

B&G at Paulee’s

 

Biscuits and gravy fans take note – the recipe at Paulee is top-notch, and available in one, two and three biscuit portions. The three-egg omelets are another popular breakfast choice, and if you need a sweet fix, Paulee carries donuts and Danishes from local bakeries.

For lunch, Paulee offers a lineup of classic burgers, sandwiches and soups, along with an old-fashioned daily special along the lines of cabbage rolls, tuna casserole or green beans stewed with sausage and potatoes.

Today, Paulee Restaurant finds itself ideally sited amid prime real estate in Richmond’s emerging Historic Depot District. Neighborhood improvements, the renovation of the depot itself, and the addition of new businesses are attracting a whole new generation of clientele to the area, many discovering Paulee for the first time.

Paulee’s menu board

 

Open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday, Paulee’s prices are more than reasonable for the amount and quality of food you get. Just don’t forget to hit the ATM first, this cash-only diner doesn’t accept credit cards.

420 N. 8th St.
Richmond, Ind.
(765) 962-5621