Shine on, shine on

Located off an I-70 access road, a visit to the quaint and rustic Firefly Grill capped off a rather lackluster daytrip I made to Effingham, Ill. earlier this summer.

In an area otherwise populated with all the usual highway dining suspects, Firefly Grill is a real breath of fresh air, and a pleasant discovery to make. It takes some work to find the place; you have to first wend your way though the chain restaurants off the exit and back a little ways. When it comes into view, though, there’s no mistaking you’ve come to the right place. It’s basically a big old barn with firewood stacked out front and the name of the joint in big red letters scrawled across the roof.

Firefly Grill in Effingham, Ill.

Besides the fab food, the charming lakeside setting and the upscale casual vibe, Firefly Grill apparently finds it easy being green. Meaning eco-friendly. In fact, Bon Appetit has named it the No. 2 eco-friendly restaurant in the country. Yep, right here in little old Effingham. Farm-to-table doesn’t get much fresher than this. On-site gardens supply herbs and produce for use in the kitchen. The staff takes pains to get to know the farmers, fishermen and foragers from whom they source mostly local and organic products (of course). Inside, the soaring ceiling is made of what looks like reclaimed wood. Overall, Firefly Grill makes a great first impression, as well as a second and third.

inside Firefly Grill

I was flying solo for my visit, as I often do on freelance assignments, and didn’t feel at all out of place. I brought a book in for company, but never even cracked it open, occupied as I was instead by the food and décor.

The one-pager dinner menu boasts “contemporary Midwestern” cuisine by way of small plates, brick oven pizzas, soups, salads, steaks, pastas and fish dishes. I struggled to make decisions, torn between halibut, a Szechaun pork tenderloin and other tempting fare. Red meat reigned supreme in the end, and I went with something called a Montana Mignon, a beef Wellington-esque concoction with filet, housemade boursin cheese and barbecue sauce all tucked into a puff pastry crust. Sides are all ala carte; I opted for Brussels sprouts with lardons and parmesan cheese.

the (very rare) Montana Mignon

The server had warned me that the steak would be served rare/medium-rare to prevent the pastry crust from burning. This made me a little nervous. I like my meat pink, but not bloody, which I let her know. Still, when the dish arrived and I cut in, it was really, really red in the middle. She told me the kitchen could take the filet out, sear it a little more and bring it back, but I was already a few bites in and it tasted so good, I might have stabbed her with my fork if she’d tried to pull my plate away. The combination of boursin and barbecue sauce was rich and fantastic, and the puff pastry layers shatteringly light and yummy. The serving size was a little small, but packed with flavor. I left the very center bite of meat behind, but devoured the rest.

crunchy Brussels sprouts with lardons and Parm

Likewise, the Brussels sprouts were treated with respect, not overcooked to mush. The sprouts had been halved and roasted to preserve a good crunch, and the crispy bacon lardons and parmesan cheese really upped the flavor ante. I should also mention the housemade sourdough bread boule I received with sweet whipped butter. I only managed one slice and would have cried to see the rest go to waste. The server kindly wrapped up the remaining loaf for me to take home. I sliced and toasted it for lunch the next day, and it was awesome.

One good thing about keeping the portions on the smallish side, I had plenty of room for a dessert. Again, narrowing down on one was something of a challenge, and although a trio of housemade sorbets sounded light and summery, I couldn’t get past something called “liquid cheesecake.”  I do love me some cheesecake.

the luscious liquid cheesecake

My little parfait was pretty as a picture, a cute dish with layers of pudding-like not-too-sweet cheesecake filling, fresh berries, and panko-crisp graham cracker crumbs with a mint sprig on top. I usually prefer chocolate desserts when I dine out, but this was perfect for the season and sooooooo good. I think I might have even inspired the ladies dining next to me to order one for themselves.

Firefly Grill isn’t cheap; I dropped over $50 on my dinner and that’s without any wine (alas, I still had to drive all the way back to Indy after I ate). Then again, I felt ok paying for food and service of this quality. You could get away with a lower bill by choosing less expensive menu options or sticking with small plates. The chefs and cooks here obviously put a ton of tender loving care into the plates they’re putting out, and the whole experience was so much more satisfying than stopping in an Applebee’s or Chili’s off the road. If you happen to be driving by on I-70 or I-57 and you’re in the market for a good meal, I highly recommend giving the Firefly Grill a go.

For more info:
www.ffgrill.com

 

Firefly Grill on Urbanspoon

Bourbon bliss and Southern comforts

Southern hospitality is alive and well and living in Lexington. My love affair with Kentucky continued this week with a five-course, bourbon-paired dinner that took our relationship to a whole new level. When I received the extremely gracious invitation from my extremely gracious friend Niki at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau to be her guest at a James Beard Dinner celebrating the summer solstice, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Determined to make the most of my all-too-short overnight visit to bourbon country, I spun through Bardstown and Maker’s Mark on my way down, followed by a stop at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in the afternoon. Sleepy, charming Bardstown is adorable, and somewhere I’d love to spend a few days exploring. I passed the Jim Beam and Heaven Hill distilleries on my way to Maker’s, which is seriously out in the middle of nowhere. The picturesque campus sits amid rolling hills laced with rustic stone walls with “Whiskey Creek” running through the property. The stoic black warehouses and outbuildings all sport red shutters.

taking a dip at Maker’s Mark

I had my heart set on doing the touristy thing and dipping my own bottle of bourbon in the signature red sealing wax. As it turned out, this activity was slightly anti-climatic but still fun, and I quickly realized it was harder than it looks to get an even drip all the way around. My wax ended up a little lopsided with a couple of wispy strands trailing off the edge of seal. (The guide said they call these “guardian angels.”)

the finished product

Calling Conner Prairie to mind, Shaker Village is a gorgeous restful place in the bucolic countryside southwest of Lexington with an on-site restaurant and a series of buildings you can actually book rooms to spend the night in. I passed a very idyllic hour or so wandering through the various historic structures and enjoying the peaceful scenery. If you’re looking to get away from it all for a night or a weekend, this would be an excellent place to do so.

the charming Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill

On to the main event, though… For the visiting New Orleans Bourbon Society (!), the bourbon dinner shindig was just one of the first stops on a weekend-long tour of Lexington. I would have loved to crash the party further to sneak onto the distillery tours and horse farm visits still to come. Let me tell you, these people know how to have a good time.

The evening started off with cocktails at the ridiculously luxurious 600+ acre Donamire Farm on Old Frankfort Pike. Talk about lifestyles of the rich and famous… this place was like a country club. The owners offered up their guesthouse for our pre-dinner festivities, and it was insanely lovely.

a classic Sazerac

We mixed and mingled in the main foyer while sipping Sazerac cocktails — a New Orleans specialty composed of rye bourbon, bitters and anise-tinged Herbsaint with a small lemon rind curled in. Strong, but delish. I must admit to being somewhat intimidated about the amount of bourbon I’d be ingesting throughout the evening and nursed my glass slowly, lest I wind up under a table somewhere before the food even arrived. The New Orleans-themed hors d’oeuvres that made their way around the room included fresh oysters, poached salmon and bite-sized alligator puff pastry potpies.

We then bussed down the road to the Headley-Whitney Museum, a decorative arts facility founded in the 1970s by prominent jewelry designer George W. Headley III. We only got a small peek at the interior, as the tables were already set up in the main lobby space when we arrived, but I did spy some jewelry displays around the room that looked interesting. It felt like Christmas, 4th of July and my birthday all rolled into one as I sat down and waited for the proceedings to begin. Logically, everything highlighted top-shelf Kentucky-made products, and Buffalo Trace Distillery in nearby Frankfort supplied all the bourbon.

fried chicken salad and Tornado Surviving

Pike Valley Farm fried chicken salad in lettuce wraps with a buttermilk sage dressing kicked things off nicely, paired with the curiously named EH Taylor Tornado Surviving. This particular bourbon did actually come through a twister that damaged several Buffalo Trace warehouses in 2006, and the barrels’ ensuing exposure to the elements has given it a serious profile that nearly jumps out of the glass and smacks you in the face. This one was a little harsh for my taste, but you have to respect its sheer strength of will. The chicken salad was fab, a savory creamy scoop amid a fresh lettuce cup with a scattering of crispy potato sticks across the top. I could eat a bigger serving of this for a summer lunch and be perfectly happy about it.

barbecued shrimp with Buffalo Trace

Next up was bourbon BBQ shrimp with a crackin’ cornbread muffin. The small shrimp were perfectly tender, and the sauce was deep and rich in flavor, almost smoky. I used a few pieces of the cornbread to dredge up more sauce since I didn’t have a spoon and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by licking the plate. I wasn’t that drunk. Yet. The bourbon match for this course was the versatile, all-around-good Buffalo Trace. I’ve tasted this stuff before and loved it, so much so, that I made sure to hit a liquor store on the way out to stock up on a few bottles. Man cannot live by Maker’s Mark alone.

red drum with crabmeat and crawfish cake

And the hits kept on coming… Third course was a small crusted filet of red drum (an Atlantic fish I can’t recall ever tasting before) atop a crawfish cake with chunks of jumbo lump crab and a bourbon cream corn sauce. The fish and the crawfish cake were sweet, moist and tasty, but it was the meaty chunks of crab dripping with the corn sauce that I could not get enough of. Sooooo. Good. The bourbon accompaniment was Weller 12 Year. At this point, I’m ashamed to say the bourbons were all starting to taste the same to my neophyte palate, but I persevered, trying to discern different flavors and scents as we went along. (To keep myself out of trouble, I did not finish all my samples and tried to just sip prudently throughout the meal.)

beef tenderloin with shiitake mushroom “bacon”

As if I wasn’t already swooning and smitten, the fourth course nearly took me over top into multiple foodgasm territory. Lyon Farms beef tenderloin with Old Kentucky Tomme scalloped potatoes and a caramel peppercorn sauce. I’ve critiqued quite a bit of steak this year, and this was simply one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had. The medium-rare beef was so tender I cut it with my fork, and the flavor was outstanding. Here’s something else that blew me away about this dish – scattered around the plate were little crunchy pieces of what I thought were bacon, but later realized were Sheltowee Farm shiitake mushrooms. I haven’t stopped wondering how in the heck they made these. Unbelievable. And the bourbon? Blanton’s Single Barrel. I was supremely proud of myself for detecting the honey notes in this one before our tasting guide had even pointed them out.

bourbon poached peach a la mode with accoutrements

By this point, I had quite a buzz going, and also felt sort of like I might soon explode. Dessert was a don’t-miss, though; a bourbon-poached halved peach with a small cube of butter cake, handspun vanilla ice cream spiked with a sorghum-almond tuile, and a splash of raspberry coulis. Very Southern, pretty as a picture and just as delicious. The bourbon capper here was Eagle Rare. Stick a fork in me. I was done.

Big, big props to the chefs for this event — Jonathan Lundy from Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington (where last  year, I had a fantastic blackened salmon and crawfish macque choux dish that I still daydream about), and Chef Darin Nesbit of Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House in New Orleans. Top, top marks for taste, skill and presentation.

I must also give a shout-out to the lovely Gratz Park Inn for my accommodations. This boutique hotel in Lexington’s oldest historic neighborhood utterly exudes old-world class. (It’s also thought to be haunted, but that’s another story…) The inn is ideally situated to downtown restaurants and attractions, the rooms are beautiful, and the hospitality warm and wonderful. I’ve stayed here twice now, and I can’t imagine booking a room anywhere else in town.

Oh, and that vague food/bourbon hangover headache I nursed throughout the following day? Totally worth it.

cheers!

Get your chicken on

If you ask me, the title of best fried chicken EVER— ok, technically, it was the best broasted chicken EVER — goes to the sadly now-defunct Miller’s Cafeteria in my hometown of Richmond, Ind. I have fond memories of family dinners in those hallowed dining rooms as I grew up in the 1970s. There was never a question about what I would order as I came through the line. White meat chicken, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, and a yeast roll. Maybe a scoop of chocolate ice cream in a little metal dish if I was feeling extra saucy.

To this day, I have never found anywhere that serves chicken as good as Miller’s, but I must give credit where credit is due. The Kopper Kettle Inn in the tiny town of Morristown, Ind. made a very respectable showing last weekend.

Morristown’s historic Kopper Kettle

I have a strong feeling Hollyhock Hill in Indianapolis strikes a very similar chord, but for old-fashioned, family-style chicken dinners with all the trimmings, the Kopper Kettle really delivers the goods. This is top-notch Hoosier comfort food fare from another era, the likes of which you’d probably find on your grandma’s table on a Sunday afternoon. If, that is, your grandma was a kick-ass cook with no concern about calories or fat intake.

We hit up Kopper Kettle on the way back to Indy from Richmond after a weekend spent exploring yard sales along the Old National Road/US 40. The place was a little hard to find, and we took a few detours down some very remote country roads (thank God for GPS), but once we arrived in Morristown, the place was impossible to miss.

one of Kopper Kettle’s many dining rooms

This place is awesome in a ladies-who-lunch kind of way. It’s housed in a former railroad-era tavern, later an inn, that still holds many original furnishings, including one owner’s collection of… you guessed it. Copper kettles.

There’s also a lovely patio leading out into gorgeous, meticulously tended gardens, and a fancy Victorian-style interior with fussy table settings and flowery murals on the walls. I was a little nervous bringing my four-year-old son into this restaurant, but he did me proud by behaving fairly well for the duration of our meal. As in most Indiana dining establishments, anything goes here by way of dress code. We saw everything from women in church finery to guys in shorts and jeans.

So. You can peruse the menu if you wish and consider stuff like broiled steak, chicken and noodles, or French-fried shrimp, but what you really want here is the fried chicken dinner. Repeat after me. “Fried chicken dinner, please.” You can thank me later.

Also, you might want to consider skipping lunch before a meal at Kopper Kettle. All dinners start off with your choice of chicken noodle or creamy onion soup, tomato juice or cottage cheese; followed by a bowl of tossed salad. (Tip — the bleu cheese dressing made in-house is FABULOUS.) Really, though, you should try to restrain yourself somewhat during these warm-up courses, because you really want to have enough room to appreciate the main event.

the fried chicken spread at Kopper Kettle

The chicken comes three pieces to a serving, fried to crispy, crunchy perfection in a cast-iron skillet. Probably using old-school lard. I don’t care. It is delicious. That’s all you need to know. In addition, each table receives sharable bowls of creamy, dreamy mashed potatoes sitting beneath a pool of melted butter, green beans with a surprising touch of sweetness, and good old Indiana sweet corn. Also drenched in butter. Don’t ask questions. Just enjoy. Pour yourself a big, healthy dollop of the creamy home-style gravy while you’re at it. It’s worth the splurge.

mmmmmmm… chicken!

If you possibly have any room left in your stomach at the end of this veritable food orgy, a scoop of ice cream with your choice of topping is included in the prix fixe. Stuffed as we were by that point, we sadly had to pass it up. In fact, we took home enough leftovers to compose another complete meal. At $16.95 a head, I daresay this may be one of the best dinner values in the state.

By the way, the servers here are outstanding, from keeping the food coming and the drinks filled to catering to the wee ones at the table and even bringing out hot moist washcloths prior to the check. They are on the ball and do not miss a trick.

All in all, if you want to feast on some straightforward classic Hoosier fare, drive the extra mileage and pay the Kopper Kettle Inn a visit. I guarantee you won’t go away hungry or disappointed.

For more information,
www.kopperkettle.com

Kopper Kettle on Urbanspoon

Burn baby burn

When I was in high school and college, it was a summertime Richmond tradition to cruise by the fire station on South A Street and wave to the cute firemen who hung out on the bench by the street.

I’m happy to report there’s a new place in town to ogle cute firemen, and eat some darn good food at the same time. Local firefighters Rick Bolen and Tom Broyles teamed up to open Firehouse BBQ and Blues in the Historic Depot District last January, a labor of love two years in the making.

inside Firehouse BBQ and Blues

This hopping new restaurant/live music venue is located in what was Richmond’s first fire station back in the 1800s, and Rick and Tom have kept much of the building’s original architecture intact; the dining room sits where horses were once stabled to pull fire “trucks” in days of old. Make sure to take a gander at the incredibly detailed murals while you’re here; the one on the exterior side of the building is so lifelike, you might actually think it’s on fire at first glance.

exterior murals

By the way, Rick and Tom recently made an appearance on Indy Style, where they prepared mouthwatering brisket and pulled pork that definitely whetted my appetite prior to my visit. These guys will crack. You. Up. (Watch them “smack the butt” around the 0:49 mark: http://www.wishtv.com/dpp/indy_style/kitchen/firehouse-bbq-and-blues)

Let me get back to the food – this is some tasty, down-home-style ‘cue. Definitely the best in Richmond. My friends and I got off to a good start with the BBQ Nachos, a messy and delicious plate of tortilla chips loaded up with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, baked beans (!), cheese, onions and jalapenos. You could make a meal of this dish on its own.

barbecued nachos

Dinners come with two sides and a jalapeno corn muffin and meat choices include all of barbecue’s greatest hits: Pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken, baby back ribs, and a somewhat intimidating concoction called “The Smokin’ Hog.” Take a smoked sausage, slice it and put it on a bun, pile on some pulled pork, cheese, onions and barbecue sauce. There you go. Diners with smaller appetites will be happy to hear you can get the “lunch special” all day long, a sandwich with one side.

the Smokin’ Hog with mac and cheese

Everything we tasted was good. If you twisted my arm, I’d have to name the beef brisket as my fave, although the pulled pork was pretty rockin’, too.

beef brisket with baked beans and cheesy potatoes

From the sides (all served in adorable short Mason jars), the cheesy potatoes came out the winner in my book, reminding me my aunt’s comfort food-classic hash brown casserole recipe. The baked beans were delish as well.

pulled pork with baked beans and cole slaw

Sadly, I had to take off around the time the live music was just tuning up for the evening. This place offers a whole calendar full of acts from throughout the region to rock the house every weekend. Kids are welcome here throughout the week and until 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, after that, the crowd is 21-and-older only.

If you like good barbecue in a really interesting atmosphere, get yourself down here pronto. I’m already looking forward to coming back again next time I’m in town. This place is hot. Dare I say, it’s on fire!

For more information:
http://firehousebbqandblues.com/

Firehouse BBQ and Blues on Urbanspoon

Dinner… and all that jazz

Color me awed. Last night, I discovered that the Gennett Mansion, a majestic historic Main Street home in my hometown of Richmond, Ind. hosts a series of absolutely awesome gourmet farm-to-table dinners. I don’t technically live there anymore, but I get back often enough. Seriously, how could I have not known about this before now?!? This was without a doubt the best food I’ve ever eaten in Richmond, and right up there with some of the best food I’ve eaten lately, period.

Richmond’s historic Gennett Mansion

 

Here’s the skinny: the highly hospitable Donna and Bob Geddes currently own the Gennett Mansion and live on the third floor. This Colonial Revival mansion was originally built in 1897 as the home of Henry and Alice Gennett, who lived in the house with their family for nearly 40 years. Scratch the surface of Richmond history and you’ll uncover a whole slew of information about the Gennetts and their musical legacy — the family manufactured pianos and later paved the way for new recording technology of their era. Some of the most prominent jazz, blues, gospel and country artists of the early 20th century played and recorded right here in Richmond, including Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and Gene Autry. The Gennett Mansion is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Indiana Landmark.

 

I must have driven past the Gennett Mansion on Main Street a million times over the years without ever thinking too much about it, to be honest. The building used to house offices; I can recall calling on someone there when I was an advertising account executive for the local newspaper back in the early 1990s. Since taking possession of the property in 2006, the Geddes have painstakingly been restoring it to renewed levels of grandeur. Their efforts have paid off handsomely, and Donna and Bob generously open the mansion for tours, weddings, live music concerts, private parties, corporate events and farm-to-table dinners like the one my dad and I had the pleasure of attending last night.

And what a dinner this was. The Geddes collaborate with the talented Chef Jen Ferrell (who in a small-world twist is married to the grandson of my former orthodontist) to create sumptuous menus for these meals featuring locally sourced organic products. Jen grew up in Brown County, earned a degree in environmental management from Indiana University before later easing her way into a cooking career as a personal chef and caterer. She moved to Richmond eight years ago when her husband took a job with Earlham College.

one of the Gennett Mansion dining rooms

We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and had a chance to settle in and snoop around the house before dinner began. Everything was gorgeous, from the fresh daisy centerpieces to the polished woodwork. The architecture and interior design alone is reason enough to come here. There’s a beautiful Starr piano standing in the main hall, a gleaming wood staircase and elegant furnishings throughout. Our dining room (one of several) was decked out with a cross-beamed ceiling, bowed windows and a fireplace large enough to stand in. It was fun to see how the rich and famous of Richmond must have lived back in the early 1900s.

There were nearly 20 guests for dinner last night, although Donna said they can accommodate up to 40. Donna and Bob did all the serving themselves, and I spied only Chef Jen in the kitchen. This was an ambitious undertaking for just three people to pull off, and they did so flawlessly.

braised bison with polenta and red pepper sauce

Our first course set the tone for what was to come with a triangular polenta cake and braised local bison from a farm up between Lynn and Winchester, all topped with a roasted red pepper paprika sauce. The bison was flavorful and tender, and the corn cake light, fluffy and steaming hot. Yum.

mixed greens with shaved radishes and white chocolate vinaigrette

Next up was a salad of greens from the chef’s very own garden — a mix of torn romaine lettuce, spinach and bok choy with a few shaved purple radish slices on top and a sprinkle of almonds. I’m not crazy about radishes, but these were light, peppery and tasty. The dressing was a white chocolate citrus vinaigrette, which has got to be one of the more unusual combinations I’ve ever tasted. It was really different and delicious; the white chocolate was not at all overpowering, just an interesting and subtle flavor note in the overall fresh mix of ingredients.

mint julep sorbet

To cleanse our palates after the salad, we each received a small glass dish of mint julep sorbet. We’ve been on a big bourbon kick in my house as of late, and this was right up my alley. Made with fresh mint and top-shelf Kentucky bourbon and garnished with a single pink rose petal, it was as tasty for the eyes as it was the mouth. I drank a couple of mint juleps during a tour of Churchill Downs earlier last month and they were cloyingly sweet, but as a little icy treat, the recipe worked perfectly. I even stirred a bit into my iced tea to give it a slight minty kick. Big, big fan of this.

beef croustade

The main course was the real showstopper – beef croustade with roasted asparagus. Here’s the breakdown: take a tender piece of local steak, top it with porter roasted onions and gorgonzola cheese, then wrap the whole thing in phyllo dough like a little beggar’s purse and bake. Oh. My. Goodness. I was so excited to eat this, I forgot all about taking pictures until after I’d already cut in and had to rearrange my plate to get the shot. It was soooooo delicious, like a beef Wellington with phyllo instead of puff pastry. I thought my dad’s eyes were going to roll back in his head, he was so happy when he took a bite of this. The asparagus on the side was perfectly tender. We also received a small basket of fragrant rosemary yeast rolls and a compound herb butter to spread on top.

coffee and all the trappings

Prior to bringing out the dessert, Donna served some wonderful coffee she’d brought back from a recent trip to Costa Rica (in addition to her Gennett responsibilities, she also works as an international flight attendant!), along with a cute trio of accoutrement to dude up our cups. What a whimsical idea to stir in raw sugar, chocolate chips and fresh whipped cream!

sour cherry pie with coconut ice cream

Dessert was a picture-perfect slice of lattice-top sour cherry pie (I overheard Chef Jen saying the cherries had come from Wesler’s Orchard) and a little scoop of housemade coconut ice cream sitting pretty beside it. Wow. I couldn’t imagine a better end to a better meal. Chef Jen made the rounds to each table during dessert, I’m sure collecting compliments all along the way. She certainly got quite a few from us. This meal blew my mind.

Last night’s dinner carried a per-person price tag of $38, which seemed extremely reasonable for the amount and quality of food we received. Be aware — there is no alcohol here, only water, coffee and iced tea, but diners are perfectly welcome to bring their own wine or beer.

These Farm to Table dinners happen once a month or so as scheduling allows; follow the Gennett Mansion Facebook page for updates. I, for one, am thrilled to know these events are taking place in my little old hometown, and plan to make a return trip as soon as new details are posted. If you’re up for a memorable fine dining experience in a beautiful historic setting, get your reservation in for one of these dinners post-haste.

For more info about the Gennett Mansion, visit www.gennettmansion.com.

Claim your steaks

Another contender has just muscled its way onto my personal favorite-steak-in-Indiana list… St. Elmo’s in Indy remains the sentimental choice, and Joseph Decuis in Roanoke certainly satisfies with hospitality and top-shelf Wagyu beef, but Chop’s Steak and Seafood in Fort Wayne has just blazed onto my scene with a sizzling debut.

Chops Steaks and Seafood in Fort Wayne

This locally owned strip mall steakhouse on the western side of town has actually been around since 2003, but only recently came to my attention thanks to a fellow freelancer friend in Fort Wayne. I had opportunity to visit for dinner last week, and was seriously impressed with what I saw and what I ate.

Be forewarned if you’re expecting a quiet evening of intimate conversation — the restaurant is on the loud side. And the signature chopped salad could have used a little more dressing (I like my salads fairly saucy), but the tender 7 oz. filet mignon I received was outstanding. It arrived atop bacon cheddar mashed potatoes with some veggies on the side, cooked to a perfectly pink-but-not-bloody medium degree of doneness just as requested. Lesson learned. I will never order steak in a restaurant anything other than medium ever again. This meat was perfection. Did I mention the big pat of horseradish butter on top, melting slowly into the beef? Aw. Yeah. My friend also was very pleased with her ginormous black and blue ribeye, giving it her best shot before crying uncle halfway through. She said the leftovers made a fabulous lunch the next day.

filet with horseradish butter

To sample the seafood, my dining companion and I shared five plump grilled shrimp, which we dunked into a cocktail glass full of cocktail sauce nearly spicy enough to rival St. E’s. One bite of this stuff made my nose tingle and my eyes water, in a good way. I was hooked.

grilled shrimp

Also worth noting — Chop’s features not one, but TEN house wines by the glass for $5.50, and what a glass it is. If it had been any more full, I would have had to slurp some off the top before being able to safely raise my glass without sloshing. The Malbec I enjoyed was light and lovely. If you’re a wine drinker, I daresay this has got to be one of the best deals in town.

To that end, Chop’s also operates an adjoining wine bar next door that serves its own highly tempting menu of trendy plates both small and large. The CWB burger on pretzel bread, pork belly sliders, Latin-spiced lamb riblets, and an Asian-inspired chicken and waffles with Korean chili-garlic glaze and a cashew slaw make me want to look at my calendar to see how quickly I can get back up to Fort Wayne again.

Our bill for two very full glasses of wine (which honestly was more like four glasses) and two entrees was right at $70, which seemed plenty fair for food and drink of this quality. If you covet red meat done right, definitely check into Chop’s on your next trip to the Fort.

For more info, visit www.chopswineanddine.com.

Chop's Steak & Seafood on Urbanspoon

Louisville lingo for foodies

I got schooled (in a good way) about Louisville’s eclectic food scene during a delightful City Taste Tour this afternoon that included samples all along the way. Interestingly, Louisville is home to some very distinctive, and awesomely delicious, food items that you can only get here. Oh sure, you can pay your respects to Colonel Sanders at beautiful historic Cave Hill Cemetery, but you should also know there’s a whole lot more worth sampling besides extra-crispy drumsticks. You’ll find just about any food your heart and tummy desires in Louisville, but these are some of the traditional tastes everyone should try:

Modjeskas from Schimpff’s Confectionery

One word: Modjeska. Learn it. Know it. Love it. In the 1880s, local Louisville confectioner Anton Busath happened to catch a performance by Polish actress Madam Helena Modjeska at the old Macauley Theater and was inspired to create a special candy in her honor. Hence, the Modjeska was born — a gooey marshmallow covered in soft caramel. These divine goodies are available at candy stores throughout the area, including Muth’s Candy in the NuLu district and the adorable Schmipff’s Confectionery across the river in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Benedictine. As Leslie, our knowledgeable tour guide, informed us, Benedictine is to Louisville what peanut butter and jelly is to the rest of the country. The original recipe is credited to one Jenny Benedict, a Louisville caterer who invented the green-tinted sandwich spread in the 1800s. It’s pretty basic, really — cream cheese, cucumber and green onions. Perfect for ladies who lunch, I imagine this stuff has been making its way onto tea sandwiches around these parts for ages.

The Hot Brown. A creation of Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, the hot brown is a real gut-buster of a yummy lunch. You start with a slice of toast, then layer on turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese, then drench the whole thing with creamy Mornay sauce. Slide it under the broiler for a few minutes to take it to new heights of sinfully caloric deliciousness. You’re welcome.

mint julep at Churchill Downs

Mint juleps. The traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps are kind of a touristy thing to order. Locals and regulars seem to gravitate more toward bourbon neat, or mixed into a more respectable cocktail. I drank my first ever mint julep (quickly followed by my second) on Sunday night during a party at Churchill Downs. To say it was sweet is an understatement. I liked it, but this probably isn’t a libation you’d want to drink a bunch of in one sitting. Think sweet tea with extra sugar, bourbon and a sprig of fresh mint. I’d like to try to recreate a slightly less sweet version of this at home when the mint springs up again in my herb garden.

bourbon balls

Bourbon balls. Speaking of bourbon, don’t even think about missing out on a bourbon ball during a visit to Kentucky. Invented by Ruth Booe of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company in nearby Frankfort way back when, these babies take a bourbony, brown sugary, creamy center and dunk it in chocolate. Lynn’s Paradise Café in Louisville has reinvented the recipe in a French toast dish that sounds ridiculously, insanely decadent and delicious.

rolled oysters

Rolled oysters. A brainchild of the Mazzoni family in the late 1800s/early 1900s, this is the mother of all fried oysters. Take three fresh oysters, dip them in an egg batter, roll them together in breadcrumbs and deep fry. Voila. A rolled oyster. These things are the size of a baseball, and can be eaten with cocktail sauce or a simple squeeze of lemon. Who knew a Midwestern/southern town along the Ohio River could turn out such an authoritative seafood dish?

Weisenberger grits. The best restaurants in town advertise Weisenberger grits on their menus, so I asked why. Weisenberger grits are apparently the Rolls-Royce of cornmeal, produced at the Weisenberger mill in central Kentucky by six generations of Weisenbergers. If you see them on a menu, order them. Immediately. And for those of you drinking along at home — Weisenberger.

Derby Pie®. Trademarked by Kern’s Kitchen, this dessert makes plain old pecan pie look downright pathetic by subbing chopped black walnuts and chocolate chips into a top-secret classified recipe. Uh, yum.

Wait, there’s more… Louisville’s been named a top foodie town by several magazines, and a drive around quickly uncovers the reasons why. Have I sufficiently whetted your appetite?

For info about a mouthwatering way to see and learn about Louisville, call Leslie Burke’s City Taste Tours at (502) 457-8686 or visit www.citytastetours.com. I guarantee you won’t go home hungry or thirsty.

A culinary coup in Louisville

Tonight had to be one of the coolest overall culinary experiences I’ve taken part in. As part of the fun-filled Travel South Showcase I’m currently in the middle of attending this week, we media delegates got to attend a live taping of a locally produced show called “Secrets of Louisville Chefs.” This isn’t some crazy reality TV cooking show. This is actual demo cooking in front of a live audience taped at Sullivan University, home to a top-notch culinary arts program and the student-operated Winston’s gourmet restaurant.

starters and a Seelbach

As soon as we came through the door, we were immediately wined and dined with appetizers and Seelbach Cocktails, a heavenly concoction of bourbon, triple sec, bitters and champagne. The nosh was a fab little trio plate of a tiny biscuit laden with tender roast lamb and jalapeno mint jelly, a mini Benedictine BLT on toast, and a little hoe cake topped with roasted veggie pimento cheese. There’s a story behind the name, but I don’t know it, so please feel free to insert joke here. (I also recently had lunch in a place that advertised the unfortunate choice of “ho-made chocolate chip cookies” on the dessert menu. Swear to God. I can’t make this stuff up.)

But I digress… these starters were delish. I’m quickly developing a particular fondness for pimento cheese on this trip (note to self, seek out recipes upon return to Indy). This made the hoe cake my favorite of the three. I can hear you snickering again. Stop it. Stop it right now.

While we sipped and nibbled in our seats, the producers set up the show, featuring three renowned local chefs who each came out and prepared a dish amid banter with the host. These chefs are all quite obviously masters of their craft. Possibly the universe.

Chef Llamas plates up chorizo and grits

Chef Anthony Lamas owns a place in town called Seviche, showcasing farm-to-table sensibilities with a Latino spin. For his demo, he whipped up a plate of housemade chorizo atop chipotle cheddar grits with an orange bourbon sauce and adobo chili puree.

First course: chorizo and grits

I’m also loving the grits on this trip as well – last night at the opening party, there was a mashed potato/grits bar. Let me say that again. Mashed potato. Grits. Bar. With toppings like caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, bacon and cheese to gussy things up. Oh yeah, baby, and then some.

Chef Castro assembling the “Not Brown”

The second man up was Chef John Castro, executive chef instructor of Winston’s at Sullivan University and partner at Yang Kee Noodle Restaurant.

Second course: the “Not Brown”

Also a renowned chef, John’s brother is known for the “Hot Brown” sandwich, an ungodly good open-faced stack of bread, cheese, bacon, turkey, tomato and Mornay sauce, broiled until gooey and served open faced. Not to be outdone, Chef John created the “Not Brown,” his own spin on the classic using fried green tomatoes as the “bread” with rock shrimp, crab, bacon, spinach and the Mornay sauce. If you’re a fan of seafood and cream sauce, this dish will send you straight over the moon.

Chef Moore gives us some sugar

Finally, Chef Josh Moore, executive chef and partner at Volare, treated us to a show of sweet finesse with a recipe that didn’t actually seem very difficult to make, but looked mouthwateringly scrumptious. This guy is known for creating some of the most spectacular sugar work this side of Willy Wonka. Case in point, a glass-like sample he’d brought to display of blue horse heads with roses woven through their flowing manes. All made of sugar. Seriously unbelievable.

Third course: jam cake with caramel frosting

For dessert, Chef Moore made a Kentucky jam cake with black walnuts and raspberry preserves in the batter, and a boiled caramel frosting that had us all swooning in our seats with thoughts of licking the spoon.

For a foodie like me, just watching the show taping and the demonstrations was bliss (I even picked up a few new tips to use at home), but then we got to make our way into Winston’s and eat the whole three-course meal. Everything looked and tasted absolutely gorgeous.

the mega Manhattan

To wash it down, I did the best I could to finish a super-sized Manhattan. No joke, this glass must have held about 16 ounces, and these bartenders were not shy with the Woodford Reserve. Thank goodness I ordered it on the rocks.

Secrets of Louisville Chefs is hosted by an energetic gentleman named Tim Laird and runs on WBKI-TV, Louisville’s CW affiliate. For more information, go to www.NewLocal.TV.

By the way, our particular episode is scheduled to air in Louisville on Sunday, April 1, and will be available for viewing online April 2 at www.NewLocal.TV.

Destination dining at its best

I know what you’re thinking. “Roanoke? Where the heck is Roanoke? I don’t want to drive nearly two hours from Indianapolis just to have dinner at some little place out in the middle of nowhere!”

Trust me. Yes. You do. Because this little tiny town is home to Joseph Decuis, master of fine dining, accommodations and all things hospitable. This enterprise encompasses a lovely B&B, restaurant, culinary classes and events, and a cafe-style emporium/gourmet market.

Joseph Decuis in Roanoke

I stayed at the Joseph Decuis Inn in two summers ago when I was in nearby Huntington for a freelance gig, and regretted not having a chance to eat at the restaurant then. So when I knew I’d be coming back to the area this week, a dinner reservation here was the first plan I made.

As I write this, I’m once again relaxing in the cozy confines of the inn (I’m actually the only guest this evening and have the whole place to myself! Winning!), rubbing my contently full belly and dreamily smiling as I think of the meal I’ve just consumed at the Joseph Decuis restaurant down the street.

the dining room view from my table

I could wax on all night about the cozy ambiance, the attentive service,and the adorable setting of Roanoke itself. But instead, I’ll let the food speak for itself.

roasted beets starter

My meal started off with an absolutely gorgeous chef-chosen appetizer of roasted baby beets with frisee lettuce, local honey, slices of Capriole Farms’ Old Kentucky Tomme cheese and a scattering of crunchy pistachios. Perhaps I should mention, I don’t like beets. This dish made me a believer. I could not stop eating it.

Wagyu beef filet

My entrée was the house specialty Wagyu beef, raised specifically for Joseph Decuis at the nearby Heritage Farms. If the quality of this meat is any indication, those cows are living the life of Donald Trump. My filet was incredibly flavorful and so tender, I barely needed to chew it. It was served atop perhaps the richest potato puree I’ve ever tasted with a beany succotash of sorts and a splash of red wine Bordelaise sauce. Amazing.

chocolate pecan bourbon bliss

I knew what I wanted for dessert before I even sat down. I spied a crazy delicious-looking pecan-dressed chocolate cake on the counter while I was taking some preliminary photos, and nothing could sway me. Not even the mocha pumpkin crème brulee or caramel pot de crème, which both also sounded terribly decadent. Nope. It was chocolate bourbon pecan cake all day, served with a quenelle of nearly pudding-like vanilla bean whipped cream and a bourbon sauce. This dessert was so good, it should have been illegal.

Fair warning – this is fine dining and these eats aren’t cheap, but the quality and overall experience make Joseph Decuis a splurge everyone who loves food should find a way to experience.

For more information, visit www.josephdecuis.com.

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Sweet spot

If you live in east central Indiana, you’re probably already acquainted with the exquisite chocolates of Ghyslain Chocolatier, but if you haven’t yet made time to stop in for a meal at Ghyslain’s Richmond Bistro, you need to. Soon.

Ghyslain (pronounced JEEZ-lay, as best I can tell) Maurais is a renowned French-Canadian pastry chef who met and married a Hoosier gal named Susan; the couple relocated to her hometown of Union City, Ind., where they established Ghyslain Chocolatier in 1998. The company has since grown to include satellite shops and eateries in Richmond and Zionsville, and opened a fourth location in Louisville last spring.

Ghyslain Bistro in Richmond

I visited the Richmond bistro on Saturday night with two girlfriends as part of a “Just Us Girls” overnight trip to Wayne County. Located in the up-and-coming Historic Depot District, Ghyslain makes its home in an old rehabbed industrial building. The open, airy dining room looks almost chocolaty, all done up in an elegant shade of deep, rich brown with baby blue accents.

The confectionary cases are front and center as soon as you walk in the door, a smart move. You’re already whetting your appetite for dessert before you even order your meal, and trust me, there’s no way you want to miss dessert here.

The dinner menu changes seasonally and offers just a small handful of well-conceived and expertly executed starters. Four entrees cover all the bases with fish, chicken, beef and vegetarian options.

We began our meal with glasses of wine from a very respectable list of choices, a basket of fresh bread with whipped butter, and a shared charcuterie platter that may have been my favorite part of the meal. Between the three of us, we each managed to sample a bite or two of all the delectable items on the plate, and there were plenty to enjoy.

Ghyslain’s sharable charcuterie

Most of the bits and bobs on the charcuterie plate were self-explanatory, but we did ask our server to give us a quick rundown of the meats. Thinking back now, I can’t even remember exactly what was included, I just know that everything was delicious. The memory of a small disk of duck salami brings a smile to my face, not to mention a great proscuitto and a couple other cured delicacies. I’m curious whether the meats are made in house or sourced from somewhere else.

Cheesewise, we received a small hunk of cheddar, a little wedge of brie, a slice of goat cheese and a few crumbles of blue. The goat cheese was my favorite, especially when I smeared a little on a slice of bread and topped it off with a dollop of sweet-but-not-too-sweet fig jam. Blueberries, blackberries, gherkins and candied pecans rounded out the platter. Seriously, with a glass of wine and a dessert, this could easily be a meal in and of itself. For me, anyway.

Ghyslain’s take on salad

My friend Eileen ordered an interesting composed salad, sort of like a deconstructed Caesar, although it wasn’t a Caesar. The lightly dressed lettuce took center stage, arranged in a diagonal mound across the plate and topped with freshly made croutons. A few spears of asparagus filled out one corner, several slices of crispy bacon the other. Very attractive, although it could have used just a little bit more dressing.

I must also mention the adorable white ceramic salt cellars on each table, filled with three kinds of salt and a little informational card to explain the origins of each — black Hawaiian sea salt, fleur de sel and a pretty pink Himalayan salt. A cute and thoughtful detail, and I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the flavors of each salt.

To spread the love around, we each ordered a different protein for our entrees. The plate presentations were elegant, but fairly simple, complemented by nicely cooked carrots and roasted potatoes. (Our server said they’d run out of the asparagus that should have completed the plate, but offered to make up the difference to us in more of either the carrots or potatoes.)

the morel chicken

My choice was advertised as “morel chicken.” As it turned out, morel referred to the rich mushroom sauce spooned over the sliced breast as opposed to actual pieces of morel mushrooms that you could really sink your teeth into. That was a bit of a letdown, although the chicken was certainly juicy and the sauce tasted very good. I am the daughter and sister of a pair of serious local mushroom hunters, so when you promise me morels, I get excited about it. Mushroom season is in May, though, not in December, so I guess I should have known better than to expect fresh morels this time of year.

steak and shrimp entree

My friends seemed very happy with their respective selections of mahi mahi with rice and veggies, and a beautiful surf-and-turf dish of steak and shrimp. My friend Laura said it was one of the best steaks she’d had in a long time. Portion sizes are reasonable, but definitely not gigantic. We cleaned our plates.

After we’d finished our dinners, our server invited us to walk up and take a gander at the dessert counter. You simply order what you want on the spot, they hand it over and add it to your bill. We probably spent a good ten minutes just considering the choices before deciding on two to share. These desserts, like the signature chocolates in the next counter over, are GORGEOUS works of art. We asked the woman behind the counter what she’d recommend, and she proceeded to give us a detailed description of just about everything in the case. Some of these beauties are so labor-intensive, they require three days just to produce and assemble the various components. They are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

the key lime tart

We finally settled on a key lime tart, a sweet-tart creation that looked like an art deco building you’d find in South Beach, and a Charlemagne made of chocolate cake and mousse surrounded by small tiles of white and dark chocolate and topped with a mountain of chocolate shavings on top. It goes without saying that both were ridiculously good.

the Charlemagne

Don’t come here if you’re in a hurry; the pace at Ghyslain is leisurely. This is a genuine dining experience, not fast food. The dining room was pretty full and there was a party of 15 or so seated next to us, so service might have been slightly slower than normal. No matter, we weren’t in any hurry. We arrived for our reservation at 7 p.m., lingered and were the last customers to leave when they closed at 10 p.m.

With choices like pecan chicken salad croissants, Caprese salad, a Mediterranean platter, muffaletta and a croque monsieur panini, the lunch menu is more extensive, less expensive, and sounds more my speed than the dinner offerings. I’ll come back mid-day next time.

Ghyslain Bistro is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, and only offers dinner on Friday and Saturday night, so plan your visit accordingly. Of course, you can also stop in and satisfy your sweet tooth with those insanely creative and delicious chocolates and desserts any old time.

For more information: www.ghyslain.com

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