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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.