Mad for Madison

Another week, another trip… and more good eats!

Spent a few days this week in Madison, hugging the banks of the Ohio River in southeast Indiana. As far as small towns go, this is about as pretty as they come. Madison takes great community pride in maintaining blocks-long stretches of gorgeously maintained historic homes, a main street of antique shops and eateries, and a ridiculously scenic riverfront.

18 Madison fountain.jpgThis is small-town Indiana, so the food scene’s heavy on familiar comfort-foodie fare, with a few surprises tucked in here and there.

Here’s what was on the menu:

Crystal & Jules is THE place to go for a romantic dinner or special occasion in Madison. The menu isn’t huge, but everything on it makes sense with a respectable selection of surf and turf choices. The housemade pastas immediately got my attention, although I hear the Costa Rican New York Strip also receives plenty of raves. In the end, I couldn’t be swayed, and was glad I went with my first instincts.

16 CJ salad.jpgMy dinner started with a simple yet delicious house salad composed of ingredients grown in the garden just out the back door — spicy lettuces, tiny jewel-like tomatoes and diced cucumber with a super tasty champagne vinaigrette.

16 CJ pasta.jpgAs for my pasta – a lemon/lime marinated chicken breast atop a luscious tangle of tender fettuccine covered in creamy tomato sauce kicked up with a whisper of poblano. So, so good.

16 CJ Creme brulee.jpgFor dessert, a textbook-perfect vanilla crème brulee adorably presented in a white coffee mug.

17 Horst donut and coffee.jpgBreakfast at Horst’s Little Bakery Haus – bringing a little taste of Bavaria to Madison with Old World décor that highlights cuckoo clocks, a collection of tiny porcelain Christmas village houses that spans an entire wall, and other kitschy German mementos. The food’s your basic breakfast grub – omelets, corned beef hash, B&G… but the baked goods seem to be the honey that lures in most of the customers. Especially the light-as-air traditional glazed donuts. A sweet way to start the day.

21 Hinkle burger fries.jpgSpeaking of loyal customers, fans have been frequenting Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop since 1933. Nothing fancy, just a tiny local burger joint that’s made a name for itself by serving up slightly-bigger-than-a-slider “Hinkleburgers” dressed with onions and pickles, along with fries and several dozen flavor options for extra-thick milkshakes. Grab a seat at the counter (if you can, there are only a handful and they fill up fast) and load up on the greasy-spoon goodness.

22 Ice cream cannoli.jpgThree words: ice cream cannoli. The Ice Cream Dessert Factory makes them, and you  know you want one. Large and small pie-crusty cylinders piped full of vanilla, strawberry or mint ice cream. If you really want to splurge, get yours dipped in chocolate. Go ahead. I won’t tell anyone.

2 me boat.jpgI’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed the Rockin Thunder Jet Boat adventure trip I did, an idyllic day-long journey from Madison up the Kentucky River all the way to Frankfort.

9 Blue Wing.jpgPit stops included a box lunch at the bucolic Blue Wing Landing Inn in Owenton, KY and a quick tasting at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

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ALWAYS happy to revisit the handsome campus here, and bourbon tasting — well, if you’ve been paying attention, you already know how I feel about that…

 

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!

Bourbon for beginners

I like bourbon, but I don’t know much about it. So for a novice like myself, last week’s crash-course visit to Buffalo Trace Distillery proved quite educational.

it wouldn’t be Buffalo Trace without a buffalo…

Indianapolis is really a beer town first and foremost (see recent past entries about our booming microbreweries). In fact, I can’t think of any local bars and restaurants that promote a bourbon selection. In Kentucky, however, it’s another story.

The process of ordering some bourbon here is enough to leave a person stammering and sweating. You can’t just go into a watering hole and request a cocktail. You’ve got to know what brand of bourbon you want; decide whether you want it straight up or on the rocks, neat, with water and how much; and any other number of other defining criteria. Bourbon is serious business, and these people do not mess around.

Located on a Kentucky River bend in the heart of beautiful bourbon country near Frankfort, Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery of its kind in America, dating back to 1787. I drove down to attend the annual White Dog Days party, a celebration commemorating the first seasonal fall barreling of the newly distilled whiskey. According to lore, the freshly minted un-aged spirit is called “white dog” because it’s clear and it definitely has a bite. (I believe it’s the same thing as moonshine, but don’t hold me to that.)

one of the massive Buffalo Trace warehouses

The Buffalo Trace property is massive, taking in some 130 acres and around 100 buildings, many made from handsome weathered red brick. There are more than 300,000 barrels of whisky aging on site here at any given time, and each barrel contains 53 gallons. That’s a LOT of hooch.

a pre-tour cocktail

We were greeted with a signature white dog cocktail made with lemon juice, orange juice and grenadine, then herded up for a tour of the grounds. The smell of roasting grains permeated the air, a distinctive aroma sort of like roasting coffee beans, but gamier and earthier. A few interesting tidbits I learned along the way — bourbon is a distinctly American product with strict defining guidelines. It has to be at least 51 percent corn-based; it has to be aged in new charred oak containers for at least two years; and no flavorings or preservatives can be added. A great trivia item — the round piece of wood that plugs each barrel is known as the bung, and the round slot it fits into is called the bunghole. Go ahead and say it a few times. You know you want to.

The aging process is what adds flavor and that distinctive honeyed brown color to the liquor. The inside of each barrel is toasted to caramelize the wood, just as you’d caramelize onions in a pan to bring out the natural sweetness. The longer the bourbon ages, the more of that flavor and color it picks up. Ten percent of the volume is lost in the first year; that evaporation is called the “angels’ share.”  When you stop to consider that bourbon is aged anywhere from two to 20 years, you start to get an idea of what a long-term commitment it is to make this stuff.

just in case you were tempted…

We walked through the campus to get a look at the mash house cookers, the gigantic fermentation tanks, the stills and warehouses packed to the gills with barrels.

As a White Dog Day tradition at Buffalo Trace, everyone gets to sign his or her name on the first barrel of the season. Kinda cool to think that my name is now on a barrel of bourbon aging away somewhere down there.

making my mark for posterity

With much pomp and ceremony, the Buffalo Trace folks hammered out the bung with a big mallet and suctioned out a sample of the white dog, then everyone toasted to the new distilling season and downed a shot. A festive catered barbecue dinner followed.

The next morning, I attended a bourbon tasting class. At 9 a.m. This made me more than a little nervous, especially when I entered the clubhouse room and saw each place was set with no fewer than eight — count ‘em, eight — samples. I was really glad I’d made sure to pad my stomach with some breakfast beforehand.

The glasses were arranged on a paper placemat grid by age and ingredient, and it was immediately interesting to note the color variations.

Buffalo Trace’s signature tasting grid

Here’s a quick walk-through in order of tasting:

1)    Rain vodka. In addition to bourbon, Buffalo Trace also produces a nice organic white corn-based vodka twice a year. It’s got a slightly sweet fragrance and a mild, smooth flavor.

2)    White dog wheat. Fragrant with a heady, yeasty smell. If you’ve ever smelled sourdough bread starter, that’s what it reminds me of.

3)    White dog rye. Slightly spicier and stronger than the wheat. Have to say after tasting these and the cocktail the night before, I’m not a white dog fan. It’s got an unusual flavor profile that I just didn’t care for. I much prefer my bourbon on the aged side.

4)    7-month-old rye whiskey. Light golden in color, little bit of a smoky sweet flavor.

5)    3.5-year corn whiskey. Also light in color, made from 100 percent corn. No real depth of flavor here because it was made in a previous used barrel and most of the caramelized wood flavor and color had already been stripped out.

6)    W.L. Weller Special Reserve. Pretty color and a smooth taste.

7)    Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Now you’re talking. This was my favorite of the bunch. Aged between eight and ten years, it manages to be full-bodied and complex, but also mellow.

8)    Salzerac Straight Rye Whiskey. Darkest in color, it’s made with less corn than any other sample, so it’s technically not bourbon. This one makes you sit up and take notice with a heavy nose, strong bite and sharp smoky taste.

Buffalo Trace product inventory

As it turned out, the tasting wasn’t quite as hardcore as I’d feared. I could have easily gotten drunk, mind you, if I’d downed all the samples. Fortunately, I got away with not having to taste every single one, and just barely sipped the ones I did try.

It was really interesting to learn more about Kentucky’s state beverage, and although I am still far from an expert, at least I won’t feel like a total idiot next time I want to order some bourbon.

* A fun side note, Ghost Hunters just filmed an episode at Buffalo Trace; watch for it to air on Syfy in November.

For more information about Buffalo Trace Distillery:

http://www.buffalotrace.com/