Southern Comforts

The South rises again, y’all! Then again, did it ever really fall? Certainly not in any culinary sense, that’s for sure.

I’m just home from the first conference of the Midwest Travel Journalists Association, held in Frankfort Kentucky, with a full heart and a full stomach. In the past week, I’ve managed to consume plenty of bourbon and eat my weight in pimento cheese.

Liberty Hall served as the site of our opening night reception, the genteel historic home of John Brown, one of Kentucky founding fathers and the commonwealth’s first senator from 1792 to 1805. The handsome red brick home he completed building in 1801 still proudly stands (as does son Orlando’s residence on the same property) and holds original family furnishings and heirlooms. (A few quick fun facts — Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote the beloved children’s book “Goodnight Moon,” is a direct descendant, and the property is supposedly haunted by a friendly ghost known as the Gray Lady.)

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The patio behind the Orlando house overlooking the gorgeous gardens made a fine backdrop for mixing and mingling over small bites catered by Three Peas in a Pod washed down with Kentucky Distilled cocktails — Buffalo Trace bourbon, Ale8One ginger ale, orange bitters and fresh mint. Hors d’oeuvres included cravable pimento cheese/country ham sammies on garlic cheddar biscuits, bacon-wrapped chicken skewers and mini banana puddings.

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Speaking of pimento cheese, I enjoyed a soulful pimento cheeseburger with crispy fries and a well-made Maker’s Mark Manhattan the night before at Serafini.

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Bourbon, of course, is the flavor of the day (every day) here. You’ll find it infused into coffee, as I did at Kentucky Knows, where artisan owner Tony Davis ages Arabica beans from Antigua Guatemala in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels with spectacular results. I sampled the caramel barrel-aged variation in the store, but opted to take home half-pound bags of the straight-up bourbon and bourbon ball flavors instead.

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Quirky little Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory is credited with the original Bourbon Ball recipe around these parts — a bourbon-laced nougaty confection covered in chocolate and topped with a pecan. You can’t get in and out of Bourbon Country without tasting at least one, and good luck stopping there. Two childhood friends founded the business back in 1919, and locals loved their products so much, they gathered and donated their sugar rations during World War II to help keep the company going. The factory remains in Ruth’s family to this day; you can get a quick behind-the-scenes tour of the factory, but don’t expect to come away with any insider info. The secret recipe is fiercely guarded.

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If you want to cut right to the bourbon chase, beeline straight to Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country since the late 1700s. The campus is absolutely beautiful with the distinctive smell of cooking mash floating through the air, populated with soaring red-brick warehouses housing barrels of bourbon in various stages of aging. Take your pick of five different tours, all are free and include a chance to sample some of the wares at the end. (Personally, I’m partial to the flagship Buffalo Trace brand for cocktails, but have been known to upgrade to Eagle Rare when I’m feeling fancy.)

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I was a little surprised — and pleasantly so — to discover authentic Vietnamese food in Frankfort’s quaintly walkable downtown. Mai Saigon satisfies cravings for ethnic cuisine with super fresh spring rolls filled with tofu, shrimp, rice noodles and cilantro served with peanut dipping sauce; huge fragrant bowls of pho with all the garnishes; and richly flavored noodle dishes studded with veggies and chicken.

Of course, I’m only scratching the surface here, but hopefully have whetted your appetite for a trip to Frankfort all your own! For more info on Kentucky’s enchanting capitol city, go to visitfrankfort.com

 

 

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Viva Milano

Here we are, back in Milan for the third time within a year. It’s funny how familiar you can become with a place after only visiting a couple of times. We stayed in the same hotel for our first two visits. We’re in a different hotel just across the street this time only because of an availability problem with our first choice. We know where the grocery stores are in the neighborhood, we know how to buy tickets and ride the trams downtown to the Duomo, and we eat at the same restaurant just down the street nearly every night. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke…

I must admit, Milan did not make a good first impression on me. I found it loud, abrasive and dirty. However, after a few days, its charms began to grow on me. Like, the way everyone (especially older women) fuss over my son. The simple beauty of the food. The gorgeous stands in the street markets and the impeccably dressed men and women everywhere you look. Seriously, I can amuse myself by checking out women’s footwear while riding on the trams. Milan may be an industrial city, but it’s definitely not without style. I find myself considering more closely what I wear here. I know I’ll never pass for a native Milano, but hopefully I’m not immediately labeling myself an American tourist.

Because I am such a terrible traveler when it comes to flying, I never take the risk to eat aboard a plane. Just in case. The last thing I want to do, in addition to desperately trying to divert a panic attack, is to end up making a fool of myself by accidentally blowing chunks all over the person seated next to me. This means that once the wheels of an overnight flight to Europe finally touch down, I am famished. Today was no exception. We landed in Milan around 9 a.m., and I realized the last solid food I’d had was a bowl of cereal prior to our original departure from Indy nearly 18 hours earlier.

After we’d grabbed a cab to our hotel and ditched our bags, we were off in search of sustenance. I’m not sure what the basic Italian breakfast is; we’ve only ever partaken of the luxurious hotel buffet for our morning meals. This standard European-model continental spread consists of all manner of pastries, yogurt, fruit, cold cereals, breads, and a selection of cold cuts and cheeses. This morning, we weren’t checked in in time to enjoy, so breakfast ended up being coffee and croissants at a café around the corner. The croissant could have been better, but it must be said:  When it comes to coffee, Italians know their shit. The cappuccinos, lattes and espressos here blow away anything you’ll find at Starbucks or anywhere else in America.

After that, we hit up the grocery to restash our toddler snacks. I love wandering the aisles of the Italian grocery stores checking out the endless varieties of pasta, olive oils and what have you. Still hungry, I ended up eating a few of Michael’s rice cakes and cheese back in the hotel room. My usual lunch when we’ve been here consists of a mozzarella and tomato sandwich. Again, when you’ve found something you like so much, why not stick with it?

Along those lines, we are loyal devotees of Il Pavone, a small and very pink pizzeria/pasta joint about two blocks away on Viale Certosa. Hubby got hooked on this place during his first trip to Milan a couple of years ago, and the toddler and I have come to adopt it as well. The hostess, a very attractive woman named Maria of an indeterminate age, recognizes us now, and she loooooooves  Michael.

The menu is pretty vast, and full of Italian cuisine’s greatest hits like tortellini pomodoro, grilled steaks, seafood, bruschetta, and a whole array of thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas. I’ve tried a number of items on the menu during our visits, and my favorite meal remains a big plate of the lightly dressed fusilli della casa with a sumptuous tomato/pesto/cream sauce alongside an insalata mista (mixed salad) or perhaps a plate of steamed spinach. The salad is a bowl of fresh greens, tomato slices, shredded carrot and red cabbage. You’re left to your own devices to dude it up with the olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper on every table. Same goes for the spinach, although I like to give it a liberal dusting of Parmesan cheese as well. With a quarter liter of the fizzy, citrusy house white wine for a ridiculously affordable two euros, it’s darn near the perfect dinner in my book.

We’re set to be here for three days before heading north on the train for France. The weather looks like it’s going to pour down rain the entire time we’re in Italy, but I’m determined not to let this curtail good eating. Buon appetito!

One hot Mama

I was recently asked for the 18th time, “ Have you been to the new Mama Carolla’s breakfast place yet?” And up until this morning, the answer had always been no. By a happy accident, I have now been initiated.

My friend Katie and I had planned to meet at Zest at 9:30 this morning to partake of the signature crème brulee French toast and copious amounts of coffee, but when I pulled into the suspiciously empty parking lot, I knew something had gone awry. The sign on the door said it didn’t open until 10 a.m. Huh? A breakfast/lunch/brunch café? Seems to me they’re missing out on some primetime morning traffic, but whatever.

With two small daughters in tow, I knew Katie wouldn’t be able to wait out another half an hour before getting food, so a change of plan steered us in the direction of Taste instead. Until I remembered Good Morning Mama’s as I passed it on 54th St. going west.

An offshoot of the ever-popular Mama Carolla’s Italian restaurant just half a block away, Good Morning Mama’s opened last November and has been enjoying a steady word-of-mouth buzz ever since.

To say this place is shiny and happy is an understatement. It’s sort of a cross between a kitschy 1950s-style diner (complete with jukebox) and Oz, painted in cheery yellow with blue trim. It’s almost too cheery. Like, if you were hungover, headachy and nauseated, it might be a little more than you could handle. Bluebirds appear to be the Good Morning Mama’s mascot; they’re painted on the exterior and flying across banners hanging from the ceiling. I half-expected Snow White to float out of the kitchen to take our order. (No disrespect to our server Barb, who was very friendly and efficient.)

This is not to say the owners don’t have a sense of humor – there is a poster of Michelangelo’s David sculpture on one wall, advertising “sausage sandwiches” by way of a very strategically placed ribbon. Another tongue-in-cheek poster promotes meatballs with two very ample specimens on a platter directly in front of a woman’s bosom.

I ordered a cup of coffee while I waited for Katie to arrive, which proved to be a minor disappointment. To be fair, Mama isn’t a café or coffee shop per se, but I really expected a better cup of Joe from an Italian-themed establishment. Can’t knock them for serving mimosas, but a latte or cappuccino would have been a nice option. And, here’s one of my biggest breakfast joint pet peeves — I HATE it when restaurants expect you to serve yourself creamer from those horrid little half and half packets on the table instead of bringing a little tiny pitcher of something cold and fresh. God knows how long those things sit out every day, and I’m always suspicious of “dairy” products that don’t require refrigeration.

Katie soon rolled in with her adorable entourage of her two-year-old Olivia and infant Audrey, looking the very picture of competent motherhood. After some chair/booster seat arranging, we were settled in and ready to get down to the business of ordering.

Mama’s menu is fairly straightforward – eggs, toast, sausage, pancakes and other traditional breakfast fare, but with an Italian flair. Several items intrigued me, particularly the “eggs in purgatory” simmered in pomodoro sauce with fresh basil, and the “pasta mama” – whole-wheat pasta with scrambled eggs, Parmesan Reggiano and pancetta. Hm. I had a hard time deciding.

I make a ton of omelets and scrambled eggs at home, so I try to order something different when I go out for breakfast or brunch. The java French toast caught my eye; Kahlua-spiked batter and toasted pecans sounded particularly yummy. Realizing I hadn’t eaten biscuits and gravy in God knows how long, that’s what I opted for in the end, with a side of breakfast potatoes and an orange juice. Katie got the plain ol’ French toast (not slagging – that’s what it’s actually called on the menu!), and talked me into sharing an order of the Italian fried biscuits, although to be fair, she didn’t have to do much convincing.

The four golf ball-sized biscuits arrived first, comfortingly warm. If you’ve ever been to one of the speedway suites during the Indy 500 and enjoyed the fried biscuits that Jugg’s Catering serves there, these were very nearly the same thing except rolled in cinnamon sugar. There’s even apple butter in one of the plastic jam/jelly jars on each table for dipping. In short, they were a hit, especially with Olivia, who kept requesting more after every bite.

Our meals followed soon after. My choice was a hearty serving of two fluffy buttermilk biscuits split and drenched with the heavily sausage-studded creamy gravy. It was tasty, but so filling, I couldn’t finish it all. The potatoes were sliced thin and fried crisp with, dare I say it, a hint of onion. Katie and Olivia both seemed to enjoy the French toast.

The place never got crowded while we were there, but there was a steady trickle of customers the entire time. I can imagine it fills up pretty fast on the weekends. The girls were good as gold, and Katie and I were able to enjoy a fairly relaxed and leisurely hour chatting about the joys and perils of mommyhood.

My total bill was a very reasonable $10.90, good value for the amount and quality of food I received. I’ll definitely be back to give it another whirl, and to try that java French toast.

A good morning for mamas, indeed.

Good Morning Mama's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tiptoe, through the Tulip…

For several weeks now, my friend Alison has been raving about and recommending I try this new cafe called Tulip Noir on 86th Street. When another friend said she’d been there this week and it was great, I decided I’d waited long enough. Hubby and I finally made it up for lunch the other day and I’m pleased to report it IS all that.

The cafe is located in an old My Favorite Muffin joint, but it bears no resemblance to anything so pedestrian or cookie-cutter now. The place has been gutted and is now dressed in shades of calming blues and greens. It’s so clean, it almost feels sterile. Not that this is a bad thing when you’re in a dining establishment. It’s more clean and pristine in a Japanese Zen kind of way – not exactly cozy, but still very soothing and comfortable at the same time.

Tulip Noir is only open for breakfast and lunch. There’s not a ton of seating, so I figured it might be hard to get a table after a rave review published in the current issue of Indianapolis Monthly, but we got there around 1 p.m. and were led to a table immediately, no waiting. They were also very gracious about accommodating us with a high chair, as we had baby in tow.

The first thing my husband noticed was that he was the only man in the place. There definitely is a feminine vibe here; it’s a perfect place for ladies who lunch, especially rich, Carmelite ladies judging from the looks of the clientele. (I predict this place will be packed to the gills on Mother’s Day…)

The owner of Tulip Noir, a former interior designer, has obviously put a lot of thought and creativity into her cafe, and the menu choices reflect her careful attention to detail as much as the decor does. The menu changes seasonally, and all items are organic with a health-conscious spin. This is not to say there is any skimpage on flavor. Au contraire, mon frere. Think Omega-3 egg omelets with spinach, tomato, salsa and cumin; rosemary pepper bacon strips; mini whole-wheat “pan-cakeys” with almonds, bananas, powdered sugar and honey; and a breakfast salad with greens, strawberries and pecans in a citrus vinaigrette. And that’s just the breakfast menu. For lunch, you can choose from soups and salads (every last bite made in-house right down to the fresh dressings); grilled paninis, salads and a whole-wheat veggie quesadilla with avocado sauce.

I was tempted to try to the asparagus mushroom crepe with goat cheese, and the broccoli cauliflower fritters with gorgonzola creme fraiche also caught my eye, but I couldn’t resist ordering the grilled peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat with apple slices and crystallized ginger. It arrived all melty and gooey, as any good grilled sandwich should, with peanut butter oozing out the sides at every bite. It was good, but it could have used a little heavier hand with the apple and ginger. Most bites, all I could taste was P.B. I also got a little bit of mixed green salad alongside my sandwich. I thought fruit might have gone better with the peanut butter, but I wasn’t unhappy with the greens – they were very fresh and the slightly sweet acidic vinaigrette actually cut through the heaviness of the peanut butter quite nicely.

Hubby ordered the lemon garlic chicken ciabatta sandwich with dill, provolone cheese, tomato and avocado sauce; and a side of the same salad that I got. He pronounced it all very tasty.

To drink, we ordered off the fairly extensive tea menu, which breaks down options by caffeine content. There’s also a small selection of coffees, along with spritzers, smoothies and lemonade. I chose a Relaxation Blend tisane, a caffeine-free mix of chamomile and mint leaves that’s steeped just like a tea. In a terribly anti-Irish move, hubby ordered the Old Black Magic coffee, but I promise not to tell his family back home.

Again, no detail is forgotten here. We each received a small taste of the tea of the day – the tropical fruity “I Dream of Maui” – in tiny ceramic cups. When the tea and coffee were delivered to the table, each still brewing in its own small pot and French press respectively, the server also dropped off a ticking electronic egg timer so we’d know exactly when our quaffs had reached the optimal degree of flavor before pouring. Nice. Very nice.

There’s also a really cool tea bar (not a coffee bar, a TEA bar) that looks like something out of Star Trek – a funky modern halfmoon of seats where diners can be fussed over as they watch the mystical concoctions being prepared before their very eyes.

Throughout the meal, our server struck just the right chord – friendly and welcoming without being oversolicitous or insincere.

I wished we’d saved room for dessert. Next time. And there definitely will be a next time.

Tulip Noir, http://www.tulipnoircafe.com