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

 

 

Southern living it up

Can I just say how much I love, love, fricking LOVE Kentucky? The food, the hospitality, the scenery, the bourbon… I just got back from two days in the Bluegrass State for work and pleasure, but mostly pleasure. So close to my Indiana home, but worlds away food-wise, I can totally get down with menus that boast newfangled twists on country ham, pimento cheese, hot browns and grits. Bring. On. The. Grits.

First stop, an exploratory jaunt to Paducah, new territory for me. With a sweet walkable downtown, an interesting history and a booming arts scene, this charming river city makes a lovely first impression. I had so much fun exploring the cultural attractions here (p.s. the quilt museum is seriously cool! YES – QUILTS, people!), and I loved my stay at the uber-urban 1857 Hotel.

So…. Drinks. This is Bourbon Country, after all. I think my blood alcohol content automatically rises as soon as I cross the state line. Omigosh, do these people know their way around an Old Fashioned. Now, I’ve had some good bourbon knowledge dropped on me in the past five years or so, but I always look forward to learning about and tasting something new on my trips to Kentucky.

Manhattan.jpgJo at the 1857 hotel bar in Paducah mixes up a kick-ass Manhattan that’ll knock you for a loop. At least it did me. A little Angel’s Envy was the just the thing to bring me back to life after six hours in the car. (And, as an added bonus, I also got to sample Cooper’s Craft.)

Dinner was at the Freight House in Paducah, a modern American eatery that’s just a few months old. The menu here touts farm-to-table fare with an emphasis on Kentucky farms. That means pork rinds, vinegar-pickled cucumbers and onions (which my mom made every summer, and I’m sure yours probably did, too), frog legs. Note to self: Kentucky blue snapper is something I definitely need to know more about.

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So here’s what I ate. Shrimp and — say it with me — PIMENTO CHEESE GRITS.

carrots.jpgAdorable little pan-seared carrots topped with candied pecans, blackberries and a schmear of spicy dilled ranch sauce.

appies.jpgA mustard-y deviled egg. Tomatoes from an employee’s own backyard.

 hot brown.jpgA bite of my dining companion’s non-traditional Hot Brown — an intimidating, but delicious, towering stack of thick bread, sweet tea-brined (!) chicken, creamy sauce, a vibrant red tomato slice and a piece of pork belly on top. Holy Moly. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t save room for dessert, but I was happily stuffed by this point.

Breakfast the next morning at Kirchhoff’s… currently a local institution bakery/coffeeshop/deli/dress shop that’s been in operation here since the 1800s. So many pastries, bagels, tarts, pies, cookies, brownies… so little time. I was leaning toward a Chess Bar, that is, until I spotted the “Elvis” scones atop the counter.

scone.jpgBanana, peanut butter, maple and bacon all in one treat, and somehow it works. Washed down with a large café au lait, and a snickerdoodle. Because… why not. We’re talking breakfast of champions, right here.

turkey sandwich.jpgEveryone I met talked this place up so much for lunch, I went back again at 1 p.m. and enjoyed half of a turkey sandwich on cranberry walnut bread and a bag of cheddar horseradish potato chips.

My night in Louisville pretty much revolved around my stay at the Seelbach Hilton, whose bespoke setting inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to honor the historic beauty in “The Great Gatsby.” If you’re overnighting here, or just passing through, I highly recommend sneaking a peek at the amazing lobby and the Rookwood-tiled Rathskeller in the basement.

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While you’re there, might as well grab a seat in the Old Seelbach Bar and order up a classic Seelbach Cocktail – bourbon (duh) with a splash of champagne.

In the morning, I had the supreme pleasure of breakfasting with two of my favorite travel colleagues. Stacey gets credit for introducing me to my very first bourbon cocktail when I was in Louisville for a work trip over St. Patrick’s Day six or seven years ago, and Susan has been a fantastic resource for all the fun Kentucky assignments I get to write. They took me to Gralehaus… one part B&B, one part brewpub, one part breakfast/lunch café. All good.

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I dug my pretzel croissant breakfast sammie, laden with country ham, melty cheese and a sunny-side egg.

Long live the Commonwealth, y’all.

 

 

Nashville nosh

I graduated from Indiana University in the early 1990s, and Bloomington will always hold a special place in my heart, but I never really spent any time in nearby Nashville or Brown County except for an occasional drive-through on trips back home when I felt like taking the country route. When you consider how crazy scenic and charming the whole area is, this seems downright disrespectful. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to right my wrong.

beautiful Brown County State Park

Between stints of walking through the adorable shops of Nashville proper, horseback riding, journeying the annual artist studio and gardens tour through some of the most outerlying rural terrain, and an overnight stay at Abe Martin Lodge on the grounds of gorgeous Brown County State Park, I enjoyed some tasty meals.

Words that come to mind when I think of Nashville and Brown County: cute, small-town, old-fashioned, country, charming. Cutting-edge cuisine? Nope. But that’s perfectly ok. If you’re looking for fancy four-star meals full of frills and garnishes, keep on driving. If you’re in the mood for the kind of nostalgic, old-school eats you’ve probably grown up on (if you were born and raised in Indiana, that is), you’ve come to the right place.

Case in point — Hob Nob Corner is about as old-school as you can get in this neck of the woods. Literally. It’s housed in the Taggart Building at the corner of Main and Van Buren, the oldest commercial building in town and dating back to 1873 (the restaurant’s been operating here since 1973).

Hob Nob Corner Restaurant

These days, visitors flock for down-home breakfasts along the lines of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash, oatmeal and French toast. (I was surprised to see huevos rancheros on the menu, it was the only nod to ethnic food I noticed anywhere the entire weekend.) And of course, you can’t call yourself a real-deal breakfast joint in Indiana without serving classic biscuits and gravy. I’ll bet it’s good here, although I opted for the pancakes with bacon on the side.

Hob Nob pancakes

Hubby filled up on the basic breakfast of two eggs, toast and bacon, and added on a slice of country ham to boot cause that’s how he rolls.  (Hubby wants me to mention that he had just biked 70 miles from Indy to Nashville the day prior, and that’s why he needed the extra protein…) Everything was down-home delicious.

hubby’s Hob Nob brekkie

Hobnob Corner on Urbanspoon

For dinner, we visited Brown County’s hometown microbrewery, Big Woods Brewing Company. If we lived down here, I have a feeling this place would claim a lot of our time and money. Like most places in Nashville, the décor is all rustic wood lodge with high beamed ceilings. Big Woods is newer than most, open just since November 2009. The vibe feels a little like Thr3e Wise Men here in Indy, except Big Woods isn’t kid-friendly. The clientele is strictly 21 and up.

The food at Big Woods is probably the most new-fangled of any I saw in town. On the menu — a half dozen or so housemade microbrews (the refreshing Six-Foot Blonde was just our speed), along with a selection of pizzas, sandwiches and apps.

Big Woods Six Foot Blonde Ale

The spinach artichoke dip and Emily’s Garden veggie pizza we shared both arrived piping hot and loaded with super-fresh ingredients. Highly recommend.

Emily’s Garden pizza at Big Woods Brewing Company

Big Woods Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

As an IU grad, several people told me I HAD to make sure I visited that sandwich place… I thought they were speaking non-specifically, but no. The name of the restaurant is actually That Sandwich Place, and anyone with any amount of interest in IU basketball needs to put lunch or breakfast here on their Brown County itinerary.

Visiting this eatery is like worshipping at the church of Bobby Knight. The walls, counters, columns, ceilings — every possible surface is covered with memorabilia, some items ranging back as far as the early 1970s. Seems the restaurant opened around the same time Knight arrived in Bloomington and the owner remains a personal friend. Love him or hate him, Knight is an undeniably charismatic figure that demands attention. An oversized General doll in a glass case holds court (get it???) over the restaurant from its post by the register.

all hail, the General

Down a short flight of stairs, subterranean That Sandwich Place serves simple greasy-spoon breakfast and lunch fare. There’s not a ton of stuff to choose from, just a handful of sandwiches complemented by fries, cole slaw and deviled eggs, and a hi-calorie salad laden with ham, cheese and sunflower seeds. No joke, that’s what it’s called. They are not messing around with any diet food here. At least they’re upfront about it.

tenderloin platter at That Sandwich Place

Hubby and I split a Piggy Wiggy tenderloin platter. The thin crispy pork patty was obviously pre-formed, and reminded me of the kind of sandwich I grew up eating at the local drive-ins in Richmond. Good fries, too.

We ate with wide-eyed wonder, taking in the ambiance. Indiana, oh Indiana, we ARE all for you.

That Sandwich Place on Urbanspoon

Bon appetit, Brown County!

For more info:

http://www.browncounty.com/

http://www.browncounty.com/listing/hobnob-corner-restaurant

http://www.bigwoodsbeer.com/

(Can’t find a web site for That Sandwich Place. Guess you’ll just have to go there and see it for yourself.)