Nick's still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Proof is in the pudding

Each fall, for as many years back as I can remember, my mom made persimmon pudding. This was no small undertaking. First, you have to find a source for the persimmons. My mom had the hook up; always managing to know someone with a persimmon tree. Every October or so, when the dusky orange plum-like fruit would fall to the ground, my mom was right there, poaching. She swore you had to wait until the messy persimmons ripened, turned squishy and fell off the tree, otherwise they’d be tart enough to make you pucker if you made the mistake of biting into one too soon.

A full day of processing then ensued, washing the persimmons and straining them through a food-mill contraption mom reserved solely for this once-a-year purpose. After that came the ceremonial baking of the persimmon pudding, a recipe my mom gleaned from her mother, and very likely, her mother before that. You get the idea. Persimmon pudding was a fall tradition in my house, and one I’m ashamed to say I eschewed. I never ate the stuff. For some reason, I decided to turn up my nose at it when I was little, and stubborn as I am, I never tried it again.

Spring Mill Inn at Indiana’s Spring Mill State Park

So it was with no small amount of irony that I attended the opening Candlelight Tour that kicked off the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival last night at Spring Mill State Park. Part of the package was a stay at the lovely Spring Mill Inn, and dinner at the on-site Millstone Dining Room, a buffet packed with all the good old-fashioned comfort foods you most likely grew up on, if you grew up in Indiana during the 1970s like I did. Think roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans stewed with chunks of ham… And the piece de resistance — while it’s typically just a seasonal fall dessert for many, persimmon pudding stays on the menu here year-round. They don’t always have it out on the buffet, which puzzles me, but all you have to do to score a piece is ask.

persimmon pudding at Spring Mill Inn’s Millstone Dining Room

In keeping with tradition, my pudding arrived in a cute little square topped with a generous dollop of Cool Whip. Grabbing a fork, I scooped up a big bite, toasted my mom and tucked it into my mouth. Tasty, I must say. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have guessed it to be pumpkin – the consistency and flavor were exactly like a mild, creamy pumpkin pie filling. My friend Janet liked it, too, even in spite of harboring a pumpkin pie grudge of her own that went way back. We both cleaned our little plates, pleasantly surprised, and vowed never to judge a dessert by its cover again.

The Spring Mill Inn persimmon pudding is nothing like I remember my mom making, though. Mom’s was much more spongy and cake-like, nearly like a very moist gingerbread.

Sadly, the elaborate persimmon pudding-making process I never took part in was abandoned when my dear mom passed away ten years ago. I know I still have the family recipe somewhere, and I’m thinking I might just have to bring it out of hiding this year for old times sake. (Fortunately, it’s not hard to find pints of already-processed persimmon pulp for sale around Indy, if you know where to look.) Here’s hoping I’ll make my mama proud.

For more info about Spring Mill Inn (which is every bit as nice as the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County, if not nicer, IMHO), visit http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/inns/springmill/

For info on the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival, go to http://persimmonfestival.org/

Round ’em up

Another fun place I visited as part of my Fox River Valley tour earlier this summer was Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

This character-rich brewpub is an offshoot of the original brewing operation in Warrenville, owned by — you guessed it — two brothers. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Aurora roundhouse is a really cool historic site and the oldest existing limestone facility of its kind in the U.S., once a bustling 40-bay servicing operation for various locomotives.

Two Brothers Roundhouse dining room

These days, the massive circular structure encloses a lovely courtyard area, brewing operations, unique banquet/event spaces, bars and a darn tasty restaurant. The owners have wisely preserved much of the original décor to give the whole joint a rustic casual feel, the perfect backdrop for some delicious pub grub.

Cheddar goat cheese dip

Our group stopped in for lunch and beer tasting on a sunny weekday. We kicked things off with a round of sharable appetizers — a smoked cheddar and goat cheese dip with toasted bread, tempura-battered green beans with a ranch dipping sauce, and soft pretzels served with a stone-ground beer-spiked mustard. All very respectable and done well.

soft pretzels with beer mustard and cheese

The cheese dip was rich and creamy with a good smoky depth of flavor, and the mustard with the soft pretzel was seriously addictive. The green beans might have been my favorite, though, nicely crispy without being greasy.

Tempura green beans with ranch dipping sauce

Honestly, I’d eaten so much on this trip, I filled myself up just sampling the appetizers and left it at that. Everything else the group ordered around the table looked delish, though… particularly the skirt steak taco small plate with ancho chili sauce, the Dover Sole fish tacos (a house specialty), and the grilled veggie sandwich. I did nibble a couple of the housemade potato chips off my neighbor’s plate. Yummy.

Dover sole fish tacos

Looking back now, I’m not sure if the beer serves as the perfect foil to the food, or if it’s the other way around. In either case, the two components play very nicely together. Our server brought out first one six-beer flight for us to share and sample. Then another. For lunch. Yikes. I picked a few I specifically wanted to taste and politely declined the rest. I did have a four-hour drive home ahead of me, after all. Otherwise, I could have happily sipped away, and perhaps grabbed a little catnap in the sunny courtyard afterward as I slowly sobered up.

Two Brothers beer samples

Between the house brews and a collection of bottled brands, there’s a big selection of beer here. I can’t even remember everything that was included in our tasting, but the flagship brew seems to be the Domaine DuPage, a French country-style ale. Very drinkable and refreshing. The porter was good, too, with the suggestion of chocolate and coffee flavors. I’m not so hip on IPAs or bitters, so I shied away from those and stuck to the more German strains of pilsners and lagers. All in all, solid beer. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even pick up bottles and growlers on the way out at a fill station near the entrance.

I’ve seen Two Brothers beer, particularly the Domaine DuPage, making a few guest appearances on several taps around Indy. Look for it and give it a try. And if you happen to find yourself near Aurora, stop in the roundhouse for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.

For more info:
www.twobrosbrew.com

Two Brothers Roundhouse on Urbanspoon

Round 'em up

Another fun place I visited as part of my Fox River Valley tour earlier this summer was Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

This character-rich brewpub is an offshoot of the original brewing operation in Warrenville, owned by — you guessed it — two brothers. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Aurora roundhouse is a really cool historic site and the oldest existing limestone facility of its kind in the U.S., once a bustling 40-bay servicing operation for various locomotives.

Two Brothers Roundhouse dining room

These days, the massive circular structure encloses a lovely courtyard area, brewing operations, unique banquet/event spaces, bars and a darn tasty restaurant. The owners have wisely preserved much of the original décor to give the whole joint a rustic casual feel, the perfect backdrop for some delicious pub grub.

Cheddar goat cheese dip

Our group stopped in for lunch and beer tasting on a sunny weekday. We kicked things off with a round of sharable appetizers — a smoked cheddar and goat cheese dip with toasted bread, tempura-battered green beans with a ranch dipping sauce, and soft pretzels served with a stone-ground beer-spiked mustard. All very respectable and done well.

soft pretzels with beer mustard and cheese

The cheese dip was rich and creamy with a good smoky depth of flavor, and the mustard with the soft pretzel was seriously addictive. The green beans might have been my favorite, though, nicely crispy without being greasy.

Tempura green beans with ranch dipping sauce

Honestly, I’d eaten so much on this trip, I filled myself up just sampling the appetizers and left it at that. Everything else the group ordered around the table looked delish, though… particularly the skirt steak taco small plate with ancho chili sauce, the Dover Sole fish tacos (a house specialty), and the grilled veggie sandwich. I did nibble a couple of the housemade potato chips off my neighbor’s plate. Yummy.

Dover sole fish tacos

Looking back now, I’m not sure if the beer serves as the perfect foil to the food, or if it’s the other way around. In either case, the two components play very nicely together. Our server brought out first one six-beer flight for us to share and sample. Then another. For lunch. Yikes. I picked a few I specifically wanted to taste and politely declined the rest. I did have a four-hour drive home ahead of me, after all. Otherwise, I could have happily sipped away, and perhaps grabbed a little catnap in the sunny courtyard afterward as I slowly sobered up.

Two Brothers beer samples

Between the house brews and a collection of bottled brands, there’s a big selection of beer here. I can’t even remember everything that was included in our tasting, but the flagship brew seems to be the Domaine DuPage, a French country-style ale. Very drinkable and refreshing. The porter was good, too, with the suggestion of chocolate and coffee flavors. I’m not so hip on IPAs or bitters, so I shied away from those and stuck to the more German strains of pilsners and lagers. All in all, solid beer. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even pick up bottles and growlers on the way out at a fill station near the entrance.

I’ve seen Two Brothers beer, particularly the Domaine DuPage, making a few guest appearances on several taps around Indy. Look for it and give it a try. And if you happen to find yourself near Aurora, stop in the roundhouse for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.

For more info:
www.twobrosbrew.com

Two Brothers Roundhouse on Urbanspoon

Prime beef(cake)

Sex sells. In this case, it sells burgers.

Earlier this summer, I enjoyed lunch at Prime BurgerHouse aboard the Grand Victoria Casino riverboat in Elgin, Ill. as part of a Fox River Valley press trip. Casinos by nature are sort of lusty and libidinous, and Prime is obviously capitalizing on those basic carnal urges and making no apologies about it. I’ve never seen a menu so blatantly full of T&A. The cover (and the web site) opens with a photo of a sexy doe-eyed model and the words “Get Lucky,” and there are additional pics of hot chicks (and some beefcake dudes, lest female customers feel left out) scattered throughout. The tagline is “Burgers, booze, bliss.”  I felt borderline naughty before I’d even ordered anything.

Prime BurgerHouse within Elgin’s Grand Victoria Casino

The décor here is Jetsons meets groovy 1960s with white space-age egg chairs, red vinyl banquettes and lots of silver sparkles. If you happen to be dining alone, you can snag a booth by the windows and watch TV on your own personal set.

Foodwise, I must say, the burgers here ROCK. These are some seriously gourmet sandwiches with top-shelf toppings. Think prime beef capped with the likes of lobster, avocado, white truffle aioli, fried tomatoes, asparagus, hickory bacon… Customers can either build their own from a laundry list of decadent accoutrement, or choose one of the pre-determined offerings. Something cool – each burger description on the menu includes suggested cocktail, wine, beer, nibble and shake pairings. Nice. For accompaniment, the sweet potato fries are the way to go.

the Asian chicken burger

We all ordered something different around the table to check out the full array of options. The Asian chicken burger looked delish smothered in green papaya slaw and Thai peanut sauce.

the Garlic Parmesan Butter Burger

The garlic parmesan butter burger was also unusually tempting with roasted garlic mayo, batter-fried tomatoes and greens on a pretzel bun spiked with a parmesan cheese crisp. (There’s so much cholesterol happening here, I felt like this one should come with a disclaimer for diners with heart conditions.)

the Drunken Bull Burger

I was perfectly pleased with my Drunken Bull Burger, a seriously upgraded bacon cheeseburger with Kobe beef, proscuitto, blue cheese, caramelized onions and a Cabernet reduction sauce. Decadent and delicious.

shake it, don’t break it

The luscious milkshakes are another Prime attraction, available in leaded (boozed-up) or unleaded varieties. We sampled the chunky toasted marshmallow and crème brulee versions, both so rich, you could have dished them up with a spoon. The marshmallow was good, but I preferred the crème brulee, which came across like a densely flavored vanilla pudding.

Expect to drop $12 to $15 or more per burger depending on how jiggy you want to get with it. Portion sizes are easily big enough to split between average appetites; I don’t think anyone at our table finished more than half their meal.

Bottom line — if you don’t mind a little T&A, Prime offers great food in nightclubby digs.

For more info, (if nothing else, take a peek at the menu if you’re feeling sorta randy):
www.grandvictoriacasino.com/dining/prime-burgerhouse/

Prime BurgerHouse on Urbanspoon

Breakfast of champions

Lifelong Richmond resident and Pearl Harbor survivor Paul Brittenham passed away last October at the ripe old age of 94, but his legacy lives on at the popular northside diner he founded back in 1948.

Paulee Restaurant in Richmond’s historic Depot District

 

Brittenham opened Paulee Restaurant several years after returning home from his military service tour. A businessman first and foremost, he knew his profits depended on frequent turnover. With just 10 seats to work with, the crusty Brittenham discouraged dawdling, often telling customers to “eat and get out!” His loyal patrons didn’t mind, and the good food and fair prices kept them coming back. The restaurant still draws crowds of devoted regulars, some who’ve been known to come in for breakfast and return a few hours later for lunch.

An on-site fixture for decades, Brittenham retired just a few years ago at age 89, passing the torch to Jenny Orbik, a loyal employee who had worked for him for 20 years and didn’t want to see the restaurant close.

my dear old dad, fitting right in at Paulee’s

 

Not much has changed at Paulee through the years, except perhaps for the addition of some nifty murals on the exteriors of the neighborhood buildings. There are still just 10 seats in the whole place and the joint still serves the same straight-up-good, no-nonsense food in a nostalgic diner atmosphere, much as it did when it opened decades ago.

a basic breakfast at Paulee’s

If you’re in the mood for a hearty basic breakfast, this is the place to go. Eggs come any way you want alongside toast and meat choices that include bacon, fresh or smoked sausage, ham, chopped steak, pork chop and even tenderloin.

B&G at Paulee’s

 

Biscuits and gravy fans take note – the recipe at Paulee is top-notch, and available in one, two and three biscuit portions. The three-egg omelets are another popular breakfast choice, and if you need a sweet fix, Paulee carries donuts and Danishes from local bakeries.

For lunch, Paulee offers a lineup of classic burgers, sandwiches and soups, along with an old-fashioned daily special along the lines of cabbage rolls, tuna casserole or green beans stewed with sausage and potatoes.

Today, Paulee Restaurant finds itself ideally sited amid prime real estate in Richmond’s emerging Historic Depot District. Neighborhood improvements, the renovation of the depot itself, and the addition of new businesses are attracting a whole new generation of clientele to the area, many discovering Paulee for the first time.

Paulee’s menu board

 

Open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday, Paulee’s prices are more than reasonable for the amount and quality of food you get. Just don’t forget to hit the ATM first, this cash-only diner doesn’t accept credit cards.

420 N. 8th St.
Richmond, Ind.
(765) 962-5621

Bravo Bazbeaux

Dear readers,

Before delving into a new post, I must apologize for being missing in action so much this summer. Suffice it to say the past few months have been pretty tumultuous for personal reasons, but I pledge to do better in the future and not let weeks lapse between blogs!

With that said, let’s talk pizza. Everyone’s got their personal fave, and once it’s been established, it’s hard to sway opinion. I was raised on Pizza King in Richmond, and I’m sure my former classmates and childhood compadres will agree it still holds a special place in the palate for nostalgic reasons. It’s pretty much a given that we’ll end up ordering a Royal Feast at some point during any visit to dear old dad’s. The pizza itself is distinctive, even if it’s not anything gourmet, or really even spectacular. Flat, fairly cardboard-ish crust slathered with sweetish tomato paste then generously dusted with tiny cubes of chopped pepperoni, sausage crumbles, onions and peppers diced so small you have to really look for them, cheese and a few mushroom slices, broiled quickly and sliced into squares. That’s it. Nothing fancy, but dependably good.

Once I moved to Indy and started working downtown a ahem, er number of years ago, I was introduced to the beauty of Bazbeaux. And although there have been minor flirtations with other pizzas and pizzerias since (primarily Some Guys and Bacino’s in Chicago), Bazbeaux still tops my list when I’m in the mood for a steamy, cheesy slice of deliciousness.

Bazbeauz Broad Ripple location

Bazbeaux throws off a slightly circa-1980s Seattle grunge vibe. The atmosphere is fairly bohemian with a funky edge. Cooks and servers are usually tattooed and/or pierced and don’t smile much. They do, however, know their stuff when it comes to rocking some good ‘za.

good ole pepperoni

Beyond the build-your-own options with all the usual toppings (and some not-so-usual toppings), Bazbeaux’s menu details a bunch of really great specialty pizzas to please both carnivores and vegetarians. There’s all manner of accoutrement here — the Tchoupitoulas pizza offers a Cajun twist with blackened shrimp, andouille, roasted red pepper and fresh garlic. The Cubano elevates with black bean salsa and capicolla, ham and salami sourced from the Smoking Goose. There also are several interesting seafood pies that arrive adorned with crab, shrimp and albacore tuna. The only other place I’ve ever seen tuna on a pizza was in Provence… I’ve never had a sandwich here, but I hear the spinach melt is worth a try.

Pizza Alla Quattro Formaggio – bellissimo!!!

I really like the B.O.T. (bacon, onion and tomato) and the Garden, laden as it is with artichoke hearts, spinach, olives and other veggies, but my Bazbeaux go-to is the Quattro Formaggio. It all starts with a cracker-thin crispy crust and then heaps on Romano, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone and dollops of ricotta. Wait a sec, that’s really five cheeses, isn’t it? Huh. Anyway, as if all that isn’t ooey, gooey goodness enough, they take it over the top by tossing on mushrooms and bacon. See what I mean? You really can’t go wrong. Tack on a nicely assembled side salad with bite-sized shavings of Parmesan scattered across the top (the creamy basil dressing is what I always ask for), and you’ve got all the makings of a fantastic meal.

the standard side salad with creamy basil dressing

For dinner, the deck overlooking the canal at the Broad Ripple location is a chilled-out spot for al fresco dining. And if you’re downtown for lunch, Bazbeaux offers one of the best deals in town — a mere $5 or so scores you a large slice of pizza, side salad and a fountain drink.

For more info, check out www.bazbeaux.com.

Bazbeaux Pizza (Broad Ripple) on Urbanspoon

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