A dinner of Titanic proportions

Another adventure in my I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-what-I-get-to-do-for-a-living life… last week, I traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky and my beloved Bourbon Country. A professional contact and friend invited me down for a preview of the new Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition opening this weekend at the Lexington Center Museum.

Titanic sign

This exhibit came through Indianapolis several years ago for a stint at the Indiana State Museum, but I somehow managed to miss it, so I was glad for this second-chance opportunity. So worthwhile. We’ve all seen the movie and heard the tragic tale, but looking first-hand at dishes, still-partially-filled bottles of champagne, postcards and personal effects collected from the actual shipwreck two and a half miles down in the north Atlantic is both chilling and amazing. Kids will love the chance to touch an iceberg, a self-regenerating block of ice that will stand throughout the exhibition’s run.

Displays put a face on the Titanic story with lots of details about the folks who sailed on the ship that fateful night in April 1912. Visitors are given a “boarding pass” when they enter, detailing the name and background of one of the actual passengers; at the end, you consult a wall that contains the names of everyone who survived or perished to find out if you made it. Sadly, I was the only one of our group who didn’t.

place setting

Following our sneak preview, we enjoyed an elaborate Titanic-themed dinner in the attached Hyatt Regency. This was so cool — the chef and his staff recreated a four-course meal of period recipes that might have been served aboard the Titanic. We kicked off the repast with era-appropriate cocktails like Sidecars and Planter’s Punch, garnished with ice cubes shaped like the ship itself. Appetizers included mini beef Wellingtons and crab-stuffed deviled eggs that our small group couldn’t stop raving about.


potage of winter vegetables

After we took our seats, the chef came out to give us a quick primer on the menu as servers came around pouring wine and offering herb biscuits. First up, a delicious potage/soup made of winter vegetables like carrot and parsnip and garnished with two toasted bread croutons. Maybe not as visually appealing as what was still to come, but delicious with a spicy kick I wasn’t expecting. This is just the kind of thing I’d love to eat a big bowl of on a rainy autumn night with some cheese, some nice bread and red wine.


Waldorf salad

The salad course was a duo of traditional Waldorf salad and a few leaves of Bibb lettuce with candied pecans. Pretty as a picture, and very tasty. I remember my mom making a basic Waldorf salad on occasion way back when with chopped apples, celery and walnuts mixed with Miracle Whip. Chef’s dish elevated the recipe, of course. His Waldorf was more like a creamy apple slaw with halved grapes. So good, especially when I sprinkled the candied nuts over the top.


Filet Mignon Lili

For the main event, we got to choose from three entrees — Ballotine of chicken supreme, filet mignon Lili, and poached salmon mousseline. Everyone at our table ordered the filet, except for one brave gal who broke the mold and got the chicken.


Ballotine of chicken supreme

The tender, flavorful filet was cooked to order and served with a rich demi-glace, thinly sliced potatoes, a few spears of asparagus, and a tiny marrow bone filled with carrot hash. The woman who ordered the chicken sat next to me; her dish consisted of a chicken breast wrapped around a forcemeat filling and then poached, I believe? It looked good and she liked it.


“The Iceberg”

Dessert… ah, dessert. The menu described it simply as “the Iceberg,” and the chef was mysterious avoiding further description, so we were all immediately charmed when the plates arrived. We each got a sugar cookie decorated to resemble the Titanic herself, plated beside a scoop of bourbon ice cream that had been covered in toasted meringue to look like an iceberg. Both items sat in a small pool of coconut-ish blue curacao in lieu of the ocean. A little disturbing if you think about it too much, I suppose, but sooooo creative. And even though I was completely stuffed by that point, I could not stop eating that bourbon ice cream.

Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition is on now and running through Jan. 26, 2014 at the Lexington Center Museum right next to Rupp Arena. For more information, visit www.lexingtoncenter.com.

I believe the Hyatt Regency (where I stayed) might be offering package deals in conjunction with the exhibit. The hotel is first-rate, located in the heart of lovely downtown Lexington and connects directly to the Center. If you’re looking for a great weekend away, definitely check it out — www.lexington.hyatt.com.

Southern exposure

Last week marked our sixth anniversary, which of course, called for a nice dinner out to celebrate the occasion. Instead of falling back on old standbys, hubby and I decided to break new ground and try somewhere new. We’d snagged a room at the downtown Marriott, and since it was about a gazillion degrees that day/night, we limited our scope to restaurants within a few blocks walking distance of the hotel. Fortunately, there were plenty to choose from. After some discussion, we decided to give Tavern on South a shot.

We’d recently driven past Tavern on South and thought it looked interesting, plus I’d read a pretty good review of the place in Indianapolis Monthly a few issues ago. We like gourmet gastropub grub and were just coming off a great meal at Black Market, so our hopes and expectations were high going in.

Trying to shave off a little bit of our outdoor walk to the restaurant, we took an indoor shortcut from the hotel through the convention center and only had a block or so to go once we emerged into the 110 degree heat index. Ugh. (By some stroke of sheer insanity, we’d both dressed in black. What were we thinking?) Needless to say, al fresco dining was not an option for the evening.

We arrived around 6 and were seated immediately, thank goodness. Our timing was good, the place steadily filled up while we were there. Decorwise, Tavern on South has a nice long dining room area, a busy bar, and some outdoor terrace seating. Décor is dark and colorful, but I must take exception to the TVs. Sigh. I know this is a gastropub, but hubby and I were both terribly distracted by the televisions mounted in each corner right over each other’s shoulders. We’re not SportsCenter fans, but my eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the TV again and again. Not exactly the romantic vibe you want on your anniversary.

The menu wasn’t as long as I expected, but covered all the bases; one page detailing a couple of pizzas, sandwiches, salads and a handful of entrees. We ordered the kettle chips starter to nibble with our drinks. I’m totally in a kettle chip phase at the moment. If they’re on the menu, I’ll probably order them. These were good, too, super fresh and satisfyingly crunchy, served with a garlic aioli and a refreshing and unexpected red pepper ketchup for dipping.

(I must apologize for not having photos to include with this post… since this was a special personal occasion, it didn’t seem right to tote the Nikon along. Plus, it didn’t really go with my little black dress.)

We had a couple of issues with the entrees, though. First impression — the presentations were great when the dishes arrived at the table. But the chargrilled 7 oz. filet I ordered arrived WELL done instead of the medium I’d asked for. It was chewy and dry, even the luxurious dollop of lobster butter on top couldn’t save it. The little molded timbale of cold artichoke potato salad underneath the steak caught me off guard, but I really liked it.

On hubby’s side of the table, the grilled chicken consisted of two thin boneless breasts with nice chargrilled marks over an asparagus artichoke corn succotash with balsamic syrup. The chicken was much more competently cooked than the steak, but the kitchen committed the unforgivable sin of including some onion in the succotash. Even after hubby specifically quizzed the server about whether or not it was included in the mix and she assured him it wouldn’t be.

As it turned out, hubby loaded up on the chicken and my steak, while I took care of the succotash and my potato salad. I thought the serving sizes were a little on the small side, given the price. My steak plate set us back $26, not terribly good value for what I received.

We thought about dessert, but decided to hold off. In retrospect, Tavern on South seemed a decent representation of an upscale gastropub, but probably not the best choice for a romantic date night. Hubby seemed more impressed with the place than I was. Given the choice between the two, I’d rush back to Black Market instead.

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Conrad confessional

Valentine’s Day arrived a week late at my house this year. An ugly wave of strep throat followed by a cold sore epidemic hit me and then hubby in quick succession, soundly defeating plans for the romantic staycation we’d arranged in downtown Indy. Fortunately, a week of recovery time saw us both in much better shape and we were able to resume our rescheduled reservations. (Thank God, the toddler somehow managed to avoid the contagion.)

Child-free overnight getaways are a big deal for us, and only happen maybe a few times a year if we’re lucky. Again, it was our fabulous neighbors to the rescue, taking in the toddler for a fun-filled night of indoor camping.

Since hubby and I weren’t actually in the same country for either of our two wedding anniversaries this past year, we decided to really splurge for Valentine’s Day and call it three occasions in one. Site of said rendezvous? Indy’s most upper-crusted luxury hotel — the Conrad.

My only prior experience with the Conrad property had been an awesome race week cocktail party hubby brought me along for two years ago, and a glass of wine at Tastings with a handful of women friends two weeks ago following a play at the IRT.

Let me spell it out for you. Nothing about the Conrad is cheap. The restaurants, the rooms, nada. You’re going to drop some cash to stay here. Figuring what the hell, I requested the room upgrade option when I made the reservation, assuring us of a soaking tub and a Monument Circle view.

Figuring we’d try to cut a corner, we ditched the car at a 24-hour Circle Centre garage (for about half the price valet parking would have cost us) and checked in around 3:30 p.m. The common areas of the hotel are spotlessly clean, and the lobby features a gorgeous huge Chihuly-style glass light fixture that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

Sure enough, the windows in our 18th floor room opened out onto a spectacular view of the monument and the eastern side of the downtown skyscape. Not too shabby. The room itself was subtly decorated in classy neutral shades with a massive flat-screen TV and a bathroom I could have lived in for a few days. Deep soaking tub, separate shower, marble countertops and another TV. Sweet. Our only very minor complaints – the full-length mirror in the room was streaky and didn’t look like it had been cleaned very well, and the tub itself leaked slightly, which we remedied by placing an extra washcloth over the drain.

The Conrad offers a pretty 6th floor indoor pool/whirlpool area we hit soon after checking in. The lounge chairs all held fresh towels and the side tables were stocked with fruit and bottles of water. The water facilities were great, but hubby and I quickly realized we both reeked of chlorine on the elevator ride back up to the room.

Since the weather outside was so frightful, we’d decided to just hole up and spend our entire stay on site at the Conrad. After bathing and relaxing in the room for a few hours, we got dressed up and made our way back downstairs for a pre-dinner drink at Tastings Wine Bar and Bistro. I like this place, it’s full of nifty high-tech wine dispensers that look kinda like vending machines. The wines are grouped by theme and style — i.e. pinot noirs, Italians, sparkling. What you do is wander around reading the descriptions below each until you find something you want to drink, then use a key card to dispense a glass worth or just a taste. Hubby found the whole thing a little crass, but I thought it was cool in a Jetson’s kind of way. There’s also table service, of course, if you want to be prosaic.

We chose to stick to the menu with hubby ordering a robust glass of cabernet; I selected a so-so Sangiovese that the waitress recommended. As tempted as we were to sample a plate of the blue cheese kettle chips, we decided wisely to save our appetites for our dinner to come at the Capital Grille down the hall.

I’d never eaten at Capital Grille before, although I’d heard they serve a kick-ass burger for lunch. The first thing that hit me when we walked in was “wow, this place is DARK.” Dark, intimate and masculine. Very old boys’ club-ish, as most steak houses usually are. Someone could make a fortune creating a steak house that caters to women, decorated and staffed accordingly. (Hm… note to self??) Good thing we were hungry and ready for some serious eats.

The menu wasn’t nearly as extensive as I expected, mainly a short list of wet-aged steaks, seafood and a la carte sides. I must admit, our service was outstanding; our waiter came off as knowledgeable and friendly without a hint of condescension. His pinot noir recommendation was spot on, and way better than what we sampled at Tastings next door. I did get a little tired of the guy who kept swooping in to refill our water glasses every time we took a sip.

But back to the food. After much consideration, we both opted for steaks. When in Rome… Hubby ordered steak au poivre, a hefty slab of sirloin that came drenched with a peppercorn brandy cream sauce so good I wanted to drink it off his plate. I got a straight-up filet mignon, meltingly tender and perfectly cooked to medium well doneness. We split two sides — a dish of steamed green beans with roasted tomatoes that hubby refused to touch after he spied a few slices of onion in the mix, and a sinful pile of crispy fries drizzled with truffle oil and dusted with shavings of parmesan cheese. Yummy.

Everything was delicious, although the two women seated next to us were apparently not having the same experience. We couldn’t help but overhear them bitching to the waiter and insisting on getting the manager out there to take something off their bill, although we never did figure out just what had gotten them so riled up in the first place.

The tab? Again, not cheap. We justified it by reminding ourselves that this was really three special-occasion dinners in one. Very upscale, tasty and professional, but honestly, I think I still prefer St. Elmo’s if I’m in the mood for a great steak.

We retired to our room, wrapped ourselves in the complimentary robes and settled in for a movie and some rejuvenating relaxation.

For breakfast, room service was the logical choice. Service was quick, and we luxuriated in bed over pastries, fruit, fresh squeezed juice and coffee. Ah. Bliss.

All in all, the Conrad was lovely. A few very minor hiccups, but certainly nothing to detract from a wonderful overall stay. Looking back, I’m not quite sure the value we got was worth what we paid. The problem with staying or dining someplace so upscale is that your expectations are so high going in, the disappointment is that much greater if there’s any misstep or things aren’t absolutely perfect. Not that we were disappointed, but next time, I’d probably go somewhere a little more affordable and try to build in an extra night instead. Still, I’m glad we checked it out and can now check it off our list.

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