A repast with a past

Last week, I got to spend a night at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill during my jaunt to Lexington. (Actually, Shaker Village is located in Harrodsburg, about 30 minutes south of Lexington, if you want to get technical about it. But why split hairs.)

Trustees Office

Shaker Village Trustee’s Office inn and restaurant

For those unfamiliar, Shaker Village is the largest restored Shaker community in the country, dating to 1805 and active for more than a century back in its heyday. Those Shakers were some busy peeps, noted for their innovative farming methods, communal living practices and religious fervor. Touring through this collection of refurbished buildings is really interesting, and costumed interpreters are on hand for craft demonstrations, Q&A sessions and general color. Think Conner Prairie, but bigger. And with hiking/biking nature trails running throughout the beautiful rolling countryside, production gardens, overnight accommodations and a well-reputed restaurant. The grounds are crisscrossed with rustic stacked stone walls built by Scottish/Irish immigrants.

Although kitted out with period furnishings and décor, my room was surprisingly up-to-date with a nice bathroom, Wi-Fi and a flatscreen TV. As part of my overnight I enjoyed a very pleasant dinner at the Trustee’s Office Dining Room with the Shaker Village communications manager.

The vibe here is definitely rustic, as you’d expect, yet the huge hurricane candles on each table created a warm, romantic glow. For me, this was a friendly business dinner, but I could see how folks of a certain age might come here for a special occasion meal or a date night.

Shaker Inn dining room

In keeping with the theme and setting, the menu features home-cooked “seed to table” fare, and many offerings are made using ingredients straight out of the gorgeous gardens you can see from the dining room windows. Most of the dishes feature traditional Shaker recipes, such as the tomato celery soup that’s always available. Among the half dozen or so dinner entrees ($15.95 to $22.95), you’ll find classic skillet-fried chicken, country ham steak, pot roast, fried catfish, and a quiche-like vegetable tart. Sauteed Gulf shrimp seemed the most modern option, but even it’s served on toasted croutons made with old-school salt-rising bread.

relish

relish tray

All dinners are served with charming retro touches like a relish plate to get things underway; a basket filled with warm rolls and cornbread sticks; and bowls of roasted potatoes, glazed carrots and corn pudding served family-style. All good stuff, just like grandma used to make. It’s a lot of food to take in. You may want to consider skipping lunch.

ham steak

country ham steak with red eye gravy

For my main, I went with the ham steak with red eye gravy. I know country ham is inherently salty by nature, but with the gravy, this was almost a little too much so. Still, the meat was tender and tasty, and the corn pudding on the side was rich and luscious.

fried chicken

skillet-fried chicken

My dining companion ordered the fried chicken, a ginormous three-piece serving, and after a valiant effort, ended up taking half of it home.

desserts

dessert selections

Don’t even think you’re getting out of here without dessert. Our server brought over a tray laden with four options to tempt us — chocolate pudding, pumpkin spice cake and two kinds of pie. I know, I know… you think you’re too full and don’t have room. Get over it.

lemon pie

Shaker lemon pie

I got the Shaker lemon pie, and it was unlike any other lemon pie I’ve ever had. Lest you think this is going to be some of sort of curdy, mile-high meringue, nope. It’s a double-crust pie with a thick fruit filling made from whole lemons, peel and all. It’s not sour, but it’s not overly sweet. The server had warned me that not everyone likes it. I did. Nothing fancy, but different and unusual. My friend ordered the pumpkin spice cake, just to taste. It was good, too, a sheet cake-style slice with a light whippy topping. Like something you’d get at a church dinner or bake sale, and I mean that in the best possible way.

To drink, there’s a small but nicely vetted selection of wine, beer and… bourbon. Of course. I washed things down with an expertly made Buffalo Trace Manhattan.

Shaker Village isn’t trendy or fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re looking for an interesting dining experience with historic flair and delicious, accessible comfort food (lots of it), it’s worth putting this place on your radar for a road trip.

The Trustee’s Office Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. For more information, visit www.shakervillageky.org.

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

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