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.


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.

Seelbach cocktail.jpg

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.


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

Long live the Commonwealth, y’all.



Latin love at Seviche

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for being so remiss in tending to my blog in recent months…. But I just had a meal so truly transcendent, I feel inspired to share. Immediately.

I think I may have mentioned my love for all things Louisville a time or two? Well, I’ve had the privilege of spending the past few days here for the Midwest Travel Writers Association conference, and dinner at Seviche for last night’s dine-around has just taken our relationship to a whole new level.


Seviche entrance

Chef Anthony Lamas has been bringing Latin flavors with Southern flair to Louisville since he opened Seviche in the hip and trendy Highlands neighborhood in 2005. I met him on a trip here last year for another travel conference (see earlier post about the show taping for “Secrets of Louisville Chefs” and Chef Lamas’ fabulous chorizo with grits and orange bourbon barbecue sauce demo). We’re now Facebook friends, so I get to stay up to date on Chef Lamas’ doings and dishes. In 2011, he won the title of Food Network’s “Extreme Chef,” a Survivor-meets-Top Chef-style show in which chefs are dumped in the middle of the desert or jungle with, like, a can of tuna and told to prepare a gourmet meal for 50 people. That should tell you something about how bad-ass this guy is.

We arrived last night ready to be wowed, and were ushered to a semi-private dining room in the back of the restaurant (created, along with a new lounge area, in a recent expansion). The interior is sleek, done up in rich neutral shades, and I loved the jars of pickled fruit and veg lining the shelves that served as decor. Chef Lamas kept a sweet 80s soundtrack playing in the background, which we later found out was his own iPod. This, of course, only made me like him even more.


My mojito

We started with drinks, as you do, and I ordered a mojito. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with this libation, usually sticking instead to wine, beer and bourbon, but I figured this place probably knows how to do ‘em up right. My suspicions proved correct. The drink arrived in a tall glass, loaded with muddled lime and mint. Sweet, but not too sweet. Tart, but not too tart. Totally fresh and refreshing with a big spike of sugarcane to gnaw on in lieu of a swizzle stick. So far, so good.

Chef Lamas had pre-planned a multi-course tasting menu for us, a smart move because so many things on the menu sounded delicious, we might have been there all night just deciding what to order. An avalanche of small plates soon started arriving, all beautifully presented and each tasting even better than the last. Seriously, I felt like a Top Chef judge, and found myself wondering how Padma does this all the time and still maintains such a hot bod.

First up, the starters. We received sharable family-style dishes here — a plate of grilled shishito peppers with ponzu sauce and a little sesame, and fried bison-filled empanadas with an avocado-jalapeno puree and pico de gallo.

shishito peppers

blistered shishito peppers with ponzu and sesame

Our server Daylon (I apologize if I’m butchering the spelling of your name here, dude), who ROCKED by the way, described these peppers as a Russian roulette of heat. Some are mild, some will blister your sinuses, and like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get until you bite in. My pepper was mild, and I liked the texture – sort of like a banana pepper or giardinera. It had a little toothsome bite left, and the sesame ponzu was a nice touch.

bison empanadas

bison empanadas with pico de gallo and avocado-jalapeno puree

I like making empanadas at home every now and then, although I bake mine instead of frying, and I’ve never had them filled with bison. Both great ideas. These cute buffalo meat hot pockets had good flavor, but what made the dish for me was the avocado jalapeno puree. I’m an avocado junkie anyway, and the tingly heat from the jalapeno provided a much-appreciated kick. Think spicy pureed smooth guacamole. Only way better.

tuna ceviche

tuna ceviche “Old Fashioned”

Next up was a little glass of tuna ceviche “Old Fashioned.” This was my favorite item of the evening; and a day later, it’s the one I’m still daydreaming about. Sushi fans take note, this was AWESOME. Gorgeous colors and a perfect balance of flavors – chunks of buttery soft tuna, sweet tiny diced pineapple and an orange supreme, a wee splash of bourbon, sesame, salty soy sauce, verdant cilantro, and something addictively spicy that left my lips tingling after I’d dug out every bit with my chopsticks. I very nearly tipped the glass up to drink the few precious last drops of juice in the bottom. I can’t tell you how much I loved this. I wanted to make out with this food.

halibut ceviche

wild halibut ceviche

For comparison, the next dish was a wild halibut ceviche. This fish was chunkier, soft and mild, with a little corn, onion, microgreens and garnishing sauce I couldn’t quite place. Good, but didn’t nearly blow me away to the same degree the tuna ceviche did.

swordfish risotto

grilled swordfish over mushroom risotto with crispy leeks

One member of our group had requested the swordfish, and that’s what showed up next – a small square of perfectly grilled fish over a spoonful of mushroom risotto with crispy almost onion-ringy leeks and a lobster truffle sauce ladled around the plate. This fish was so tender, it practically melted in my mouth, and the risotto was a luscious earthy complement.

scallop fideos

seared scallop over fideos with goat cheese, artichoke and asparagus

As much as I liked the swordfish, I went crazy over the grilled scallop that we received afterward. I’ve been hit or miss with scallops in the past, some too rubbery, gritty or just plain meh. This one was stellar, nicely browned and tender enough to cut with my fork. It sat atop fideos – a nutty tasting, Spanish-style pasta that looks like short strands of angel hair spaghetti — with pine nuts, goat cheese, an asparagus spear and a chunk of artichoke heart. I think the sauce had truffle in it, but I was so distracted by this sexy scallop, I didn’t care.


Churrascos and chimichurri, oh my.

My tummy was starting to reach capacity at this point, but there were still more good things to come. Such as a Churrascos-style bite of grilled skirt steak with garlic mashed potatoes, a dab of demi-glace, and a bold herby chimichurri sauce I had trouble not licking straight off the plate.


sweet finales

A dessert trio platter ended things on another high note. Liquid nitrogen frozen caramel corn lent a unique crunch factor. The housemade macadamia nut ice cream was rich, creamy and perfect. The bourbon butterscotch pudding smooth and decadent. But I couldn’t get enough of the avocado ice cream, another Chef Lamas trademark dish. Imagine, if you will, avocado flavored ice cream (don’t hate – it is DELICIOUS) that’s prepped to look exactly like an avocado. See the pic below – the ice cream is scooped into a thin chocolate shell with a bourbon ball truffle nestled into the middle just like a real avocado pit. All edible. What else is there to say about this, really? Genius.

avocado ice cream

Seviche’s signature avocado ice cream

Thus, our feast came to a reluctant end. Not a misstep in the whole shebang. Chef Lamas even graciously came out and spoke with us after the meal, politely answering our questions and submitting to our endless photo requests even though I’m sure the kitchen must have been completely slammed behind the scenes.

Chef Lamas

Chef Anthony Lamas himself. Rock. Star.

To stay on our event schedule, we only had about 90 minutes or so to spend at Seviche in total, so everything felt a little rushed. This was the kind of meal I would have liked to savor over three hours or so. Still, I was grateful we got to taste as much as we did, and I have a pretty good idea what I’d order again on my next visit. And bank money on it, there WILL be a next visit. Soon, I hope. I’d drive two hours to Louisville again just to eat here. So should you.

For more information about Seviche, check out

Seviche on Urbanspoon

Louisville lingo for foodies

I got schooled (in a good way) about Louisville’s eclectic food scene during a delightful City Taste Tour this afternoon that included samples all along the way. Interestingly, Louisville is home to some very distinctive, and awesomely delicious, food items that you can only get here. Oh sure, you can pay your respects to Colonel Sanders at beautiful historic Cave Hill Cemetery, but you should also know there’s a whole lot more worth sampling besides extra-crispy drumsticks. You’ll find just about any food your heart and tummy desires in Louisville, but these are some of the traditional tastes everyone should try:

Modjeskas from Schimpff’s Confectionery

One word: Modjeska. Learn it. Know it. Love it. In the 1880s, local Louisville confectioner Anton Busath happened to catch a performance by Polish actress Madam Helena Modjeska at the old Macauley Theater and was inspired to create a special candy in her honor. Hence, the Modjeska was born — a gooey marshmallow covered in soft caramel. These divine goodies are available at candy stores throughout the area, including Muth’s Candy in the NuLu district and the adorable Schmipff’s Confectionery across the river in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Benedictine. As Leslie, our knowledgeable tour guide, informed us, Benedictine is to Louisville what peanut butter and jelly is to the rest of the country. The original recipe is credited to one Jenny Benedict, a Louisville caterer who invented the green-tinted sandwich spread in the 1800s. It’s pretty basic, really — cream cheese, cucumber and green onions. Perfect for ladies who lunch, I imagine this stuff has been making its way onto tea sandwiches around these parts for ages.

The Hot Brown. A creation of Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, the hot brown is a real gut-buster of a yummy lunch. You start with a slice of toast, then layer on turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese, then drench the whole thing with creamy Mornay sauce. Slide it under the broiler for a few minutes to take it to new heights of sinfully caloric deliciousness. You’re welcome.

mint julep at Churchill Downs

Mint juleps. The traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps are kind of a touristy thing to order. Locals and regulars seem to gravitate more toward bourbon neat, or mixed into a more respectable cocktail. I drank my first ever mint julep (quickly followed by my second) on Sunday night during a party at Churchill Downs. To say it was sweet is an understatement. I liked it, but this probably isn’t a libation you’d want to drink a bunch of in one sitting. Think sweet tea with extra sugar, bourbon and a sprig of fresh mint. I’d like to try to recreate a slightly less sweet version of this at home when the mint springs up again in my herb garden.

bourbon balls

Bourbon balls. Speaking of bourbon, don’t even think about missing out on a bourbon ball during a visit to Kentucky. Invented by Ruth Booe of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company in nearby Frankfort way back when, these babies take a bourbony, brown sugary, creamy center and dunk it in chocolate. Lynn’s Paradise Café in Louisville has reinvented the recipe in a French toast dish that sounds ridiculously, insanely decadent and delicious.

rolled oysters

Rolled oysters. A brainchild of the Mazzoni family in the late 1800s/early 1900s, this is the mother of all fried oysters. Take three fresh oysters, dip them in an egg batter, roll them together in breadcrumbs and deep fry. Voila. A rolled oyster. These things are the size of a baseball, and can be eaten with cocktail sauce or a simple squeeze of lemon. Who knew a Midwestern/southern town along the Ohio River could turn out such an authoritative seafood dish?

Weisenberger grits. The best restaurants in town advertise Weisenberger grits on their menus, so I asked why. Weisenberger grits are apparently the Rolls-Royce of cornmeal, produced at the Weisenberger mill in central Kentucky by six generations of Weisenbergers. If you see them on a menu, order them. Immediately. And for those of you drinking along at home — Weisenberger.

Derby Pie®. Trademarked by Kern’s Kitchen, this dessert makes plain old pecan pie look downright pathetic by subbing chopped black walnuts and chocolate chips into a top-secret classified recipe. Uh, yum.

Wait, there’s more… Louisville’s been named a top foodie town by several magazines, and a drive around quickly uncovers the reasons why. Have I sufficiently whetted your appetite?

For info about a mouthwatering way to see and learn about Louisville, call Leslie Burke’s City Taste Tours at (502) 457-8686 or visit I guarantee you won’t go home hungry or thirsty.

Read all about it

Research for this assignment took me on a very enjoyable trip through Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati back in March for Indianapolis Monthly. My Lexington adventure is covered in the current issue of the magazine on stands now, along with an article I wrote about the Indiana Wine Trail.

The Louisville and Cincinnati coverage is available for your viewing pleasure at the newly revamped Indianapolis Monthly web site:

Check it out if you’re in the market for a long weekend getaway this summer, or even just some armchair traveling!