Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lexington Trip, Part 2: Jonathan's at Gratz Park

Goodness, these Scallop Hot Browns seemed to get my readers' tastebuds tingling when I posted a preview to my Lexington trip report. So let’s plunge into my dinner at Jonathan's at Gratz Park, shall we?

I'd originally planned to attend the Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show just as a day trip. But Friday was one of those gloriously warm fall days that makes you feel downright festive. By the time I got home from work, I'd talked myself into staying overnight after the Saturday food show and checking out a couple of Lexington's restaurants, even if meant scrambling to make arrangements. Without my usual drawn-out googling when visiting an unfamiliar city, I came up with a short list of restaurants that appealed to me, phoned Jonathan's at Gratz Park to see if I could get a reservation on such short notice (yes, they could accommodate my one-top in the bar at 6:30), booked a hotel with similar haste, checked mapquest for directions, threw some clothes in my overnight bag, and tried to get to bed early enough I wouldn't sleep through my alarm clock and could make the hour and a half trip down I-75 in time to arrive at the food show by 9:00 a.m. Although Cindie called at 10:30 p.m. and we didn't get off the phone until 11:30, I made it to Rupp Arena by 9:20 the following morning, which I count as a personal victory.

After a fun day at the show (and, thankfully, pacing myself with all the available food samples), I was relaxed – and hungry – by the time I arrived at Jonathan's, a fine-dining establishment in the Gratz Park Inn, on a narrow side street in a picturesque historic district near the heart of Lexington's downtown. The main dining room was already crowded by 6:30, so the hostess walked me down the Inn's central corridor to my table in the bar, whose two-tops, four-tops, and an eight-top between me and the flat-screen TV were nearly full. I was a bit surprised to see a flat-screen TV in a white-tablecloth restaurant, but then again, not only was this the bar, I was in University of Kentucky country, where Wildcats fans do not want to miss their sports.

I ignored the TV and perused the evening's menu, a little different than what I'd seen online, but not a surprise given the changing seasons. I was curious to check out the restaurant's spins on Southern classics by chef Jonathan Lundy (a native Kentuckian who got his start in the restaurant biz in New Orleans working with Emeril Lagasse before attending Johnson + Wales and eventually returning home). Gone from the summer appetizer menu were his Boiled Peanut Hummus, Pickled Watermelon and Shrimp served in a Mason jar with Corn Bread Crackers, and Asparagus Spring Rolls with Bourbon Barrel Aged Kentucky Soy Sauce and Hot Pepper Jelly. But the Pimento Cheese Grit Fries, the Burgoo, and those Sea Scallop Hot Browns were still there. I wouldn't be surprised if they never leave.I was powerless to pass up the Hot Browns. Since scallops are often paired with bacon, this dish made sense to me as soon as I read the description. The Newsom’s country ham as porky counterpoint was exceptional, as was the classic Mornay sauce, and I was glad each round of airy brioche was topped with just a thick slice of perfectly broiled sea scallop rather than entire scallop, or I have cried uncle  after my next course.

I was seated close enough to the next table to be able to admire their salads (Succotash Salad with fresh corn, heirloom tomatoes, soy beans, cornbread croutons, and fresh herb vinaigrette; Fried Green Tomato Salad with Limestone bibb lettuce, buttermilk crème fraiche dressing, and shiitake “bacon”). I, however, opted for this Root Vegetable Waldorf from the evening’s specials, with cubes of squash and sweet potato augmenting traditional celery and apple in a mayonnaise dressing topped with fresh greens and toasted pecans. While I enjoyed the flavors, the salads here are on the large side, and between the size and the sweetness of my Waldorf, I was starting to fill up. My entrée was ready before I finished my salad (this has happened to me several times lately – should I inform my servers I’m a slow eater?). In this instance, I was ready to move on.

It’s not uncommon to find on Kentucky fine-dining menus elevated versions of shrimp and grits (I was holding out on that possibility for my Sunday brunch) or entrées in various bourbon preparations (Jonathan’s offers a Maker’s Mark 46 roasted salmon with maple mustard glaze, potato salad, hard-boiled eggs, and capers). I was also intrigued by the Cola-Braised Short Ribs and the Sweet Tea Brined Pork Loin with grilled lemon, orange blossom honey, mint, sugar snap pea slaw, and goat cheese whipped potatoes. But I was reticent about going with something too sweet.

So I chose the Mushroom Dusted Beef Tenderloin with asparagus, mashed potatoes, and demi-glace, partly because it came with that “crispy shiitake bacon” that had roused my curiosity earlier.

I did like these shiitakes (although I couldn’t quite decide how “bacon-esque” I found them), and the tenderloin was cooked perfectfly to my requested medium rare. It satisfied my beef craving that evening (and no doubt fills that slot on the menu for customers who want to spend their money on beef), but in retrospect I wish I had been more adventuresome. Most entrées are in the $28-$35 range, and the portions are large. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through mine, so I asked to have half of it boxed up.

My server not only was great at checking on me without rushing me, he was extremely knowledgeable from the culinary side. He knew the evening’s specials as well as the dishes on the fixed menu inside out. His descriptions of ingredients and preparations were spot on, and he was great at answering my questions. I saw him guide the nearby eight-top with equal aplomb about portion size, etc. as they selected their dishes.

When it came to dessert, there was no printed menu for me to peruse, just my server’s descriptions. I had pretty much convinced myself I had no room left for another course, but didn’t want to miss learning what Jonathan’s had to offer. I was almost scott-free until my server recited the last one, blackberry balsamic sorbet – two flavors that piqued my interest, in what surely had to be the lightest-sounding option on the dessert menu. I’m glad I gave in.

While not overtly tasting of balsamic vinegar (whose sweet-ish, deep-aged fermented flavor is a classic combination with fresh berries), each bite was full of beautifully rounded blackberry that hit just the right balance between sweet and tart. My only disappointment was that, once again, the portion was huge and sadly I could not feasibly take my leftovers with me.

Miraculously, I managed to wake up hungry enough the next morning to tackle brunch in the Lexington environs before heading home. I'll be back with another installment of my trip report about that.


Lori @ Fake Food Free said...

So interesting that you visited there during your trip. The KY Food Bloggers dined there on Fri night before the show! :) Jonathan does some outstanding stuff. His cookbook is great too, by the way. Most of the recipes from the restaurant are in the book. Looks like a great meal!

Aunty Belle said...

How how how do ya DO THIS Eggy? Them photos is marvelous. Wow.

I'll be back to digest it all--am off to farmer's market (yahooo!) before it's all picked over.

An' I has a wee little al fresco photo fer ya from France on the Front Porch--more to follow.

Aunty Belle said...

Oh brother--Eggy--this is a whole other sort of food truck--take a peek!,0,2518021.story

Sharon Rudd said...

Oh, yeah, Aunty, I read about that truck. I guess some people like to spoil their dogs rotten :)