Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tasting the World in Central Kentucky

Ouita Michel's Holly Hill Inn in Midway, KY

As much as I admire traditional Southern cooking when I travel through Kentucky, I get a big kick when talented chefs put great local ingredients to use in dishes inspired by cuisines well outside their geographic stereotype. Labor Day weekend gave me a chance to sample some fabulous dishes that did just that.

The inspiration for this trip came when I learned chef Jeremy Ashby was doing a Latin Pig Roast last Friday night at his Lexington restaurant Azur Restaurant and Patio in collaboration with chef Miguel Rivas, who hails from the Dominican Republic. I always love a pig roast, and the array of Latin American dishes on the menu for this 5th annual Azur Labor Day fest sounded too good to pass up. I've had a great time at other special-occasion dinners at Azur, including this one the night before last Thanksgiving. The Labor Day weekend bash is the only time all year Azur does a buffet, and the crazy huge assortment of dishes available at an all-you-can-eat $35 was a spectacular way to start my holiday weekend. Here's a taste.

Papas rellenas filled with picadillo and topped with a sauce 
I wanted to slather onto almost everything else

Ceviche mixto with shrimp, calamari, mussels, and crab, 
plus enormous grilled shrimp with tomatoes, serranos, and cilantro 

Ensalada de maiz, an heirloom tomato and street corn salad that showcased 
some of the best corn and 'maters I've had all season

Fried sweet plaintains and 
Chicken braised in a soulful red mole that was one of my favorite dishes

There was also a watermelon and tropical fruit salad with queso fresco, an empanada with local sweet corn butter, and the star of the show: Roast suckling pig (and cracklin's!) with mojo, rice, and black beans. And probably several other dishes I've somehow forgotten. I had to set a spell before tackling dessert.

Tres Leches cake with pineapple-kiwi salsa, and
Butterscotch banana rum pudding with dulce de leche

My previous visits to the restaurant were last winter, and it was great to finally see the Azur patio in action (there are actually two patios – one covered, one uncovered). This dinner was sold out, and everyone was clearly having a great time. When the buffet line finally slowed, I had a chance to chat with chef Jeremy Ashby, and he was kind enough to introduce me to Brigitte Nguyen, a lovely transplanted Lexingtonian who has a show on the Cooking Channel called "From the Kitchens of . . ." Brigitte also hosts "The Kentucky Proud Kitchen," aired on various FOX channels in Kentucky. She is a spokesperson for Kentucky Proud and will be introducing headliner Tyler Florence at this year's Incredible Food Show in Lexington Oct. 27. We have so much talent here in the middle of the country! Here's lil ole me with Jeremy and Brigitte.

I was incredibly impressed by last year's Incredible Food Show, a less-than-2-hour trip from Greater Cincinnati, at a mere $15 for general admission. It was a day filled with more demos than I could attend, plus samples from – and the opportunity to meet – more than 100 KY Proud food vendors. (I was so inspired I wrote about the Incredible Food Show here, here, here, and here.) IFS led me to get to know more local/regional farmers, chefs, and food bloggers, and I strongly encourage you to put the Incredible Food Show on your calendar, along with a couple more great food events I wish I could attend. Jeremy Ashby will be one of the chefs cooking for a James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef dinner at Cane Ridge Cattle Company September 15 in Paris, KY. The dinner will feature Kentucky-raised Wagyu beef from Cane Ridge! Jeremy is also teaming up with Critchfield Meats for a cooking class dinner September 18 at Azur.

While I was in the area last weekend, I also took advantage of the opportunity to taste the food of one of Kentucky's most celebrated chefs, Ouita Michel. When I saw that Holly Hill Inn – the fine-dining restaurant Ouita and her husband Chris operate in Midway, Kentucky (less than half an hour northwest of Lexington) – was doing a Mediterranean Holiday menu, I looked no further for Saturday dinner plans. It's the charming spot pictured at the top of this post, and although the evening's offerings drew inspiration from a variety of cuisines around the Mediterranean Sea, the service could not have been more rooted in genuinely warm and gracious Southern hospitality. And the local ingredients were the proud stars of every plate!

Amuse-bouche: Tomato and eggplant jam on crostino

Bacalao croquettes: Salt-cod and potato fritters 
served with a piquant salsa rosa (Spanish "pink sauce") and local microgreens. 

Sheltowee chanterelles,Happy Jack sweet corn, and sage leaf on croustades with Boursin cheese. 
The sherried cream sauce sang "Spain" to me, and was one of my favorite dishes of the night.

Salad Majorca: Heirloom tomatoes, olives, finely diced cucumbers,
and Good Shepherd cheese with balsamic, olive oil, lemon, and basil. 
There are few things better than a "real" summer tomato. 
These, with their accompaniments, were magnificent.

Lyons Farm strip steak topped with garlic-herb sauce and 
served with green beans, Happy Jack potatoes, and a Salsa Verde 
of garlic, tomato, olives, and saffron that was one of the highlights of the evening.

Dessert: Fresh figs, dried apricot, pears poached in red wine, and a chocolate truffle. 
Simple and delicious.

Holly Hill's menu is limited and ever-changing, so see what's on offer if you're planning a visit. The evening I was there, I had four courses and complimentary amuse for $40 and opted to add the bacalao fritters (I'd once tried my hand at them and couldn't resist the opportunity to taste them again, especially from a CIA-trained chef). Holly Hill also offers wine flights specifically selected to pair with the menu. The two-glass flight I chose was $15.

Holly Hill is just one of Ouita Michel's restaurants. The word "empire" doesn't seem right to describe what all she does in a fiercely local way. So I'm gonna call Holly Hill Inn the white-tablecloth apex of a pyramid that includes Windy Corner Market on the northeastern outskirts of Lexington, Wallace Station Deli and Bakery in Versailles, and the newly opened Midway School Bakery – because, yes, it's located in an former public school. Ouita is also Chef-in-residence for Woodford Reserve Distillery just outside Versailles, a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with a lot of enticing events. If you're not familiar with the area, your map or GPS will show you how tightly clustered and near Lexington they are.

Sunday morning before heading home I stopped by Wallace Station, distinctly more homespun than Holly Hill.

Here are just a few of the items in the Wallace Station pastry case. If they don't have you at "sorghum cookies," they also have "corn cookies," made with Weisenberger cornmeal and lots of butter.

Still full from my previous nights' dinners, I bypassed the opportunity to try these sweets (and am still kicking myself for leaving that opportunity on the table). But I did let Ouita Michel's team take me to New Orleans with this Sardou Panini, a breakfast-sandwichy version of Eggs Sardou, a NOLA classic with spinach, artichoke hearts, and hollandaise.

Country ham is available in various preparations at Wallace Station too. If you're searching for more of Ouita Michel's New Orleans-inspired dishes, Windy Corner Market serves up fully dressed Po-boys that go beyond traditional oyster, shrimp, catfish, and crawfish to include house-smoked roast beef, pulled pork, and tofu.

Although it wasn't originally on my itinerary, I decided to make one more stop on my way home when I read Napoleon Grocery + Deli's Sunday Supper Special: Boeuf Bourguignon over egg noodles with green beans and French bread. Operated by Tricia Houston, the Napoleon Deli is a hidden gem of a place located between the first and second exits off I-71 just after it splits from I-75 south of Cincinnati toward Louisville.

It's located closer to Northern than Central Kentucky, but anytime I'm traveling on I-71 between Cincinnati and Louisville, I try to make a point of stopping there. When I plugged this unplanned stop into my phone's GPS as I left the Midway/Versailles area, I was delighted to discover that instead of back-tracking to I-75, I could take a straight shot north through Frankfort, with far less traffic and gorgeous scenery.

This Julia-Child dish is higher-end than the fare normally served up at the only store and restaurant in the tiny burg of Napoleon, KY. But you can always count on delicious local food at ridiculously cheap prices. This enormous helping of Boeuf Bourguignon with accompaniments was $7!

Just up the road Tricia Houston is the self-proclaimed "feed delivery gal, dirt pusher, stall mucker and animal whisperer" at Napoleon Ridge Farm + Nature Center. But don't let that fool you. Before moving to Kentucky, she operated her own catering business in Vermont and worked as personal chef to the likes of writer John Irving. You can find produce, meats, and value-added products from her at Covington Farmers Market. She also operates a CSA and supplies to restaurants that include Local 127, The Palace, and Bouquet. This lady also makes a mean apple tart. If you stop at the Nap Ridge Deli, be sure to sample the fabulous baked goods Tricia and her crew whip up.

Culinary tourism is becoming a "thing" here in the middle of the country. Bleu Plate Tours in Lexington, KY and Columbus Food Adventures in Columbus,OH offer some great pre-packaged food tours. If you're coming to my city, check out the Taste the World Tour at Findlay Market, or check off a few of the 100 items on the Findlay Market "Bucket List."

Or just do a little research, follow some local bloggers and facebook pages in areas you're contemplating traveling to, and invent your own custom culinary adventure like I did last weekend. We've got world-class dishes and spectacular locally and sustainably grown food all over this region. Meeting the people who make it possible is another great way to get to know an area when you're traveling. Stay tuned for another installment from my Labor Day weekend trip, because I checked out some wonderful markets too.


Velva said...

What a journey in Kentucky!!! Nice way to get out of the city!



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