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 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.

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.

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.

Shades of blue

Indy’s twice-yearly Devour Downtown promotion always provides a great reason to test drive new local eateries, or pay overdue visits to old favorites at reduced prices. For two weeks or so, you can score $30 prix-fixe menus at a couple dozen of the best restaurants in town.

Last night, I grabbed some gal pals and we ventured down from the north side to check out Cerulean. This place has been on my hit list for some time now, and I was eager to get a peek at the Alexander Hotel that houses it.

The hotel itself is sleek and gorgeous. The lobby feels very European (Scandinavian, perhaps?) with modern furniture and lots of clean lines. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to wander for an hour or two and take in all the art, which starts in the parking garage and carries through the common spaces, conference rooms and guest rooms. Pretty neat stuff. If you go, make sure to take a gander at the flying birds installation created from vinyl record cut-outs. And the colorful glass lantern lights that hang throughout the Plat 99 bar on the 2nd level are nothing short of magical.

Plat 99
Plat 99 on the second level, Alexander Hotel

Our first hiccup was finding the restaurant. The entrance is on the first floor of the hotel. We’d parked on the second floor of the garage, then taken the pedestrian bridge over. We came across Plat 99 first and wondered at first glance if that was it? Nope. It’s not. The guy manning the desk in the hotel lobby (also on the second floor) must have thought we were asking how to get to the restroom, not restaurant, and directed us to the facilities in a quiet corner. Uh uh. Don’t think so. Third time’s the charm, right? We finally managed to take the elevator down a floor and find the rather unassuming Cerulean door in the corner.

Cerulean entrance

Once inside, there’s no mistaking that you’ve definitely arrived at one of the trendiest eateries in town. In keeping with the hotel’s artsy vibe, Cerulean boasts retro-mod light fixtures, tiny bowls of succulent plants on the tables instead of flowers, dark wood and creamy leather seating. The real conversation piece is… what to call this thing?… an igloo structure near the entrance composed of pieces of lumber. If you can imagine, it’s like a giant beaver dam. And if such a thing can be considered trendy, this is. You can even sit at one of a handful of tables inside it. Strange. Yet intriguing. The girls and I occupied a more standard banquette out of the main fray.

the view from my seat

The wine list here is pretty extensive (in addition to cocktails and craft beer) and required a little time to consider. In the end, I took our server’s suggestion for a sparkling rose, served in a pretty stemless flute. My friends seemed satisfied with their chardonnay and zin.

Foodwise, I’d perused the Devour Downtown menu online and figured that’s what I’d order from, but the regular menu was tempting as well. It’s small enough to be manageable, conveniently divvied into a page each of small, medium and large plates. I’ve heard good things about Cerulean’s bento box-style lunches (note to self, must return to try.) I believe the menu changes seasonally, if not more often, and chef Caleb France gives a nice shout out to all his local food producers and suppliers on the last page of the menu. Although the buffalo chicken skins, chilled corn soup and duck breast with lemon fettuccini all sounded mighty good, I stuck to my original plan and went with the Devour menu. Two of my friends had the same idea, but one ventured out on her own to try the striped bass instead.

peach soup
chilled peach soup

The first course on the Devour menu offered a choice of soup or salad. The chilled peach soup was much more savory than I’d expected, topped with a little garnish of diced fruit, several thin slices of cucumber and a drizzle of cream. I loved this. A refreshing starter for a hot summer night, and really delicious.

Bibb salad

The salad looked good, too, a fresh mound of Bibb lettuce topped with black-eyed peas, tomato and a light buttermilk dressing.

veggie risotto
summer veggies with risotto

The three of us who ordered the Devour offerings all got the same entrée — a flavorful mélange of summer veggies over risotto with a smear each of dandelion and blueberry purees. This, too, was an excellent summer dish. The veggies were nicely cooked, and the risotto was creamy without being heavy. On paper, it didn’t sound like blueberries should work with this, but they did, adding just a touch of sweetness. (The other second course option was a chicken thigh over the same risotto and purees).

sea bass
striped bass

My renegade friend loved her fish dish, especially the small tangle of lemon verbena pesto-dressed linguine that came with it.

Last up, the Devour desserts were a choice of chocolate bourbon cream or cherry clafoutis. Tough call. You all know how I feel about bourbon, but I was very curious about the whipped cherry beer on the clafoutis as well. Bourbon won out in the end.

chocolate bourbon cream

This plate had a lot going on — a luscious quenelle of chocolate bourbon mousse/pudding/ice cream sitting atop a small spoonful of yuzu-poached pears and spiked with a tiny wafer cookie containing, of all things, Pop Rocks. (!) Three tiny dollops of Brie studded with chocolate brioche croutons surrounded the cream (and were basically unnecessary, I thought). The cream was rich and yummy, but I couldn’t really taste any bourbon in it. Overall, good, but won’t go down as one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten.

cherry clafoutis

My friend who ordered the clafoutis generously let me have a little taste. The cherry cake was beautiful to look at and very moist. The whipped cherry beer foam was interesting, but I’m still trying to decide if I liked it.

Serving sizes throughout the meal were pretty much spot-on. We all cleaned our plates and left feeling full, but not stuffed. Without the Devour deal, prices can get up there when you tack on a drink or two.

We all agreed that we liked the food, but our service left something to be desired. Our waiter was enthusiastic, fun and friendly, but we waited an awfully long time to place our orders, and he dropped the ball when one of my gals ordered a cup of coffee to go with her dessert. Plus, my bill had a major discrepancy — it included an extra $35 charge for an entire bottle of wine I never had. Our guy was apologetic, of course, and fixed the error, but I think we all felt that a little more focused attention would have made a big difference in our overall experience. On the upside, our water glasses never ran low.

Cerulean was cool, maybe a little too trendy for my tastes, but I’m glad I finally got here. Will come back again to sample one of those bento-box lunches, or to have a drink at Plat 99.

For more info: Cerulean.

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