Fine American dining

Charles K. Cowdery goes in search of the Bourbon restaurant experience
By Charles K Cowdery
Whiskey tourists cannot live on whiskey alone, though undoubtedly some have tried.

As America’s venerable whiskey country (essentially, the states of Kentucky and Tennessee) is relatively new to the whiskey tourism game, restaurants in the area are only just beginning to figure out the best ways to appeal to their whiskey-oriented guests.

In Louisville, the tourism bureau has put together a promotion called the Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of 20 restaurants, all with bars, that are making a direct play for thirsty travellers. Several are in hotels, some are downtown, the rest are scattered across the city.

Bourbon’s Bistro was one of the first. Starting with its name, it has much to recommend it. It is located in an old neighbourhood, in a building built in 1877, and it is fine dining with an emphasis on Southern cuisine and Bourbon. Many dishes contain Bourbon. The bar has about 130 different American whiskeys and offers suggested tastings. The bar and waiting staff are knowledgeable.

Typical dishes include braised pork belly with citrus, jalapeño, fried goat’s cheese and Bourbon guava coulis (an appetiser), a grilled ribeye steak topped with smoked sea salt Bourbon butter; and baked salmon rubbed with dijon mustard, encrusted with pecans and finished with a Bourbon orange molasses.

"It is fine dining with an emphasis on Southern cuisine and Bourbon"

Once virtually alone, Bourbon’s Bistro now has lots of company. In addition to featuring local whiskeys in dishes and at the bar, recent restaurant trends include heavy use of local farm products, from meat and produce to artisan breads and cheeses, and interiors that highlight recycled wood from barns, horse farm fences, and whiskey warehouses.

Windy Corner, Ouida Michel’s new casual dining place outside Lexington, near the Bourbon County line, even includes a small shop that features local products. Now involved with several restaurants in the Lexington area, Chef Michel is also resident chef at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles.

Her primary outpost is Holly Hill Inn, a historic home in the tiny town of Midway, constructed in 1845, where her husband, Chris, is sommelier. The menu mixes traditional Kentucky cooking with international classics such as coq au vin, and always features fresh, seasonal ingredients from farmers in the local area.

Ivor Chodkowski is a Kentucky farmer who decided to eliminate the middle man with his own Louisville restaurant, Harvest. As much as possible, everything on Harvest’s menu is produced within 100 miles of Louisville and the dining room is decorated with photographs of farmers who contribute to the fare.

“We think that Bourbon tourists are not necessarily looking for Bourbon in dishes, but want to find a meal that complements what they are drinking,” says Patrick Kuhl, one of the partners in Harvest. “Most always it is red meats and smoked pork. Neat and rocks pours are rightfully the most popular in Louisville, but the resurgence of traditional cocktails has provided great pairing food and whiskey opportunities.”

Kuhl recommends their Manhattan with the house steak and their Old Fashioned, made with seasonal fruit, with pork dishes, especially the Bourbon braised crispy pork belly with kabocha squash grits and pickled vegetable salad.

Kuhl says desserts are the place where guests look specifically for Bourbon to be in the dish. Harvest Pastry Chef Patty Knight uses house-infused vanilla Bourbon in most of her desserts. The Bourbon-poached sweet potatoes with pecan brittle and Szechuan-spiced marshmallow has been very popular recently.

The Harvest menu changes frequently because dishes are only offered when the ingredients are in season.

Harvest and several other adventurous, new restaurants, bars, galleries and shops are creating a new/old neighbourhood just east of downtown that they hope people will call NuLu (for ‘new Louisville’). Many of the freshly restored buildings are from the early 19th century period.

There is also much activity in downtown Louisville, especially at the Ohio Riverfront where a new sports arena just opened, sponsored by the parent company of Louisville-based Kentucky Fried Chicken. One of these is Doc Crow’s Smokehouse and Raw Bar, which in addition to featuring a large selection of Bourbons is named after Dr. James C. Crow, the now legendary Scottish-born Kentucky distiller, best known for introducing the sour mash process into Bourbon making.

Doc Crow’s menu emphasises two aspects of historic Louisville cuisine; an affection for all Midwestern and Texas barbeque styles, and a seafood connection with New Orleans born from centuries of river trade. Despite a more recent trend favouring local ingredients, Louisvillians love oysters. Locals generally prefer them fried but Doc Crow’s also offers them raw, on the half shell.

Nearby and also on the stretch of West Main Street known historically as Whiskey Row is Proof on Main, which is attached to the unique 21century Museum Hotel. Both are owned by a member of the Brown family, of local company Brown-Forman, makers of Woodford Reserve and Old Forester Bourbon, and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Several dishes at Proof feature American Bison raised on the family’s Woodland Farm, just outside of Louisville. Here, as at Harvest and many other local eateries, they are committed to supporting the region’s sustainable farmers and other producers.

"Committed to supporting the region’s sustainable farmers"

A popular side dish at Proof and many other local restaurants is grits, a corn-based product traditionally eaten at breakfast in the South, but done up with (in Proof’s case) cracked pepper and parmigiano like a polenta. Shrimp and grits is an appetiser found on many local menus.

For a completely different experience, head south from Louisville to Bardstown, which calls itself The Bourbon Capital of the World. There, Kentucky Colonel Michael Masters and his wife, Margaret Sue, will welcome you to the Kentucky Bourbon House, a historic home built in 1787. Reservations are required and the nightly dinner seating is limited to 24 guests. The evening begins and ends with a Bourbon tasting, and in between you will enjoy traditionally prepared beef and pork dishes, and other Kentucky specialties.

In Tennessee, the Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel distilleries are not close to any major urban areas (Nashville is 75 miles away), but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good meal. Miss Mary Bobo’s, part of the Jack Daniel’s enterprise, fills your table family-style with perfectly prepared country ham, chicken with pastry, fried okra, blackberry cobbler, and other specialties. Some of the dishes contain Jack Daniel’s whiskey but alcohol cannot be served since the county is dry.

In these parts, even if a bar or restaurant doesn’t specifically feature Bourbon, you likely will find a good selection. And as whiskey tourism in the region grows, the fine dining options will keep getting better.