New Orleans comes to the Bluegrass

I celebrated the solstice in style last Thursday with a James Beard Foundation-sanctioned dinner in Lexington prepared by Chef Jonathan Lundy of Lexington’s Jonathan at Gratz Park and Chef Darin Nesbit of the Bourbon House in New Orleans. Each of the five courses incorporated Kentucky Proud products and was paired with a bourbon from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

The evening began with a Sazerac cocktail and appetizers at Barkham Hall, the guest house at Lexington’s Donamire Farm, above. (The Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans and Sazerac is the parent company of Buffalo Trace.) The 630-acre thoroughbred farm along scenic Old Frankfort Pike is what Hollywood types picture when they think ”horse farm.” White fences frame gently rolling hills and meadows where some of the farm’s 60 horses graze, and a turf track encircles a lake. The guest house was not too shabby, either.

Following the cocktail hour, we headed to the nearby Headley-Whitney Museum for the main event, “Dinner in the Bluegrass.” Press materials about the event referred to the museum as “jewel-like,” which it certainly is; the sparkle of actual jewels in one of the current exhibits, “The Cutting Edge II: Gem and Jewelry Invitational” (through July 8), almost caused me to forget why I was there. Almost. But then it was time for the first course, a fried chicken salad served in lettuce wraps with a buttermilk dressing, below.    

The salad was paired with Col. E.H. Taylor Tornado Surviving Bourbon. I reviewed this limited-edition bourbon earlier this year, and recalling its very spicy opening notes was a little surprised to see it as the first bourbon on the menu – but it paired beautifully with the salad, cutting through the heaviness of the buttermilk dressing.

The second course, below, was my favorite: bourbon BBQ shrimp with cornbread. The dish’s intense, complex flavors made the milder Buffalo Trace a good accompaniment; the bourbon complemented the dish, rather than competing with it.

The third course, red drum with a crawfish cake and jumbo lump crabmeat in a bourbon cream corn sauce, was so good that I forgot to take a photo of it. “I want to drink this sauce,” one of my tablemates crooned. But the takeaway is that the soft, smooth flavor profile of Weller 12-Year, Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbon, is a good choice if you are serving seafood.    

I did take photos of the Lyons Farm Beef Tenderloin, “bacon” and scalloped potatoes in a caramel-peppercorn sauce, but they really didn’t do justice to the dish; beef is one of those foods that is tough to photograph. This dish was served with Blanton’s Single Barrel, one of my favorite Buffalo Trace products – but the revelation here was the crispy “bacon,” which was actually shiitake mushrooms from Sheltowee Farm. I was told that this preparation is a specialty of Chef Lundy, and now I am telling you: Whenever you see this on the Jonathan’s menu, order it. 

The dessert course, below, a bourbon-poached peach, a tiny butter cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with a sorghum-almond cookie, was just the right amount. The bourbon accompanying it, Eagle Rare, was the “strongest bourbon tonight,” Buffalo Trace master blender Drew Mayville told us, and it cut nicely through the sweetness of the food. 

Below, Chef Nesbit, second from left, and Chef Lundy, far right, receive a well-deserved round of applause.

Thank you to the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau and to Buffalo Trace’s Amy Preske, below left with the Bourbon Babe, for the opportunity to enjoy the best of the Bluegrass spiced with a taste of New Orleans.

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