Call me an unreconstructed urbanite, but I tend to assume that if you desire sophisticated fare in an upscale environment, you’ll want to stay close to the city.
Sure, there are exceptions, with jewels like Limestone and Ferd Grisanti in the chain-rich suburbs, and worthy dining destinations even in the outer ring of suburbs, from Rock Wall above New Albany to Norma Jean’s Trackside and Westport General Store out in Oldham County, just to name a few.
But who’d have thought that one of Kentucky’s most sophisticated eateries — so good that it attracts national media attention — resides in tiny Midway, a good hour’s drive east of downtown Louisville, so far out into the Bluegrass that you’ve got to drive past Waddy and Peytona to get there?
It’s true. Featured in such publications as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Southern Living and invited to show their stuff at James Beard House in New York City in June 2004, the husband-and-wife team of owner-restaurateurs Chris and Ouita Michel have put Midway not only on Kentucky’s culinary map but the nation’s with their Holly Hill Inn. Both of them are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. She’s the chef; he’s the host and sommelier.
Housed in a beautiful brick structure built as an inn more than 150 years ago (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places), Holly Hill Inn is too good for Louisville not to claim it as one of our own, even if it is 60 miles away. I invited Eat ’N’ Blog correspondent KIM MASSEY to make the trek to check it out, and she came back smitten. This is her report.
What constitutes ‘fine dining’?
People have very diverse ideas as to what constitutes a fine dining experience. My idea of the perfect repast calls for an imaginative menu, well prepared and innovative dishes, a wide variety of beverage choices and attentive but unobtrusive service. If your criteria coincide with mine, you should really add Holly Hill Inn to your “must go” list.
Housed in a handsome Greek revival structure in Midway, Holly Hill Inn evokes the genteel ambience of a bygone era. Reflecting its former life as a country home, its colonial-style veranda yields to a handsome foyer with separate dining rooms situated on either side. The interior is a study in antebellum elegance with subdued pastel walls, high ceilings, polished wood features, open fireplaces and crystal chandeliers.
Tables covered in white linen are situated in fairly close proximity, a logistic that leaves you unavoidably aware of the hum of conversation from other diners. I cannot say that the noise level was such that it intruded upon our discourse, though. Despite the hum, we managed to converse without undue difficulty.
Talented Chef Ouita Michel creates inspired seasonal menus, which change monthly but generally offer a three- to six-course prix-fixe dinner, ranging in price from $30 to $50 depending on the number of courses. The menu includes a choice among three first courses, two second, five main dishes and three desserts, with vegetarian options. Chris Michel, the host and sommelier, has assembled an award-winning collection of wines representative of just about every quarter of the globe, a stunning variety at prices ranging from $5 to $7.50 for a glass and $18 to $108 for a bottle. “Wine flights” ($20) pair three suggested wines with dinner, for those who appreciate the guidance of a skilled sommelier.
We were greeted and promptly seated by a warm and cheerful hostess, and our meal began with a basket of astoundingly good freshly baked bread and a charming amuse bouche: A miniature cup of Thai-accented chicken and coconut milk soup, delicately laced with chili, lime and cilantro provided a perfect palate-cleansing opener for the feast that followed.
We managed to sample seven courses, beginning with a warm New England seafood tart and a roasted squash and prosciutto salad. The former consisted of a small disc of pastry topped with roast fennel, crowned by a gently poached pillow of tender cod dressed with a delicate, creamy chowder-like sauce. The elements of the dish came together perfectly and confirmed the chef’s technical expertise and innovative flair.
The equally satisfying salad presented large wedges of roasted kabocha squash draped with paper-thin slices of silky prosciutto dressed in delightful warm vinaigrette and sprinkled with whole roasted almonds.
With eager anticipation we moved on to a spicy red lentil and rabbit chili and a chilled terrine of poussin, leek and wild mushrooms. The combination of tender shredded rabbit paired with lentils in a lightly spiced pale red broth resulted in the most delicate rendition of chili I have ever encountered. A generous topping of crème fraiche provided the finishing touch. The terrine was slightly less successful in that it simply did not shine as brightly as the other dishes. Whilst the wild mushroom and leek were both good, and the horseradish aioli excellent, the intervening layer of poussin (young chicken) was a tad bland and chunky, detracting from the overall effect of the dish.
The entrée options were all devilishly tempting, and it was only after some struggle that I settled on the bacon wrapped monkfish; my dining partner chose Kentucky lamb “two ways.” Although the quality of the fish was beyond question, it was sadly a little overcooked and dry, a rare misstep in a generally excellent meal, partially redeemed by the excellent sides. A wonderful wild rice and shrimp pilaf and brussels sprout gratin were so good that they almost outshone the main event.
The lamb was flawless, a tender, perfectly cooked portion of roast leg of lamb dressed with a lively herb vinaigrette, set atop a ragout of roasted peppers and canellini beans. Partnered with a generous cylindrical portion of rich lamb manicotti, the result was an artful showcase of Mediterranean-inspired flavors.
We selected wines from the recommended pairings and were rewarded with an excellent Marquis Phillips Holly’s Blend ($7 for a glass), an aromatic white from Australia, and Burgans Albariño Rias Baixas ($8 a glass), a fruity white from Northwestern Spain. For dessert we shared the Boca Negra, a sinfully decadent wedge of rich dark chocolate cake served with an orange and bourbon flavored crème Anglaise. Paradise on a plate!
The excellence of the food was further enhanced by its exquisite presentation, each dish providing its own visual sensory delight. The meal was well paced with adequate but not overlong pauses between courses. Service was good throughout and the warm and friendly staff exhibited a tangible commitment to ensuring that the meal was a pleasant experience. Dinner for two with wine amounted to $112.80 including tax and gratuity.
Holly Hill Inn
426 N. Winter St.
With such excellent bread bakers around town as Blue Dog, Lotsa Pasta, Breadworks and many more, the region has no dearth of fine artisanal breads. So when Deb Hall, proprietor of the fine Gourmet for Everyone, a specialty food shop in the far East End, told me that she was getting a high-end rye bread in from the New York City area’s Tribeca Oven (www.tribecaoven.com), she had to tell me two or three times before she finally got my interest up.
Maybe it was the factoid that this rye is sold at Balducci’s, Dean and DeLuca and Zabar’s — three of my favorite specialty grocers when we lived in Gotham — or maybe it was the promise of a taste or two of warm, just-out-of-the-oven New York rye that lured me, but in any case, I finally wended my way out to the shop that Deb and her husband, Brian Hall, run in the Landis Lakes Shopping Center, a sprawling new shopping complex just one traffic light east of the Snyder.
A warm, sliced papoose-shaped loaf ($3.99) was sitting out on the counter when I arrived, golden brown and encrusted with so many aromatic caraway seeds that the mouth-watering scent of caraway filled the room. A slice or two proved what the Halls had been telling me all along: This is splendid bread, New York Jewish-style rye, with a crisp, crackly, caraway-studded crust and a slightly chewy but tender pale-tan interior that nicely balanced the flavors of tangy, slightly sour rye and caraway seeds. It really made me wish that fresh local tomato season wasn’t over, as it would have been superb in a BLT. Come to think of it, ham and cheese wouldn’t be amiss either.
How can a New York City bread be served fresh from the oven in Louisville? Technology makes it simple: The loaves are partially baked (“par-baked,” in the parlance of the trade) and flash-frozen in New Jersey, then shipped to Louisville where you can buy them frozen to finish at home (16 to 20 minutes in a 385F oven and you’re good to go), or let Deb and Brian bake it for you and buy it warm on the spot. I was a little suspicious, as this is, after all, the system that Panera Bread uses for its “freshly baked” loaves, which don’t make my bread-o-meter go all the way to the top. But I’ve never tasted better rye bread, even after having put in my share of noshing time in New York delis.
The Halls expected to receive their first retail shipment last weekend, so they should be available for sale today, but you might want to call ahead if you’re making a long drive. They also recommend you call ahead and allow an hour or two if you want a warm baked loaf. For frozen, there’s no waiting.
Gourmet for Everyone
111 S. English Station Road
It’s pretty darn tough to pull around the corner from Hikes Lane onto Klondike Lane and not drive up to Al Watan for a lovable Palestinian lunch and maybe a loaf of Arabic bread from the bakery next door. But now hungry people in this Hikes Point neighborhood face a tough choice, with the recent addition of Oceanside Seafood Restaurant to the dining mix on this increasingly appetizing block.
Oceanside, run by a friendly Moroccan couple, offers a broad variety of fish and seafood dishes (plus chicken wings and an array of breaded-and-fried munchies that rivals Moby Dick’s fried-things selection for variety). We made a quick stop to check it out and were impressed with a fish sandwich with fries ($4.99) and a fried oyster dinner ($7.99). The fish, which had an earthy catfish-like flavor, was cloaked in a crisp, grease-free and paper-thin cornmeal breading dotted with black pepper; the thin-sliced fries were ever-so-lightly breaded to give them an addictive crunch. Five oversized oysters the size of golf balls were slightly more heavily cloaked in a similar breading and cooked just until they steamed. Side dishes of “Oceanside rice,” a turmeric-yellow, herbal recipe with a Moroccan accent, and long-simmered Kentucky-style green beans were fine, as was a Mediterranean salad of diced cucumber, green pepper, raw sweet onion and unexpectedly juicy tomatoes, lots of chopped parsley and a light vinaigrette.
A couple of Moroccan dinner items — baked fish and a fish in phyllo crust — are also available in the $10 range.
Oceanside Seafood Restaurant
3707 Klondike Lane
Contact Robin Garr at [email protected]