My wife and I have a few restaurants for which we like to dress up and go have a fancy night out (meaning I am required to wear socks). Varanese is a favorite. In addition to high-end food and service, it is also one of the few restaurants that boasts jazz seven nights a week with music director Jeff Sherman and regional musicians. We often try to go Tuesdays so we might see Chris Tolbert and Tyrone Wheeler.
Varanese caters to veggies and folks with food restrictions alike. We don’t necessarily have go-to favorite dishes there that we order every time. We start with drinks, listen to music and try to figure out our starter, drink and meal strategy (the Normandy invasion had less tactical planning).
Alcohol: Varanese’s alcohol kung fu is strong, with a good beer list, an extensive wine list and bourbons and spirits for days. It has interesting bourbon flight pairings such as a bottle-in-bond grouping, a mid-shelf rye and distillery-specific pours. We started with a Lunetta Prosecco ($8). Hope will drink Prosecco only when it is hot outside or when it is not hot outside (strict rule).
We split an heirloom caprese salad ($9) knowing that this may be the last of the season. We got a generous helping of meaty tomatoes that had that ripened-on-the-vine taste and texture and was mixed with the olive oil, a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction and fresh buffalo mozzarella. Varanese adds black volcanic salt, which offers a bit of a crunch and a minerali-ness that pulled the flavors together. I recommend accepting the offer of cracked pepper over top.
To accompany our starter course, I had to make the choice of Solomon for a bourbon flight tasting. I was tempted by the rye trio ($15) but went for the Woodford Reserve three-fer ($18). Woodford Reserve is a rock solid bourbon, the Double Oaked is one of my favorite sitting whiskeys, and now I have one to add to my ever-growing list, Woodford Reserve Malt Whiskey.
Typically, Hope would select Varanese’s crab cake, a favorite, but on this night, our server’s description of opah ($35), Hawaiian moonfish, won her over. The opah was served on top of lobster grits with asparagus and micro greens, and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was suggested for pairing. To encapsulate Hope’s review of her entrée, I will refer you to the deli scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” just less demure.
If you could handle gluten, Varanese offers several appetizer and entrée options including angel hair pasta with fresh vegetables. My favorite is Chef John Varanese’s personalized vegetarian dish ($18) that can be catered to your taste and eating restrictions, and you can ask for the kitchen to go a little heavier on certain vegetables.
The veggie medley was a generous plate, cooked perfectly: a bit of crunch but flavorful and aromatic. On a base of butternut squash puree it included mushrooms, zucchini, tomato, squash, spinach and cauliflower. The savory smokiness from the grill blended well with the sweet base of squash puree. My bourbon did not get lost in the big vegetable flavors the way a white wine might have.
For the people who prefer food that eats my food, Chris “the Jazz Man” Tolbert recommends the lamb and lentil soup with breadsticks. The GM recommends the bourbon barrel-smoked pork chop, and the strip steak compares to steaks two to three times the price at steakhouses.
To end the night with a little dessert and to prolong our jazz listening pleasure, I ordered a burned lemon old fashioned ($12), and Hope explored another vino on their sparkling list, a Kenwood Yulupa Brut Sparkling ($10). The burnt-lemon old-fashioned was wonderful — it let the bourbon do the heavy lifting and used the grilled lemon and the ancillary spices to accentuate the glorious Kentucky nectar beneath. We ended with a small scoop of salted caramel ice cream ($2). Creamy and almost gelato rich, it paired well with the final sips of my old fashioned. •