We just got back from visiting some of TA's family in Kentucky for Christmas, and while I was there my sMiL, B, introduced me to the historic Boone Tavern in Berea, KY.
The small town of Berea is well known for its local artisans and the Berea College - the home of the Boone Tavern. It was built in the early 20th century to house guests of the college and was named after Daniel Boone. The hotel was built with bricks made by students in the Berea College brickyard and is still staffed by nearly 80% students to this day.
The hotel, restaurant, and gift shop is on the National Register of Historic Places and just underwent an extensive (nearly $10 million) renovation with the intent of becoming LEED certified.
B is actually an alumnus of Berea College and was kind enough to share stories of her time on campus and of working in the Boone Tavern gift shop. We had lunch in the Bowling Dining Room and were graced with a lovely server named Ricara [sic]. She gave us the best service I've had in a very, very long time. If I could've boxed her up and taken her home with me I would've tried.
Upon being seated we were presented with a lovely homemade spoon bread - a specialty of the tavern for which it is well known. It is served with a big serving spoon out of a giant pan by a server's assistant and topped with butter.
I'd never had a spoon bread before and it was quite interesting. Almost like a cornbread with egg whites employed as the leavening agent - a cornbread soufflé, I guess you could call it. I compared it to a German Pancake on steroids. I think it would be better served with a bit of honey or something a little sweet to cut the richness of the savory bread.
Next was a Fried Green Tomato Salad. After making fried green tomatoes for the first time this summer, I've become a big fan. There's just something about the tangy tartness of the green tomato, the crunchy fried breading, and a creamy dressing that just does it for me.
These tomatoes were served on a bed of spinach with quartered cherry tomatoes and shredded mozzarella. Other than the great combination of textures and flavors in this salad, what I liked most was that the creamy buttermilk dressing was served on the bottom of the platter - underneath everything else. It was a novel concept that I've yet to encounter anywhere else and it worked like a charm. The amount of dressing per bite is easily controlled, but one isn't left wanting for more.
Definitely a tip I'm planning on using in the near future - dressing on the bottom.
B ordered the most famous dish on the menu - indigenous to the Boone Tavern since its development in the 1940s - Chicken Flakes in a Bird's Nest
I'm not going to lie - I saw the phrase "chicken flakes" on the menu and was at once totally turned off and a little worried about what exactly constitutes a chicken flake. B reassured me that it was delicious and after trying it I can honestly say that it tastes very similar to the filling of a chicken pot pie. It's honestly little more than chicken cooked in a cream sauce served on a crispy fried "nest" of shoestring potatoes.
I ordered a definitively "Kentucky" dish, a Hot Brown. Named after the hotel in which it originated, The Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, it's sourdough bread topped with either sliced turkey or ham smothered in a metric ton of super-rich white cheddar béchamel. It's then topped with bacon and tomatoes.
It was so rich that I was only able to take a few bites, but it's so filling that just those few bites were enough. As far as Southern comfort foods go, the hot brown is quintessential. It's definitely not for the faint of heart - or anyone with high cholesterol.
While talking to our lovely server after the meal she offered to bring out a dinner menu and the sous chef on duty. Rebel, the Cordon Bleu trained sous chef, related a great deal of information about the ethos of the Boone Tavern's cuisine. They try their best to stay true to the Appalachian style of cuisine while adding their own flair to it.
Rebel said that they actively pursue Kentucky Proud products, those ingredients and necessities that are grown or produced by farmers and manufacturers within the state of Kentucky. He said that throughout the year the restaurant attempts to maintain 75% of their sources within Kentucky - during the summer nearly 100% of their ingredients are sourced within the state.
That's a number for all restaurants to strive for sourcing ingredients.
In the end, my first experience in the more fashionable side of Southern cuisine was informative and satiating. It will never surpass my fervent love for French cooking and the clean, minimalist methods of the Pacific Northwest, but it's nice to see food billed as "Southern" that isn't the Waffle House or Cracker Barrel.
Nevertheless, it was the interaction with the lovely Ricara and the extremely well-informed Rebel that made the lunch memorable. Surely Berea College and Boone Tavern realize that their most valuable assets lie not on the plates leaving the kitchen, but in the shoes that keep the restaurant running.
Boone Tavern Spoon Bread
Yields approximately 8 servings
4 tbsp. unsalted butter (1 tbsp. softened, 3 tbsp. melted)
3 cups milk
1 1⁄4 cups finely ground white cornmeal
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. fine salt
2 eggs, well beaten
Preheat oven to 350°.
Grease a 9" round cake pan with some of the softened butter. Cut out a parchment paper circle to fit inside the pan, nestle it into the bottom, and grease the paper with the remaining softened butter. Set the prepared pan aside.
In a 2-quart saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, whisking occasionally, over high heat. While whisking, pour in the cornmeal in a steady stream. Whisk vigorously to incorporate the cornmeal, for about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to let the cornmeal mixture cool to room temperature. Transfer the cornmeal mixture to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the remaining butter, baking powder, salt, and eggs and mix on medium speed until uniform and aerated, about 15 minutes. Pour cornmeal batter into the prepared pan and bake until golden brown and puffy and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
This is a nutritional estimate, regard it as such.
1 serving = 1/8th of recipe
20 g carbohydrates
8 g fat
6 g protein
Boone Tavern Hotel
100 South Main Street
Berea, KY 40404-0001
More information on the Boone Tavern's recipes can be found here.