Ace Eats Out
What's cookin' (and drinkin') in the Bluegrass
by Eloise Campbell

Chef Mark enjoys a little vino in the Chef’s Kitchen at Emmett’s

Good day. Here, let us get that chair for you. We're Ace, and we'll be your servers for the next few thousand words. Let us tell you about our specials.

You're here because you're tired of eating at the same old places, getting the same old meals, tired of club sandwiches and chicken fingers. You want something new, which, in Lexington, can sometimes be a bit of a struggle.

But that's why you've come here. Everything's new - our chef has prepared five delicious items, each one a tasty new treat of what's going on in the Lexington food scene.

No matter what you order, each piece is a delicacy, revealing new textures and subtleties of the local cuisine. Some you may recognize. Some will be a total surprise. All you need to do is sit back, get comfortable, and we'll spoonfeed you the rest.

For the Finicky...

The problem with a lot of places is the menu. You arrive, get seated, start licking your lips in anticipation, only to open the menu and find there's not a single thing you want. In the past,the only solution was to fall on the floor and throw a temper tantrum until your parents agreed to take you to McDonald's.

But now Emmett's has a new option: the Chef's Table. There, you get a private meal at an elegant table IN the chef's kitchen (separate from the main kitchen) while you dine on a three to seven course meal that is customized totally to your tastes.

You want bacon to be included in every dish? You got it! You want all seafood? A turf & turf? You got it! Want white zinfandel with your mozzarella sticks? You're a freak, but it can be done!

And all the food is prepared from start to finish right before your eyes. You can even help Executive Chef Mark Richardson do his stuff, but, then again, he's the expert so you may prefer to stay seated.

Jill Duncan, the director of marketing for Emmett's, says, "what makes this unique is that it's completely custom. It's like watching the Food Network's Emeril Live, and he's there cooking and he's got those few people that are sitting around him. The chef's there preparing food just for you."

The Chef's Table can accommodate between six and ten people and the restaurant needs one to two weeks to set it all up. This gives you time to talk to Chef Mark and plan out your menu as well as decide whether you want to have a different wine paired with each course. You can choose (if you fancy yourself a wine connoisseur) or Chef Mark will be happy to assist. Duncan believes doing the Chef's Table offers Chef Mark "a chance for him to be in a less hectic environment... and get feedback from his customers."

The chef's table is gold for those looking for a romantic evening out; after all it serves both functions of dinner and event. Duncan says, "We've done some dinners for VIPs from big companies, but mostly it's couples... couples who get together periodically with other couples and they just want to do something a little different. You can go out to eat only so much and then you want something a little more private. It's a one-of-a-kind experience."

Ace staffers were invited to participate in a recent Chef's Table dinner with Chef Mark and we were, hands-down, doing the hippest thing anywhere in Lexington on that particular night (well, it was a Tuesday, but still...).

By the time we had sampled the chicken roulades, tossed back the lobster ravioli, and devoured an enormous rib-eye (blithely and recklessly disregarding any rumors of Mad Cow), we had just enough room left for the warm and comforting chocolate bread pudding topped with homeade vanilla bean ice cream.

"Not worried about all of those calories, girls?" asked one of our dinner companions (who was obviously a male).

"Not at all," we replied, "we'll just throw it up later."

(Hey, they invited us for "feedback," and they GOT feedback.)

Who's New?

A new master chef in Lexington is always newsworthy but a new chef who storms into town and radically changes a menu that has been altered little in the past several years... well, that's almost a headline.

Three years ago, Ethan Kniskern began working at La Maisonette in Cincinnati as a sous chef when he was twenty-two years old. (You may have even seen him on the Food Network.) Five months ago, he was named executive chef at Dudley's and given (what appears to be) a free hand to make some BIG changes.

Game birds, foie gras and wild game are here to stay. This means that there's no room for the traditional mainstay items that Dudley's has earned their reputation for, such as the Magnificent Seven. (Chef Ethan can be persuaded to make some of the phased out favorites for those of you who can't bear to go without.)

Kniskern expects to "establish Dudley's as the best place for food in Lexington - to be done by using things people haven't heard of." This includes lots of products from abroad. Recently, Scottish hare was offered as a special at dinner. Diners were informed that the animal had been killed two days prior in Scotland and might contain shot or balls of hair and lead. They sold out in a few hours.

Kniskern notes that "with globalization, regionalism hasn't disappeared, but it is changing..."

Yes, but this is Lexington. Horse country. Where we like our basketball team victorious, our streets adorned with goofily-painted horse statues, and a chain restaurant on every corner. Are we ready? We should be because Kniskern is doing his best to show that there is "life outside of Lexington."

When asked who his perfect diner might be, Kniskern answered a "gourmand... [someone] who may not know food intimately but loves it... and is willing to try [anything]."

So the city boy (well, actually he lives in Crittenden) saunters in, changes the menu and expects us to like it? Why not? Fiddlehead ferns and fava beans may not be familiar to many local palates but that doesn't mean they're not worth a try.

It's hard not to wish him luck as he tries to do something that, historically, is always met with resistance: CHANGE.

On a lighter note, it's good to know that Ethan Kniskern is not a food snob. He has been known to indulge in Totino's frozen pizzas when he gets in too late to eat a proper meal.

Do It Yourself?

What do you do when you're tired of eating out? What do you do when you're tired of partially reheated chicken fingers, stale french fries and a honey-mustard sauce mined in some third-world sweatshop? What do you do when you're certain the next person who tells you "Hi, my name is Greg and our specials are the Super Riblet Funtoozler..." will meet a gruesome, painful demise? Well, you can either make like Ghandi or you could (you may want to sit down for this) LEARN TO COOK. Yes, though the concept of cooking may be foreign to those of you who don't know your Calphalon from your All-Clad, Phil Dunn is here to help you out.

With the opening of his new CookShop on Romany, Phil Dunn has begun offering cooking classes in his new state-of-the-art kitchen on the second floor of the store. Never again can you say, "I would love to make that Beef Wellington for you, honey, but I just haven't perfected the phyllo crust ..."

The CookShop offers a new cooking class every other week, accommodating up to thirty aspiring Wolfgang Pucks at a time. If there is an overwhelming response, Phil will schedule another, identical class the following evening, as happened this week for "Austrian Night" (mmm... goulash).

Phil prefers, however, to have smaller, more intimate classes, noting that if the classes get too big, "little groups will start talking amongst themselves and not pay enough attention," adding that, "they are here to learn."

After all, at the end of the night you get to (or, uh, have to) eat what you've painstakingly prepared. So it's best to pay attention anyways.

Depending on the theme of the class, Phil will teach or, sometimes deferring to a specialist, a designated expert will be brought in. Phil recently taught "Men's Night Out" where he demonstrated the unbelievable, yet true, "No-Fail Soufflé." But you may find that a pastry chef, a dietitian, or even a guest chef will assume the role of teacher for the night.

It's just $45 bucks a class; (not to be sexist) but get those men over to Romany Road, ladies, and you'll no longer have to fear the prospect of eating things off the grill that were never meant to see the searing heat of a fiery conflagration.

Food is NOT Dead (well, some of it is, but...)

In the face of an industry that is constantly changing, constantly looking for "the next big thing," chef Jonathan Lundy (who is only 30 years old) is quick to say that he doesn't follow the trends. "Everything has already been done and everything is constantly being re-done," he muses when asked about the new trends in food. Sort of a "Food is Dead" Nietzsche-esqe attitude for an enterprising young chef, one might think. Not true. He simply wants to "maintain the concept of Jonathan...regional."

Planned for this month is an Italian wine dinner on March 18. When asked the obvious question of why Italian, Jonathan replied, "...[it's] based on the fact that we all felt we didn't know much about Italian wines. There are some kind of rules for Californian and American wines and a certain set of rules for French wines and we have adapted to those and understand them but then you come to the Italians and it's a whole new set of rules and it's much more confusing... we basically just wanted to learn more about Italian wines." To go about this, Jonathan and (wife and partner) Cara Lundy invited the managers over to their home and had a big tasting of all of the possible alternatives. They sampled 15-20 ingredients with the wines in order to determine how things tasted with what. They sipped, they listened to music, and by the end of the night, they were all sitting around eating a pepperoni pizza (which, for the record, will not be served at the Italian wine dinner), and had a gala evening centered around the vine.

But there's more news on Second Street. For Jonathan's spring menu, he will be featuring hemp-fed beef (Gatewood approved) from Willisburg, Kentucky that is free of steroids, antibiotics, and hormones, as well as introducing aged country ham from the western part of the state.

Lundy is also cranking out his first cookbook, due out in a few months. It will include 40-50 recipes of dishes that you've probably tasted, and a few that you haven't. A cookbook has always been one of Jonathan's professional goals and he hopes that the book will make his food more accessible (for those of us who can cook, that is).

Lundy isn't going to mess with the goods that have made Jonathan a local success and have brought in such "au natural" stars as Sharon Stone. Yes, everyone's favorite Basic Instinct beauty has been scene eating lamb in the dining room. Even Albert Finney managed a drink in the bar, although no one checked to make sure he was wearing underwear.

The New Mob (Scene)

The Bold and the Beautiful... ?The Young and the Restless... ?

Inane soap operas or who you might see at Lexington's newest hot spot for the "I have a real job AND a 401k" set? Well, both actually.

Oscar's Seafood and Piano Bar has just set up shop adjacent to the always crowded Malone's (same ownership).

Degree-holding, non beer-swilling young Lexingtonians have long complained that there is no place to go if you want to have a stiff drink and listen to live music in style - surrounded by attractive thirtysomethings who wouldn't be caught dead at a fern bar.

Oscar's offers all of that, and judging from the crowds and the fact that it is very difficult to get a table there after 6pm, they must be doing something right.

Yes, it's glam. Yes, it's a scene. And hell, yes, it's a major singles spot.

Oscar's draws you in with its art deco décor and jazzy piano tunes heralding from the 1940s and up. The lights are turned down but the energy in the room is up, way up. As glasses are tinkling with high end vodkas and designer ice cubes, the crowd is abuzz in a "who's who" kind of way. It's as if you've walked into a scene from an F. Scott Fiztgerald fête but everyone is really tan and really blond. Well, that's probably what they want you to think, and why not? Lexington NEEDS swanky bars that can accommodate more than seven people at a time.

Mike Gibson, one of the managing partners, says Oscar's "cater[s] to people who are looking for an upscale, good time in Lexington." And he acknowledges (with some pride), "We have become a big meeting place for singles because there is nothing else like [Oscar's] in Lexington."

l What will the young and beautiful be drinking this spring?

We asked five top restaurants in Lexington. Here's what they said (and remember, the answer is NEVER white zin).

1. Blood Orange Martini (Jonathan at Gratz Park)

2. Stoli Doli (Oscar's)

3. Red Bull and Vodka (Dudley's), not available at Dudley's or anywhere else in this state. Red Bull, an energy drink, is not distributed in Kentucky.

4. "Perfect 10" Martini made with Tanqueray No. 10 (Phil Dunn's)

5. Key Lime Martini (Emmett's)