It was Friend Wife’s birthday, so we went to Jonathan At Gratz Park, in Lexington, KY, to celebrate.
Jonathan’s has a great reputation. And, for once, both the rep and reality came together---often not the case in central Kentucky. I can’t rave enough about the restaurant. Everything, from how we were greeted at the door, to the level of service, to the food, itself, was top rate.
Jonathan Lundy is a young chef, but one of the most creative ones around. He specializes in taking classic Bluegrass dishes, giving them an upscale turn, and making them his own. For instance, among his appetizers is Sea Scallop Hot Browns.
I’m a Hot Browns freak, so, obviously, had to try them. The classic, as originated at the Brown Hotel, in Louisville, consists of a bed of white bread, topped with slices of either turkey or chicken, and knapped with a Mornay sauce. This is garnished with bacon and tomato slices (although the original used mushrooms, rather than tomatoes). Modern versions often combine the poultry with ham.
Chef Lundy’s take. Rings of bread, about the same diameter as the scallops, are punched out and lightly toasted. These are topped with thin slices of country ham, broiled scallops, crisp bacon, and half a cherry tomato, and the whole sauced with a light Mornay. Delicious.
I didn’t quite know what to expect when I read that menu entry. But that was it! Although I had no real expectations, the dish met them to a T.
Most of his dishes follow that sort of pattern. A Kentucky, or at least Southern classic, turned on its head and made even better. Friend Wife, for instance, chose, as a starter, his Fried Green Tomato Salad---Limestone lettuce, buttermilk Crème Fraiche dressing, and Shiitake “bacon” (thin slivers of shiitake mushrooms, deep fried until crisp) flanked by lightly breaded fried green tomatoes.
Or check out some of these entrees: Sorghum Glazed Sea Scallops, Roasted Butternut Squash Grits, Wilted Arugula, Red Wine Soaked Dried Cranberries & Pecans (Friend Wife’s choice), and Slow roasted Pork Rack Chop with Kentucky Hot Slaw, Mashed Potatoes & Jowl Cracklings (my option).
Chef Lundy insists on only the freshest ingredients, or he won’t serve them. On the menu, for instance, is Pumpkin Seed Crusted Halibut, with Goat Cheese Risotto, Baby Spinach, and Candied Pumpkin Relish. The halibut wasn’t fresh enough for his standards, however, and he rejected the delivery. But there was really fresh grouper available. So he used grouper as a special, but had the wait staff inform dinners that he’d gladly prepare the grouper the same way as the halibut, if they preferred.
The wait staff follows his lead in this attitude. Got a special request? Forget the all-too-common notion that “we don’t do that.” Instead, the reaction is, “let’s see how we can make that happen.” I found the servers to be among the most professional in recent dining history; solicitous without being subservient, totally oriented to making the dining experience as pleasant as possible.
Indeed, there were two office Christmas parties going on while we were there, always a frazzling time for wait staff. But you wouldn’t know it. When they were at our table (which was exactly the amount of time it needed to be) we were their sole focus of attention. Making us happy was their sole purpose.
If this sounds like I’m impressed with Jonathan’s, you’re absolutely correct. If you should find yourself in central Kentucky, you could do a whole lot worse than a table there.
Jonathan At Gratz Park, 120 West Second St., Lexington, KY 40507, 859-252-4949.