The Julep Cup has a turquoise lounge that could trigger a psychedelic flashback and two adjacent dining rooms so heavy with curtains and almost indecently red walls that you expect to hear Scott Joplin rags coming from the downstairs saloon. Or at least that's how it feels to me.
What comes out of the kitchen, however, blends its two personae — the inventive and the enduring — in seamless harmony. After several fits and starts, the restaurant has finally found its sea legs and now is consistently one of the best places to eat in Lexington.
Dishes and service range from good to great; ingredients are fresh and flavorful; concepts are creative and well- executed; and the dozen or so sauces, arguably a prime showcase for talent and taste, add excitement to every dish.
During the day there are wonderful sandwiches. The chunky crab cake is plump and tender, built on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomato, onion and a smear of tartar sauce that, when reincarnated on the shrimp po'boy, acquires a spicy attitude from jalapeño peppers.
If lunch equals salad for you, get the grilled romaine with sweetness from pickled beets and earthy cumin-honey vinaigrette, but request the overpowering goat cheese crema on the side. Rush to enjoy the last of 2010's great tomatoes layered in a painterly rainbow with fresh mozzarella, basil leaves and a balsamic drizzle. The decent Caesar suddenly seems pedestrian.
Among The Julep Cup's appetizers, I am lukewarm only about the calamari plate, with its chaotically competing flavors — olive salad and Mediterranean aioli — and too-tiny fried squid.
It's better to nosh on a charcuterie platter featuring rich homemade rillettes, chunky homemade pork and pistachio pâté, and a few thin slices of salami with whole-grain mustard. I hope in the future that the clunky and disappointing fingers of baked bread I was served won't replace the toast points promised on the menu.
Similarly delicious are chicken liver sliders — terrific two-bite finger foods. Just spread the yeast rolls with rosemary aioli and top with caramelized onions and apple slaw. Hot and cool, herbaceous and creamy, crunchy and sweet — what's not to love?
But my new favorite starters are the utterly fabulous oyster wraps. Lightly crunchy cornmeal fried oysters are nestled in little cups of Bibb lettuce. Whoever thought to elevate those with shaved jalapeño and green tomato chow-chow has a formidable culinary IQ.
Every entree and side dish has an original twist. Diver scallops are perfumed with porcini powder, spring rolls are stuffed with tender collards. Linguini and clams are almost refreshing with shavings of celery and a generous injection of lemon. Gremolata — the fragrant lemon-garlic condiment whose fresh herb is usually parsley and whose partners are traditionally osso bucco and saffron risotto — is reinvented with minced rosemary as a complement to lamb chops and pappardelle. The presence of parsnips in the mashed potatoes leaves no doubt that fall is in the air.
Indeed, this restaurant makes you look forward to seasonal change that brings new riffs on produce at its peak while firmly adhering to the best of the time-tested. And yet, spring and summer's quintessential Kentucky drink, the mint julep, is made from scratch to perfection here, and served year-round.
When a friend and I decided we would sip from the frosty silver cups in chilly late fall, her comment was: "Somewhere a Junior League woman is spinning in her grave." Exactly right: Blending the classical with the unexpected is what The Julep Cup does best.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.