Driving along any of the pikes leading out of Lexington, it's easy to fall in countryside love. White fences, rolling hills, grazing horses — these romantic images come true in real time. So why do surprisingly few restaurants take advantage of the spectacular Bluegrass landscape that brings people here from far and wide?
Of course, Ouita Michel, 2011 James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the Southeast, is not just any restaurateur. She has long championed Kentucky Proud products, locally sourced food reflective of its origins and culture.
Windy Corner Market, her latest venture, weaves this principle, along with stunning Bluegrass vistas, green practices, shelves of Kentucky gifts, and recycled building materials into one of Gastroland's most delicious inventions: the sandwich shop.
Tom Colicchio, a top chef with his own gourmet sandwich shop, gives useful criteria. There should be a balance of flavors, high-quality bread and luscious ingredients. He compares sandwiches to great bands: No matter how talented the individual musicians, they must work harmoniously to develop a memorable sound.
Windy Corner spins its own cool riff on these basics.
For example, Colicchio is an advocate of being able to eat a sandwich with one hand, but Windy Corner's po' boys are two-fisted affairs. Grab a hangtown fry with both hands to enjoy this brunch on a brioche bun: succulent fried oysters, bacon strips and a sheet of omelet, overflowing with shredded lettuce and tomato slices. Served with roasted potato chunks that are lightly salted — every item has just the right amount of salt — it is the perfect Saturday morning meal.
More like lunchtime is the shrimp po' boy, dripping with killer remoulade, rich and spicy, and abundant with shellfish and salad; or the burger made with local beef, dense but tender, not leaching out whatever chemical moisture passes for "juicy."
Vegetables here are simply splendid. Try crunchy coleslaw in a light vinegar or the creamy version, with fresh young cabbage, carrots, and celery. The medley of tender broccoli, cauliflower, sweet carrots, red potatoes and bright green beans, served in a Japanese-style steam basket, is flawless — not raw, which often seems to get confused with al dente. Nature's flavors make any dressing superfluous.
Sandwiches notwithstanding, don't ignore the nutritious and beautiful salads, like the super food, a vegan dream with an Asian flair, bite-size chunks of lightly fried tofu, beans and nuts, carrots, radishes and sprouts. The salad greens from down the road are delivered three times a week. Pescatarians will enjoy the salmon salad, with two generous, if slightly overcooked, fillets and a side of Greek orzo loaded with feta.
Sometimes, "local" equals "regional." Try the shrimp creole when it's available; its "creole" sauce is as spicy as chipotle, the rice is buttery, and the skinny onion rings have a crisp, airy batter.
All the food is, in fact, light enough that there really is room for one of the equally light desserts.
Try to imagine a peanut butter mousse-chocolate tartlet melting in your mouth. Or an oversize ginger cookie with a cakelike crumb. Or dense, nutty carrot cake that is delicate, or a beautifully pale green pistachio cake with a mere whisper of nuts or even sweet white frosting so fluffy that is almost disappears.
One last thing: This country store has an intelligently chosen wine list that complements the menu. Pours are in ideal proportion to the food, too, proving that one doesn't need to be stingy to make price point.
Given the folksy loveliness of Windy Corner's food and setting in winter, spring should be even better, when everything blooms, farm produce expands, and we can eat outside, appreciating quintessentially Bluegrass scenery.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.