Merrick Inn has been in the hospitality business for more than 30 years. During that time, it has established a reputation for dining that is thoroughly rooted in Kentucky classics while periodically updating its menu to reflect contemporary trends.
Another signature of Merrick has been its successful blend of down-home service, sweet and friendly, in a converted mansion whose décor follows suit with gilt-framed equine art and white tablecloths.
This is pretty country food in a fancy setting, and all that that entails. When the kitchen steps outside the familiar, it takes whatever liberties it feels necessary. No one seems to mind. But the greatest satisfaction, for me at least, came with Merrick's interpretations of its classics.
For example, the bruschetta, a relatively recent addition, was essentially toast and salsa. Its herbed "flat bread" with cheese more resembled pizza crust than traditional crostini, and the relish — banana and roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, tomatoes — was served in a separate bowl. Bruschetta forgives experimentation, so the underplaying of garlic and basil was no big deal, but I am not a fan of unnecessary squiggles and drizzles. In this case, the honey balsamic syrup that would have been more at home with moo shu pork was overpowering.
The house salad is a house salad, almost everywhere now synonymous with packaged greens and a few colorful slices of other vegetables. My favorite part of Merrick's was the addition of creamy mashed hard-boiled eggs.
Then there were the entrees.
Lemon sole, a flatfish with delicate flavor, arrived in a pool of sweet lemon-chive sauce. For those ordering wine by the glass, this dish goes brilliantly with pinot grigio. Two paupiettes were stuffed with shrimp, scallops and crab, but mostly bread. Nevertheless, it was a lovely plate of food that would have been better without so much sweetness and starch.
I preferred the "Southern Comfort," probably because it was a great execution of exactly what you come to Kentucky to eat. There was a chicken breast fried to perfection with crisp and crunchy skin, a slice of country ham that was not too salty, a little red-eye gravy and a spiced peach. Hot yeast rolls and plenty of soft butter made the whole dish the quintessential Bluegrass dinner.
At the second it arrived, I overheard a man at a neighboring table explaining the rites of Kentucky dining to an out-of-town guest. The symmetry of the situation made me smile.
The vegetables matched the meal but were treated rather like afterthoughts: The corn pudding had a vague aftertaste of canned creamed corn, and the mashed potatoes were overbeaten and underseasoned. But I liked the long-cooked green beans. The steamed broccoli, while basic, was beautiful and healthy, but the cold "hollandaise" sauce that came with it was like little more than a lemony mayonnaise.
Count on very sweet desserts at Merrick Inn. Even the pound cake, with its high ratio of butter, was sugary and was made more so by generous helpings of vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and creamy whipped topping.
It seems as if no matter what Merrick Inn serves, the restaurant will remain an enduring Lexington icon. But that is because the whole has become greater than the sum of its parts, making the Merrick experience integral to local culture. And when the kitchen sticks close to Kentucky foodways and avoids the unfamiliar, one can certainly see why.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.