When in doubt ordering, rely on the collective wisdom of local diners

swthompson@herald-leader.comMay 27, 2014 

Dining out is what many of us like to do best. We choose locally-owned restaurants to support our neighbors, but unless we frequent those places often, we're in a quandary about what to order.

We asked several restaurateurs what their best selling items are and we're letting you in on the secret. You'll never be disappointed in these dishes, because surely after hundreds of times they've been served, the chefs have gotten it right.

At Boone Tavern, 100 Main Street in Berea, there are several dishes that are considered signature items, (spoonbread, chicken in a bird's nest, tricky chops, Kentucky Hot Brown, and fried green tomatoes) but the recent best sellers are: Bluegrass lamb pot roast and pan-roasted salmon.

"The lamb is locally sourced so the product is always fresh and of excellent quality," general manager Gary McCormick said. "The way we prepare it takes away the gaminess of the lamb that turns a lot of diners away from a lamb dish. We slowly braise it with carrots, onions, leeks and smoked paprika jus. It is served with fresh herb mashed potatoes. The dish looks like a traditional beef pot roast and is tender and delicious. We are constantly told by guests that they 'hate' the taste of lamb but love this dish."

Call (859) 985-3700 or go to Boonetavernhotel.com.

The best dish to order at one of Lexington's upscale restaurants, Jonathan at Gratz Park, 120 West Second Street, is something chef/owner Jonathan Lundy "threw together."

Mushroom dusted beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, asparagus, caramel peppercorn demi glace and crispy shiitake "bacon" was "originally thrown together on the fly as a last minute special on a night when I was running very behind schedule," chef/owner Jonathan Lundy said.

"At the time we were offering a brown sugar cured beef tenderloin carpaccio. The whole beef tenderloin was completely encased in a mixture of brown sugar, kosher salt and cracked black peppercorns, where it would sit for 3 to 4 days. Moisture is drawn from the meat which turns the sugar/salt mixture into a caramel like syrup, which is then mixed into our homemade demi glace. Another unique characteristic about this dish is the use of dried shiitake mushrooms. We grind them into a coarse powder which is pressed into both sides of beef medallions and seared then finished in the oven. Lastly we top off the whole dish with our shiitake "bacon" (called that because they taste like bacon). The bacon is made by thin slicing fresh shiitakes, then they are pan fried and seasoned with our house made Maker's Mark walnut bung (barrel plugs) smoked sea salt.

"This dish has not really changed and has survived countless menu changes in the past 15 years, but the reason I really love this dish is because I was able to turn what was basically trash into an essential ingredient into one of the restaurant's signature dishes," Lundy said.

Call (859) 252-4949 or go to Jagp.info.

Jeremy Ashby, chef/owner at Azur Restaurant in Beaumont Centre, is very creative with his menu and posts lavish, tempting pictures of his creations on Azurrestaurant.com and on Facebook. He said lobster crepes, "hands down wins every time," when asked what the best selling menu item is. "I don't have any explanation, it's just a fine little gem of a dish. It has been 'the cover girl' for our marketing quite a lot. Maybe the photos are what make it a must try," Ashby said.

Call (859) 296-1007 or go to azurrestaurant.com.

At Furlongs, 130 West Tiverton Way, the Cajun restaurant has quite of following of customers who like the gumbo and jambalaya, but the best seller is the stuffed catfish. "It's an 8-ounce fillet of Louisiana catfish from Guidrys in Henderson, La.," Tommy Walters said.

"We filet it again and this time leave it partially connected to both the top and the bottom like a hinge. Then we stuff the cavity with a shrimp and Gulf crab meat stuffing we make in house. We season and grill the stuffed filet on a very hot surface, then we deglaze the dish in a sauté pan with butter, white wine, fresh lemon, parsley and green onions. Then we serve the stuffed catfish in the center of the plate and pour the sauce over the dish and serve the catfish swimming in the sauce.

"I believe it's been the best seller because its taste is incredible and as heavy as it sounds in its description, it's actually a light feeling dish after you've eaten it," Walters said.

Call (859) 523-5500.

The menus at ethnic restaurants can sometimes be daunting. But if you visit Thai Orchid Café, 1020 South Broadway, you'll want to order the pad Thai. "It is a classic and what is most familiar to everyone. It has remained exactly the same all these years we have made it, even since the first restaurant in Frankfort," chef and owner Toa Green said.

Green's parents, Kat and Suda Veerasethakul opened their first restaurant, The Smile of Siam, in Frankfort, in 1990. They opened Thai Orchid Cafe in Lexington in 2006, and now Green and her husband Mike operate the restaurant. Call (859) 288-2170 or go to Thaiorchidcafe.net.

The restaurant in The Woodlands, the posh condominium building at 111 Woodland Avenue, first opened in 1985. Since 2008, it has been The Julep Cup and under the culinary guidance of Lindsay Brooks Brugh, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

"By far the most popular item on my menu is the shrimp and grits. So popular, in fact, it is one of the few original menu items I have felt unable to replace or alter. The excellence of the dish relies on the simple pairing of perfect ingredients: Weisenberger Mill grits, plump, fresh, and sweet jumbo Gulf shrimp, sweet red and earthy green bell peppers, toasted garlic, and good crisp white wine balanced by a mounding of butter. It is an easily interpreted and experienced dish, and that is what I think food which is good for the soul is all about. It isn't trying to pretend to be something other than what it is, and is confident in its perfect simplicity," Brooks Brugh said.

Call (859) 226-0300 or go to thejulepcup.com.

The home-style menu is the same for all the Ramsey's Diners, and what you order is what appeals to you at the time. There are meat loaf, roast beef, hot Brown, lots of veggies, Reuben sandwiches, and burgers, and best of all corn bread sticks on the menu.

"We have so many items that compete for the best seller it would be hard to answer without some explanation," owner Rob Ramsey said. "The hot Brown seems to be the number one item, but this is very much based on weather (cold weather and we sell a bunch) and non-regular Kentucky visitors who have been told to order it. Of our regular Lexington customers, the buffalo chicken chef salad competes with fried chicken and meat loaf. In the sandwich category: Reuben's and burgers. Straight menu tally would be hot Brown but fried chicken in the various forms of sandwich, dinners, and chicken chefs (salad) would be the item that sells the most."

Go to Ramseysdiners.com for locations.

Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade, has an innovative menu, but the Greek salad is a staple. "It was created in 1991 when we were on Southland Drive and our customers will not let us change it," owner Gene Williams said. "You would think it would be a simple salad to do, but getting the right combination of feta, tomatoes, cukes and leafy greens and the oil and vinegar dressing that has the right amount of garlic, took several trials. You want feta to the last bite, not a garnish, and the dressing has to be just right."

Call (859) 259-2754 or go to Beetnik.com.

At Hall's on the River, 1225 Athens Booneboro Road in Clark County, you get a little bit of history with dinner.

"Our two most popular dishes are fried catfish and beer cheese. We have been serving both for 49 years down here on the river. Jean 'Ma' Bell has been with us from day one and holds the secret recipe for beer cheese under lock and key. Give her a kiss on the cheek and she may steer you in the right direction," general manager Adam McCraith said.

"Back in the '80s, if the University of Kentucky basketball team scored 100 points, then a catfish dinner was free that night with a ticket stub. You would hear Cawood Ledford (iconic voice of UK athletics) announce 'They are playing for the catfish' over the radio."

Call (859) 527-6620 or go to Hallsontheriver.com.

One of Lexington's oldest restaurants, The Merrick Inn, 1074 Merrick Drive, has been owned and operated by the Murray family for almost 40 years. The menu is traditional Southern, with an occasional trendy item thrown in the mix. Overall, it's the fried chicken that comes out on top. "It hasn't changed," Jennifer Murray said. "We have people come in for horse sales and order it to take back to California with them. While 80 percent of our menu hasn't changed over the years, fried chicken is what first comes to mind. And grouper fingers. And walleye pike. Oh, and heirloom tomato salad in the summer, before it was cool. (The late) Bob Murray would hand pick the tomatoes at Farmer's Market. Now Bobby does," she said.

Call (859) 269-5417 or go to Themerrickinn.com.

There are lots of places that serve pizza, and sometimes you crave one that's painstakingly made with the freshest ingredients. The Grey Goose, 170 Jefferson Street, located on the Jefferson Street corridor of dining spots, is a great place to get it.

"The pepperoni pizza and the pesto pizza are tied," office manager January Johnson said. "The pepperoni was an instant best-seller from day one. Our pepperoni is 3 inches round and freshly sliced daily on our hand-rolled, thin crust pizzas with a tomato basil sauce base and whole milk mozzarella cheese.

"The pesto pizza became our other top seller soon after. It has an oil and garlic base with whole milk mozzarella cheese, topped with basil pesto, a sweet balsamic reduction and grated parmesan cheese. This one has the same hand-rolled, thin crust that folks love. Just a super combination of flavors, and it has such eye appeal with the balsamic and pesto swirled on top in a Bullseye pattern," she said.

Call (859) 233-1500 or go to Greygooserestaurants.com.

The Shaker lemon pie is a favorite dessert all over the South, but nobody makes it like the bakers at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg.

"By far, our signature Shaker lemon pie is our best seller," vice president of marketing Jennifer Broadwater said. "It has been served in the Trustees' Office Dining Room every day since its opening, close to 50 years ago. An original Shaker recipe, the pie incorporates the entire lemon, peel and all (the Shakers wasted nothing). Including the rind results is a slightly tart, refreshing filling that guests distinctly remember over the years. The recipe has remained unchanged over the years and is a favorite for loyal and first-time guests alike.

Call 1-800-734-5611 or go to Shakervillageky.org.

"Guest favorites change with the seasons like our menus at Holly Hill Inn," chef and owner Ouita Michel said. "But one of our most popular entrees across the years is Lisa's famous shrimp and grits. We serve tender shrimp in a rich and spicy butter sauce over our out-of-this-world cheese grits, which are made with our neighbor Weisenberger Mill's stone-ground grits. We cook with no other grits. This dish is so good we also serve it at our sister restaurant Windy Corner Market as a special every Tuesday night," Michel said.

Holly Hill is at 426 North Winter Street in Midway. Call (859) 846-4732 or go to Hollyhillinn.com. Windy Corner is at 4595 Bryan Station Road in Lexington. Call (859) 294-9338 or go to Windycornermarket.com. Holly Hill's recipe for shrimp and grits is at Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.

There are other great restaurants in Central Kentucky, we simply couldn't include them all, but don't be shy about asking the wait staff what's the best seller the first time you visit a place. You'll be pleased with the dishes that have endured.

Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.

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