To paraphrase the classic Dinah Washington song “What a Difference A Day Makes,” what a difference three years make — at least in the case of the Kentucky Castle, the Woodford County landmark formerly known as Castle Post.
When I first reviewed Castle Post’s restaurant in June of 2015, there was not much good I could say about it, except that it was beautiful. The food was uninspired (albeit pricy); the service was lacking in polish (albeit friendly and earnest), and the dining room décor was definitely not in keeping with what those dining in a castle should reasonably expect.
Fast forward three years, and Castle Post – now The Kentucky Castle – is under new ownership and at last is living up to its regal name.
When it was sold to a group of investors for $8.7 million in July of last year, the new owners (who include two University of Kentucky physicians and an interior decorator and event planner) immediately began their ambitious rebranding project. They started by moving the restaurant, now Castle Farm, out of the cavernous space — more suitable to the ballroom it is now than an intimate dining venue — to a smaller room across the hall, previously used as a breakfast nook for guests.
With subdued lighting and elegant design touches, including two of the most stylish chandeliers to be found in the Bluegrass, Castle Farm is now the perfect spot for a special occasion or a soignee evening. The sophisticated décor is enhanced by an equally sophisticated level of service. Next, they transformed a little-used billiards room into the Bourbon Hall, a bar presided over by Lisa, one of the best mixologists in the area, and bourbon-steward-in-residence, Tim Knittel, who conducts his Bourbon University classes here.
But all the aesthetics in the world won’t compensate for a menu deemed unworthy of the price, and this is where the new owners have made the biggest strides. They hired local chef and farmer Jason Walls to take charge of the kitchen, and to oversee an impressive farm-to-table experience. An on-property apiary has resulted in local honey, and future plans call for a fruit orchard, lavender garden, a pond for aquaculture, and eventually, cattle, sheep and chickens to be raised on the 55 acres.
For now, just indulge in Chef Walls’ inventive menu, with its enthusiastic nod to area food and produce purveyors.
On a recent dinner visit, I started with an appetizer of spring greens and Capriole goat cheese ($18) that, paired with fresh strawberries, chervil, yellow raspberry coulis and sorrel sherry jus, and served with a parmesan/reggiano crisp, was nothing short of mouth-watering. My entrée was equally delectable: Fresh rainbow trout ($32) was crusted with pumpkin seeds and pine nuts, drizzled with orange chardonnay meuniere sauce, and garnished with smoked bok choy, crispy leeks and pea shoots. To accompany it, I selected sautéed heirloom tomato and asparagus with a balsamic reduction ($10).
I thought nothing could possibly equal the perfectly nuanced flavor profiles of my choices until I saw my dining companion practically licking her lips over the filet mignon with onion and morel mushrooms, compound butter, salsify potato gratin and roasted kale chips ($53), accompanied by what looked to be a sinfully rich Gruyere and goat cheese mac and cheese side dish ($9).
The menu is not large — usually five options plus a Chef’s Choice, which on the night I was there was a local rack of lamb for $47. Walls opts for quality over quantity, and carefully curates everything on the menu. With wine steward Knittel on the job, the wines are perfectly chosen to complement the menu dishes. The craft cocktails are epic, expertly stirred by Lisa and cleverly named for English kings and queens — it is a castle, after all. The bar is quiet and cozy, but with the advent of summer you may want to order your drink and wander up to the roof terrace to watch the sun set over the surrounding bluegrass hills before heading to your table.
If you want a romantic interlude equaling anything the House of Windsor has recently choreographed, consider that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and Super Bowl champ Carson Wentz proposed to his girlfriend on the roof earlier this year. Harry and Meghan couldn’t have done it better.
I am happy to give this review a serious upgrade. The improved version of the landmark Kentucky Castle will definitely leave you feeling (and dining) like a royal.
What: Restaurant at the Kentucky Castle
Address: 230 Pisgah Pike, Versailles
Hours: Reservations required and taken 5-8 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 5-8:30 p.m. Fri., Sat. Breakfast 8-10:30 a.m. daily; reservations available and recommended for weekdays (coming soon for weekends).
Payment: Cash and all major credit cards.