Mark Jensen earned a legion of fans when he dished out delicacies from his food truck, Fork in the Road. So it was only to be expected that the gourmet groupies would gravitate to a brick-and-mortar restaurant if-and-when he opened one.
He did and they did.
Jensen's Middle Fork Kitchen Bar opened this summer in Lexington's latest entertainment hot spot — the Distillery District. Style-wise, the restaurant blends into its gritty surroundings, with a semi-industrial look that features lots of exposed brick and steel girders, a wood-fired grill and a bar that runs the length of the dining area.
However, if you are looking for greasy spoon (fork?) style cuisine, look elsewhere. Jensen displays a cooking finesse that is sophisticated and subtle, while at the same time managing to be bold and innovative.
When was the last time you had a grilled cheese sandwich whipped up from Monterey jack, fire-roasted green chilis, apricot jam, cream cheese and bacon on sourdough bread? Jensen's Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese sandwich ($9) is about as far from what most of us think of as grilled cheese as it's possible to get.
His version can only be described as artistry, and if you're one who likes to watch an artist at work, you can do so in the open kitchen area.
I ordered the Jalapeño Popper during a recent lunch visit, and proclaimed to my companion that it was the best sandwich I've had in recent memory. The disparate flavors blended perfectly into a satisfying whole.
The only thing wrong with the sandwich was that it is so filling, it was difficult to finish, especially if like me, you begin your meal by ordering one of the small plates ($6-$17). I opted for a plate of "farm to brine" pickles and assorted vegetables (squash, cucumbers and onions) drizzled in vinegar and dusted with sugar, salt and various herbs.
The small plate and sandwich were more than enough to satisfy all appetites, save those of UK football players in training. But I couldn't resist the brown butter cake ($9), one of two items on the lunch dessert menu.
I promised myself that I'd only take a couple of bites, but after one taste of the moist, buttery cake with lemon-bourbon syrup and burnt miso butterscotch whipped cream, well ... you know what they say about good intentions.
Naturally, a return visit was in order, so I went back for dinner. If I have nothing but superlatives for the lunch experience, my dinner didn't go quite as well.
The dinner offerings (from $15 to $35, market price for the lamb dish) are all about the meat, with the hog 'n' oats (goetta, a type of sausage patty, grits, cheese, red tomato jam, confit of green tomatoes and soft poached egg a special favorite of diners).
I decided to forgo the mains and go with a couple of intriguing sounding small plates on the menu. The Egg Diavola ($8) is a poached egg cooked with herbs and covered with a spicy tomato sauce (similar in texture and taste to a spaghetti sauce) and served with grilled bread.
My problem with the dish wasn't with the flavor, which was good, but that the single egg appeared to be lost in all the sauce. A lighter hand in dispensing it would have worked better.
I love pancakes, so I was eager to try Middle Fork's version, made with sauerkraut, ricotta, pecorino, caramelized yeast and rye salt ($8). I found them a bit dry, and when I asked for something to add a little moisture — preserves or sour cream — was told they didn't have any. The server did bring me a small cup of tzatziki, a Greek sauce made with yoghurt, cucumbers, dill and garlic. Since there are no other accompaniments for the pancakes, perhaps they might consider serving the tzatziki on the side.
I chalked up my dinner experience to the fact that Jensen didn't appear to be overseeing the kitchen the night I was there (at least I didn't see him) and after my very positive first experience, I will definitely go back to try more of his extremely inventive food. There's a PB&J (fire-grilled baguette, ginger peanut sauce, lime-orange jam chilis, cilantro leaves and red onion pickles, ($9) just waiting to be savored.