Hotel restaurants range from destination dining to dreadful, with many falling somewhere in between. Breakfast is usually the biggest rip-off, but lunch and dinner also receive their fair shares of overpriced indifference. Chains too frequently follow this M.O.; my only hypothesis is that they benefit from captive audiences who rarely expend the energy to explore alternatives.
In downtown Lexington, the Hyatt Regency's BlueFire Bar and Grill, and the Hilton Lexington/Downtown Hotel's Triangle Grille improve on that model, with finer-than-average interiors and a commitment to using local ingredients whenever possible. What comes out of their kitchens, however, is inconsistent. Following the bell curve, each restaurant has a couple of winning and losing dishes, with the majority faltering from execution rather than concept.
Take, for instance, BlueFire's chunky butter bean hummus, a great idea gone dry and pasty from too little oil, or the accompanying zweiback-like corn bread crostini, which demonstrated the insufficiency of inspiration alone. Triangle Grille's bruschetta suffered from an excess of onion, garlic and balsamic vinegar that obliterated the sweetness of the heirloom tomatoes and looked messy in the bargain. Ultimately, I preferred the less-original but better barbecued shrimp starter at BlueFire, doused in bourbon barbecue sauce and served with chipotle aioli.
Perhaps other first courses are better than the ones I sampled. The collard and country ham soup at Triangle Grille sounded fabulous, but it was ruined by over-salting. Neither restaurant had an exciting house salad.
There was, though, one great appetizer that made a nice meal, and that was Triangle Grille's duck breast quesadilla — not fatty, rich with fontina cheese, bright and peppery with arugula, and sweet with sautéed onions. At $10, it's a satisfying, portion- controlled dinner bargain.
Or one could simply order main courses, because they outshine starters.
At BlueFire, they serve a generous rib-eye with corn salsa and garlic mashed potatoes. The meat was a little dry, but the vegetables compensated. BlueFire does Kentucky's signature hot Brown well, too, although admittedly it's hard to fault any dish that piles sliced turkey on toast and then naps it with silky Mornay sauce and garnishes it with smoky bacon. But avoid the beggar's purse of chalky phyllo dough with undercooked vegetables; the texture is unappealing and the price exorbitant at $16.
Entrees at Triangle Grille are generally better, too. Try their seafood and grits — cheesy grits with shrimp, clams and mussels in a slightly salty white wine sauce; given menu prices these days, the abundance of seafood makes the $21 tab on this a bargain.
Yet what I most enjoyed at both venues were the sandwiches.
BlueFire makes a marvelous bison burger, simple and locally sourced, very Kentucky, juicy and delicious with red onion, lettuce, tomato and a wonderful chipotle mayonnaise. And at Triangle Grille's brunch, you can't do better than smoked beef brisket on a ciabatta roll with lightly brined, shredded cabbage and pickled banana peppers; its accompanying sweet potato fries added natural sugar and starch to balance the dense meatiness and vinegar of the sandwich.
The food is up and down at Lexington's major hotel dining rooms, but management seems to be paying a lot of attention to service, and that is a great thing. Servers are friendly and knowledgeable, and there's none of that annoying hovering that betrays lack of training.
Being taken care of is what travelers crave in a new location, but so do we locals like the measured attentiveness because, in the end, our own home kitchens are rarely more than a 15- minute drive away.