I've always fancied myself a pretty good spy. So when the cryptic email arrived with only a meeting time and street address, along with a secret password — viburnum valley — whose meaning was a mystery, I was ready to don trench coat and fedora, and spring into action.
I arrived on a balmy Saturday evening in early March at the designated address, which turned out to be Shorty's Market on Short Street. Some secret, I snickered. Every hipster in Lexington knows where Shorty's Market is.
But wait. Who was this Shorty character anyway? Maybe that's why I had been summoned — to unravel his or her real identity. With a conspiratorial wink, I mumbled the password to the man at the door and was ushered in.
Once inside, I found a group of suspicious-looking folk, lounging around sipping wine and noshing on canapés. What kind of a secret meeting was this? After being handed a glass of crisp chardonnay, I decided it was a pretty good one.
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The whole Shorty's thing turned out to be a ruse, however. Once everyone arrived, we were taken down a dark alley ("where's my blindfold?" I wondered) to the evening's real location — Gallery B on Main Street.
Welcome to Bleu Plate Confidential, Lexington's first underground dining experience.
Bleu Plate Confidential, which debuted in February 2011, is the brainchild of Laura Mize, a Cincinnati native who started Bleu Plate Tours the year before, combining culinary arts with local history.
Mize, a self-proclaimed foodie, came to Lexington as a regional business and development marketing specialist for the civil engineering firm Lochner in 2006. She was happy to discover an up-and-coming food city but was dismayed to learn there were few culinary activities that didn't involve going to a restaurant.
"I had taken a tour in Pasadena, Calif., which combined food and history, and I thought it would work well here," says Mize.
She set about designing two walking tours — a downtown/Gratz Park tour, featuring stops as diverse as Sam's Hot Dog Stand and Jonathan at Gratz Park, and a Jefferson Street tour.
She had been doing the tours for almost a year when she was approached by Andy Myers, executive chef at Bellini's at the time, about doing something similar to Louisville's Supper Speakeasy. Their collaboration resulted in the first Bleu Plate Confidential dinner at Alltech's Kentucky Ale Brewery.
"It was so much work that I told my mother, who was at the dinner, that I'd never do it again," says Mize, "but when I saw the energy it generated, I was hooked."
What followed were successive dinners at the Lexus Store of Lexington showroom, with executive chef Erik Fowler of Dudley's Restaurant, and at Housewarmings, where chef Ashley Minton of Nova Gourmets made the entire meal on a Big Green Egg clay cooker.
One of the biggest attractions of the Bleu Plate Confidential dinners — in addition to the unconventional venues — is the secrecy surrounding them, insists Mize. Diners don't know where they will be going until they receive an email and their password two days before the event.
"Each guest's password has something to do with the dinner," says Mize, "whether it's the chef, the food or the location."
Similarly, the meals are always themed to match the location.
At Gallery B, we arrived to find that the pumpkin linen tablecloths, vases of multihued blooms and menu by Shorty's executive chef Jonathan Henderson complemented the gallery's exhibition, Food for Thought.
Henderson, who at 32 has worked with Thomas Keller, Paul Prudhomme and Ouita Michel, wowed the 46 enthusiastic diners with a menu featuring sweet corn bisque with pink peppercorn, double cream and porcini oil; Dungeness crab salad with cucumber ribbonettes, Napa cabbage and Sriracha aioli; and boeuf bourguignon with cabernet-truffle gastrique, baby carrots and parsnip purée.
Dessert was a marquise of dark and white chocolate truffles, port wine and raspberry coulis.
As I licked the last trace of the sinful concoction from my spoon, I at last realized the significance of my password. It referred to Viburnum Valley Farm Confections, whose owner, Marianne Swintosky, makes the truffles in her Versailles test kitchen.
The wines we were served — a chardonnay, a chenin blanc, a cabernet and a shiraz — were from the award-winning de Wet vineyard in South Africa, which has been producing them since the 1600s. Family member Nic de Wet lives in Lexington.
Mize says she plans to do two to four Bleu Plate Confidential dinners a year — "whenever we can get a good venue and a good chef," she says.
That's good news to Esther Harvey and Heather Barron, who have attended all of the dinners.
"I love the food and discovering new Lexington locations," says Harvey.
Barron says, "I love coming because Laura's dinners just attract so many cool people."