Lunch was long, but that's OK, because it was close to perfect. This week, during the University of Kentucky's spring break, the Hilary J. Boone Center, the members-only faculty club, opened its doors to non-member UK faculty and staff and their guests.
To see what this exclusive dining spot is all about, I finagled an invitation from a UK staff member.
Growing up in Lexington, I have vivid memories of the Boone Center's location, at Rose Street and Columbia Avenue. It used to be the home of the Campus Corner restaurant, with its big cheeseburger painted on the window and its less-than-delicious food
The Boone Center was built in 1986 as a faculty club, but it closed in 2004 after complaints of mediocre food, drab decor and budget woes. It reopened last June after a $6.2 million renovation, expansion and upgrading. With numbers like that and this week's rare opportunity, I had to get a look-see. Based on my experience, the makeover was a good one.
There were four of us, including a non-member UK staffer, at this memorable midday meal. We weren't used to such finery for lunch.
The Boone Center is much like a chic boutique hotel, sans bedrooms. After coming in through imposing gates (on the south side of the building), we entered a hushed lobby area, where a maître d'hôtel showed us to our table. Around the lobby, we noticed small, glass-enclosed dining rooms (very Chippendale), but were taken to a much larger, hall-like dining area, where the walls were hung with a neutral wall covering and woodwork was dark brown. Our table, beautifully napped, looked out onto an enclosed courtyard with a fountain.
One of our table mates was late, so our server suggested we try the beer cheese, one of the appetizers. It's something rather common in these parts, but here the beer cheese was excellent and actually tasted like beer. It was also garlicky and not too heavy with cayenne.
For my lunch, I sampled the soup du jour, a cup of carrot and ginger soup ($3.50). Creamy, orange-colored and garnished with lemongrass, it reminded us of a Thai soup. Delicious.
For the entree, I ordered lamb empanadas ($9) from the appetizer menu. Three or four small crescent-shaped pies — perfect for a light lunch — were filled with barbecued lamb and buried in a heap of frisée. For garnish, there were dollops of sour cream and a citrusy salsa verde made with tomatillos.
A companion ordered lobster-mushroom cakes ($13), an entree I had had my eye on. But that's OK: Lunch went on my credit card, so I got to taste it, too. I was sorry I got just a nibble. Heaven on earth. I didn't notice mushrooms in my small helping, but who cares. Yummy lobster was all I tasted. The presentation was beautiful, as well: The lobster cakes were topped with matchstick-cut slaw made with cabbage and maybe jicama.
Another selection was vegetarian: squash ravioli ($10). Four or five large-ish ravioli were stuffed with winter squash — acorn, butternut, buttercup — and served in a light broth.
My least favorite of the selections was quiche Lorraine ($8). All I could taste in the savory egg and cream pie was ham. Classic quiche Lorraine is made with bacon and onion.
All of the desserts we sampled were delicious. I tried chocolate torte ($6), one of those flourless things that comes out like loose fudge. It held its round cakelike shape, cut like room-temperature butter and was topped with chocolate sauce and garnished with more dollops of chocolate sauce. No one complained.
Of the trio of crème brûlées ($6), the table's favorite was chocolate. Classic vanilla and raspberry — all cooked and served in tiny ramekins — were also on the plate. The other desserts we ordered were lemony chess pie ($3) and a tasty walnut-cranberry galette ($6) that looked like a fruit Danish.
Lunch for four, including iced tea, soda, coffee and tax but not tip, was $82.15 — a tad more than $20 each.
Before we left, the maitre d' allowed us to check out the bar and wainscoted library. He also mentioned that we, John Q. Public, could come by for free coffee in the library weekday mornings. Coffee in the morning at Rose and Columbia — just like it was decades ago at the Campus Corner.