Malone's, Sal's Chophouse, Drake's ... the Lansdowne shopping center's row of restaurants is an incubator of dining concepts, and new ones are always arriving.
Earlier this month, Bluegrass Hospitality Group unveiled the latest from restaurateurs Brian McCarty and Bruce Drake: OBC Kitchen, a bourbon bar in the former Harry's bar space.
McCarty and Drake research trends and restaurants to find out what works in other cities, find ideas that might work in Lexington, then put a Kentucky twist on them.
In their travels they kept coming across really terrific bourbon bars. They wanted to capitalize on the momentum of bourbon and American whiskey here on bourbon's home turf, but do it their way.
For OBC Kitchen — which stands for Old Bourbon County Kitchen, a nod to Kentucky's colonial history — they wanted their bourbon bar to have an extensive bourbon list and great food, too, Drake said.
The new menu by Chef Alan Lamoureux features meat, of course, but lots of savory and sweet touches that go well beyond upscale bar food.
Take the bacon in a glass. It's thick-cut bacon that's glazed with honey and bourbon and caramelized, then served with a warm, melted peanut butter to dip into. Likewise their potato chips are listed on the menu as Bluegrass fondue, because the house-made waffle chips come with a warm smokey fondue made with Mimi's Garden Fresh bleu cheese.
Even the bread — which is from Lexington's Bluegrass Baking Company and called "Drunken Mutt" because it's a beery variation of the bakery's Salty Dog — goes above and beyond, a soft wheat loaf with a spicy crust that is tamed by warm salty butter.
The most popular items with customers so far (the restaurant opened Dec. 4,) Lamoureux said, are the smoked shrimp and grits, the short rib tacos, the turf and surf small plate, and the bar-carved Virginia ham.
The boutique bar, which has only 13 tables, has been in the works for months.
"We put three to five times the man hours into this concept compared to anything else we've ever done," McCarty said.
For instance, the staff had to learn how to make the whole menu — every waitperson, every bartender, every dish, he said, so they would all be knowledgeable about the preparation and have pride of ownership in the dishes.
And the décor took even longer — try 125 years. The wood came from a 125-year-old barn that was being taken down in Fleming County.
"They were going to burn it," Drake said. So one of their guys went up there and took it down, a truckload at a time, and brought it back to Lexington. Then it was fashioned into the bar and the tables; the original sliding barn door was cut down and hangs now in the bar.
An enormous poplar beam — nail-scarred and pitted — became the frame around the bar's array of bourbons, whiskeys and wines.
The extensive bar list — more than 300 whiskeys, about two-thirds bourbon — will be joined by the bar's own selections of barrels selected and bottled for them by top distillers like Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Knob Creek, Jack Daniel's and Ridgemont Reserve 1792.
"And the cocktail list is second to none. I mean big city," McCarty said. "We want you to start or end the Kentucky Bourbon Trail here at OBC."
In addition to standards like the Ramos Gin Fizz, or the Sazerac, currently offered cocktails include the Off with His Head made with Applejack, St. Germaine, blackberry, mint, house-made blackberry-habanero shrub for $9; Blood and Bluegrass, made with Kentucky bourbon, Carpano Antica, Orchard Cherry liqueur, fire-roasted orange juice, blood orange bitters, and an orange rope garnish for $10; and Ulster's Migration, made with Scotch, sweet vermouth, benedictine, fresh lemon, and cherry bitters in a honey-coated glass for $10.
To help patrons sort out their drinks, each table has an iPad that can be used to pore over more detailed information on all the items on the wine and spirits menu.
OBC Kitchen probably will be one of a kind, but maybe not. There are a lot of old barns out there, Drake said.
In the meantime, McCarty and Drake have turned their attention to a new venture: barbecue.
They have been researching far and wide (they hit more than 40 restaurants between Dallas and Austin in two days, and last week they were off to New York to check out more spots). Next March or April, they will open a yet-to-be named barbecue joint in the Harry's Patio space on the other side of Sal's.
That will make seven different restaurant concepts in their portfolio, including Aqua Sushi. Eight if you count Malone's Banquets.
"We pride ourselves on being able to do meat real well, and it's going to be an incredible barbecue concept that will feature brisket and smoked turkey, pulled pork and chicken; we'll have sausage and ribs as well, two or three great sauces, unbelievable side items ... in a very quick casual affordable setting," McCarty said. "A $10 price point, $10 or less. We're real excited about that."
Doesn't Lexington have enough barbecue already? Not at all, McCarty said. If anything, Lexington is underserved.
"Barbecue's wide open in this town, and it's a niche that's hotter than a firecracker," McCarty said. Other cities of similar size have 25-30 good to great barbecue places, he said.