By Patti Nickell Contributing Restaurant Critic December 26, 2014
All of the focus on downtown Lexington as a culinary hot spot has resulted in two things: diners flocking to establishments fortunate enough to be located between Jefferson Street and Limestone, and an attitude of nonchalance toward some of those outside those charmed streets.
That's unfortunate, as there are quite a few good restaurants that have found themselves off the radar. One of the best is The Julep Cup, tucked into a corner of The Woodlands luxury condominiums on East Main Street.
Like the restaurant itself, executive chef Lindsay Brooks Brugh lacks the name recognition of some of her colleagues, which is baffling considering her culinary chops.
A graduate of Chicago's Le Cordon Blue, she studied in Paris, receiving a Superior Cuisine Medal at that city's Le Cordon Bleu, and worked with Frank Stitt at his celebrated Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Ala.
Her beef bourguignon, black Angus short rib slowly braised with red wine and herbs, and steak au poivre, certified Angus beef, peppercorn crusted with cognac cream, green peppercorns and whole grain mustard, are the essence of Gallic good taste.
Other dishes — fried chicken with cream gravy, Kentucky trout, either grilled with caper butter or cornmeal fried with tartar sauce, and Brooks Brugh's version of the Kentucky hot Brown — speak with a decidedly Southern accent.
Nowhere else in Lexington will you find dishes from the southern United States and those from the south of France side by side on a single menu.
On a recent visit, my dining companion and I split an appetizer of fried green tomatoes with a zesty remoulade. The appetizer comes with five tomatoes; there were none left by the time our entrees arrived.
My companion had the shrimp and grits, proclaiming the grits "the best in Lexington." I tasted them and couldn't disagree. The robust dish featured jumbo Key West white shrimp atop creamy Weisenberger grits, accessorized with bell peppers, onions and garlic, and finished off with a light white wine butter sauce.
If finger licking were considered polite table manners, we would have been tempted. I had a hard time deciding between the Kentucky trout and the day's special, fish and chips, eventually opting for the latter. The cod was perfectly browned and appropriately crisp, and the chips were thick strips of potatoes rather than the matchstick cuts frequently served in restaurants.
Several of the Julep Cup's appetizers could be meals themselves: the cornmeal fried oyster wraps, gussied up with ranch dressing, jalapeno slices and green tomato chow chow, and the country ham, braised in Ale 8 and served on freshly baked biscuits with local Amish orange jam and bourbon whole grain mustard.
Salads are also a cut above the usual restaurant offerings. The typical wedge is often nothing but a slab of iceberg with a dollop of blue cheese dressing. The Julep Cup's version is grilled romaine with house-pickled beets, red onion, chopped eggs, Applewood bacon and Russian dressing.
Many of the same entree items are offered both at lunch and dinner, with the three beef choices (filet mignon, ribeye and sirloin) served plain or with "style enhancements" (extra charge.) These enhancements range from toppings of New Orleans barbecue shrimp to sautéed mushrooms with truffle oil.
On the other side of the meal, desserts are given equal care. Even if you think you can't eat another bite, do share the deliciously rich carrot cake with cream cheese icing and pecans or the peppermint chocolate chip frozen custard or even the blue raspberry cotton candy (they have their own cotton candy machine).
The Julep Cup's décor — lipstick-red walls, vivid Oriental carpets and framed pictures of equestrian scenes — is elegant without being pretentious.
If I have a slight criticism (slight being the operative word), it's the service. Not that it's bad, just that it seems a bit uneven. On two visits, I found servers to be unfailingly polite but a bit distracted, needing to be asked several times to bring extra bread or more butter. When they did bring it, however, it was always with a smile. I can live with that.
If you have time before or after your meal, drop into the Seahorse Lounge, with its stunning bar made of bits of seashells and semi-precious stones, for the signature libation. The mint julep is described as an "adult snow cone." Choose your bourbon and the mixologist will add shaved ice, mint and simple syrup. It's minimalist but effective.
And don't think the julep is causing you to see things — that really is an image of a mermaid smoked into the mirror over the bar.