I have a new sympathy for guidebook writers and for Top Chef judges.
On the summer solstice weekend I was assigned by Kentucky Monthly magazine to eat my way through Lexington. In order to recommend where to go for appetizers, cocktails and desserts for all the visitors landing in Lexington for the World Equestrian Games this fall, I had to choose and eat at ten restaurants in one weekend and write up my tips for the Games guidebook. Best assignment ever, right?
Yeah, pretty much.
But saying you’re going to eat at 10 restaurants, and actually doing it are two totally different matters. Allow me to give you a peek at the kind of assignment I’ve been dreaming of since first dabbling in getting money for my words, and show you the decidedly unglamorous work aspect of it
I had two days to come up with my recommended list of ten (to give the magazine time to make the arrangements) — not a problem if it were Louisville. But I’ve eaten in precisely none of the fabulous Lexington restaurants. Thank goodness for the internets. My facebook friends and peeps in Lexington came through with lots of great recommendations. I spent a full evening reviewing restaurants menus online and skimming reviews in order to settle on my ten.
Then I needed to figure out what order to hit them in. We’d go over after work on Friday which would get us there around 8. Most places are only open at dinner so we’d have to do the bulk of the eating Friday night and Saturday night. I’d need to have my game on.
Oh, and we needed to figure out what to do with the dogs since we’d be staying in Lexington Friday and Saturday night.
But it all came together and we sat down to our first bite and sip on Friday night. I’m not going to give you the rundown of where we ate and what we had … you’ll need to buy the guide for that! But I’ll mention a few highlights : )
Though I was famished by the time we sat down, I paced myself, having only half my cocktail and a few bites at Cheapside, the place mentioned probably most often in all my friends’ responses. I got a good full page of notes and plenty of photos. Moving on I sampled my great weakness, a gussied up fried cheese. I split the plate evenly with Brian after moving it to a window to snap some photos in natural light (to the evident discomfiture of people nearby). At our third and final stop I couldn’t not eat my entire share of the gorgeous seared ahi tuna and some perfect scallops after trying to get some shots with people in the restaurant *not* looking at me. The manager knew the diners in a group out for a fun night, and asked them if they’d mind being in the article. Two (a man and a woman) got up and left the table (I wonder why they didn’t want to be in the shot). I asked the rest to continue eating and drinking and in general act like I wasn’t there. Right. Every photo included one or more people looking directly at the camera smiling for all they were worth. At least I got a nice shot of the bar. And found a place I’d love to return to — Wines on Vine, a bistro inside of a wine shop.
Saturday morning we checked out the Lexington Farmer’s market where I stumbled upon a creperie! I couldn’t resist inviting myself into the tent to try my hand at making one on a pro gas crepe griddle. I split a cheese and Broadbent ham and spinach crepe with Brian, which was a mistake. Even sharing one I was full. At two hours till lunch, I was already getting off to a a bad start. I needed an empty stomach for the hours ahead.
We had only one lunch, though the restaurant manager insisted on us trying three appetizers, in addition to dessert. We spent the afternoon walking off a bit of our lunch and a frantic shopping session for me to find a dress more appropriate for the oppressive heat than the black wrap dress I’d brought (for its expandable abilities).
The dinner marathon began at 4, which was when the Atomic Cafe opened. We needed to hit 6 places before closing time. Luckily everything was in walking distance. So far, so fun. I got my photos, took some notes, and we moved on. The next place didn’t know we were coming so I had to give my whole spiel, to the host, then to the manager then to our server. They really wanted me to try the scallops, but I already had scallops the night before and didn’t want them twice in the same story. I took a few less notes and drank most of my cocktail. Must move on. At our next stop we ordered an appetizer and a dessert, but they decided to bring two additional apps to try. What part of ‘we’re eating at six restaurants tonight’ didn’t they hear? My notes said something about ‘old money’ and wainscotting, with a scribble about gentlemen in this place getting up when ladies arrive at the table. People made no effort to hide the fact that they were staring and commenting as I took photos.
Halfway done for the night we moved on. By now I was a little weary of explaining my mission. Managers may have known I was coming but they didn’t always pass the word so again I told a stream of staff. I was also tired of food by now. How to pick a dish to appeal to all the people who would read about this, when the only thing that sounded good to me was a lie-down and maybe a piece of candied ginger (my favorite digestive aid). I also had the distinct feeling we were in the way, taking up prime time and real estate to have a drink and an appetizer. The duck confit in a green onion crepe was actually quite delicious, but I stared at my notebook, grasping for something to say. I couldn’t rely on memory, not with this many dishes in a night. I wrote something about the noise and the horse pictures on the wall. I was beginning to feel the pressure of relaying in 50 words the vibe of a place.
On the the next-to-last restaurant. It was 8:15. Afraid I’d miss a stop, I double and triple checked my list in the folder that kept dropping and sending maps and sheets fluttering every which way. Ugh. Must I really eat more? So far since four, I’d at least tasted, and maybe had several bites of, sweet potato chips, mussels, lamb chops, pork belly, “hot brown scallops,” lemon lavender bundt cake with blueberry ice cream, and duck confit crepes. Not to mention part of a Bahama Mama and most of a bellini. Now I was going to have steak tartare. Seriously? And they couldn’t tell me the provenance of the beef. Oh well, it was quite good. I struggled to take some notes, struggled more in the failing light to take a decent photo, and popped into the sweltering kitchen for some action shots that didn’t turn out.
Finally it was time for our last restaurant. Since it was no longer a million muggy degrees out at 9 p.m., we sat at a sidewalk table for the last of the natural light. This, I will tell you was my favorite place — Le Deauville. I’m a sucker, of course, for French. The owner was Parisian and managed to not visibly flinch when I asked en Francais if he had any pastis. Even more charming, he brought both Pernod and Ricard for us to taste the difference. I tried taking some sidewalk dining photos but a blasted film crew coming down the street kept getting in my way. I stared dumbly at the menu, and flipped through my notes to see if I needed one more cocktail, appetizer or dessert to write about. I was simply incapable of making a decision, feeling as quick and with it as a rhino in quicksand right about now. I finally went with escargots.
Drinking pastis, sitting at a sidewalk cafe outside a green corner storefront that looked like it had been plucked in its entirety from a street in Paris, and waiting for escargots I felt a strange displacement as if I didn’t know quite where I was. The escargots landed sizzling and blooming with the perfume of garlic, presented on a doily. Correct, as they French say. I’d like to say my delicate constitution prevented me from eating much, but I dug in like a farm hand and polished off my half of the snails, and tore off chunks of my baguette to dunk in the heavenly sauce. I managed approximately two sentences in my notebook and pondered the cheese list.
We sat for ages, resting after the gauntlet of food. And we toasted each other with our little Ricard glasses, dubbing each other champions. The owner wouldn’t hear no to his “suggestion” that we finish with chocolate mousse, so we took our final bites, heaved ourselves up off of our seats, and lumbered down the sidewalk into the night.
(And I was halfway done — the eating was only the beginning. After came the photo editing and the writing. Dessert will be the paycheck and the byline!)