Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Fall Afternoon at the Track

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One advantage of working in Kentucky is during the various thoroughbred racing meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, nearly every company holds at least one event at the track. It’s an expected and accepted part of commerce in this part of the state. As the home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs is held in a kind of reverence by out-of-towners, and being there even in November is for them like completing a pilgrimage. The track itself is vast, a fact more than evident when visiting at any time of the year besides the Derby. Able to hold over 100,000 people for the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Breeder’s Cup, the rest of the year there is simply no way to bring in the number of people on a daily basis to make Churchill feel like it’s anything other than empty. Trackside the crowd is thin at best, mainly consisting of smoker’s exiled from the interior of the building by the city’s recently enacted tobacco ban. However, the dining room on the 4th floor, called Millionaire’s Row even when it’s not Derby Day, is always busy. Friday was no exception.Prior to it’s $120 million dollar renovation, Churchill Downs was known for a lot of things. The food, however, was not one of them. On my first visit to the track in 2001 the lunch buffet in the old (now demolished) Skye Terrace was served on paper plates with plastic utensils. Most of the wait staff scarcely took the time to tuck in their shirt tails much less pay attention to the guests in attendance. It left me with little desire to return. Now with a new facade on the whole building and Millionaire’s Row relocated to the finish line, everything about the dining experience at the Downs has improved. The staff are professional, helpful and courteous. The environment of Millionaire’s Row is comfortable and appealing. And most importantly, the food has gone through a dramatic evolution and improvement. There are still hits and misses, but overall the quality and taste are satisfying enough for an afternoon watching the horses run.

So what does the approximately $32 ticket price buy? Below was the menu in service for this past Friday and my thoughts on the various items.

Churchill Downs Fall “Festival Two” Menu

  • Assorted Vegetables with Garlic Ranch Vegetable Dip

What can you say about raw veggies and ranch dressing?

  • Assorted Field Greens, German Potato Salad, Classic Caesar Salad

I passed on the field greens and went for the other two. The German Potato Salad was quite good, and the Caesar had large pieces of shaved Parmesan. The dressing was both creamy and tangy, but not overly so.

  • Smoked Sirloin of Beef with Henry Bains Sauce and Horseradish Cream

The sirloin started off promisingly enough with the server at the carving station laying a large, thick cut of beef on my plate, and I spooned a little sauce and horseradish cream on the side. As it turned out, the cut I was served contained a least four different levels of doneness. The thickness made cutting into it with a table knife difficult at best. Overall it turned out to be not as appetizing as I had hoped. For those who don’t the story of Henry Bain, he was the head waiter at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky and created his famous sauce around 1881. It remains to this day a local favorite. Not quite a barbecue sauce, it’s more like a fruity steak sauce. Some modern versions of the recipe actually use A1, Worcestershire, chili sauce, ketchup, Tabasco and some type of chutney. The horseradish cream was thin and not very potent (I like my horseradish noticeable to the point of being painful – I always thought that was the point of it). Regrettably, the Henry Bain’s sauce was the best part of the dish.

  • Lemon Chicken

Moist and tender, yet without any detectable hint of lemon. For a real lemon chicken recipe, try the recipe from Rao’s Cookbook by Frank Pelligrino. Next to that what Churchill was serving was just plain ol’ chicken.  I should point out that the 2002 book Racing to the Table: A Culinary Tour of Sporting America contains a recipe for “Roased Lemon-Garlic Chicken Breasts with Lemon Sauce” which is attributed to the executive chef at Churchill Downs.  Having made this very tasty dish before, I can attest that it is not the same as what is currently being served at the track.

  • Mojo Pork served with Tortilla and Tomatillo

I’ve been on a southwestern culinary kick lately, so I was looking forward to this. Overall it was good, though very mild in the way you would expect food for a crowd to be. With the addition of some chile’s this could be a very good dish.

  • Native American Succotash served with Roasted Red Potatoes

Having run out of room on my plate, I skipped the succotash (even though it was visually very appealing) in favor a large helping of roasted red potatoes, which were very good. While I prefer my food a little on the spicy side, the potatoes were a good accompaniment to the meal.

  • Fruit Cobbler with Whipped Cream, Brownies and Spike Cake

The fruit cobbler was long gone by the time I made my way to the dessert table. The brownies provided a nice sweet ending to the afternoon (with a good helping of whipped cream spooned on top). The spice cake, however, was absolutely inedible, dry as a bone and tasting vaguely like sawdust.

  • Cocktails

Cocktail service runs all afternoon, and the bars at the Downs’ feature Mint Juleps and the Oaks Lilly. The latter is a creation of Brown-Forman, the global spirits company based in Louisville (they own Early Times, Old Forrester and Woodford Reserve). Created in 2006 for the Kentucky Oaks race for fillies run the day before the Derby, the Oaks Lilly is a combination of Finlandia Vodka (owned by BF of course), sweet and sour mix, cranberry juice and triple sec. It is, predictably, a hit with the ladies. The availability of mint juleps is a bit puzzling as most of the state only brings out this historic cocktail in springtime around the Derby. The truth is, most native Kentuckians won’t go near the drink. The surest way to identify a non-Kentuckian at the Derby is to look for anyone drinking a mint julep. The savvy race goers will forgo the mint and simple syrup and stick with the bourbon, preferable straight or on the rocks. A Woodford Reserve on the rocks will run you about $7.50 to $8 at Churchill, not unreasonable when you consider that most ballparks can’t serve you a beer for under $6. Of course, Kentucky is the home of bourbon, Woodford Reserve is one of the finest bourbons on the market, and WR’s parent company Brown Forman is located in Louisville. Charging any more for it would probably cause a revolt.

So, all in all, is Churchill Downs worth the trip for anything other than the Kentucky Derby? Absolutely. The Kentucky Derby Museum alone is worth a trip to Louisville. In my mind it is one of the most best and most historic of all sports museums. But as good as the food is compared to what it used to be six or seven years ago, here’s to hoping the kitchen steps up to the Triple Crown reputation the track and it’s guests deserve.

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