For more than a year the hot ticket for culinary fans has been across the Ohio River in Burlington, Kentucky. In an historic 1822 house at the center of the Boone County seat, Chef and Owner Kristy Schalck has established the Tousey House as a standard for southern cuisine and unrelenting quality. With limited seating and open only three days per week, Kristy personally oversees every aspect of the restaurant including shopping for only locally produced ingredients. As Derby Day was fast approaching this became the first stop in 2003 for the Cincinnati chapter of l’Ordre Mondial Gourmets Dégustateurs.
After our greeting by hostess Shannon, we entered the intimate barroom where glasses of Charles Heidsieck “Mis en Cave” 1996 Brut Champagne awaited thirsty travelers. This champagne has caused a bit of controversy by being a non-vintage but still putting a date on the label. Originally this was described as the disgorgement date and now is given as the cellar release date. Whether this has any significance or is a marketing gimmick may be a matter for debate, but there is no argument surrounding the rich creamy body and full mousse. To accompany this elixir was catfish pâté, approaching the form of a quiche, which was taken upon fried green tomatoes with a choice of sweet or raspberry mustards. Additionally a traditional Benedictine was transformed into canapés with sliced cucumber on pecan-raisin toast point topped with country ham.
At the bar we sampled Woodford Reserve Bourbon, well known by horse racing fans as the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Woodford Reserve is the state’s number one selling super-premium bourbon, quickly outselling more established brands that have been in the market for years. The Master Distiller selects only barrels whose whiskey had shown superior maturation qualities in their initial years. These select barrels are then moved to the 100-year-old stone warehouses at the Labrot & Graham Distillery to finish their maturation. In recommending Labrot & Graham as a National Historic Landmark, the National Park System Advisory Board said in 2000: “As the birthplace of Bourbon in the 1830’s, this site illustrates, like no other property, the history of Bourbon distillation in Kentucky. Of all Kentucky distilleries, Labrot & Graham is closely associated with the development of Bourbon as a distinctive Kentucky alcoholic beverage and the one that became the leading export of the United States.” We enjoyed this with locally produced country cheddar cheese, which proved a perfect match and enhanced the sweet qualities of the bourbon.
We then moved to the main dining room and its mix of Victorian décor with contemporary paintings from local artist Roger Pelton. At our seats we started with a comparison of two pinot noirs, 1998 Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny followed by 2000 Witness Tree Vineyard Select Oregon Pinot Noir. Drouhin is one of the largest negotiants in Burgundy and has a deep catalog of fine wines, presented here with an example featuring smoky depth. Witness Tree is one of many quality small producers of Oregon pinot noir and recent vintages have grown in stature to be among the best that America has to offer. Well liked by the group, the expansive ripe fruit body seemed better suited for the sautéed shrimp in mushroom bourbon sauce, which was rich, sweet, and very creamy.
Our palates were given respite with a very fresh salad of baby Bibb lettuce, chives, and Champagne roasted strawberries. Then it was time to dive into the main course of bourbon barrel smoked suckling pig! We had thought that the centerpiece was to become our meal but chef Kristy had a second suckling pig at the ready so not to disturb the table display. This time the duel of wines was between syrah of France and shiraz of Australia. One glass held 1998 Rosemount “Mountain Blue” Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon while the second presented 1998 Jaboulet Hermitage “La Chapelle” to the appreciative guests. We were hard pressed to find a favorite between the elegance and very approachable earthiness from the Jaboulet and the berry fruit and cedar notes from the very aromatic Rosemount. The suckling pig was complemented by cabbage and raspberry slaw, heirloom potatoes, and hard cider mustard with a slight bitterness to enhance the food combination. Topped by a flourish of sweet potato chips, this dish brought comfort food to a new level of sophistication.
As a finish for the evening we were given a choice of desserts. The signature Tousey House poppy seed short cake with bourbon strawberries and mascarpone crème fraîche was matched by a chocolate ganache and Bavarian cream cake, but once again chef Kristy surpassed herself with the premier of her blueberry buttermilk chess pie with pecan-walnut crust and huckleberry sauce. This was a dish that acted as a journey through time and space for more than a few diners. Taking a constitutional proved fortunate for a few who found their way back by the bar, where Kristy’s husband Dan shared some extremely rare bourbon bottled in 1974 by the closed A.H. Hirsch distillery. Although Kentucky wines have yet to gain any recognition, the native state libation came in many forms through our evening and provided a warm welcoming atmosphere at the relaxed hospitality of the Tousey House and the modest perfection of culinary expertise from Kristy Schalck.
J.T. Mayer, Vice Chargé de Presse