Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College Review – One Bite Tells You Why It’s Called “Kentucky Pride”

 

Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College’s Executive Chef David Poulton shares that he loves to come to work every day.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding…

 

 

A veteran of high-end kitchens of all types—caterers, resorts, hotels, big city big name restaurants from Atlanta, to Nashville, to Detroit’s high-end suburbs and beyond—Poulton has found a happy home in the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College.  He came to the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College last year, and has been so satisfied with the plusses he finds in Boone Tavern that he quickly decided to sink deep roots in the community, buying a farm and settling his family (wife and 11-year old daughter, his third child and only one still remaining at home) into Kentucky country living.

 

Perhaps it is Poulton’s background of growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that helps tell the story of why this chef who could probably write a job ticket just about anywhere has decided that Boone Tavern is where he wants to be.  During his high school years, Bethlehem, a working class steel town, was in the throes of downsizing and he, like every other kid in town, was very aware that when payday came it could mean the pink slip for his Dad or one of his friend’s fathers.  Poulton understands what life is like when you are born without a golden spoon.  Because the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College is a financial resource for Berea College, helping the school to provide a tuition-free education for very bright but underprivileged Appalachian students, Chef Poulton, like others at the school, knows he is working for a cause.  Poulton says, “Here you feel like you are working on something more important than the corporate dollar.  I feel this when I meet people at Trustee dinners or special events at the President’s house.  There’s a meaning behind what we do and it makes it into the kind of job you want to go to every day..”

 

 

Truth to tell, for a chef such as Poulton, the bounty of the nearby Kentucky farms and the freedom he is given to experiment with local ingredients to bring a gourmet flare to the menu also is quite a draw.  Donna Robertson, Marketing Director for the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College, shares that Poulton’s love of using local ingredients was no small part in why the school wanted to hire him.  The school itself, with student workers, brings livestock and produce from the school’s own farms to be used in the restaurant.  What the school doesn’t provide directly is sourced locally with nearly everything on the menu brought in by local farmers and part of the “Kentucky Pride” brand.  Poulton says that it took some adjusting at first for a high-end chef such as himself who has previously mainly done business with food purveyor intermediaries instead of farmers.  That said, as Poulton tells of how he finds ingredients from locals you get the feeling that for him stocking his kitchen is akin to winning the lottery.  For example, he told us, “The other day a little old lady comes to my door and says she has something she wants me to see.  I followed her to her car and she opens the trunk to show me the most beautiful peppers I’d every seen.  She didn’t know what to do with what she thought of as surplus and asked me for just $20 for the whole load.  I couldn’t believe it!  I bought them all, giving her more than she asked for because it was simply the best product.  I see this all the time—farmers bringing me cob corn, berries, more—always the best products.”

 

While big city chefs elsewhere find it fashionable to say their kitchen is locavore Poulton never says that.  Yet, the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College seems to be one of the most locavore gourmet restaurants around, very much in keeping with the LEED green hotel to which they are attached. 

 

That means that what the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College serves you is especially seasonal.  Knowing how delicious we found the food in the dead of winter when ingredients are relatively harder to come by, it translated to us as the best commercial possible to make a return trip in the height of summer and fall harvests.

 


 

Our favorite dish in the sampling menu was the “Fall Apple Pork Chop”.  This was a very thick cut pork chop cooked to tender perfection. The contrasting sour mustard greens and somewhat chewy sweet potato gnocchi accompaniments, with “Harvest Apple Confit” made this one dish into what seemed to be several tasty dishes that varied depending on how you combined the pork with the fixin’s on your plate.

 


 

That same exquisite quality of seeming to be more than one dish depending on how you combined it, was also in the “Fried Green Tomato Wedges”, where the inside heirloom tomatoes tasted sweeter because of the buttermilk crunchy breading surrounding it.  Better yet these wedges were accompanied with both an onion aioli and peppered cherry jam that just teased your mouth with contrasts of flavors.

 


 

“Kentucky Roasted Lamb” was an especially hearty dish and very satisfying on a cold 20 degree temps day for Berea.  We were struck by how the lamb didn’t overpower the many flavors on the plate but yet was always the enduring last taste in your mouth.

 


 

It was the goat cheese in the “Butter Lettuce” salad that stood out—and favorably—in this assortment of lettuce, pumpkin seeds, roasted apples and a blackberry vinaigrette.

 


 

A dish that would appeal to comfort food lovers and a holdover from the Tavern’s previous chef is the “Chicken Flakes in a Birds Nest”.  This was something like a chicken pot pie with a surround of something akin to crisp, salty potato stick type garnish (i.e. the nest).  This dish has been on the menu for decades and in fact when coupled with the more adventurous dishes on the menu from Poulton’s touch reminds you that Boone Tavern has been quite a success story for nearly a century.

 

Don’t skip the spoonbread, a wonderful corn soufflé that is served to you tableside, often by a smiling Berea College student who is working in the restaurant.  Every day the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College consumes between 400 – 600 eggs to bring this signature dish to each table.

 

 

What’s new on the menu is wine—and Kentucky bourbons.  It was only Fall, 2014 when Berea College got special dispensation to serve spirits in what is otherwise a dry city.  The malbec we sampled was delicious and during breakfast the next day we spotted many of the better wines we’ve sampled in Chicago adorning the restaurant’s display shelves.

 

 

If we had been 30 miles north in Lexington the “Racer’s Pie” we had for dessert—a confection of pecan pie laced with chocolate topped with whipped cream and a strawberry—would be called Derby Pie.  Whatever you call it, it certainly will make anyone tasting it have a very difficult time either skipping dessert or choosing another one upon a return to the restaurant.

 

And return we will for sure, as I think anyone else who does periodic trips from Midwest to Southeast would.  This is a destination restaurant for many in Kentucky and its surrounding states.  It may attract or keep the best staff because of the wonderful Berea College cause that it supports.  However, the food speaks for itself and loudly– local ingredients prepared with a gourmet flare, simply delicious. 

 

Visit the Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College web pages.

 

Historic Boone Tavern of Berea College

Berea, Kentucky

 

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Photos:  Peter Kachergis unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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