Commemorating the 5th Annual Bourbon Classic
Great Company, Exceptional Cuisine, Delectable Cocktails
All Photos ©Dawn GarciaMaker’s Mark is a memorable place to visit just as much as it is bourbon well worth sipping, so when we got to go there twice in one week? Well, let’s just say it is a wonderful way to discover Kentucky and embrace southern hospitality! While we did have a distillery tour with Bill Samuels, Jr. the day before, we were graciously invited back to dine with New Orleans Irishmen and Chef, Dickie Brennan, Jr. In true southern form, Dickie can only be described as a man you have to be around. His charm is undeniable, his passion for cooking, for bourbon, for New Orleans culture and his Irish roots make it something to behold. Put he and Bill in the same room? Well, you’ll be downright enamored!
Admittedly, this was the first time I’d met or knew of Dickie Brennan and his family’s New Orleans legacy. Here in Kentucky celebrating and engaging in the 5th Annual Bourbon Classic, getting to know him and his family’s cuisine, this was one of my favorite events. In the company of some rather versed spirit savants, I was graciously welcomed into a world I would soon become immensely fond of. I knew it was an honor that Dickie and his team were in town just for this dinner at Maker’s Mark by the sheer excitement of everyone attending the dinner. This would undoubtedly be a feast to remember.
So who was this chef everyone was so excited about? Quite an extraordinary man as it turns out. Dickie Brennan, Jr. comes from a family known throughout New Orleans and much of the culinary world. Dickie is known as one of the world’s most prominent restaurateurs beginning a career very early on under the tutelage of famed chefs like Paul Prudhomme, Larry Forgione and has since built his own legacy alongside his family namesake.
And on Wednesday evening at the Maker’s Mark Distillery, alongside Bill Samuels, Jr., and Seth Thompson (Bourbon Review + Bourbon Classic), Drew Franklin (Kentucky Sports Radio), Saša Muzga (Flaviar.com), and Tom Fischer (Bourbon Blog), we were treated to a dinner we won’t soon forget.
Before we can feast, we are invited to the main house for cocktails and tray passed hors d’ourvres. I remember thinking, if this is any indication of what we’re in store for at dinner, this is going to be something pretty damn tasty! We start with two trays composed of two different styles of meat atop cracked pepper flatbread crackers: One with a generous cut of meat marbled with a beautiful amount of fat, topped with a dijon spread and a fresh sage leaf. Next a piece of brioche topped with crab salad, and lastly, a deep fried oyster. The oyster was one of those decadent bites of gluttony you could devour were the platter left in front of you for longer than five seconds!
Handed a cocktail crafted by Beverage Director, Barry Himel, made at their New Orleans restaurant, Tableau (which turned 4 years old this month), it’s a refreshing palate cleanser. It tastes of citrus, the sweetness of caramel notes from the bourbon and a hint of herbaceous aromatics on the nose. It’s a drink you can enjoy whether the chill of winter has crept in through the window or the staunch of unrelenting heat dances around you on the front porch.
We are then invited to a distillery tour only this one would differ rather extensively from the one we had the day before. The difference? First, the sun has set and seeing the distillery at night is something rather magical. Second? There is a cocktail or fresh pour waiting for us behind almost every door we enter. Third? We would get to dip our very own bottles into the notorious red wax prominently known as the Maker’s Mark signature finish created by Margie Samuels. Christopher, who walked me through it all, has officially become the Laverne to my Shirley! Fourth? Every guest here has a story worth hearing and as we walk through the property, it’s a delight to learn about those who have traveled great distances just to be here. This evening is indeed a privilege to be a part of!
Once we return to the main house for dinner, the tables are set, smells from every ingredient cooking in the kitchen makes its way to us, and anticipation can be felt. Tonight Dickie and his culinary team (who just flew in after celebrating Mardi Gras) have prepared a menu featuring seafood from the Gulf and four courses of Creole staples. If scent were the gateway to provocation, let’s just say I’d be well on my way to swimming in the spices ruminating through the room, dancing all around me.
We open with a cocktail that begs you to let go of inhibition. Barry crafted this using rosemary simple syrup, lemon juice, cask bourbon and molé bitters. The result is refreshing, and something about the undertone of rosemary and lemon prepare your palate for the heartiness that’s about to follow.
To understand what an immersive dining adventure this is, all you have to do is look at the menu below with all the grand details that will make you salivate! But next on the cocktail agenda: They ease us into the Cask Bourbon. Sipping on that, food begins to pour out of the kitchen awaiting our beckoning appetites.
Ya-Ya is right as in, HELL YAH I’d like more! There is no eloquent way to describe the sheer depth of flavor that is culminating in this gumbo. With cayenne pepper traced subtly throughout and the richness of the base, it’s the andouille sausage that jumps onto my tongue and screams out in celebration.
As the essence of mardi gras lingers in the air, this is a dish that makes the bourbon go down even smoother.
While I’m not a big crawfish purveyor, the cornbread and sauce with this dish is something that unravels in a tangible tale. Cornbread is one of those tricky things that can either be overcooked and dry or too sweet to really maintain the composition of the focused ingredient of corn. This however was perfect. With traces of chervil, the cornbread is salted just so, with the right amount of butter combined with the base of the ragout, I found myself ordering extra pieces. What surprised me most were the fava beans. That’s a big deal for me to say since I grew up vehemently against the squishy legume. The texture was firm without being overtly flat or overdone and the richness of the sauce and ingredients really complimented the beans so now, if Dickie is cooking, I’m in!
Cast Iron Seared Strip Steak with Green Peppercorn Bourbon Au Poivre
The next statement is one I say with conviction: this is the best steak I’ve ever had. EVER. I’ve had Japanese wagyu, filet mignon whether in red wine reductions, delectable sauces, and everything in between – you name it – but the green peppercorn on this flawless medium rare cut of strip steak? This is utter refinement. This was a generous cut of steak and I didn’t leave a single bite on my plate! The steak was pink with the sear sealing in the peppercorn bourbon au poivre which invoked an almost sensual level of satisfaction in every single bite. The bourbon seeped effortlessly into the meat but its that outer rim you can only get from the heat of a cast iron skillet that locks in all of the juiciness you long for. Like silk against the skin, this nestles on the tongue in such a way that every time your teeth sink in, you pause and actually let out a moan of pleasure.
It was heaven!
Roasted Fingerling Sweet Potatoes
This was the accompaniment to the beautiful cast iron seared strip steak and what really brought it all together were the candied pecans prepared with the sweet potato fingerlings. You could eat these by the trough full …
Fire Pecan Butter
Nothing rounds out a hearty dinner like dessert. This tasty cut of pie was like biting into a sweet cloud with trails of heat to make sure you’re paying close attention. In other words, it was a beautiful finish. Couple that with the coffee concoction Barry created for us with New Orleans cold brew, dark extract, vanilla extract from Mexico, bourbon, orange juice and lemon and we were in a welcomed food and drink coma that would sustain us well into the wee hours.
After we all revel in the harmonious meal we just enjoyed, Dickie sneaks out of the kitchen to say hello to all of us. The room abounds with applause and rightfully so though as modest as he is, he insists it’s the team in the kitchen worthy of applause. Dickie and Bill express their gratitude for us being here and explain the way they came together. In their words, “Nothing goes better with bourbon than good ole New Orleans cuisine!” And they’d be right. Something about Maker’s Mark bourbon and the cuisine of this evening truly carry the other to its infinite level of taste and betterment.
This dinner was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Being in the company of so many wonderful people, eating fare that satisfies a hunger all too often overlooked, and doing so on a property that speaks untold decades of history and love, it only makes me want to start counting the days until next year’s Bourbon Classic!
A huge thank you to Seth and JT for including me in this beautiful and memorable week, to Lorraine for introducing me to this incredible city, to Bill Samuels, Jr. for his colorful and insightful storytelling and damn fine bourbon, and to Dickie Brennan, Jr. and his entire culinary team for awakening a desire within to head to New Orleans as soon as possible!
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More About Dickie Brennan, Jr.
One of the country’s preeminent restaurateurs, Dickie Brennan has spent his life in the hospitality industry. He began his career working under Paul Prudhomme at the Brennan family’s acclaimed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and went on to apprentice at Delmonico’s restaurant in Mexico City and An American Place in NYC under famed chef Larry Forgione. After spending time in France cooking in some of Paris’s most famous restaurants, Brennan returned home to open Palace Café with his family, becoming the restaurant’s executive chef after its first year of operation. With Brennan running the kitchen, Palace Café won several awards, including the title of Best New Restaurant from Esquire magazine. In 1998, with sister Lauren Brennan Brower and business partner Steve Pettus, he opened Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, which they followed a few years later with the equally acclaimed Bourbon House Seafood and Oyster Bar. Brennan is also co-author of Palace Café: The Flavor of New Orleans .
In honor of the legacy set forth by Dickie and Lauren’s father, Dick Brennan Sr. in the 1970s, Dickie Brennan & Company was established to continue the rich history of New Orleans cuisine through locally-inspired and nationally-recognized cuisine. Dickie Brennan’s restaurant group includes four restaurants located in New Orleans’ picturesque French Quarter: Palace Cafe, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Bourbon House, and Tableau.
Dickie Brennan, Owner and Managing Partner of Dickie Brennan & Company, is a trained chef and third generation New Orleans restaurateur of the renowned Brennan family. Growing up under the tutelage of esteemed Chef Paul Prudhomme, Dickie helped New Orleans institution Commander’s Palace lead the American Regional Cuisine movement by introducing the world to Cajun and Creole cooking. Along with Managing Partners Steve Pettus and Lauren Brennan Brower, Dickie is dedicated to serving modern and inventive Creole cuisine which builds upon the fundamentals established by Dick Brennan Sr.
Dick Brennan Sr. has had an immense role in shaping the restaurant group Dickie Brennan & Company is today. As the owner of Commander’s Palace, he recognized the sheer bounty that New Orleans had in terms of ingredients and talent. Why put almonds on fish, when pecans grow in Louisiana? Why hire a French chef, when we have extraordinary talent in our backyard? These were questions Dick Brennan Sr. posed, thus setting in motion the philosophy behind Dickie Brennan’s family of restaurants. Today, you’ll see many references to Dick Brennan Sr.’s contributions throughout the menus – from the oysters and Cajun caviar at Bourbon House to the Strip Steak at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
As an ambassador for New Orleans and its unique culture, Dickie, Steve and Lauren are avid supporters of local farmers and fisherman. Each of their restaurants accentuates Louisiana’s culinary history through the use of local ingredients and techniques. The entire team at Dickie Brennan & Company remains dedicated to delivering superior dining experiences through serving locally sourced, updated versions of classic New Orleans cuisine in their four French Quarter restaurants.