Holly Hill Inn, Midway, Kentucky
I'm a displaced Southerner, so the holidays mean going home. I love New York and feel at home here, but my husband and I use the phrase "heart home" to refer to those places that will always be home regardless of where we live. Kentucky is my heart home, and a tiny railroad town named after its own placelessness -- Midway -- is its hearth.
It is strange to return to Midway each year and see how it has grown. When a one-stop-light town changes, it may do so gradually, but those changes are all the more visible. According to Sperling's Best Places, Midway's population grew by almost 32% between 1990 and 2014. Today, as a result of that growth, a whopping 1,706 people call Midway home. With a relatively new subdivision on the north side of town, along with a new elementary school, gas station, and McDonald's by the interstate, the town is a more vibrant, bustling version of the one I grew up in. It is still, however, very much the Midway of my youth: a patchwork of horse farms, a smattering of churches (nine, to be exact), and waves from everyone you pass on the street -- whether you know them or not.
The most notable change is the renaissance along Main Street. When I was very young (in the 1980s), I would go to the ice cream shop with my parents and get a Superman cone. It was a special multicolored treat, one I was surprised I couldn't order anywhere else when that shop closed. Eventually, most of the shops and restaurants on this block closed down. The freight trains still chugged through a few times a day, but there were few lights on to greet them. Dining out meant going to Lexington, half an hour away, or to Versailles or Frankfort for more casual options.
Commerce did begin to return to the tiny area, perhaps fueled by (and then, in turn, fueling) the influx in population when the new development was complete. Today, it's easy to spend an entire afternoon browsing fashions, homegoods, books, jewelry, antiques, gifts, locally-made crafts and art. And several restaurants call Midway home now, including bars and finer options.
A constant, however, has been Holly Hill Inn. Holly Hill Inn was a bed and breakfast when I was younger, but now is operated solely as a restaurant by owner Ouita Michels. Michel's web site reports that she bought Holly Hill in 2000, opening in 2001. As long as I can remember, the beautiful house on the hill has been associated with gracious hospitality and delicious food. We recently enjoyed a holiday lunch there, and I'm happy to report that that tradition is as strong as ever.
Reservations are essential. We were there for the holiday prix fixe, which includes three courses for $22. Additional starters and drinks are available. We were expecting to be able to purchase holiday cocktails, but they weren't offered at this meal so we instead enjoyed sparkling wine and chardonnay. All of Michel's restaurants focus on fresh, local ingredients, and those were on full display in this thoughtfully planned meal.
We chose to add Lisa's famous deviled eggs as a starter. The mustard in the creamy yolks was very prominent and bright, and set the tone for the rest of the meal. The eggs were from Stone Fall Farm in Winchester, Kentucky, not far from Midway. We chose the cranberry ambrosia and the warm wishes salad as our first courses. The ambrosia was sweet (flirting with too-sweet), but that was balanced with the candied orange peels that foreshadowed dessert. The salad had a mouthwatering tartness from its herbs, which was balanced by the fresh grapefruit and pomegranate arils. It was lightly dressed with a honey orange vinaigrette.
For our entrees, I selected the pan fried pork chop while my husband had the gently cooked salmon. I loved the flavor combination on my plate. The pork chop was lightly breaded and topped with cinnamon apples. The mustard sauce recalled the deviled eggs and made my cheeks tingle a little with the first bite. The potatoes and haricots rounded out a very satisfying dish that certainly felt like a holiday meal without being over-the-top.
The salmon was less to my taste, however. While cooked perfectly, the flavor pairing with the apple sauce wasn't as successful as the apple-pork combination. The apples actually overpowered the more subtle salmon.
I finished my meal with the Kentucky jam cake with caramel icing, while Dhrubo chose the gingerbread-scented panna cotta with pumpkin seed brittle. My jam cake was dense with a slight tartness and nutty crunch. The arils provided a fitting symmetry with my first-course salad, and the cake was the epitome of a holiday treat. It was a bit heavy, having just finished the pork chop entree, but I was in the mood to indulge and I enjoyed every bite.
The panna cotta was distinctly gingerbread, and the orange peels and candied nuts synthesized the flavors from throughout the meal. This lighter dessert option actually made me feel a little like I was eating bites of the gingerbread house itself. This was a thoughtful nod to the nostalgia that makes holiday meals so special.
Michels owns several other restaurants in central Kentucky, two of which are in or very near Midway and are much more casual than Holly Hill Inn. They are nonetheless just as delicious; Wallace Station on Old Frankfort Pike is a destination itself, especially in warmer months when you can enjoy your country ham and egg sandwich or breakfast burrito outside on the spacious deck. Our holiday visits see us there almost daily. The Hell-a-rito, pictured below, features sausage, eggs, potatoes, a fiery hot sauce (I always ask for extra, and I always leave with delightfully tingling lips), and a chipotle mayo. It's breakfast (and fire) in a wrap, and every day should start with one. Wallace Station also serves baked goods from Midway Bakery, another Michels location, which is housed in what used to be my elementary school cafeteria. If it is possible for someone to be a regular at a restaurant that is 724 miles away, this describes our relationship with Wallace Station; the super-friendly staff there make such a fondness easy.
I have the distinct privilege of calling Midway my heart home. Here, one catches glimpses of hospitality writ large: it's in the smile of a stranger; it's in the way the farmers cultivate a relationship with the land and with their communities; it's in the way an appreciation for that work shines through in clean preparations and thoughtful flavor combinations. In an imperfect world, where kindnesses are often cynically construed as vulnerabilities, how refreshing it is to enjoy a meal that reminds you that hospitality is not so much a set of manners as a complete worldview.
Holly Hill Inn
426 North Winter Street
Midway, KY 40347
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