Murphin Ridge Inn
Go: 750 Murphin Ridge Road, West Union
Hours: Dinner 5:30-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (Reservations recommended)
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, pasta, seafood
I've always felt that Cincinnati is a closed realm, disconnected from its environs, an island unto itself. Venture out past the I-275 ring, beyond the malls and proliferating subdivisions, and you'll find a completely different world: mile after mile of rolling hills, countless white barns and small, apple pie American towns.
For an intriguing taste of this nearby rural Ohio landscape, head east on Route 32. A little over an hour out of Cincinnati, you'll find yourself in the midst of Ohio's bucolic Adams County.
This is Amish Country. In little towns like Unity, Seaman and West Union you'll find neat-as-a-pin white houses and farms, horse-drawn buggies on the roads and a sudden concentration of businesses selling wooden furniture and bulk foods.
It's also here where you'll find the Murphin Ridge Inn, nestled in rolling country where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains begin to poke up out of the flat plains of the Midwest. The award-winning inn (it was selected by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 54 inns in America) serves inspired regional cuisine in an 1800s Virginia-style brick farmhouse. It's well worth a trip for solid country cooking and a refreshing change of air and scenery.
Overseeing the kitchen at Murphin Ridge is Jackson Rouse, most recently Executive Chef of the Iron Horse Inn in Glendale.
Rouse brings a real focus on seasonal and local produce, which he uses to create some interesting twists on Southern regional cooking.
Our entrées came with salads and choice of soup. There were no appetizers on the somewhat minimalist menu, which had just six entrées. My Beef and Vegetable Soup was a rich tasting broth with a nice balance of chunks of beef and bits of vegetable. My companion's Lobster Bisque, although flavorful, was a bit too salty and dense.
For my entrée, I took the advice of our server and ordered the Country Captain Chicken ($24). I enjoyed Murphin Ridge's twist on this classic Southern dish. The pan-seared chicken breast was moist and richly flavored with a sauce of currants, tomato, peppers, scallions and mango chutney in a coconut almond crust.
My companion had Red Dog's Red Eye Steak ($30), named for the Murphin Ridge's enthusiastic canine mascot who romps around the property entertaining guests. The aged Black Angus 12 oz. strip steak was crusted with spices and topped with Maytag blue cheese-stuffed cherry tomatoes. It came with delicious Vidalia onion rings and was nicely accented with white truffle oil.
The steak was of good quality and well presented, but the spice crust was a bit too much, overpowering the flavor of the meat.
We also sampled one of the evening's specials, Rainbow Trout with Lemon Aioli ($26), which ended up being the meal's standout entrée. The fish was moist and flavorful, perfectly cooked and seasoned with generous amounts of fresh herbs straight from Murphin Ridge's abundant garden. The freshness and pungency of the freshly picked herbs truly elevated this dish.
For dessert, we had the rich Chocolate Pot ($5). Smooth and creamy, it was like decadent chocolate pudding. The Berry Crisp ($5), made with raspberries and blueberries, was less of a success. Thin and syrupy, it was very sweet, with too much sugar drowning out the natural flavor of the fresh, seasonal berries.
We washed everything down with cold glasses of Murphin Ridge's homebrewed raspberry iced tea and a bottle of my favorite local wine, Cincinnati winemaker Chip Emmerich's Purple Trillium.
Service was basic and efficient but by no means elaborate or pampering. The interior of the restaurant is somewhat spartan, with the feel of a simple, time-worn country tavern.
After dinner, my guests and I went for a stroll in the gathering twilight. It was a beautiful, late-summer evening and there was a crowd starting to gather around the fire pit. Lights were popping on in the Amish-built wooden guest cabins that dot the property (the inn has 142 acres of rolling woodland and farmland).
We wandered past the vegetable gardens and onto the tennis courts, where we picked up some racquets and started whacking balls around like overgrown kids. It was a magical night.
After talking to some Murphin Ridge regulars, it's clear that the place's real beauty shines through after roosting there for a few days -- far from city life, enjoying the rhythm of the natural world, savoring meal after meal from the inn's country kitchen. It's also known for absolutely wonderful breakfasts.
If you can't make it out to Murphin Ridge for an entire weekend, it's still plenty easy to get there and back for dinner. Pick a nice fall weekend and plan a trip into rural Ohio for a pleasant, country cooking getaway. ©