As you sit by the fire in one of the Tousey House’s dining rooms, you can almost feel the energy of the last 186 years, the life span of this Kentucky federal-style home.
The two-story red brick house with sprawling porches, lazy palm-leaf ceiling fans and white whicker couches perfect for sharing fried green tomatoes and mint juleps, is a rare find only 20 minutes from downtown. With dark polished hardwood floors, fireplaces, white tablecloths and a winding oak staircase that takes guests to a second dining level, the Tousey House makes you feel like you’re dining with the Southern gentry.
Judging from the guests, you might very well be. These are folks who dress up to go out to eat, have Southern accents and impeccable manners, drink their Maker’s Mark with just a little water and generally have more than one. While voices never become too loud and always stay polite, by 10 p.m. on a Saturday night it’s clear that some parties are blessed to still be at the table rather than under it.
Before the Wainscott family reopened the Tousey House as a restaurant and tavern in July, it had been many things to many people. When it was first built in 1822 by Erastus Tousey, who bought the Burlington, Ky., land for a mere $25, it housed four slaves in addition to Erastus and his wife Catharine.
While all the slaves gained freedom before the war, after the death of Erastus, according to some written accounts, they stayed on with Catharine long after the war ended. It is easy to imagine then that the same smells of barbecue, molasses and ham that now waft through the dining room were an integral part of their lives.
The rooms are full of servers dressed in white and black, bustling from table to table and recommending an extensive wine list, including the beautiful clove and rose-petaled Echelon Pinot Noir ($7), which I ordered and very much enjoyed. It was the perfect partner to the smell of wood smoke and the sweet, doughy Southern Lobster and Corn Fritters ($9.25) that were our first appetizer.
Surprisingly, Pinot Noir also goes well with Kentucky Beer Cheese ($6.95) — though the cheese was a little disappointing because it was served cold, but still satisfying with the can’t-go-wrong flavors of sharp cheddar and beer. (We never did find out which beer, but it was beer nonetheless.)
While The Tousey House was out of the special — the Macadamia-Encrusted Mahi-Mahi — that my dining partner and I wanted to try, we settled for the Atlantic Salmon ($22.25) and Alaskan Halibut ($24.95). When I say settle, I’m being a bit ironic, given the fact that fresh-caught Atlantic and Alaskan fish, that is refreshingly not farm-raised, is hardly settling.
Served gratinee style and baked to a golden brown with crabmeat, artichoke hearts and parmesian, the Halibut was thick but not dense and light and buttery — a melt-in-your-mouth fish. While my dining partner was in a moral quandary over ordering the Atlantic salmon, because these salmon are over-fished, his ethics seemed to disappear when he tasted the salmon’s clear flavor and the sweet smokiness of the chili powder and molasses glaze.
By the end of our meal, we almost felt as if we’d consumed more than Southern food and hospitality; we’d experienced part of a historical era, devouring the sweet and bitter history and earthiness of Southern cuisine. Despite some mistakes — the crispy green bean casserole was cold when it arrived, and the mashed potatoes were at room temperature — both the meal and the service were ideal.
And when we shared our issues with our server — who swore it was her first night though we never believed her — she responded by giving us a free dessert: a chocolate mousse that was soft, sweet, and airy. It was the perfect finish to an exceptional September evening.
Go: 5963 North Jefferson St., Burlington
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood
Accessibility: Fully accessible