I don’t generally consider it my place to tell a restaurant what to do. I’m a reporter, not a consultant. But after a dinner at the new restaurant Purple Poulet in Dayton, Ky., I’m full of advice. I found myself itching to take the place back to the drawing board. There’s a good restaurant here, if it could shed its fancy purple get-up.
I’d lose, for instance, the sorbet palate cleanser between courses. It’s an outdated, awkward fine-dining touch. I’d 86 the sweet, cake-like cornbread, especially the lemon-mint version. I’d serve more dishes on plain round plates instead of long restauranty ones. I would pour the sour mix down the drain and take most of the pickled onions out of the oyster po-boy. I’d actually take the white linens off the table – along with the bright purple linens, I’m afraid. I’d exchange some of the old signifiers of a fine dining experience with some newer, hipper ones. (Though there is some reclaimed barnwood in the decor.)
With that stripped away, the restaurant’s Southern-inspired, hearty food would shine through. The place would seem a lot more accessible and understandable. The very competent, relaxed wait staff would feel right at home. And the restaurant would fit into its Dayton, Kentucky, location more naturally. It already has a moderate price point. People might make the drive down Route 8 for the shrimp and grits alone.
But all that would be messing with the personal vision of the owners of The Purple Poulet. Rich Zumwalde and his wife Roxanne wanted a “nice,” but not fine-dining restaurant. They chose bright purple as a motif, carried out in table linens and the painted bar. There are pretty chandeliers, and substantial, comfortable furniture. A lot of care and detail has gone into the atmosphere. Zumwalde has been around local kitchens for many years. He owned the Milan Railroad Inn in Milan, Indiana, for a decade or so. The menu starts with the fried chicken he made there along with a long list of bourbon, and adds dishes that are appropriate on the same menu: shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, oysters, coconut cake. So it has a Southern/Kentucky/New Orleans theme, and gives the owner some scope.
Let’s start with that fried chicken. The dinner is four big pieces, served with smooth, genuine mashed potatoes studded with bacon, and perfectly cooked green beans: comfortably soft, still green and fresh. The chicken is southern Indiana style, with a crisp flour crust, nice and crunchy, the flesh moist but not brined into unnatural softness. The gravy is classic Indiana, seasoned with black pepper.
There are several other chicken dishes like coq au vin, Kentucky style. It’s a delicious stew, with a heady wine sauce, underlaid with some sweeter hints of bourbon, plenty of mushrooms and bacon, served on grits Flavorful stew dishes like this don’t show up in restaurants often enough.
The shrimp and grits are served on a long plate, with about 6 shrimps hidden in a dark sauce studded with bacon and andouille on top of substantial but creamy grits. The “red-eye ganache,” part of the menu description, sounds like a random made-up name, but something makes this dish delicious.
An oyster po-boy comes on a 16 Bricks hoagie bun, with fried oysters nestled inside. There’s a lot of pickled onions – Zumwalde does house-made pickles – so that between the bread, the breading and the onions, it’s hard to taste the oysters. The dominant flavor is the cloves from the onion pickling spice. The fries on the side were limp.
That was the entry course, mostly quite successful. The meal hadn’t started out quite as well. There’s a list of bourbons and bourbon cocktails. They’re fancy cocktails, but not craft. I have gotten used to natural ingredients in cocktails, and the harsh taste of sour mix in my drink was a reminder of the bad old cocktail days. But you have plenty of choices if you just want to try bourbon straight-up from the long list. There are flights if you’re interested in comparative tasting.
Whatever the drink, the Creole bar nuts are a good snack with it: pecans with a lightly sweet and spicy coating. The country ham biscuit appetizer was built on a sort of doughy biscuit, with a lot of rather sweet peaches overpowering the country ham. Sweet potato fritters were good, creamy inside, bacon. There are also oyster dishes; we had the “our favorite,” the oysters raw but warmed, with a gratin of parmesan on the top.
I just have to object to cornbread that is indistinguishable from cake. In vain, apparently. In 20 years of reviewing restaurants, I can only remember one example of cornbread made by someone who shares my opinion. The regular cornbread is sweet and soft enough, but the sweeter one flavored with mint and lemon was kind of terrible.
As I said, the service here is very good. Roxanne Zumwalde is a polished and welcoming hostess. Our server was patient and natural, not too wordy. Somehow, her “very good!” after each person ordered something felt genuine, not sales-y.
Everything we ate was quite rich. I don’t know if you noticed how many dishes include bacon. Dessert seemed an impossibility. But four of us were able to eat half of one dessert: a coconut cake of 11 layers, if you count the cake and the rich, coconut-packed filling. That I’d keep.
Where: 603 Sixth Ave., Dayton, Ky.
When: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Appetizers $6-$14; entrees $16-$24
Vegetarian options: A few: pimiento cheese, egg biscuit, salads, one changing entrée
Reservations: Taken, not necessary