With contemporary restaurants focusing on comfort food, unhurried meals and mastering one simple ingredient, it’s surprising that Louisville’s culinary press has neglected one area eatery where all three trends intersect: the Paula Deen Buffet in Southern Indiana’s Horseshoe Casino. Got butter?
The 20-minute wait for a table at 6 p.m. on a Friday — which appeared to double by the time I hit the front of the line — testified to the hipness of this self-proclaimed “cutting-edge restaurant (that) features the Queen of Southern Cuisine’s down-home recipes in an upscale buffet environment.” Anthony Bourdain be damned; the 2010 opening in a down-market casino was clearly a welcome addition to the Elizabeth, Ind., community.
Friday night meant the regularly priced $20 dinner buffet had a seafood component, which was accompanied by an additional $8 charge. And paying up-front meant having to choose a drink before reviewing the entrées to contemplate pairings. So I selected a 2011 glass of Diet Pepsi (included with purchase). Clientele ranged from diners casually dressed in jean shorts to those sporting more formal full-length dungarees. As for the decor, local restaurateurs apparently have reclaimed all of the area’s dilapidated barns, leaving the buffet no old wood to rescue and fashion into tables.
Per classical buffet tradition, the cuisine was doled out in stations, including Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. The terseness of the dishes’ descriptions, however, was avant-garde Manhattan. (In the spring, New York magazine’s Approval Matrix declared an upscale eatery’s new 28-word menu the apex of both highbrow and brilliant.) At the Deen, catfish was described as just that, no mention of whether it was farm-raised or wild-caught. None of the diners seemed to miss having their dishes accompanied by the ingredients’ curriculum vitae.
This veteran of North Myrtle Beach and the Vegas Strip found the Deen placed nicely in the tradition of all-you-can-eat crab legs buffets. The fried green tomato did not suffer for a lack of fry, and area locavores will appreciate the buffet’s mini Hot Browns. Also consumed: frogs’ legs (taste like chicken!), an oyster that was reluctant to come out of its shell and butter in both melted and patty form.
The dessert station, named Little Jack’s Corner after Deen’s grandson, had about 20 different offerings. (Based on Deen’s children’s cookbook that lists cheesecake as a breakfast option, “Little” is likely one of those ironic-type nicknames.) I opted for the chocolate gooey cake over the “flavored gooey cake,” Mama having raised me not to eat mystery goo. The cake tasted similar to chocolate chip ice cream, only with a different texture, evoking either the molecular gastronomy pioneered at Spain’s elBulli or the astronaut ice cream sold at the Louisville Science Center. For a digestif, the viscosity from two fistfuls of gummy bears gave my stomach the coating it needed for an incident-free ride home.
Illustration by: Garrett McGill