One doesn’t usually expect to find a café in the woods, but Isaac’s Café at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Ky., makes for a welcome oasis.
Since it opened in 1950, Bernheim Forest, as it was formerly called, has been connecting people with nature through a number of programs, hiking trails, history and more. And since Bernheim opened its Edible Garden in 2014, Isaac’s has become a place inside where one can find fresh, local food. Sure, you can still bring your own sandwiches to the park, but this isn’t Wonder Bread and bologna.
The sandwiches, salads and soups offered at Isaac’s are made with many of the ingredients grown just a few yards away in the Edible Garden, blended with locally sourced meat, bread, condiments and more. There’s even local soda, not to mention ice cream from Homemade Ice Cream & Pie Kitchen for dessert.
And if you’re looking for packaged local goods, you can find that as well, from Kentucky Proud apple butter to sauces, pickles, honey, spices and others. Of course, if you’re there, you’ll want to try the café’s food — and I say this because I finally did, and it’s top-notch.
After ordering at the main counter from a menu posted on the wall — there is also a whiteboard with specials, which, on this day, included chicken salad as well as vegetable soup — we sat on the adjoining deck during our visit and were lucky it was a sunny and warm afternoon in early spring.
The menu at Isaac’s is ever-changing based on what’s ripening in the garden, which grows a multitude of crops such as squash, peppers, roasted eggplant, beets, sweet potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, basil and more. Each week a new special is offered based on what’s available; for instance, the week of March 28, the special is potato leek soup and gourmet grilled cheese. Weekly specials are always $5.95.
Kathy Hart is in charge of making sure the Edible Garden translates to offerings at the café, and she loves to talk about her job.
“It’s really fun being able to take what’s in the garden and use it through the café,” she says, adding that the ever-increasing focus of the café is to work in tandem with the garden. In addition, an educational series brings information to those interested in knowing more how to achieve local sustainability.
She says a class on April 9 will teach attendees about exploring the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
“We’re trying to kind of marry the café with the Edible Garden and the education,” she says.
There were quite a few parties there when my trio arrived, some eating in and some getting their food to go, so it took a while for our food to be prepared. Don’t be in a hurry if you go to Isaac’s, because the staff is working in a tiny kitchen space and making everything to order, so if it’s a busy lunchtime, it may take a few minutes. Browse the information center, stroll to the garden or simply enjoy the deck while you wait for them to call your name or track you down.
In fact, they said they would call my name, but they ended up bringing the food to our table, which was a nice surprise. Our food was presented on basic, square plates and garnished with a few carrot slices and a triangle of cantaloupe. My girlfriend Cynthia had ordered a sandwich called the Nutty Bird, while I chose a Grilled Chipotle Turkey Wrap. Since they were both pre-cut in half, we did a mix-and-match trade for the sake of variety.
The Nutty Bird, a café staple, features thin-sliced smoked turkey, lettuce, bacon, locally sourced Norwood cheese, sunflower seeds and house-made sauce, all on local sourdough bread. The thick sandwich was not only delicious from the first bite, but the word I took down in my notes was that it tasted “clean.” Moments later, Cynthia uttered the same word in describing the sandwich. In addition to the interesting flavor profile, I also enjoyed the texture and the crunch added by the sunflower seeds.
My wrap was stuffed with vegetables from the garden (notably yellow pepper), smoked turkey, black beans and corn, shredded cheddar cheese and mild chipotle dressing in a lightly grilled veggie tortilla. Much like the Nutty Bird, the wrap had a freshness to it that jumped out and a similar crunch thanks to the fresh vegetables that were, well, grown just a few feet away.
Cynthia’s son Nikolai got a PB&J (without the jelly, so really just a PB) on wheatberry bread and a bag of Zapp’s chips. He’s a big eater, but the sandwich was about an inch-and-a-half thick, so, armed with chips and the fresh-made lemonade, his 10-year-old belly was happy.
Just like the weekly specials, the menu rotates with the seasons and what’s available. There’s plenty to like on the current menu, from the Lone Wolfe (a Reuben of sorts with pastrami, Swiss, shredded cabbage and horseradish thousand island) to the kale salad with roasted sweet potatoes. Best of all, nothing is over $7.95. There is plenty of cool soda available, as well, from Ale-8 to Fitz’s Cardinal Cream.
Isaac’s Café is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily during spring and summer months. You can order ahead by calling 502-955-8512, ext. 181.