Kansas Town

There had already been a lot of buzz around Kansas Town when we walked in the door with friends a couple of weeks ago. So I was a bit surprised to find that we were the only diners. Though others filtered in during the course of the evening, after our dinner there it’s surprising to me that it’s not packed every night.Kansas Town

It occupies the space where Macaluso’s restaurant sat for decades, a corner that has seen many a restaurant come and go since it closed. Owner Mike Bechtel, who has no prior restaurant experience, is a congenial guy who was more than happy to answer our endless flow of questions after he seated us. He explained that the restaurant’s name came from what Kansas City was called when our city was founded, and is a nod to the area’s history. Federal Reserve Bank chef and Uberdine pop-up owner Joe Shirley consulted on the menu and found Chef Garrett Kaspar to man the kitchen on a nightly basis. Judging from the quality and artistry of each dish, it’s clear that Kaspar is one talented guy.Kansas Town

The chef started us off with a personally delivered amuse-bouche, frozen tuna sashimi with wasabi crystals surrounded by dots of kimchee puree. Tuna amuse bouche--Kansas TownHe instructed us to let the tuna melt on our tongues before chewing, which was an interesting and unique sensation. We order two appetizers for the table. The first was a beet tarte tatin; gorgeous layers of beets with crispy kale chards, sour cream, and buttons of carrots. The other was the flatbread of the day, a riff on banh mi with chicken liver pate, braised pork and veggies. The flatbread itself was a bit doughy, but was otherwise a successful creation.Beet Tarte Tatin--Kansas TownBanh Mi flatbread--Kansas Town

The menu is not well-organized. It’s just a list of all the dishes that can be ordered, without a break to delineate between apps, main courses and desserts. I originally thought the best way to decipher it was by looking at the prices, but the squid I ordered was considered an entree despite the fact that it wasn’t appreciably more expensive than most of the appetizers. In the end I just went with what the server told us, which is not very efficient. I very much enjoyed my squid which was prepared sous vide, and served over white grits, tomato, chorizo and kale, but it was a rather small portion compared to the other dishes that came to the table. My husband had pappardelle with braised pork and tomato sauce, which was hearty and delicious, especially because the pasta was house made. The risotto with red wine and mushrooms was also a hit, as was the trout, which was served over a winter vegetable salad of primarily roasted root vegetables.Squid with chorizo and kale over grits--Kansas TownPappardelle with Braised Pork--Kansas TownRed wine and mushroom risotto--Kansas TownTrout over Winter Vegetable Salad==Kansas Town

Of the four dishes, the first four were $13 or under, and the trout was $17. There’s currently a beef checks and quinoa dish on the menu at $20, but that’s the most expensive entrée. I’ve read that the restaurant is overpriced, a comment I don’t understand given the quality and nature of each dish. Kaspar sensed our interest in the food (and saw that I was taking photos), and sent out a dessert that he said he whipped up for us that was not on the menu, a coffee cheese cake of sorts that we had no trouble demolishing.Coffee Cheesecake--Kansas Town

I think there’s somewhat of a disconnect between the decor and the artistry of the dishes coming out of the kitchen, but it’s a very congenial spot. It’s not a place to linger however, as the wooden chairs get a bit hard after a time. My biggest concern is the service which, while well-meaning and ernest, needs to be polished. A full-on training needs to take place to do justice to the chef’s efforts. If the service issues are addressed, Kansas Town has major potential, and could finally be the restaurant that exorcises Macaluso’s ghost.

Kansas Town on Urbanspoon

The NoMad Hotel Dining Room–New York City

Anyone who reads my blog or listens to me on the KCUR Food Critics show knows that my husband doesn’t like to spend a lot of money on “fancy” restaurant meals. So it was with some trepidation that I booked a table at The NoMad hotel in New York to celebrate my son’s birthday last month. I had heard it was a beautiful space and, since we hadn’t been to Eleven Madison Park where owner/chef Daniel Humm made his name, I figured this would be a way to experience Humm’s cuisine on a less formal scale. Not inexpensive by any stretch, but less so than the $195 multi-course meal at EMP.

The dining area is divided into 4 very distinct rooms–The Atrium (the largest and loudest), the Library (a gorgeous bar that serves light snacks), the Parlour (smaller than the atrium but still humming), and the Fireplace (the smallest and quietest). Each room is gorgeous, but I asked for a quiet room in advance because I wanted to be able to have real conversation rather than having to shout across the table. We lucked out and got a table in the five table Fireplace room. I don’t  know if they have a real fire in the winter, but this was summer and the fireplace was filled with candles to create a lovely glow.

Corn with corn cream--The Nomad

My husband was so impressed with the service throughout the evening that he didn’t complain about the hefty bill. Everyone who came by our table (and there were many) had been beautifully trained to provide smooth, knowledgeable and friendly service, not a surprise really since Eleven Madison Park was originally a Danny Meyer restaurant, so Daniel Humm learned hospitality at the knee of a master. But it did elevate the evening beyond the enjoyment of a good meal.

Fluke--The Nomad

Every dish was visually striking and there was an intensity of flavor in each bite. Here’s what we had:

CORN
ROASTED WITH TOMATO, BASIL & CORN CREAM

FLUKE
MARINATED WITH TOMATO-DASHI & LEMON VERBENAP1020068

LAMB
GLAZED WITH ROMAINE, CUMIN & YOGURT Crab and Meyer lemon pasta---The Nomad

TAGLIATELLE
KING CRAB, MEYER LEMON & BLACK PEPPER

SUCKLING PIG
CONFIT WITH PEACHES, ARUGULA & BACON MARMALADESuckling Pig with Peaches and Arugula--The Nomad

CHICKEN
WHOLE-ROASTED FOR TWO: FOIE GRAS, BLACK TRUFFLE, BRIOCHE Roast chicken for two--The NomadChicken breast with truffled mashed potatoes--The Nomad

CHOCOLATEThigh and vegetables--The Nomad
MALTED GANACHE WITH CHOCOLATE FONDANT & MALT ICE CREAMChocolate---The Nomad

STRAWBERRIES
POACHED WITH ANGEL FOOD CAKE, RICOTTA & ANISE HYSSOPStrawberry with angel food cake, ricotta and anise--The Nomad

 

The chicken is the specialty of the house, and is based on a similar dish served at Eleven Madison Park. The entire bird is presented at the table with a flourish, and then taken back to the kitchen where the breast is plated for two, and served with a fricassee of  thigh meat, mushrooms and shallots that is presented on the side in a cast iron vessel. The chicken’s stuffing of foie gras, truffles and brioche transforms what could be a very pedestrian dish into an incredibly rich indulgence.

What we all noticed is that the menu description of each dish paled in comparison to what we ate. To say I ate a bowl of corn doesn’t begin to express the nuances of the dish, either in the  preparation or the presentation, and so it was with everything we experienced that evening.

The NoMad is a treat for all the senses. Without question it was a lovely spot to celebrate a special occasion.

The NoMad on Urbanspoon

Providence New American Kitchen

Though I went to the opening of Providence New American Kitchen in the President Hotel, I hadn’t sat down to any meals there until last month. The first thing most people notice is that it’s beautifully appointed, but a bit rustic, with walls made of reclaimed wood and walls painted with earth tones. The second thing is that it’s easy to have a conversation, which isn’t always the case at new, trendy venues. Providence New American Kitchen Tuna sashimi "salad"--Providence New American Kitchen Heritage Pork chop--Providence New American Kitchen Bison hangar steak with hash and fried egg--Providence New American Kitchen Lamb chop with braised white beans--Providence New American Kitchen Ahi tuna tacos--Providence New American Kitchen

The food is a revelation, too. Though it is a hotel restaurant, the menu doesn’t scream room service, nor does it offer typical hotel fare. Yes, you can get an aged KC Strip, or a cobb salad (though with beef tenderloin rather than chicken), and even a hamburger (Kobe), but you can also get some interesting entrees that represent Chef Eric Carter’s creativity. A heritage pork chop comes with brussel sprouts and a mustard sauce, the lamb chop with braised white beans and swiss chard, and bison hangar steak with potato hash and a fried egg.

Starters are fun. Pork belly comes in cubes with a touch of apple, and ahi tuna tacos are enhanced with guacamole, cilantro slaw and sriracha mayo.

The only sour note that I’ve encountered is with the tuna sashimi “salad”. Listed under salads and labeled a tuna sashimi salad with vegetable slaw, wontons and miso vinaigrette, it was somewhat of a shock to have a plate put before me that had 3 tuna tostadas on it. Lovely cubes of tuna sat atop squares of wontons, garnished with slaw and the miso vinaigrette. The ingredients would have made a great salad, so it was a bit disappointing. And though I did enjoy it, no part of that dish could have been considered a salad, so I would suggest a new name or description.

Restaurants of this quality are hard to find in the downtown loop and near the Sprint Center, so I’d suggest giving it a try. It’s reasonably priced, the atmosphere is congenial, the food is satisfying, and complimentary valet parking is available.

Providence New American Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The Dutch–New York City

Locanda Verde’s Andrew Carmellini opened The Dutch just over a year ago, and it’s been on the “hot” list ever since. It’s an American counterpart to his Italian restaurant, similar in style but with less attitude.

On a recent trip to NYC, I booked a reservation for brunch, 30 days in advance as advised. Walking in at 11:00 am, both dining rooms were practically empty, but by the time we left it was filling up, and walking by again at 2pm, it was absolutely jammed. We enjoyed a leisurely and tasty brunch, choosing a variety of dishes on a limited menu. We started with an exceptional burrata dish pairing the creamy cheese with broccoli and a green sauce, a pastry board with blue cheese and raisin scones, a curried sugar donut and a blueberry ginger muffin. Entrees consumed included fried eggs with creamy grits, chorizo and tortilla chips, a turkey sandwich with that same awesome green sauce, a lobster cocktail and a mushroom frittata with goat cheese. I had heard the fried chicken and biscuits were worth ordering, but we had no takers at the table.

Dinner is a more raucous affair, but I’d like to try it. Squid ink pasta with shrimp and chiles, sea scallops with bacon jam, pork chop Adobo, and Korean hangar steak with kimchi fried rice are pretty serious enticements, don’t you think?

The Dutch on Urbanspoon

The Rieger Hotel Exchange and Grill

The Rieger opened late last month in the former 1924 Main building, and was likely the most anticipated new restaurant of 2010. It carries those high expectations into 2011 and, for the most part, manages to deliver.

Howard Hanna (formerly of 40 Sardines and Room 39) and Ryan Maybee (formerly of JP Wine Bar) have teamed up to create a restaurant that they believe serves “beautiful food for the people”, a mantra that is painted on a soffit in the kitchen, where Howard can see it each time a plate goes to the table.

I have now been once for dinner and once for lunch. Both visits were enjoyable, there were no missteps, and all of the dishes I sampled were pleasing if not thrilling. The downturn in the economy has made “comfort food”, fare that satisfies without breaking the bank, the buzzword of the restaurant scene.  While Chef Hanna’s cooking is certainly straightforward and far from fussy, there’s also a level of sophistication in it that shows an appreciation for each dish’s origin, whether it be Italy, France or the United States.

The pastas are house made, as are the sauces. Pappardelle Alla Bolognese features a  four-day beef, pork and veal ragu, and the Spaghetti Rossi is infused with red wine, and tossed with escarole and guanciale. The pappardelle is a dish made for meatlovers, but as a non-Italian, I would have preferred a bit more sauce. The one dish that didn’t work for me was the Swiss Chard Gnudi.  Typically a pasta-like dumpling without its pasta wrapper, Hanna’s version is a swiss chard puree formed into balls, sitting in a pool of brown butter. Though visually stunning in vibrant green, it lacked oomph.

The restaurant’s signature soup is The Rieger Pork soup, with pieces of pork,  Gruyère and garlic. As I was savoring it, my taste buds vacillated between recalling a pork chile verde I ate in Santa Fe  and Swiss fondue which, of course, is primarily melted Gruyère. Either way, the soup is a winner, and not as rich as it sounds.

The Cioppino, a seafood stew originating in San Francisco but a derivative of Italian cuisine, was competent but not particularly memorable. Though the fish and seafood were properly cooked,  the dish didn’t scream with flavor.

Grilled Poussin is not often found on menus, because, as Hanna points out, diners think of chicken as being rather pedestrian. This was anything but and I gnawed at the bones to savor it.  It was accompanied by caponata, typically a relish with eggplant, capers, peppers and olives.  This rendition was too heavy on the eggplant for my palate, but I enjoyed the Tuscan Fries, ordered as a side, which are a cross between a thick potato chip and a cottage fry, though puffier.

The dinner menu is compact, offering a couple of soups, four pastas, three salads, a half-dozen meat entrees and three seafood/fish dishes.  Clearly, this is the kind of menu that will change seasonally to take advantage of fresh and locally sourced ingredients,  a hallmark of Chef Hanna’s cooking, as it seems to be with all young chefs today.

The lunch menu offers some of the same dinner items with a slightly different spin, while also featuring a handful of sandwiches.

The Cubano is layered with house-cured ham, roast pork, mustard, swiss cheese and pickle, pressed together on a baguette. This type of sandwich is  all the rage right now around town, but not all are as good as this one. Though not overflowing with slices of meat and cheese, the pieces of crisp pork that dominated each bite set this apart, rather than thin slices of pork tenderloin that one often finds.

I also ordered garlic  potato chips, which reminded me of those at Union Square Cafe in New York City.  They are homemade and each bite tastes of garlic. Knowing that Chef Hanna had worked at Union Square Cafe some years ago, I asked him if they were his model.  He explained that The Rieger’s are slightly spicier, but they are definitely of the same mold. I can attest that they are certainly as addictive.

It’s not all about the food. With expert mixologist Ryan Maybee as one of the co-owners, a focus on cocktails and spirits was inevitable. My husband had the best Bloody Mary of his life, a Smoky Mary, which Ryan recommends trying with tequila rather than the usual vodka. The cocktail list in the restaurant is different from the drinks that are mixed downstairs in Manifesto, but equally impressive. Manifesto is the speakeasy that closed temporarily when 1924 Main did, but is now back in full swing.  With only 48 seats available, those wanting a drink are advised to call or text 816.536.1325 for a reservation. Taking a look around, I was surprised and happy to see that patrons’ ages ranged from their mid-twenties to sixties.  I had been under the mistaken impression that this was just for the young, not the young at heart.

You can expect service and hospitality to be top of mind with these restaurateurs, given their devotion to Danny Meyer, who is widely considered to be the king of restaurant hospitality. Meyer is the author of Setting the Table, a primer on hospitality that many have adopted as the industry’s bible, as well as owner of a wildly successful group of restaurants in the Big Apple. Hanna and Maybee have undoubtedly learned a thing or two from their mentor and it shows.

My first impression is a positive one. If the owners are striving to create a place where patrons can stop in to relish a drink and nibbles or to experience solid, satisfying fare without breaking the bank, they’ve already achieved that. Nor is it highbrow. The ambiance is warmer than when it was 1924 Main, the menu appeals to a broad range of tastes, and the staff is friendly and welcoming. It certainly adds some panache to Kansas City’s dining scene and I will be happy to return.  All good, right? But I was hoping to be blown away by what I ate, and I wasn’t. Perhaps my expectations were too high considering Howard’s pedigree and my past experience enjoying his cooking, but as the kitchen develops an identity, I’m hoping a touch more excitement is part of its DNA.

The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange on Urbanspoon

Pot Pie

Until last month I had never been to Pot Pie for dinner. I’m not sure what took me so long, but I’m very glad I finally made it. With its brick walls, subtle lighting and lively buzz, it’s very cozy, and an ideal winter locale. (My apologies for the poor quality of the photos, it was too dark to take decent pictures but at least they give some context to my comments.)

The nightly menu is displayed on a green board in the back of the restaurant. Unfortunately, we were seated right under it, making it a bit difficult to read, but not impossible. There were three or four salad offerings, a few appetizers, two soups and a handful of entrees, including meatloaf, scallops, grilled fish and chicken and, of course, the obligatory pot pies in meat and vegetarian versions.

This is not trendy or cutting edge cuisine, but it is very comforting and enjoyable.

We started with a spinach salad with fig and bacon vinaigrette,  goat cheese salad with beet vinaigrette and a spinach and brie tart. All were fresh tasting and visually appealing.

Because the scallops, grilled fish and roast chicken are most often mentioned as the restaurant’s “go-to” dishes, we tried each. The scallops were tender and sweet, and the roast chicken was moist and flavorful. I wasn’t as enthralled with the mashed potatoes and gravy that accompanied it however, because surprisingly they didn’t have enough salt. How often is that the complaint? Usually, I’m turned off by oversalted foods because I rarely salt anything. But potatoes need a shake of salt to “pop” and bring out the flavor, and that mistake made this dish less than exceptional.

The fish on this night, was barramundi, better known as Australian sea bass. It was grilled perfectly, and served with a light gnocchi that was dressed with blue cheese, walnuts and spinach. An unusual combination to be sure, but it worked (though not if you’re trying to avoid a cream sauce).

The wine list is compact, but well-rounded. The best part is that they don’t go wild with the markups. Each bottle was marked up much less than most restaurants seem to do. Certainly less than the almost-standard 50%. We enjoyed one of Missouri’s finest, an Inland Sea Cabernet Franc (recently renamed Amigoni Vineyards, after its founder).

Word has it that the restaurant does an amazing chocolate chip bread pudding, so don’t miss it if you are a fan of that type of dessert. I’m not usually, but based on its reputation, this one may make me a believer.

The restaurant was packed, even on a weeknight. It doesn’t promote itself but manages to be wildly successful anyway.

PotPie on Urbanspoon

Five Fifty-Five in Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine has no lack of fabulous restaurants. And it has more than its fair share of James Beard award-winning chefs. One of them, Steve Corry of Five Fifty-Five, does an awesome brunch.

While sipping a Bloody Mary, the server brought out the cutest, most delicious little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, courtesy of the chef. My son and his girlfriend were frequent visitors to the restaurant, so they knew to order the freshly baked cinnamon buns with  cider caramel and vanilla icing. Wow. Nothing like starting with dessert. It was hard to restrain myself from eating the whole thing, but I knew I needed to save up for the lobster eggs Benedict that were coming my way. I had heard about this dish, called “Traitor’s Eggs” and was told that if it was on the menu I had to order it.

It’s Maine, so how could I not order lobster in any form? This was an easy sell.

I was not disappointed. There were large chunks of lobster underneath the poached eggs and the hollandaise sauce was lively and lemony.

Sadly, my son has left Maine so I probably won’t make it back to Portland in the foreseeable future. I’ll miss it. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but I’ve had some incredible meals there. This was one of them.

Proof–Washington, DC

There’s a very good reason why Proof is considered one of Washington, DC’s hot spots of the moment, in the hopping Penn Quarter. Although I’ve only been there once, I can’t express my enthusiasm enough. Incredible food, exhaustive wine list, attractive decor and a fun vibe all combine to make the experience a special one.

We started with pork confit on jicama slaw with a red pepper lime emulsion, an incredibly pillowy gnocchi with tomato and basil, and stacked tuna tartare with crispy nori tempura.

Do I have your attention yet? No? Okay, let’s move on to the entrees.

A gorgeous vegetarian napolean, with crispy tofu standing in for the usual pastry layer, honey glazed duck with yam puree and pomegranate emulsion, and sablefish with pumpkin seeds, raisins, garbanzo beans, spinach and romesco sauce. The latter dish was the only one of the evening I wouldn’t order again, not so much because it wasn’t enjoyable, but rather because it wasn’t as exciting as the other dishes.

The menu changes monthly to keep up with what’s in season, and servers are knowledgeable and engaging.

Restaurants come and go all the time; it’s such a tough business. Proof has been open for three years, but it’s still hard to secure a reservation or even find a seat at the bar.

And to think it’s known more for its spectacular wine inventory than the food.

Proof on Urbanspoon

Jack Gage American Tavern

It was a long time in coming, but Jack Gage American Tavern finally opened in December. The building at 5031 Main sat  vacant for what seemed like years after Blair Hurst bought it and Double Dragon closed.

Having been in that Chinese restaurant, I’m happy to say that the restaurant was gutted and completely renovated. Though there’s an emphasis  on the bar business,  it’s clear that Hurst is interested in patrons coming for the food as well as spirits–both the  general  manager and chef hail  from Plaza III.

The same menu is offered all day.  Though the restaurant is only open for breakfast on weekends, egg dishes are available  any time. For a satisfying, but rather rich entree, go for the crab hash, with two eggs and a spicy Hollandaise sauce.  The sauce threatened to overwhelm  the dish, next time I’ll order it on the side, and overall it was a successful combination.  Chunks of crab and potato matched up well with the runny eggs.

From 4-6 pm, many but not all of the starters are half-priced. The tuna and seafood appetizers were not discounted. But that didn’t stop us from having some tasty sliders and awesome  onion straws with “comeback” sauce. Despite the small size of the burgers, the kitchen prepared them medium rare as requested and they were juicy and flavorful. The baby crabcake sliders were also a pleasant surprise, with minimal filler.

On another visit, we had the flat iron sandwich. It was fine, but not as enticing as its description– it lacked pizazz. And the fries were nothing special–I would have expected them to be an important component of the extensive burger and sandwich plates. Offering   the onion straws  as an optional side would be a great addition.

The Chopped Tavern salad is Jack Gage’s version of a Cobb, only with the same “comeback” sauce with which the onion straws are served–the spicy tomato based dressing pairs nicely with the salad.

The menu is large, leading one to wonder whether the kitchen can execute on all fronts. I will be interested to sample the rotisserie chicken, which the menu proclaims is a specialty of the house, as well as the ribs–they’ll have to be pretty incredible to rival Houston’s or our numerous BBQ joints  about town.

Jack Gage is off to a running start, and has a good vibe going for it. The place is packed with patrons of all ages, enjoying each other and soaking up the welcoming and friendly ambiance.

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