Bluestem Lounge

I shouldn’t be writing this. In fact, I’ve put off posting a story about the Bluestem lounge over the years because I didn’t want it to get so crowded that we could never again get in the door. But based on my last couple of visits, the cat is clearly out of the bag, so there’s no reason for me to keep quiet anymore.

Bluestem lounge represents one of the best deals in town, especially during Happy Hour. From 5-7 pm, Tuesday through Thursday, and 5-6:30 on Fridays, the lounge menu is significantly discounted. Until recently, dishes were 50% off, but now it’s closer to 40%, which still makes my husband a happy man. The menu features comfort food type dishes as opposed to the upscale cuisine in the dining room. But no frills doesn’t mean lower quality. Fabulous burgers, hangar steak with chimichurri sauce and French fries, Mac & Cheese, grilled pork chops….and amazing Shrimp & Grits. When I wrote the story in the Kansas City Star about the resurgence of grits, I interviewed Colby Garrelts, chef/owner of Bluestem about this dish, and a spectacular photo of it graced the front page of the Food Section. Colby gets his corn for the grits from Mark Meinke of Bonner Springs, who provided a local angle to a story about an ingredient typically found in the South. Between the quality of the corn Mark produces and the skill and creativity of Colby, this is one awesome dish–every bit as fabulous to the palate as it is on the plate.

Drinks and bottles of wine are cheaper during Happy Hour, too, and Jeremy Lamb’s expert wine list is available. Though Bloody Marys are never among the drink specials, my husband always splurges on one anyway; he thinks it’s one of the best in town. Wherever he imbibes, he always asks for his go-to cocktail to be extra spicy, but Bluestem’s server told him that it always is. Skeptically he took a sip and was wowed not only by the explosion of flavors but the level of heat. There’s no such thing as a drink that’s too spicy for him, but be forewarned that it may be too much for the average drinker to handle. The vodka is infused with peppers and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Bluestem was recently recognized by Open Table as being in the Top 100 restaurants in the country for Best Service. You don’t have to order a pricey prix fixe meal to rate fabulous service; you’ll find it in the lounge as well. Colby and Megan (the pastry chef) are extremely talented, passionate and dedicated restaurateurs, and they succeed in making the lounge as memorable an experience as in their wonderful, artful dining room.

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Grand Street Cafe

Grand Street Cafe has been a favorite off-Plaza destination since 1991. At the time, its wallpaper with willow branches protruding in 3D fashion and striped rattan chairs created an imaginative botanical scene which captivated diners. Though originally owned by the very successful PB&J group of restaurants, it was bought in 2009 by Rick and Kristi Ghilardi. Rick had been a partner in the business for 19 years, so the transition was seamless. Fortunately, the couple recognized the need to update the decor because a recent visit revealed a more subtle, neutral-toned atmosphere.

The layout is the same and the original striped rattan chairs remain. The signature grass-green color that has always graced the menus is now tied into the decor through its presence on the back wall, a splash of fun in an otherwise calm setting. It reminded me of Gram & Dun’s decor, and that’s a good thing.

Though the menu is also updated with new additions, it feels very much the same. You can still get that great pork chop; it just has a different twist. Same with the scallops and short ribs. Fans of Bill’s Chicken Salad will not be disappointed–though Bill (former owner Crooks) is no longer a part of the operation, his salad lives on.

We were there for lunch, so we didn’t go for the entrees. We started with their seasonal flatbread, which we both enjoyed immensely. The crust was thin, but with a slight chew. Onion marmalade, Maytag blue cheese, mission figs, arugula, shaved onion, grape tomatoes graced the top (it also came with prosciutto which we nixed) in ideal proportion to the size of the cut triangles, and the marmalade added a touch of sweetness.

My friend had the ahi salad with a marinated tuna steak, butter lettuce, hearts of palm, snow peas, roasted red pepper, hard-boiled eggs, caper vinaigrette. Perfectly pleasant, but not exciting.

I had the cobb which, in addition to traditional ingredients sported cheddar cheese and croutons. It was well-executed and filling.

Service continues to be a hallmark of this well-run establishment.

As word gets out that the restaurant has left the 20th Century in the rear-view mirror, I suspect it will again become top-of-mind for diners considering their eating around town.

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Gram & Dun

Gram &Dun is the latest restaurant under the Bread and Butter Concepts flag, an independent and local group that also owns BRGR and Urban Table in Corinth. The owners decided to jump the state line and open on the Plaza, where it’s getting a ton of buzz. Evidently, I’m not the only one delighted that there is now another non-chain worth going to  in addition to seasoned veterans like the Classic Cup, Starker’s and Blanc Burger. 

Housed in the old Baja 600 and Parkway 600 space, you’d have to look hard to see the vestiges of those restaurants. The re-do is striking and the neutral colors the designers chose are very effective. The overall effect is a soothing one, though the place has been anything but calm each time I’ve been there.

At a preview event right before the restaurant opened, I sampled a number of appetizers, including shrimp fries, bison meatballs, shishito peppers and not-so-standard potato chips with three ketchups (guacamole, vanilla bean, blood orange-habañero), the last being the only one of the bunch I would consider ordering. Rather than being thin chips, they were a thick cut round, with a dollop of sauce on top. I wasn’t wild about any of the ketchups,  but it’s a visually appealing appetizer and a worthwhile concept.

On another occasion I tried the French Onion Dumplings, and they were quite good, bursting with slurps of traditional soup by the same name.

I had heard great things about the Brussel sprout salad, but I think the main appeal is that the sprouts are not roasted, but rather raw and shredded. They are tossed with Manchego cheese, celery, cranberries, walnuts, arugula, and a rather bland lemon vinaigrette. Similar to a slaw, the texture is pleasing, but the dish would benefit from stronger flavors.

The salad with ahi tuna didn’t need more oomph, just less dressing.The salad comes vertically, with the tuna layered precariously between lettuce and crisp won ton strips. Had it not been drenched with the chili vinaigrette or totally lacking in vegetables besides watercress, it would have been a triumph. I’d probably order it again, but with the dressing on the side. The Flat Iron Steak salad with oyster mushrooms, roasted red peppers, golden raisins, watercress, spinach and chimichurri vinaigrette was not overdressed and had more going on.

My husband tried the Roasted Mushroom Trio, a sandwich on sourdough that pairs mushrooms with radicchio, watercress, balsamic, pecorino and truffle aioli. It tasted as good as it sounds, but the bread to filling ratio was off. I’d rather have more “stuff” and less bread. The house salad that accompanied it was dressed with a tart sangria vinaigrette, along with cherries, bleu cheese and pistachios.

Shrimp and grits has expanded well beyond the South, and it’s become a hit on every menu in town that it graces. Webster House has a masterful rendition, as does Gram & Dun. The shrimp here were coated with blackened (Cajun) seasonings, the grits were creamy (but not as addictive as they are at Webster House and Chaz) and the jalapeno avocado gravy took the dish beyond the traditional. On my first visit, though the shrimp were cooked perfectly, they were too salty. The next time I went to the restaurant my companion couldn’t resist ordering them despite my admonition and fortunately, the kitchen didn’t use such a heavy hand. She practically licked the bowl. (Unfortunately, that was the one dish that I have no pictures of…I must have been too focused on eating the dish rather than photographing it.)

Chicken and waffles used to be served only at soul food restaurants, but the last couple of years this combination has gone mainstream.

While I’ve never understood the appeal of eating two fried/starchy items together or why the two foods would even be paired together, after eating the CFC & Waffles at Gram & Dun, I get it. The corn flake fried chicken was crisp and devoid of grease, and the waffles got an upgrade from the addition of cheese and herbs. But what won the day was the vinegary hot pepper sauce for dipping.  Just as the maple syrup was a natural for the waffles, so too was the hot pepper sauce for the chicken. For a town that loves its barbecue to distraction, we might all have to consider that chicken and hot pepper sauce is also worthy of love.  It’s really just an upscale version of hot wings, but oh so much better.

The servers must love the Gram & Dun bar, because they push it hard. With good reason as it turns out. Billed as a faux Snickers bar, if you love peanut butter and marshmallow, this is for you. They come two to an order, so ask for an extra spoon.

The profiteroles are less inspired. The pastry was a bit gummy, and they were way too stingy on the chocolate sauce. It was more a decoration than for enjoying with the ice cream filling, and where’s the fun in that?

Even on chilly nights, groups can be seen huddled by the gorgeous firepits that grace the restaurant’s patio. In warmer weather, seats on the patio will surely be a hot commodity. Right now the restaurant is packed in the evenings, and loud. The bar is unfortunately too small to handle the current crowds, but no one seems to mind waiting for a table, especially since a hostess will text you when your table is ready. How 21st Century is that?

Gram & Dun on Urbanspoon

B.R.G.R. Kitchen + Bar

My friends keep asking what I think of  B.R.G.R. Kitchen + Bar. Well, after my visit earlier this week, I can finally tell them.

I enjoyed the experience.  The place has a very cool industrial-chic thing going on, with wood tables and floors that are offset by metal chairs and fixtures. The dining room has high ceilings and can be noisy when full, but there is a separate bar area with TVs and tall tables, as well as an outdoor space. I had heard mixed reviews of the service, but ours was outstanding–attentive, friendly and efficient.

We started with the Blue Cheesy Chips, homemade potato chips with a blue cheese sauce and crumbles. The potato chips were crisp and yummy, as was the sauce, but someone in the kitchen had a heavy hand with the black pepper which detracted somewhat from the dish.

I had one of the “Historical Burgers”, the BRGR, a beef patty with caramelized onions mixed into the meat, and topped with mustard and pickles. I ordered it medium rare, which is how it was served, and it was juicy and flavorful.  However, I would never have known there were onions inside the burger, and would order grilled onions atop the patty next time. (Perhaps that added to the flavor, but it’s not something I picked up on).

We also ordered a combo of sides, and chose BRGR fries, sweet potato fries and onion straws. They were delightfully presented, on a wood plank, with each portion of fries served in a tin camp cup. (Or perhaps an oil can, in keeping with the service station motif.) The regular fries were excellent, thin and fairly crisp, though the sweet potato fries were thick and didn’t have much taste. The onion straws could have been a bit less limp, but we had no trouble finishing them.

The unisex bathrooms take a little getting used to–the stalls themselves are completely private, but all users share the sinks. There were only women in the bathroom when I used it, but I think it would be a bit awkward otherwise.

Comparisons to Blanc Burger are inevitable, and I’d have to say that though the B.R.G.R burgers are tasty and juicy, the toppings and combinations aren’t as sophisticated as Blanc’s.The menu is much larger, and features many entree salads as well as hot dogs and mac n’cheese. There is a vegetarian burger with lentils, carrots, onions and beets, which is on my list to try next time,  a turkey burger, a Portobello mushroom burger, a grilled cheese sandwich and a grilled chicken sandwich, so you don’t have to be a burger lover to enjoy your meal. I hope they add a bison burger at some point, since they are leaner and more healthful than a traditional beef burger.

The latest trend is for restaurants to make their own ketchup, mustard and, in some cases, pickles. While I like Blanc’s homemade offerings, most restaurants’ renditions seem to fall short and B.R.G.R.’s are no exception. Give me Heinz anytime.

With burger places popping up all over the country, Kansas City is certainly getting its fill, but I’m sure residents of Prairie Village are happy to  have a restaurant of this quality in their neck of the woods.

BRGR Kitchen + Bar on Urbanspoon

Swagger Fine Spirits and Food

I have been reading about Swagger for several months and was very interested to check it out. The fact that chefs frequent it when away from their own kitchens was intriguing to me, and now I know why. I went for lunch the other day and had a great burger.

It’s most definitely a bar, first and foremost, but the food is definitely NOT an afterthought. The list of beers on tap is lengthy, but the menu is just as long. Burgers are a highlight, with the specialty of the house being tempura battered and topped with sriracha sauce and wasabi coleslaw. But the hamburgers need no embellishment–the meat is hand ground and extremely juicy. Practically every bite sent juice dripping down the plate (or arm). The French fries are hand cut and lightly seasoned. They reminded me of the old Jake Edwards fries–not a bad comparison in my book. Other menu items include dozens of sandwiches, salads, wings and even breakfast.

We were there at lunch and the bartender took our order. Service was efficient and friendly. Though women would definitely feel comfortable here, this would be a perfect venue for a guys’ night out. The fare is hearty, the bar is well stocked and, though the TVs aren’t huge, they are tuned to sports at all hours.

Swagger on Urbanspoon