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.

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First Taste: Barndiva in Healdsburg, CA

Barndiva is one of those places that we Midwesterners hope to find on a trip to the West Coast. As its website states,  the restaurant is “a celebration of all things local,” which is California means some pretty awesome produce. And it’s in an old barn that has been remade to create a fabulous, casual, and comfortable setting. And after a day of wine tasting and a big lunch, it was especially nice that the fare wasn’t rich or heavy.

My appetizer was one of the prettiest I have ever laid eyes on. I thought from the description that it would be small, but I was very happily mistaken. Heirloom tomatoes were paired with compressed watermelon, basil, and watercress. I savored every bite.

For my dinner, I chose another appetizer, a riff on a BLT, using pork belly, basil coulis, cherry tomato, potato chips and baby lettuces. I’ve been eating way too much pork belly lately since it’s all the rage right now, but this was the most innovative use of it that I’ve experienced.

The Zucchini & Bellwether Farms Ricotta Lasagna was delightful as well, with handmade pasta and a light tomato vinaigrette. We also enjoyed the  crispy young chicken, which was extremely moist and flavorful.

In addition to the dishes hitting on all cylinders in terms of taste and style, the servers were quite compelling. Our favorite, and the most knowledgeable server we encountered during our stay in Healdsburg, was a retired businessman who loves and knows his wine. He directed us to Littorai Vineyard, which turned out to be a fortuitous recommendation since that ended up being my favorite Pinot Noir of the trip.

Barndiva is always listed as one of the must-go places in Sonoma in magazines and websites. It’s on mine now as well.

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The Jacobson

The Jacobson, the Crossroad’s newest hip restaurant, shares space with Lulu’s Noodle shop. Both occupy the old A.D. Jacobson Heating and Plumbing Company building. It’s a very cool space with glazed cement block walls, a mix of high and low tables, secluded boothes and plenty of bar counter seating. Some of the cocktails come in flasks to the table, sitting in an ice bucket so diners can pour their own or share.

The menu is large, and diners can choose to go light with flatbreads and salads, or heavier with entrees, both day and night.

On my first visit I indulged in a rich and decadent Banh Mi with sliced pork belly, cilantro and carrots, and a spicy mayo. I loved every bite, but it’s definitely not an every day kind of sandwich. If it were sliced pork loin or pulled pork shoulder I could pretend it wasn’t too bad for me, but pork belly is by definition fatty.

The Ahi tuna salad may be a standard on many a menu these days, but this is a good one, with good quality rare tuna and a very pleasant miso vinaigrette dressing up the greens.

On another go around we started with a wild mushroom and ricotta flatbread. The flatbread was crisp, with plentiful toppings, but the dough could have benefited from perhaps a bit more salt (which I hardly ever recommend!).

I really enjoyed the unusual Crossroads salad. The crisp romaine is  tossed with bacon, corn, tomatoes, avocado and a creamy oregano dressing, and a soft poached egg sits on top.  Eggs on salads are big right now, with good reason. The oozing yolk mixes with the dressing to add complexity to the salad.

The J has Happy Hour every day. It would be fun to hit the patio on a beautiful autumn day and throw back a few. There’s a full bar with beer on tap outside, and a water and fire element on the patio. It can be noisy with all of the construction going down in the Crossroads, but that’s the price of progress, and that stops in the early evening.

Desserts are definitely worth ordering. If you’re into Dutch Babies (looks like a cross between a huge pancake and Yorkshire pudding), I saw a few of them  pass by and they looked like the real deal. Servers seem to be partial to the Fig Newton, an unusual twist on my childhood fig newton sandwich: squares of bread pudding serve as the sandwich to the fig perserve filling and are drizzled with chocolate sauce. In a cute riff on cookies and milk, the dessert comes with a shot of Shatto banana milk. Adorable lookng, but since I’m not a bread pudding lover, I don’t think I’d get it again. The Brown Sugar cake on the other hand, with peanut butter ice cream and caramel sauce was a winner.

Chef John Smith has some impressive credentials, having worked with some of the great chefs in Chicago, New York and Paris. Based on his resume, I’m looking forward to trying out the dinner menu, which is more extensive and emphasizes fish, chicken and meat entrees.

It’s fun to go to the Crossroads these days. The ability to experience high quality fare from independent restaurateurs seems to be increasing at an exciting pace.

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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.

Bluestem on Urbanspoon

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Seasons 52

Seasons 52, a relatively new chain restaurant that landed on the Plaza in late 2011, bills itself as a grill and wine bar featuring fresh and seasonal fare. Each dish is less than 475 calories, and desserts are 250 calories or less.

Our local outpost is quite attractive, a cross in design between Houston’s and Capital Grille. Both Capital Grille and Seasons are owned by the Darden group, so the similarities are not coincidental. And both wine lists were created by the same sommelier. They each have that clubby feel and, like Houston’s, the bar has booths for dining. I prefer the ambiance in the bar, especially on evenings when a piano player is in the house.

On each of my visits, the food was consistently solid and the service polished and flawless. The menu is extensive, so diners can really make the meal whatever they want it to be, whether soup and salad, flatbread and a glass of wine, or meat and potatoes. What diners won’t find is excitement. I’ve enjoyed most everything I’ve ordered, but none of it was so flavorful or interesting that I would rush back.

The first time my husband and I dined there, we simply wanted a quick bite. I had  the Maui Tuna Crunch Salad sushi-grade seared tuna, tropical organic greens, toasted almonds and miso vinaigrette. Very nice, but could have used a few more calories to add some oomph. Or even a few vegetables.

My husband had the spicy chicken relleno which happily, unlike the versions you see at most Mexican restaurants, was not battered and fried. This appetizer  combines the chicken with sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and spinach and sits on pico de gallo. Light and flavorful, but again, could have benefitted from some heat. (Though I’m not suggesting everything has to be spicy, I’m not into bland).

My next visit was complimentary, and came with an invitation to sample the new winter menu. Since Seasons 52 is known for their flatbreads, we started with the spicy chipotle shrimp flatbread, which was flavored with poblano peppers, grilled pineapple and feta. Not my favorite ingredients, but the dish was well-executed. The flatbread was thin and crisp, and attractively served on a long, narrow wood board.

Our server said that the stuffed mushrooms are one of the most popular appetizers, so we ordered those as well. The mushrooms are stuffed with spinach, crab and shrimp and topped with bread crumbs. They were  cleverly served in an escargot style plate, with the mushrooms in the holes that are usually reserved for snails, allowing them to retain their heat. Unexciting, but perfectly acceptable.

I ordered the  Maple Leaf Farms Sesame Duck Chop Salad with apples, mint, cranberries, butternut squash and toasted pecans for my entrée. The salad was layered and came in a cylinder which the server gently pulled off as part of the presentation. (I’ve seen this done at Gram and Dun as well.) I was glad A.G. Sulzberger of the New York Times wasn’t there since the salad was in fact, comprised of almost all iceberg lettuce. The duck was well-done, but they had not asked my preference, so I’m not sure if that’s typical or not.

One of the specials of the evening was called a seared tuna noodle bowl. Though it ironically came on a large plate, it was gorgeous and contained a variety of Asian vegetables. Though redolent with ginger, it was a bit salty and again lacked a kick.

Desserts come in shot glasses, and there are 8 from which to choose. We tried the key lime pie and carrot cake. Both are, of course, deconstructed and layered in the shot glass. I especially enjoyed the key lime, with its sugary bites of graham cracker crust. 

At Seasons 52, diners can expect an enjoyable experience. I wasn’t wowed by the food; nor could I find anything objectionable. I was certainly impressed with the smooth service and relaxed setting, both of which should make this well-conceived chain a success in our town.

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The Girl and the Goat

Stephanie Izard has been on a roll ever since winning Season 4 of Top Chef on Bravo. Shortly after becoming the first and to date only woman to win that competition, she opened her own restaurant. The Girl and the Goat has been packed since the day she opened the doors and, after a recent visit, I’m not at all surprised. This gastropub has everything–an oh-so-cool ambiance, killer small plates, marvelous service and reasonable prices.

It’s difficult to adequately describe the interior or the experience. It’s in a converted warehouse in the West Loop. enormously high ceilings and a scattering of  wood tables. The kitchen, which spans the entire back wall,  is in full view, hidden only by rows of shelves that hold dishes of assorted shapes. A gigantic wood-burning oven is the focal point, and its aroma makes the restaurant smell like a campfire. The bar is off to one side of the huge restaurant, but it is very much a part of the scene. Communal tables are in these days, and they are a major seating component at The Goat. We were fortunate to snag a table for 3 in the corner of a row of booths that runs the length of the restaurant, making it easier to converse with two lifelong friends whom I rarely get to see, yet we still felt part of the action.

The menu trots around the globe, with an emphasis on the Mediterranean. It’s divided by Vegetable, Meat, Fish, Bread, Oysters and Goat. The ingredient pairings are incredibly exciting,  and unusual to the point of being the first time I had experienced many of the combinations. But it all works; each dish is properly balanced but with bold flavors, and complex without any fussiness.

Our server walked us through the menu and suggested ordering 2-3 dishes per person.  After a civilized negotiation we created our meal and ordered. For the most part the dishes  came out nicely timed, though at one point we had to ask them to slow down their delivery. Our request was met with profuse apologies.

We took our waiter’s recommendation and ordered the Culture Club bread. House-made butter and beer cheese sauce accompanied a chewy sourdough type loaf. We were just getting started, but it set the right tone.

From the vegetable list, we ordered Roasted Beets with green beans, anchovy and avocado creme fraiche, and Roasted Cauliflower with pickled peppers, pine nuts and mint. I’ve been eating more than my share of beets lately, they seem to be on every menu and we just finished off the ones in our garden, but the anchovy made them stand out. The cauliflower  was exceptional–I’ve never thought of this lowly vegetable as being a star, but it was splendid.

I had read about the grilled octopus and though I’m sure its partners change occasionally, I loved this particular rendition, with guanciale, wax beans, romano beans, radish, pistachio-lemon vinaigrette.  The octopus was smokey and the vinaigrette’s citrus mellowed the dish.

When I think of brandade, my mind goes to salt cod, but fortunately that didn’t stop me from giving this a try. It was one of my favorite tastes of the night. Seared scallops were layered with pumpkin brandade, fried brussels, pomegranate and spiced pecans. Wow.

Wood fired Walter’s Chicken was not your mother’s traditional roasted variety. The flavors were tantalizing and it was fun to eat with yuzu harissa, fried pickles, brussel slaw and grilled naan. We fought over the last piece and would have ordered another if we hadn’t had to pace ourselves.

With an entire menu devoted to goat dishes, the restaurant’s namesake, we of course had to sample a goat dish. Our very knowledgeable server suggested the goat rillette empanadas, but I was drawn to the Confit Goat Belly with bourbon butter, lobster ‘n crab and fennel. The goat was tender and rich enough on its own not to need the bourbon butter, but why not gild the lily a bit?

At this point, we were sated and happy…and we thought we were through. But as we were sipping the last of our wine, out came Wood Oven Roasted Pig Face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro and potato stix.  It was visually appealing, but it turned out to be our least favorite item of the evening… perhaps because we were full, or maybe because the meat was a bit gamey and dry.

The portions are substantial and can easily be shared among 3-4 people. Unfortunately we had no room for dessert, one of many reasons I can’t wait to return.  Someone had told me that if I could score a reservation (no easy task I should warn you), it would be worth extending my Chicago trip, and she was right. It was an energizing evening and I am in awe of what Izard has created, both in terms of ambiance and food. She is one talented woman.

Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

Room 39

I’ve always loved Room 39. The servers are consistently friendly and knowledgeable, the space has a lovely coziness to it and the restaurant’s personality shifts as the clock does. In the  morning it’s an upscale coffee shop, with exceptional coffee and egg dishes, including a quiche that is probably  four inches high. At lunchtime, it’s a soup and sandwich spot frequented by lawyers and artists alike. The veggie burger is one of the best around, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of the offerings.

Come sundown, tablecloths and votives grace the tables, transforming the restaurant into a serious, upscale dining experience. The menu  changes daily and is posted online so you can get a peek of the chef’s selections before making a reservation. (The breakfast and lunch menus are set seasonally, but an  extensive list of daily specials is also available.)

Owner Ted Habiger and his chefs are all about fresh and seasonal ingredients,  which is why the menu has to change each day based on availability. We were lucky to be there on a night when beets were so prominently featured. The  beet risotto was a stunning magenta, and the beet vinaigrette that accompanied the succulent scallops was bubble gum pink. The color could have been off-putting, but knowing that it was redolent of beet and far from artificial made it a good thing.

The rib eye was huge, prepared as ordered and very tender. (Unlike the leg of lamb which was without even a touch of pink though the server explained that the chef likes to serve it medium).

While I think of Room 39 as being quaint, and it is, that doesn’t mean it’s quiet. We were there the Thursday before Christmas, and as more diners squeezed in at the bar to wait for a table, the louder it became. We could still carry on a conversation at our table of six, but it wasn’t as relaxing as when we first sat down to a half-full room.

Room 39 also has another restaurant by the same name in Mission Farms at 105th  and Mission Road. The fare is similar, though the chef at that location puts his own spin on the menu.  I prefer the more charming ambiance at the location on 39th St,  but the food is excellent at both.

Room 39 on Urbanspoon

Julian Restaurant

I was really looking forward to trying Julian. It’s in my neighborhood, in Joe D’s old space, and owned and operated by James Beard award winner Celina Tio, former chef of the American restaurant. Julian--Kansas City

I was listening to a Ruth Reichl podcast recently. She was editor of the now defunct Gourmet magazine and a former New York Times restaurant critic. She correctly pointed out that dozens of observations and judgments are made before taking a bite of food. Does the space feel comfortable? Does it have positive energy? Was the host friendly and welcoming? Is the look of the table pleasing? Did someone come right over to fill water glasses and take a drink order? Is it loud? How is the music? These and other thoughts were running through my mind as I sat down at our table.

Perhaps it was unfair of me to have such high expectations, but considering Tio’s stature in the restaurant community, I was anticipating an outstanding experience and I didn’t have one. Tio has certainly improved the look of the space, with clean lines and neutral colors, but it’s still quite cramped. The back room now adjoins an open kitchen, but that feature increases an already problematic noise level. I did like the clipboard menus and Chilewich striped place mats on the stainless tables. Salmon and Asian Noodles-Julian

After ordering a bottle of wine from the manager (which was served  at least ten degrees too warm), our first encounter from the server was when, without prelude or greeting, she asked if we were ready to order. And so it went. I felt rushed from the beginning, and that feeling intensified when our entrees were delivered before everyone was finished with their salads. Orzo Paella--Julian

We started with homemade pretzels that resembled chewy twisted rolls. These were served with two mustards, though one tasted like barbecue sauce. It was a unique appetizer and we enjoyed the presentation. The butter lettuce salad with blue cheese and egg vinaigrette was novel and tasty.  French fries come with homemade ketchup, but they needed to be left in the fryer a bit longer. There was no bread service and, though that seems to be a more common occurrence these days, I think a fresh roll or chewy bread can enhance a dining experience, especially when there’s a savory sauce begging to be mopped up.

My entree was a winner. The pork shoulder was crisp and tender, and combined with sweet potato puree, I was happy. Pork shoulder--Sweet Potato--Julian (The picture doesn’t do it justice.) The other entrees at the table were less successful. The “paella” was fine but nothing special. Though the menu description indicated that it was not an authentic version, it lacked oomph. The seared salmon with asian noodles would be ideal for those watching their waistline, but it didn’t strike me as representative of Tio’s considerable talents. I do like the offered option of ordering a small or large portion of most entrees.

Other menu items include a hamburger, which I’ve heard is sensational, a pulled pork and slaw sandwich, a B.E.L.T. ( bacon, egg, lettuce and tapenade mayo), lobster shephard’s pie, and mac n’cheese.

Had I not known anything about the chef/owner and walked in with a blank slate, I’m sure my first impression would have been far more positive. In any case, new restaurants always take some time to shake out. I look forward to lunch service and spring meals on the spacious patio. Julian is a welcome addition to the Brookside restaurant scene, but it has a way to go before it reaches its potential. Celina Tio is the consummate pro, and I know she will do what it takes to make her new venture a success.

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