Restaurant Week 2014 Continued…

P1020372If you read my blog on a regular basis, you know I participated in Restaurant Week previews in advance of its start last Friday.  I have already written about La Bodega and Pig and Finch; today I want to share my impressions of Rosso in the new Hotel Sorella on the Plaza. Since it opened last fall, I had heard mixed reviews about the food and service, so I was interested to check it out myself.

The GM, chef and server all knew I was coming, so it’s probably not fair to equate my my experience with what others may encounter when the restaurant is slammed during Restaurant Week, BUT I have to say that the service and food were flawless. Each dish prepared by Chef Brian Archibald  was beautifully presented and perfectly executed. And the setting, with a curved wall of floor to ceiling windows and white leather chairs and booths set against a red background, is quite striking.Lamb and pear pasta--RossoCuttlefish over polenta--Rossotrout with white beans and arugula--RossoBeet and Permission salad--Ross

We started with a beet and persimmon salad, a combination that I’d never enjoyed before, but it struck a harmonious chord between sweet and savory. We moved on to the Pork Cheek Pansotti, a stuffed pasta with smoked pear puree, pecorino, and  Meyer lemon, which had a lovely contrast of flavors, and cuttlefish with polenta with a rustic tomato sauce. Not sure I’m a huge fan of cuttlefish, though it sure worked in the dish.

We sampled the short rib entrée with farro risotto and a fried egg, and lemon sole with arugula and beans. Though the fish is definitely a good choice for those looking for a lighter alternative, the short rib dish was incredibly tender and creative. The other entrée selection on the Restaurant week menu is a pancetta wrapped chicken with crispy gnocchi.Short rib with farro risotto--Rosso

We finished our meal with Zeppoli, still warm deep-fried doughnuts with a honey and lemon marmalade for dipping.  Diners can also select an apple crostada.Ricotta doughnuts--Rosso

Rosso and its bar both offer a sleek and modern sophistication that conjures up images of New York or San Francisco, not unlike the Reserve at the Ambassador Hotel downtown. Check it out and let me know what you think!

One last suggestion for Restaurant Week: to make it easier to keep track of all the restaurants and their menus, consider downloading the mobile app. It will even direct you to Open Table so you can make a reservation and get a map. Again, refer to the Restaurant Week website for more information. You have until Sunday night, January 26, so time is running out but you’re definitely not too late to participate.

Rosso on Urbanspoon

The Boot

Walking into the Boot is such a pleasant experience. Someone will quickly greet you and guide you to your table while you look around and take in the very charming interior. The side walls are brick. Old wooden ladders hang sideways and their rungs are interspersed with flower vases. On one wall sits a painting that hung in proprietor Aaron Confessori’s dining room when he was growing up. On another is artwork that was created by an employee, and the back wall is covered with white subway tile. In the middle of the room is a communal table where diners sit in candy- cane red chairs making new friends. The vibe is energetic but not ear-splitting.

Front-of-the-house man Confessori and chef Rich Wiles own both the Boot, Westport Cafe and Bar, and also the Westport Street Fare, a food truck parked just down the street from their brick and mortar restaurants. I recently wrote a story for the Kansas City Star about these up-and-comers.

The Boot strives to be for Italian fare what the Westport Cafe is for French food–the restaurateurs want to provide simple and hearty meals in a casual setting.

Menu items include antipasti, Krizman’s sausages, meatballs, pizza, pasta and a handful of entrees. Based on my several trips there, I’ve found the best way to approach the menu is to order (depending on the size of your group), a couple of dishes in each category and then share them among your table mates. My favorite dishes include the handmade pulled mozzarella with beets and mushrooms, a riff on the more traditional caprese salad with mozzarella and tomatoes, the sheep’s milk ricotta with chile oil (addictive slathered on bread), braised short rib with polenta, and the skirt steak with salsa verde. Pasta dishes worth trying include the Parpadelle with red sauce and squid, and the Risotto Raggio, a not-very-pretty-looking but flavorful mushroom risotto. Both of these are based on recipes from the owners’ families. Other offerings that win praise are the short rib ravioli and the meatball sub.

The Boot recently started serving brunch on weekends, utilizing the same enticing deal as the Westport Cafe of offering a free mimosa or Bloody Mary with the purchase of an entrée. Both restaurants are becoming the place to be on Sunday mornings–especially the older crowd coming in early after church as well for twenty-somethings who roll out of bed at noon and want a hangover cure.

Aaron and Rich are very personable and aim to please, essential attributes for building a loyal clientele.

The Boot on Urbanspoon

Trezo Mare

When it first opened, everyone thought that, based on its name, Trezo Mare was an Italian restaurant. But the focus was more on treasures of the sea, which is the literal translation. The concept worked beautifully for the first couple of years, but the quality wasn’t maintained and a change was needed. Enter Chef Robert Padilla. He took over the kitchen and Trezo Mare became the Italian restaurant everyone expected when they walked in the door.

Padilla began his career at Lidia’s and honed his skills at Bluestem. His pedigree created high expectations for our recent outing to this upscale restaurant in Briarcliff Village, and though we had an enjoyable evening, it fell far short of the quality of his other stints.

The menu is fairly standard–Pizza, pasta, fish and meat, with a few house specialities to round it out.

Pizza has to be good at an Italian restaurant, right? So we ordered one for the table; it did not impress. The crust was fine, but not great. Sort of crisp, sort of chewy, not much to it. There were plenty of toppings, but the flavors didn’t pop. (As we were leaving the restaurant, we saw the basic cheese and tomato sauce pizza, which looked like it came out of a box). We didn’t realize how small the pizza would be, and didn’t ordered any other appetizers.

The fish of the day was corvina, which is similar to a sea bass. It came with dirty rice, Brussels sprouts and a touch of sauce that looked like a red pepper sauce. The fish was perfectly prepared, and pleasant though uninspired.

I tried the cabbage rolls, unfortunately thinking they would be prepared in similar fashion to what I enjoyed recently at Lidia’a. For those of you who have lived in Kansas City for decades, you may also recall that Venue on Main Street served vegetable cabbage rolls. They were almost ethereal—plump, moist and floating in a broth. Those were the best I’ve had…ever, and I still miss them. Having deviated from the description of the ones at Trezo Vino to dream for just a minute, I should point out that I am not necessarily a fan of cabbage rolls in general….just really good ones! Trezo Vino’s rendition is quite hearty, served atop mashed potatoes and covered with tomato sauce. The first few bites were quite tasty, but then I ran out of cabbage and was left with the stuffing…..unembellished ground Italian sausage. Fortunately, the mashed potatoes were awesome–they were a bit chunky, with the potato skins left on; the epitome of comfort food.

The others ordered the shrimp al diablo with fusilli pasta. The dish came with plenty of shrimp, but little diablo–it wasn’t spicy at all. The overall composition of the dish was pleasing though. With a few red pepper flakes shaken on top there would have been no complaints.

Prices are reasonable, portions are substantial but not coma-inducing, and the servers were attentive and friendly. On the midweek evening we were there, the dining room was not crowded, but the bar was packed. I’ve always loved the bar–the countertops and tables are a gorgeous granite, there’s a huge fireplace at one end, TVs entertain those interested in the game of the night, and it adjoins a lovely patio with views of our fair city. And it has great food and drink specials during happy hour. It’s also my preferred place to sit during lunch since the sun shines in from the wall of windows. During the noon hour a long list of salads and sandwiches supplement a handful of entrees for those who prefer a lighter bite.

Trezo Mare also has one of the city’s prettiest private dining spaces. Overlooking the bluffs, the private wine room boasts the best view in the restaurant and can accommodate 48 people.

Though our evening was hit or miss, the menu is large, so had we made some different picks, we could easily have had a more memorable experience. And there are few restaurants as attractive or where it’s easy to converse with your table companions.

Trezo Mare on Urbanspoon

Pandolfi’s

If you haven’t heard of Pandolfi’s, I suspect you are not alone. But that may change now that the owners have decided to start dinner service on weekend evenings. Deli by day, Pandolfi becomes a white table cloth restaurant at night.

Even the entrance is different in the evening. Located just to the right of the deli is a door that leads diners into a narrow hallway and the host’s table. To the right is a small sitting area that was, in fact, part of a funeral home in a previous incarnation. To the left is what is usually the deli (and not a part of the old funeral home!) The counter and kitchen are blocked off by a curtain, making it feel like a totally different space. With its soft colored walls and pretty little flowers gracing each table, it’s quite charming. When full, the small room can be quite loud but in a lively, rather than obnoxious way.

We began by ordering drinks, which turned out to be not the smoothest of exercises. Though the restaurant has an adequate beer and wine list, they only have a smattering of cocktails. As a result, those wanting hard liquor went with what was on hand, not what they would normally have ordered. But the pours were generous, which made up for the lack of choice.

The menu is also small, but large enough that some decisions had to be made.

We started with an assortment of crostini, which turned out to be the weakest part of the meal. Far from memorable, the toppings were rather pedestrian. The ricotta was billed as being homemade, but tasted more like a dry feta and was crumbly, not creamy or smooth. And the bread (which also made an appearance in the bread basket) was a basic sliced French baguette.

After that tentative start, things improved dramatically. The Caesar salad came with warm polenta croutons which melted in your mouth as you bit into them,and the arugula salad, while fairly standard, came with a huge round of goat cheese.

With the exception of an undercooked and bland penne pasta with pesto and shrimp, the entrees were quite delightful. The vegetarian lasagna was not at all traditional, rather the serving was round, with perfect thin layers separating the ingredients. It was as delicious as it was attractive.

The scallops were fabulous. Sweet and plump, sitting atop spaghetti squash and a light blanket of saffron beurre blanc sauce, it was as satisfying as what you’d find at some of Kansas City’s more upscale and expensive dining establishments. The short ribs with polenta may not have been as exciting, but they were fall-off-the-bone tender and paired well with creamy polenta.

The six of us shared two desserts,which didn’t make it around the table twice. The tiramisu was rich and properly liquored up, while the zeppole (tiny doughnuts) were just the right size for popping in your mouth after first dipping them in chocolate sauce. They are the the Italian equivalent of Mexican churros, similar to what I’ve had at Mestizo.

Service was competent and it’s clear they are working hard to make sure everyone has an enjoyable experience. The chef made the rounds and offered his thanks for coming. Despite a few less than perfect dishes,  none of us cared. It was such a pleasant evening; we’d all go back in a minute.

Pandolfi's on Urbanspoon

Nica’s 320

Nica’s 320 recently took over the old Shiraz space on Southwest Boulevard. The original Nica’s Cafe was out south before its owners negotiated for a bigger space in the Crossroads. Loaded with the same charm and a courtyard as Shiraz, Nica’s 320 looks like it’s been around forever.

The menu is quite unique. Diners devise their own dishes using potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, pasta, salad, pizza or a typical entree (steak, fish, chicken, scallops) as the basic platform. The “flavor choices” sound like a trip around the world–Thai, Caribbean, Cajun, French, and Italian, with Veghead and Ranchero rounding out the selections. Each style is described on the menu, and mixing and matching is encouraged. As an example, Nico’s noodles can be baked Margarita style with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil, and artichoke hearts; Ranchero with chorizo, corn, roasted peppers, candied jalapenos, Cajun with Andouille, shrimp, chicken, candied jalapenos and olive tapenade; or Veghead with candied pecans, spinach, roasted peppers and wild mushrooms. It looks like the menu is huge, but the same ingredients are used repeatedly.

In addition to trying the noodles, we had a grilled Caesar salad with a Thai Caesar vinaigrette. The dressing was fine, though I’m not sure I would have recognized it as being Thai. The Pupusa Medusa appetizer is Salvadoran in style, a cross between a tamale and a tortilla. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s going to be as authentic as what can be found at El Pulgarcito. The pupusa looked similar, but wasn’t as soft or fluffy, nor was the slaw topping as spicy.

We also ordered the 3 Stooges, an appetizer with three “tacos”. I use that term loosely, because they were unlike any tacos I’ve ever seen. There were three fillings–supposedly Cajun, Carnitas , and Thai chicken, served with sesame slaw and jerk salsa, though we were we were clearly eating steak and pineapple, not Andouille and shrimp, so we must have been given a Caribbean filling instead of the Cajun (but we liked it, so it wasn’t a big deal). In any event, they were served with three very thin and greasy tortillas that were so brittle there was no way to form a taco. The best we could do was break them into chips and add a bit of each filling on top. It’s a dish that clearly needs to be reworked (and maybe it has since that particular visit in October).

The restaurant is new, having only been open a few months, and it always takes time to get the kinks out, but it’s a fine effort and reasonably priced. I admire the creativity, but the dishes were a bit too contrived. Perhaps the other combinations will be more successful, certainly putting some of these ingredients in an omelette at breakfast, or in a sandwich at lunch is an appealing notion. And I’ve seen pictures of the beignets, housemade ice cream sandwiches and chocolate stuffed wonton, so I definitely will be going back for breakfast….and dessert.

Nica's 320 on Urbanspoon

Locanda Verde–New York City

Locanda Verde has been on the map for quite some time. This charming Italian hot spot in Tribeca is owned by Andrew Carmellini, who just added The Dutch to his resume. Securing a reservation for dinner is no easy task, so rather than eat super early or late, we opted for brunch. Tables started filling slowly at 11:00 am, but by the time we left at 12:30, the place was packed and people were hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for people like us to abandon our table. To the waiter’s credit, we were never rushed as I’ve heard often happens in New York City restaurants. (In Kansas City would you ever be offered a dessert menu only be told by your server a few minutes later that you couldn’t order dessert because they needed to turn the table? True story…..)

No such issue at Locanda Verde as we took our time settling in and perusing the menu, which had so many appealing options that we couldn’t decide what to order.

At Locanda Verde I only took two photos before I was informed by management that they don’t allow diners to take pictures. That must be a new policy because there are photos of their dishes all over the Internet which, in fact, helped me decide what to order.

We started with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta with truffle honey and burnt orange toast for the table, though we were tempted by the pastries that were beautifully displayed on a nearby counter. The server also brought some very soft and spongy focaccia which we had no trouble devouring.

Moving on, I ordered shrimp and grits with a poached egg, and it was as luscious as the server described. Other dishes at the table included a soft scrambled egg crostini with leeks and mushrooms, wood-fired baked eggs with corona beans, mozzarella and black Tuscan kale, and lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries and Meyer lemon curd. Not a dud in the group. In fact, everyone was happy and sated when we left, and I suspect a return visit is in our future. It would be hard for me not to repeat the same meal, but the dinner menu looks so amazing, I might try a little harder to score a night-time reservation.

Locanda Verde on Urbanspoon

Jasper’s Restaurant

A group of us went to Jasper’s on a recent Saturday evening, and the place was hopping! Every table was full, but we had made an early reservation and were able to secure a booth for six. It was comfy and conducive to conversation. I had not visited the restaurant in years other than to grab a quick sandwich in the Marco Polo deli side of the operation, and was reminded what a nice job the kitchen and staff do to facilitate an enjoyable evening.

This is tomato season, so of course we had to start with the freshly made mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. Though frankly the tomatoes didn’t compare to the ones we’re growing in our garden, the  mozzarella was a real treat, and it was fun to watch it being made tableside.  Having seen how easy it was to make,  I really need to get on the stick and make it at home. The texture was smooth and silky and I loved that it was slightly warm from the water that had been used to create it. If you look closely in the photo, you can see the cheese being stretched and formed. It went nicely with the rolls that are brought to the table (no paying extra for bread here, we were given as much as we desired.)

A salad also comes with each entrée. It’s your typical house Italian salad with crisp iceberg, but the dressing was tangy and the lettuce was cold, so though it was unimaginative, it was good for what is was. Full dinners and pastas are quite large, but the restaurant discourages splitting meals by hitting customers with a $6.95 charge if they choose to do so. It comes with an extra salad, but I think I’d rather see a smaller portion than adding the additional fee since so many diners can’t or don’t want to eat such massive quantities.

I had a dish off of the summer menu, Chicken Toscaini. It was a combination of diced chicken and Italian sausage, with peas, mushrooms, artichokes, and Kalamata olives, all mixed together with Jasper’s tomato sauce. Too much to eat, but I thought the ingredients worked very well together, and it was lighter on a hot night than a big bowl of pasta would have been.

But there were plenty of pastas at the table as well. A summer pasta with uncooked tomato sauce, pasta with meat sauce, Linguine Con Vongole (clams),  and Linguine Fra Diavolo (spicy) Con Scampi. Nothing mind-blowing emerged from the kitchen, but everything was certainly satisfying, on a par with Garozzo’s and Carmen’s Cafe.

We all had more than enough to fill our bellies, and told the server that we didn’t want dessert. But when she brought by the cart and started describing each of the desserts on display, we were putty in her hands. We tried the tartufo, my favorite, a peach Napoleon and traditional cannoli. I’m partial to chocolate, so I only sampled a bite of the others, but it’s obvious they have a good pastry/dessert chef on staff. The tartufo reminded me of the one I adored at Fedora’s on the Plaza. My husband and I shared one for many an anniversary treat, and we were so sad when the restaurant closed. Jasper’s version isn’t rolled in white chocolate as Fedora’s was, but the ball is made of white chocolate and sits in chocolate sauce.

We rolled out of the restaurant at that point, sated to say the least, and very  pleased with the quality of the food, service and overall experience.

Jasper's on Urbanspoon

Il Mulino Aspen

If you’ve never been to one of  Il Mulino‘s many locations, I have two words for you, “pace yourself”. I recently went to the one in Aspen–the original is in New York, though there are locations across the country and in Tokyo. From the very moment you sit down you will be inundated with food. In quick succession a waiter comes by with a chunk of cheese from a massive wheel of Parmesan, bruschetta with tomatoes and basil, lightly fried and thinly sliced zucchini, salami and a variety of breads. Who needs dinner?

After inhaling all the food set before us, we turned our attention to the menu, a feast in its own right. There’s a mouth-watering list of pastas, along with risotto, fish, veal, beef and lamb. Since there were eight of us, we thought it would be fun to sample several of the pastas, passing them around the table family style. Each of us ordered an entrée as well.

Big mistake.

The waiter brought each of us our own plate of four pastas, which taken as a whole was enough for an entire meal. Whether the waiter misunderstood our wishes and thought we wanted enough for eight, or decided to take advantage of us by giving us double what we ordered,  it’s hard to know.  But the upshot was that we felt compelled to eat the pastas because they were so outstanding, leaving little room for our entree when it arrived.

The pastas included a very light gnocchi with pesto, pappardelle with sausage, a house capellini, and mushroom ravioli. All were excellent but I thought the pasta with sausage led the parade.

Thinking we were only going to have a bite of each of the appetizer pastas, my husband and I ordered pasta for our main dish. Living in Kansas City, we don’t have the luxury of eating pasta of this quality very often, so it seemed like a good bet. With more room in my stomach, it definitely would have been. I ordered a squid ink linguine with seafood in an arrabbiata sauce, which is one of my favorites, and this was as good as it gets. My husband ordered angel hair with the same spicy tomato sauce, and he was equally enthralled. Especially since there were plenty of leftovers for the next day.

Others in our group ordered veal Parmagiana. I have NEVER seen anything as huge. It looked exactly like a 12 inch pizza, only instead of crust on the bottom there was a piece of veal with the bone still attached.

We were all ready to roll out of the gorgeous restaurant when the waiter came by with a bucket holding cold grappa for all of us. He scooped up a glass for each of us with our bill. Nice touch.

Il Mulino’s sleek ambiance and smooth service would make this a restaurant to remember even if the food had been less than stellar. Was there too much to eat? Definitely, but that was partly our fault for the way we ordered, and of course, for the way we attacked the food. Would I go back? In a heartbeat.

Il Mulino New York on Urbanspoon

Acqua Al 2 in Washington, DC

Acqua Al 2 has come to Washington, DC. Its owners know a thing or two about what constitutes authentic Italian cuisine. Started in Florence, Italy, the restaurant’s only other  North American outpost can be found in San Diego.

Acqua Al 2 took over a charming little space in the up and coming Eastern Market section of DC in early summer. Since that time, it’s been wowing diners who revel in the homemade pastas and  steaks that taste like they came straight from Tuscany.

On our visit, we couldn’t resist the pastas, sampled several and even ordered a second round. Maccheroni all Vodka looked bland but hit all the right notes with its spicy vodka tomato/cream sauce, Fussili  Lunghi  alla  Fiaccheraia, pasta with a spicy tomato sauce  proved that simple is often best, and the Cannelloni  Mascarpone  e  Funghi, certainly didn’t resemble St. Louis’s standard, but was every bit as decadent. And the gnocchi, essentially a potato dumpling, was light and airy (and then smothered in a rich cream sauce.) The homemade bread and focaccia was the ideal vehicle for mopping up all those sauces.

The two specialties of the house are the filet mignon with blueberry sauce, a combination which I just couldn’t bring myself to order, and Tuscan style rib eye (read blood rare) served on a bed of arugula, which I did order but they forgot to serve. I think it was a miscommunication rather than neglect–the server thought I was just asking how it was prepared and didn’t realize I had actually ordered it. No worries, I’ll be back and I had more than my fill that day anyway.

The restaurant is long and narrow, rustic and comforting, and on the night we were there was filled with families, groups and cozy couples. With its extensive menu, this is the kind of place where family style dining is preferred–more to try, more to love.

Acqua Al 2 on Urbanspoon

Maialino New York

For a recent trip to New York, I was armed with a long list of restaurants I was eager to try. 

One of them was Maialino, recently named best new restaurant by Zagat, and restaurateur Danny Meyer’s latest addition to his ever-expanding empire.  And, because pasta is my husband’s favorite food group, it seemed a good bet to satisfy that craving. However, I was not able to get a reservation for the night/time we requested, despite having called 28 days in advance as suggested. (This is standard for a Danny Meyer restaurant, both in terms of protocol  and difficulty in scoring a reservation.)  Rather than move around other reservations, we went for Sunday brunch instead.

A blessing in disguise, perhaps? While reviews of dinner service have been mixed, everything I had read about brunch indicated this was the time to go. Located on the first floor of the Gramercy Park Hotel, light streams in from the expansive windows, smells of rich coffee waff through the air, pastries and breads are piled high on cake plates  and many menu items are usually only found in Rome (where Meyer did extensive research before opening Maialino.)

Baked eggs in spicy tomato sauce are the perfect vehicle for the awesome bread that is brought to the table, scrambled eggs with pecorino and black pepper are light and fluffy, and the poached eggs with turnips and greens form a delightful combination.

To my husband’s delight, pasta plays a major role  at brunch, not just in the afternoon or evening hours. He chose a Roman specialty, Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe, a simple pasta with Pecorino cheese and a healthy dose of black pepper. The other selections include some form of pork, either guanciale or suckling pig ragu (except the ravioli which, like the cacio e pepe, is also heavy on the butter).

Panini, including one on chewy ciabatta with porchetta, arugula and fried eggs, round out the selections. It was substantial to say the least, but the quality of the bread (the likes of which cannot be found in Kansas City), kept me from leaving more than a few crumbs on the plate.

Maialino means “baby pig” in  Italian, so pork is king here. The thick  pepper bacon is more like chewy pork than what one thinks of as crisp bacon, but it works. Salty, fatty and rich, this side dish should be shared  to keep the arteries from instantly clogging.

The olive oil muffins and toffee glazed brioche had been highly touted, so we also ordered a couple of those as well, and we were not disappointed.

The overall effect of the dining room is mesmerizing. The layout is ingenious, with nooks and counters interspersed with  communal tables, tables for two and round tables for large groups. Wine bottles are displayed at one end, wood beams and tile floors complete the look.

For a change of pace from the typical waffle and pancake brunch, you’ll do no better than Maialino, but make a reservation!

Maialino on Urbanspoon