Burger Stand at the Casbah

The Burger Stand first operated in Dempsey’s Pub. About 18 months ago culinary couples Molly and Robert Krause and  Simon and Codi Bates moved it to the old Casbah grocery space. Now called the Burger Stand at the Casbah, it sits next door to the other restaurant the foursome own, Esquina. Esquina recently revamped its menu and switched up its cuisine from Mexican to what they are calling  “Mediterranean Food with a Spanish Flair”.

This is an order-at-a-counter operation, though if you grab a seat at the bar a bartender will wait on you. There’s also a separate line for ordering downstairs that is open on busy nights, which it was the night we visited. I suspect it’s always packed on game nights, but they do a good job of getting the orders out and turning the tables. We stood in line for about 25 minutes, ordered our burgers and a pitcher of beer, and were lucky enough to snag a booth where we waited for our name to be called. The pick up area is in the back, down a few steps, where diners can also  pump their own ketchups into little paper cups for dipping fries.

The Burger Stand offers several vegetarian options, but we opted for the black bean burger (as opposed to lentil or tofu) and it now has a prominent spot on my list of favorite veggie burgers. The poblano salsa and pepper jack cheese gave it some spice and my addition of cactus-habanero jam (which comes with the Fire Burger) kicked it up a notch.

I rarely eat a real beef burger, so when I do I want it to be really something special. The Black and Blue obliged on all fronts. It was incredibly flavorful and juicy, a perfect medium rare as ordered, the big chunk of bleu cheese impacted every bite and the apple chutney added a bit of cool. I realized when I was nearing my last bite that I hadn’t added ketchup or mustard, which is as natural a motion to me as people who salt something before tasting it. The burger was perfectly composed as it was.

The Burger Stand offers a ton of  homemade sauces for dunking the burger or fries…. cherry-pepper ketchup, guajillo-chili dip and parmesan-roasted garlic aioli, and  a variety of mustards.

The french fries were my least favorite part of the meal. I thought the sweet potato fries were better than the duck fat fries or the truffle fries. I’m a skin-on lady, so these didn’t do much for me, but my dining companions were less picky and enjoyed them. I’d have to give Blanc Burger the nod on the fries, but I’d drive back to Lawrence for those burgers.

The Burger Stand recently opened a second location in Topeka. I know there are plenty of burger joints in Kansas City, but I’d love to see the next expansion eastward so I don’t have to drive so far for one of those black bean burgers…..

 The Burger Stand at the Casbah  on Urbanspoon

Esquina in Lawrence

Note: I just received an email from the owners alerting its customers that Esquina’s concept will be changing…..the cuisine will be Mediterranean in focus, and will offer table rather than counter service. The restaurant will close temporarily on Feb. 10 and reopen for business on Feb. 19. I’m posting this anyway, but be aware that you only have 5 short days to sample Esquina’s delicious fare in its current form!

Esquina is the brainchild of Molly and Robert Krause of the beloved and now closed Krause dining. Having a restaurant in their home was all-consuming, so they turned to more casual endeavors. Hence Esquina and its sister restaurant and neighbor on Mass Ave., the Burger Stand at the Casbah.

If Esquina was in Kansas City, I would be a frequent visitor (hear that Robert and Molly?). As it is, I have to content myself with a fix or two during basketball season, and that’s only if I’m not sampling the competition… there are certainly a multitude of fun and fabulous restaurants in Lawrence.

Logistically the restaurant is similar to Spin, where diners order and pay at the counter, and then a server delivers food directly to the table. You have to fetch your own silverware and soft drinks, but if you order from the bar, your alcoholic beverage will be brought to the table as well. Service is quick and friendly, and no one will shoo along those who choose to linger. The Gringo margarita is hard to beat at a ridiculously low $2.50.

Each meal comes with complimentary chips and homemade fire-roasted salsa. Though my husband could easily have made a meal from them, he was also enthralled by the trio of sauces that are at the table, the way ketchup and mustard would be featured at a burger joint. Diners can add either jerk, chipotle and/or a fiery habanaro sauce to any order, allowing customization and individual heat adjustment.

On my first visit, I had a bowl of posole, which was prepared in the finest Mexican tradition. It’s broth based, with spoonfuls of hominy and shredded pork, and topped with radish and avocado slices. A bit salty for my taste, but I tend to undersalt my food so I am especially sensitive to it.

I always gravitate towards chilaquiles when I see them on a menu, as each chef puts its own spin on a dish that was originally invented as a way to use up leftover tortillas. A layered tortilla casserole, it is baked with a chipotle tomato sauce that soaks into the tortillas. In some renditions the tortillas retain a bit of crunch; this one was soft and the layers became one. It was then topped with two fried eggs and, to gild the lily, a queso sauce. Made for the novice Mexican food eater, it will appeal to those with tame tastebuds. I’m a “the spicier the better” kind of gal, but it was still rich and satisfying.

Even better was the El Jefe burrito I recently enjoyed. Aptly described on the menu as a GIANT burrito, it is stuffed with garlic potatoes, slaw, rice, beans and smothered in sauces. When I asked the woman at the register what the sauces would be, she told me there was a red sauce, a green sauce and a cheese sauce, and as you can see from the photo, they all run together into yummy goodness. I’d order it again in a heartbeat.

Everyone else at the table ordered enchiladas, though each with different protein fillings: purple potato and garlic puree filling; chicken and black bean; and shredded pork with pineapple salsa. Though the salsa verde that topped the enchiladas didn’t send anyone over the moon with rapture, there was universal praise for the beans. Smokey and cooked in a rich sauce resembling mole, they were hearty and as exciting as a side of beans can be.

Robert and Molly Krause are both very talented and savvy restaurateurs, and nice people. My only beef with them is that their first foray out of Lawrence was to Topeka, not Kansas City. But hopefully at some point they’ll expand eastward.

Esquina on Urbanspoon

Zen Zero-Lawrence

Zen Zero in Lawrence is packed every night, regardless of the wind chill factor or whether KU is playing basketball. That’s probably because it serves comforting soups, noodles and Asian specialties in a laid-back setting, with prices that are affordable for the many college students who frequent it. It reminds me very much of Lulu’s noodle shop on Southwest Blvd in Kansas City.

We started with Momos, Himalayan dumplings with charred tomato chutney and spicy sesame dipping sauce. A riff on the traditional steamed dumplings, the only real difference was the sauces that they came with–both were tasty.

I’m not a big coconut milk fan, which is why I was happy to see a curry dish on the menu that didn’t have it. The Dry Red Thai Curry with chicken and served with long beans was every bit as good as the same item on the Thai Place menu.

The Drunken noodles were hearty and flavorful. The flat noodles were tossed with oyster sauce, onions, peppers, tomatoes and Thai basil. Medium is quite spicy, so be ready to down lots of water if you order it that way.

The only downside of the dinner was that there were only two of us and we couldn’t try all the dishes we wanted to sample, but that can be easily remedied by a return visit.

Zen Zero on Urbanspoon

Five 21–Oread Hotel Restaurant in Lawrence

You’ve got to check out the new Oread Hotel Restaurant in Lawrence. It’s ten stories of stone and dark wood, complete with restaurants, bars and even a nightclub in a “cave” in the basement. Sitting atop Mount Oread, it has a tremendous view of the KU campus and beyond.

We were there before a KU game and had hoped to eat in the Bird Dog Bar, but there was a 90 minute wait at 6 pm. So we opted for the more upscale Five 21 just down the hall. The restaurant is an extension of the rest of the interior, more stone, wood and picture windows. Very attractive, with low lighting.

We sampled several appetizers and a couple of entrees, all of which were good and nicely presented. The chicken with mashed potatoes was the winner of the evening, easily as moist and tender as I can remember having in a restaurant. The vegetarian entree was thankfully not your typical steamed vegetable platter–instead there was a perfect mold of sweet potato hash, surrounded by salad greens and perfectly cooked green beans. Other options include salmon, duck and filet.

The crispy shrimp with cashew slaw was tasty, as was the bruschetta with tomatoes, apricots and Gorgonzola, not a combination I would ever have dreamed up, but it worked. The crab dip was a little too rich and creamy for my taste, though it was a substantial portion.

Would I rush back? Probably not. Dinner was certainly enjoyable and competently executed, though not memorable. Would it succeed in another setting? Unlikely, but it’s certainly worth a visit just to experience the casual elegance of the Oread Hotel.

Wheatfields Bakery in Lawrence

Wheatfields is practically an institution in Lawrence, a go-to place for fresh artisan breads, as well as three meals a day.

More than a dozen varieties are lovingly prepared in a wood-fired oven-my favorite is the Kalamata Olive. And if a full loaf is too much to handle, try the mini-boule. It’s the right size for two dainty eaters or one hearty one.

The sandwiches are made to eat in-house or to-go. The Turkey and Cranberry Relish on walnut sage bread is a good choice at this time of year, but you can’t go wrong whatever you choose.

Wheatfields Bakery on Urbanspoon

The Burger Stand

Looking for a mouth-watering, juicy burger in downtown Lawrence? This is the spot. The Burger Stand-LawrenceIt is here that  the humble burger rises to new heights, with upscale options like bison, kobe beef and falfel burgers, and duckfat and truffle fries.  The Burger Stand is in the back of Dempsey’s Irish Pub, an unusual arrangement that works well for Dempsey’s,  as well as Burger Stand’s culinary team of  Robert and Molly Krause, and Simon and Codi Bates. The Krauses are the owners of the soon-to-close Krause Dining and a soon-to-open casual Latin American venue on Mass Ave.

No trend has been more predominant in Kansas City than the gourmet burger, and in Lawrence it is pulling in customers to Dempsey’s that would otherwise never know the place existed. It’s a welcoming bar that now has good food to go along with all those beers on tap.

My favorite is the bison burger, unfortunately not a regular menu item. I have also enjoyed the vegetarian burger, an unlikely combination that features green beans and romesco sauce atop a robust lentil patty. Even the classic is prepared as a burger should be, with a top quality blend of meat.  A recent special featured a Mexican pork burger with housemade mole sauce. In fact, all of the sauces, from cherry-pepper ketchup to a guajillo-chile dip are made in house. I enjoyed the fries, though I have yet to find duckfat fries as memorable as those I had at Duckfat in Portland, Maine. So I stick to the traditional or sweet potato fries at the Burger Stand, no hardship to be sure.

The Burger Stand offers  friendly service with those burgers, so for a quick bite before a KU game, put this on your list.

Dempsey's Irish Pub on Urbanspoon

715 Mass–Lawrence

715 Mass is not your typical college town restaurant.  Sleek, modern and trendy, this Italian cafe would more likely be found in a big city than in the small town of Lawrence. It has a vibe to it that will appeal as much to professors and lawyers as students. One striking design note–a wall of green water bottles are spotlighted to great effect.

715 opens daily at 7:15 A.M.  for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even has a late-night menu.  The kitchen focuses on pizza and pasta, with panini, salads and a few entrees rounding out the menu. I had a four-cheese pizza, which I watched being hand-tossed and put in a wood-burning oven. The crust was well-charred and had a chewy texture, but would have benefited greatly from more than a dash of salt. The rabbit confit salad with arugula and grilled radicchio was tossed with a flavorful citrus vinaigrette. The pastas are handmade and both of the ones we tried were tasty and cooked perfectly. They come in single or double portions–be sure to specify which you want if your server doesn’t ask. The menu has a few vegetables that can be ordered as sides, I loved the brussel sprouts with dates and almonds.

In line with a growing trend, bread and butter are extra, not a practice I embrace. I know it’s a recession-buster, and it does keep my husband from continually putting his hand in the bread basket, but it doesn’t feel hospitable to me.

Wine can be ordered by the bottle or glass, and house wines are also available by the half-litre or litre. THAT is a cost-saving measure I wholeheartedly endorse.

Breakfast is light, and features croissants, granola, fruit and biscotti, as well as waffles and a wide variety of coffee drinks.

Add this congenial spot to your list of places to try before a Jayhawks basketball game this season. Walk-in traffic is encouraged, as only a few reservations are taken each evening.

Cafe Beautiful-Lawrence

As we walked into Cafe Beautiful, my son and I were immediately captivated by the serene tableau that lay before us. Two tables were carefully set, scented candles filled the air, the lighting was low, and Frank Sinatra crooned in the background. The living room of the chef/owner’s apartment, on the second floor of a non-descript building on Massachusetts Ave in Lawrence, was the unlikely setting for a memorable and relaxing evening.

Chef Ken Suken is a delight. He is committed to ensuring his guests are happy–he’s the host of a very intimate party and we were the only guests.  One table at a time allows him to focus all of his attention on cooking, serving…and washing dishes.  And, while the other table in the room was booked with a later reservation, Chef Suken assured us that we should feel free to linger as our table was reserved for us the entire evening.

We settled in with the wine we had brought, leaned back in our comfortable chairs, and prepared to be dazzled. Which we were, right from the get-go. From the first course to the eighth and last, the production was unlike anything either of us had ever experienced. This is one talented man.

Each course was well-timed and came with a complete and poetic description of what was on the plate. I expected the food to be good, but I was unprepared for the depth and texture of flavors, and picture-perfect presentation. Though I took a picture of all the courses,  they simply did not adequately depict the care and pride that Chef Suken showered us with throughout the evening.

The pictures below have captions that describe each dish. (For some reason, I am missing the 5th course, which was king salmon with an asian pear reduction sauce, paired with king crab salad and mustard sauce.) We finished with a sweet pomegranate tea.

miso soup with seafood, vegetables-Cafe Beautiful-Lawrence

Miso Soup with seafood, tofu and vegetables

fruit salad with ginger dressing-Cafe Beautiful-Lawrence

Fruit salad with ginger dressing

custard with shrimp

egg custard with shrimp baked in a baby pumpkin

Seafood salad with butterflied shrimp and seared white tuna topped with wasabi vinaigrette

Seafood salad with butterflied shrimp and seared white tuna, topped with wasabi vinaigrette

Red snapper with a citrus soy sauce in an ice "bowl"

red snapper sashimi with a citrus soy sauce served in an "ice bowl"

Eel in eel sauce, with vegetable sushi

Eel with eel sauce, and vegetable sushi

This is an ideal place to go with a close friend or family member with whom you enjoy spending time. There are no distractions–it’s just you and your companion(s) for more than two hours, so pick wisely! You will leave happy, relaxed and satisfied.

Be sure to call ahead. Since Cafe Beautiful only seats eight, it’s reservations only, no walk-ins.

Cafe Beautiful on Urbanspoon

Krause Dining in Lawrence

Krause Dining--back roomPumpkin Bisque with lobster--Krause DiningTime is running out to get thee to Krause before it closes in mid-January. Treat yourself to an exceptional (albeit expensive) evening. You need only pick up the phone and make a reservation without delay, it’s booking up quickly as fans make one last pilgrimage to this extraordinary restaurant.

This is a no menu type of place–chef’s choice. Six or seven small but intensely flavored courses, best enjoyed with the offered wine pairings. Each plate is a portrait of color, each bite a revelation. Robert Krause-Skillet of wild mushrooms

We enjoyed escargot (out of their shells) and chestnuts with beet and fava bean purees, pumpkin bisque with lobster, an immense diver scallop with parsnip puree, Diver Scallop--Krausemushrooms on brioche, duck two ways with couscous, a duo of wasabi granita and pana cotta, and chocolate souffle injected with decadent chocolate sauce. These simplistic labels (and muted photos) don’t do justice to the skill and creativity of Chef Robert Krause, but hopefully they will spur some interest and motivate you to experience this little bit of nirvana before it’s too late.

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Teller’s Restaurant in Lawrence, KS

My husband and I recently went to Lawrence to see a KU football game. Though the Jayhawks didn’t have a successful aftTeller's Restaurant-Lawrenceernoon, our outing was salvaged by dinner at Teller’s restaurant. From the service to the pizza to the nightly special, it was an enjoyable experience. It’s in a former bank building, hence the name, but other than the exterior, there are only minor vestiges of its former life. The interior is certainly not stuffy or staid, rather  casual and quite comfortable.

Our server was very knowledgeable about the nightly specials, the preparation of every dish on the menu we asked about, as well as beer and wine selections.He was friendly, but certainly not obsequious. His recommendation of a red Duroc pork chop included a short dissertation on its origins and flavor. Red Duroc Pork Chop-Teller'sIt was a great choice, as was the pizza we shared as an appetizer. (For those of you who live in the area, consider stopping by to buy some dough, available even for those not dining there.) My husband was delighted when the server asked if he wanted freshly grated parmesan on his house-made pasta. As usual, they stopped grating before he said “when”.Pizza-Teller's-Lawrence

The bread was fresh and chewy. I suspect it came from Wheatfield’s Bakery on Vermont, just a couple blocks away, which I love. It was served on a rectangular wood block, with two small piles of salt and pepper to season the olive oil.

Teller’s has long been a popular spot on Massachusetts and is usually packed. If you don’t make a reservation, there’s a cozy bar to pass the time.

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