First Taste: 801 Fish

801 Fish in Park Place is the newest addition to the 801 Restaurant Group.  Rather than the heavy and more traditional steakhouse feel of 801 Chophouse, 801 Fish is decked out in a light and contemporary nautical theme. Very expensive, but with a dock to door  in 24 hours motto so everything is as fresh as can be. Accordingly, the menu changes daily depending on what the chef can get in.the Bar at 801 Fish

We began the evening by sharing a shrimp cocktail containing four massive shrimp and  an excellent spicy cocktail sauce. The shrimp were succulent and tasted as fresh as the water from which they came.P1020326

Entrees range from roasted lobster and scallops to cioppino and surf and turf.Squid Salad

I started with a nice but unexciting squid salad with white beans and arugula and then moved on to grilled octopus. Though the dressing needed more oomph, the octopus was tender and properly prepared so it didn’t suffer from the rubbery texture that deter many people from ordering this mollusk.

Octopus--801 FishP1020329

The beet salad was beautifully presented and a nice light starter.

My husband enjoyed his seared tuna with soba noodles in dashi broth, a preparation that was more creative than one would typically find in a traditional fish house. He also tried the gnocchi with tomato sauce, choosing this side dish as his appetizer. They were light and airy, suggesting that Chef Alex Shifman’s expertise goes beyond fish prep.

Gnocchi--801 FishP1020333

The other couple with whom we dined each ordered the Roasted Branzino, a whole fish that was deboned by the server, and large enough to be shared. The bass was light and flakey and fortunately came with a side since it was one of the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Service was attentive, though they did forget our order of Brussel Sprouts until we brought it to their attention. When we opted not to place another order, we were offered a free dessert instead. Though we declined, it was an appropriate and appreciated gesture.P1020325

801 Fish is definitely not conducive for a casual meal. Though one could easily sit at the beautiful bar and quaff a glass of wine and slurp down some oysters, a full meal here requires big bucks, corporate expense account preferred, similar to its sister restaurant 801 Chophouse. But Jimmy Lynch, who also owns Pig and Finch, knows how to operate a restaurant, so I suspect we’ll see a second location of 801 Fish somewhere else in the city before too long.810 FishSeafood bar--801 Fish

801 Fish on Urbanspoon

Pig & Finch

Pig & Finch is the area’s latest gastropub, a term defined broadly to encompass a restaurant that has a pub-like atmosphere serving high-end beer and wine, paired with upscale comfort food. Pig & Finch is owned by the 801 Chophouse folks and is located next door to the 801 Chophouse in Park Place. P1010081Pig & Finch

Relatively sedate during the day, Pig & Finch comes alive at night. It feels fun and energetic, and the lighting is extremely effective, allowing the numerous pig wall paintings to pop. And though there’s a definite hip factor, happily the noise level in the dining room is manageable. If you go with a group, consider booking the community table. Positioned right in front of the kitchen, it’s a great perch from which to watch the cooking and dishes being plated. Don’t miss the clever wine bottle chandelier that hovers above the table.The community table at Pig & Finch

I’ve had several very fine meals at Pig and Finch, grazing through a menu that ranges from a Kale Caesar to an oversized and fall-off-the-bone tender lamb shank. The only loser in the mix was the Gruner salad. It was quite bland, with unexciting ingredients; more befitting of a coffee shop than what I would think possible considering the chef’s creativity in all other parts of the menu.Kale Caesar--Pig & Finch

Those readers who follow me know I’m a sucker for good French fries, and the Finch fries satisfy my requirements–not too thin, not too thick, crisp, with the skins on.Finch Fries and Gruner Salad--Pig & Finch

The short rib grilled cheese is heavy on the meat, rich and delicious. This seems to be the new “it” sandwich. I’ve had renditions of it at both Gram and Dun and Anton’s. It’s served with housemade chips, but I recommend ordering the appetizer of potato chips with a blue cheese sauce for the table. Though the chips were a bit greasy, it didn’t stop all of us from devouring them.Potato Chips and Blue Chese--Pig & Finch

Flatbreads are also good for sharing. The toppings were better than the crust, which wasn’t all that impressive. It was nice and thin, but missed on the density. I did love the balsamic glaze on the tomato mozzarella flatbread.Tomato and mozzarella flatbread--Pig & Finchlamb burger-- Pig & finch

The lamb shank is the restaurant’s specialty and it’s easy to see why. It’s expensive, but you’re treated to a huge piece of meat. Tender and moist, it went well with the smashed potatoes and root vegetables.Lamb Shank--Pig & Finch

I loved the duck cassoulet. It’s not a dish you see on menus around town, so it was a treat. The duck was tender, the pork belly added another layer of complexity to the dish and the white beans were lovely.Duck Cassoulet--Pig & Finch

The menu also features two burgers, one with lamb and the other that’s all beef.

If you like pork, the Pig chop is thick cut, very juicy with a touch of pink, and served with a homemade mustard that marries well with the pork and the brussel sprouts hash that accompanied it.Grilled Pig Chop--Pig & Finch

Pig & Finch is the latest entry in a growing list of interesting and fun independently owned restaurants to open in Leawood. Hopefully, it will have a longer life than its predecessor in the space, Trezo Vino, which started out hot and then fizzled.Pig & Finch

Pig & Finch on Urbanspoon

Rye

Colby and Megan Garrelts have another hit on their hands. Most Kansas Citians know of Bluestem in Westport, but the Garrelts have branched out…going south to Leawood and changing up the style and cuisine with their new restaurant, Rye. They have taken over a space that had been thrice doomed, but it would appear that the fourth time is a charm.Rye

Rye is all about regional cuisine, employing ingredients from our area and foods we Midwesterners have been comforted by for years. But Chef Colby puts his own creative spin on each dish, making them unique without losing their heritage. Several family recipes grace the menu, having been reinterpreted to match Colby’s sensibilities. Those readers familiar with Husk in Charleston will recognize the concept. Chef Sean Brock was among the first to focus on the regionality of food, which Colby sees as a natural evolution from the farm-to-table concept that has swept the country, and he wanted to be a part of that.The wine cabinet--RyeThe chef's counter--Rye

The restaurant itself was crafted with distressed wood, and features a wine storage cabinet that was designed by Megan and constructed by her uncle. There’s a beautiful bar to the right as you enter the restaurant, and an open kitchen highlighted by copper fixtures and subway tiles with a small chef’s counter in the back. RyeIn between is a large space with all hard surfaces that is very loud when the restaurant is full. I know restaurants want to create a certain vibe, but when it’s hard to talk to your table mates, I do think it impacts one’s enjoyment of the overall experience. A little baffling might be in order here to tone it down just a bit.

Perhaps the hope is that the food will be good enough that diners will endure the noise. For the most part, I would say that’s true although, like Bluestem, I consider this a special occasion restaurant. Not because it’s fancy or expensive, but rather because it’s not the type of food that you should eat every day. This is hearty and heart-clogging fare, finger-licking good though it may be. Since opening, they have tweaked the menu and now offer salmon prepared simply, but there are not many healthy options other than the salads. The beet salad with arugula and Green Dirt Farm sheep’s milk was a nice way to start, but unless you get a double order it would not be enough to order for your entrée. Beet salad--Rye

Having sampled much of the menu, I have developed my favorites, including the smoked ribs. Stacked like Lincoln logs, they are brushed with homemade barbecue sauce and served with creamed greens and delightful homemade pickles that remind me of the classic pickled cucumber salad of my youth. Fried chicken is clearly the biggest seller as evidenced by seeing at least one order of it on every table as I have wandered to the bathroom or been ushered to my own table. With good reason I might add. I am not a fried chicken lover, and I would guess that it’s been at least 5 years since I’ve had any. But the baskets here are for sharing, so I did try a chicken leg on my initial visit, and I can easily see why it gets so many raves. The skin is crisp and entirely devoid of grease, and the chicken is moist and flavorful. Smoked ribs--Rye

The mac and cheese was another winner, made even better by our waiter’s suggestion to perk it up with some of the hot sauce that sits on each table. Macaroni and Cheese--RyeThat’s not a combination I would ever have considered, and I was very pleased with the result. In addition to the bottle of XXX hot sauce, there’s a Royal Steak sauce and a BBQ sauce for the taking as well, a gesture that I love and is also employed at Port Fonda.Table sauces at Rye

If you’re ever been to the Garrelts’ Bluestem Lounge, you may recognize the shrimp and grits dish that’s on the menu. Different name, slightly different rendition, same deliciousness.Buttered Hot Shrimp--Rye

The hamburger was excellent. It was quite hefty with caramelized onions and mushrooms, and a fresh, soft bun that didn’t overwhelm the burger. It was very flavorful and, despite the fact that I ordered it rare and it came medium with barely a hint of pink, I still enjoyed it, which has to be a reflection of the quality of the meat itself. The burger comes with an order of the cottage fries, which are addictive."Cool Pop" Burger--Rye

There’s a separate steak menu, running the gamut from rib eye and porterhouse to lamb and pork chops from Arrowhead Meats and, though I haven’t yet ordered from that list, I would bet they are on a par or better than what you’d find at any of the steakhouses in our area.

And then there is that basket of homemade breads–the cornbread muffins melt in your mouth, no butter required.

Of all the dishes I’ve sampled, the only real disappointment was the Brussel sprouts. They were roasted to a proper doneness, but they weren’t particularly exciting or interesting.

The desserts, on the other hand, were awesome. Meyer lemon meringue pie-RyeMegan’s talents as a pastry chef shine here. Unlike at Bluestem where each dessert is a work of art, at Rye it’s all about the taste. They look good of course, but it’s the flavors that wow. The Meyer lemon meringue pie is tart and will definitely make your mouth pucker. The Mo Kan Pie is her riff on pecan pie, with an assortment of nuts and a chewy decadent filling. A trip back to one’s childhood comes free with a milk float and assorted cookies.Apple crisp--RyeMo Kan pie--Rye

In addition to evening hours, Rye is open for lunch during the week and brunch on the weekends.Rye

Rye on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Week Part 2: Gaslight Grill

I had never been to Gaslight Grill before, so when offered a complimentary preview of its Restaurant Week menu, I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit. It’s located in Leawood, in the space that at one time occupied the south location of Plaza III.Gaslight Grill

The restaurant is quite large, and consists of a cozy bar, a dining room with soaring ceilings, and a back room where diners can listen to jazz while they enjoy their dinner.

We started with a very nice kale salad with a lemon dressing, goat cheese and sliced almonds, and a grilled asparagus and portobello mushroom salad that was light and flavorful. The other RW appetizer is a hummus trio with pita.Asparagus and Portabello--Gaslight GrillKale salad--Gaslight Grill

My husband and I aren’t big meat eaters, and though I gather from looking at the regular menu that beef is the restaurant’s specialty, I was glad to see that the Restaurant Week menu has other attractive options.Roast Chicken--Gaslight Grill

We shared pan roasted salmon with leek risotto, and roast chicken atop a sweet potato cake with tasso ham gravy. Both entrees came out piping hot, and tasted every bit as good as they looked. Had we wanted meat, the RW menu features filet mignon with potato puree and broccoli.Salmon with leek risotto--Gaslight Grill

By this time we were full, but since Restaurant Week meals include dessert, how could we resist? Though we didn’t make it through the beautiful multi-layered carrot cake tower, it wasn’t for lack of interest. The white chocolate cheesecake was also a treat, but part of it went in the doggy box as well.Carrot Cake--Gaslight GrillWhite chocolate cheesecake--Gaslight Grill

Our experience was enhanced by the server who waited on us. The GM may have assigned us their best waiter because he wanted to make a good impression; in any event I can’t imagine there is a better server in the house than Marcus. When we return, I will certainly ask to be seated in his section. He was extremely professional, friendly and attentive, without being obsequious.

Many of the restaurants that are part of the RW roster fill up and won’t be able to accommodate diners if they wait too long to make a reservation. But Gaslight Grill can handle almost 400 guests, so don’t hesitate to give them a call. You won’t be disappointed.

Restaurant Week ends January 27. It’s not too late to participate.

Gaslight Grill on Urbanspoon

Fo Thai

Walking into Fo Thai for the first time, I was briefly disoriented. In addition to the very dark setting, I wondered if I was in Las Vegas or at Epcot Center in Florida’s Disney World complex. When I asked the hostess where the bathroom was, she told me to go “past the Buddha and over the bridge”. Along the way, I passed exotic flowers, tented seating areas in the lounge and, oh yea, that Buddha.

The bathrooms are equally unique. Though the common area is unisex, the toilets and urinals are enclosed in little stalls that the user closes off by pulling a rounded door reminiscent of a cattle door on a rail car. It took longer than I was in there for my eyes to adjust to the dark lighting, and I never did see where my used paper towel was supposed to land after washing my hands.

I suspect everyone who first experiences Fo Thai concentrates the dialogue on the bathrooms, but food is served here as well. Beautifully presented, ours was also well-explained by our server. Lunch is a simpler affair than dinner; Featured Selections come with a featured appetizer and iced or hot tea. The appetizers are served family-style–it’s a good thing we were happy to do so though we weren’t ask if we were sharing. We chose 7 spice calamari with mango salsa, and vegetable spring rolls, a substitution for the Curry Chicken spring roll on the menu. Though I couldn’t identify the sauce that came with it, I could have easily spooned it by itself had I not been in polite company. The calamari was very light, greaseless and perfectly cooked, though if there were 7 spices, I missed all of them.

Our server steered me toward the Pad Thai rather than the Red Curry Noodle soup with shrimp, clams, mussels, tofu and long beans in coconut curry broth. He said it was more traditional than others around town, so I decided to give it a try. I ordered it hot, which I would probably equate with medium at the Thai Place. Though not saucy like the Thai Place’s version, it had a nice flavor and the veggie version came with crisp pea pods and tofu.

The wok stir-fried shrimp with Thai basil soy glaze has received a fair amount of coverage, perhaps because the shrimp are plump and tasty. As advertised, the sauce really is a glaze and would have been a bit overpowering on its own–it needed the rice that comes with the dish to soak some of it up.

I chose to go at lunch because of the chatter I had heard about the evening experience. I know it’s much louder and more expensive at dinnertime, but after the pleasant hour we spent at lunch, I may just check it out for myself.

Fo Thai on Urbanspoon

Mestizo

Aaron Sanchez of the Food Network recently chose Leawood as the site of his first restaurant outside the New York City environs.  In keeping with his roots  (he grew up at the knee of NY acclaimed restaurateur Zarela Martinez),Mestizo features upscale Mexican fare with a flair. The contemporary interior comes alive with bright colors, red light fixtures  and a funky wrought iron bar chandelier. Busy servers streak by in dark purple shirts that complement the orange chairs and booths.  In the evenings, when the music is turned up and the bar is five deep with “youngsters” are on the prowl, it can be quite loud. By contrast, the lunch hour is tame and civilized. There’s also a cool looking deck on the roof, complete with fire pits and heaters. One can only imagine what it will be like on hot summer nights.

The first time I went to Mestizo our server encouraged us to start with an assortment of drinks from the extensive cocktail list. He was helpful in steering us away from the many sweet concoctions.  I ordered a Prickly Pear Margarita, with Charro Silver, Agave Nectar, Cointreau, Prickly Pear Juice and sugar. As much as I enjoyed it, it resembled fruit punch more than an alcoholic drink. After sampling some of my table mates’, I think I’ll stick with the basic margarita in the future. If you’re a tequila drinker, the list is extensive and impressive.

I usually judge a restaurant by its salsa, but in this instance I’m glad I got past it. The fire roasted salsa that comes complimentary with crisp tortilla chips tasted to us more like spaghetti sauce (although on a subsequent visit I was the only one of my group who thought so). Not a good start, but that was the extent of my dismay as the evening progressed.

Fortunately, there we was a large enough group that we able to sample a wide assortment of dishes.The guacamole was solid– well seasoned and fresh.  Moving onto the Small Plates section of the menu, we opted for the scallops.  Pepita crusted, they were properly cooked and sat atop a creamy picadillo, essentially a lima bean-free succotash. The pairing worked beautifully.

 

Crisp pork belly with agave-chipotle glaze on a bed of slaw is much more substantial than the term “small plate” would indicate. It was crispy (read:fried), so not the best option for those watching their cholesterol. Pork belly is by definition a somewhat fatty cut of meat, but each chunk was quite meaty and tender.

The chilaquiles were fabulous….and rich. Layered with chicken and cheese along with tortillas and salsa, these are more substantial than Port Fonda’s and don’t sport an egg on top. Sharing them is the way to go so as to leave room in your stomach to explore the rest of  the menu.

There are four types of tacos–pork belly, skirt steak, mahi mahi and braised tongue. I think skirt steak is an underrated cut of meat, but it’s perfect for Mexican fare. Fresh corn tortillas are made in- house in full view of diners, and it’s worth asking your server which dishes feature those tortillas just so you can sink your teeth into them. My only gripe is that the salsas that accompanied them are all lacking.  As food aficionado Jenny Vergara pointed out, they only need a touch of salt to perk them up and, though I usually never think a restaurant needs to turn up the salt, in this case I think she’s right.

On another visit we started with Queso fundido so we could have those fresh tortillas again. We chose the queso with rajas–green chile strips, but chorizo and potato or huitlacoche are also options. Though it’s intended to spoon the bubbly cheese mixture on the tortillas, scooping it up with the crisp tortilla chips isn’t a bad way to go either.

The sautéed shrimp with creamy guajillo sauce is another stunner.  The sauce has a kick which is offset by the mold of pozole that accompanies it.

Our server also recommended trying one of the entrees, and he steered us to the Grilled Recado chicken, an extremely tender 1/2 chicken that has been marinated first in roasted garlic, lime, and chipotle.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but I loved it.

Service is attentive, but on my second visit, it was almost too solicitous.  Our server interrupted our conversations way too many times to ask how everything was. It’s better than having to flag someone down I suppose, but they need to find a happy medium.

Personally, because of where I live,  I’m sorry Aaron Sanchez picked Leawood over the Plaza to put his new restaurant, but I don’t think he’ll have any regrets. His first foray into our area is certainly solid enough to keep diners coming back for more.

Mestizo on Urbanspoon

Yia Yia’s Euro Bistro

I’m always on a hunt for the latest and greatest new restaurant, so I often forget about older spots that are still playing to large crowds.

Yia’s Yia’s is a case in point. It is the last of the full service PB&J restaurants still standing, after Grand Street Cafe, Coyote Grill, Paulo and Bill’s and Yahooz closed or were sold. It continues to be packed at all hours, and is a constant in a sea of Leawood restaurants that is always in motion.

At the urging of a friend who frequents Yia’s Yia’s on a regular basis, a group of us went for lunch recently. We took advantage of the salad and sandwich combo, which allows you to order any salad and sandwich and get a half of each.

The lobster sandwich sounded like a riff on a classic club, with smoked bacon, baby arugula and tomatoes with ancho mayonnaise. Grilled on sourdough bread, it was more like a lobster salad, with the bits of lobster tossed in the mayonnaise rather than layered in chunks. It was tasty, but just off–the flavor of the lobster was lost in the mix of ingredients. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin was piled high with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, sundried tomatoes and cheese on a chewy ciabatta bun. A burger, roast turkey, grilled chicken and vegetarian sandwiches are also offered.

Bill’s Chicken salad is still a staple, having been popular on all of the PB&J menus for decades. The Grilled Salmon salad is also alive and well, the crispy shoestring potatoes  providing a welcome crunch to the salad. There is also the ubiquitous cobb, as well as a Caesar, pear and gorgonzola, Greek and steak salad.

Full entrees and wood fired pizzas round out the extensive menu and, in a nice touch, instead of serving butter with their bread, baba ganoush is brought to the table.

The tri-level restaurant was packed for lunch and reservations are still hard to come by on the weekends. There is also an outdoor seating area that is very popular in warm weather.

My visit to Yia Yia’s was a reminder that new is not always better. There’s something to be said for reliable.

 

Yia Yia's Euro Bistro on Urbanspoon

Trezo Vino Wine Bistro

Trezo Vino in Park Place has a new menu that I recently had the opportunity to sample. We were treated to a five course dinner, which we enjoyed from start to finish, though some dishes definitely stood out.

We started with grilled muskmelon with fennel, arugula, feta, mint and balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve grilled watermelon and peaches, but never cantaloupe. It will definitely grace my grill this summer– the flavors, which I never would have thought to put together, complemented each other beautifully.

We asked to replace the beef carpaccio that was meant to be the second course with ahi tuna tacos. They were awesome. The crunch of the won ton taco stood in contrast to the soft pieces of tuna, wasabi crema and the jalapeno slaw. In a very clever move, mounds of guacamole on the platter held each taco in place, ready to be scooped on top, like a cherry on an ice cream sundae.

We then had a Formaggio Flatbread, with four cheeses on a crisp but chewy crust. Pleasant, full of cheese and dotted with oregano leaves, but not compelling.

Next up was risotto with cilantro and spring onion, topped with small chunks of seedless and skinless tomato, and grilled prawns.  The risotto was the only real disappointment of the evening–the heavy-handedness with the cream overwhelmed any flavors it may have had.

The main course was a salmon filet with a Yukon gold potato cake wrapped in bacon. A cider sauce with mustard vinaigrette was a little too mild for my palate, but the potato cake was excellent, and the bacon gave it a smokey flavor.

The evening was even more enjoyable because of our server, a personable and capable young man named Harper. Between courses we learned about his wife’s impending pregnancy and the variety of jobs he’s holding down to provide for his expanding family. (We asked, he didn’t lay it all on us). My husband and I were impressed with him, his story and his seriousness of purpose.  Just as important in this context,  he was a very fine waiter– he has been well-trained, which is, in my book, a mark of a good restaurant. I will certainly try to be placed in his station on our next visit.

I enjoyed the new menu, but I do miss some of the old favorites, most of which were small plates. I still remember the decadent scallops on French toast with truffle butter and a fig. It made my “Best of” list the year Trezo Vino opened. Perhaps Chef Daniel White will read this and consider putting it back on the menu!

The “To Share” section does still exist but the selection is smaller than it used to be when first conceived.  As I understand it, diners were confused by the small plate concept, preferring the traditional appetizer and entrée format. But I did notice that pastas and flat breads are offered in two sizes/prices, which gives the diner some flexibility in the quantity of food they order and the amount they spend.

I’ve always enjoyed Trezo Vino, and they certainly appear to be back on top of their game after a spell when the kitchen seemed to slip. (No, this was not an anonymous visit, but I’ve had other meals here that were on a par with this evening’s.) The restaurant is attractive, too, whether you choose to eat in the sophisticated dining room (love the blue glassware), the comfortable bar area, or the terrific outdoor patio.

Trezo Vino Wine Bistro on Urbanspoon

La Bodega Leawood–Lunch

Many Kansas Citians are familiar with the La Bodega on Southwest Blvd., a longtime Spanish tapas restaurant in midtown. Its owners recently took over the vacated JP Wine Bar space in the 119 Center at 119th and Roe in Leawood, and they have certainly made it their own. The walls are now brightly colored, there’s a fireplace in the trendy bar,  tapas plates are piled high on every table and the place is hopping.

On a recent visit for lunch, my group sampled a variety of sandwiches. Not the usual fare for a tapas restaurant, but that concept is better suited for dinnertime conviviality when people are more apt to linger.

The Cubano came highly recommended and was excellent. A long chewy bun was layered with thin slices of pork loin, proscuitto, Manchego cheese, yellow mustard and a pickle. The flavors were wonderful, but I think the sandwich needed more of each ingredient to make it a complete success. The Bocadillo con Entrecote a la Parilla was served on a demi-baguette and was loaded with beef tenderloin, burgundy onions and blue cheese. That combination is on many a menu, but La Bodega does it as well as any restaurant in the city. Smoked salmon lovers will revel in the Bocadillo con Salmon Ahumado, and those who crave Italian muffaletta sandwiches will be very pleased with La Boedga’s Spanish rendition the Serrano, which featured cured serrano ham, Manchego cheese and olive tapenade and tomatoes on a baguette.

Sandwiches are accompanied by a side of French fries (tasty, but they wouldn’t make my top ten), and Judías Verdes a la Vinagreta de Breba, a relatively healthful side dish with green beans, roasted potatoes and figs in a walnut-fig dressing.

A long list of intriguing salads and soups round out the menu, most of which are suitable for vegetarian diners.

Servers are still in the process of being trained. Ours was well-intentioned but didn’t know the difference between a white and rose wine. She made up for that by giving us a fabulous chocolate cake gratis for the birthday girl in our ranks.

Next time? The full tapas experience in the evening.

Carmen’s Cafe–Park Place

If you like the Carmen’s Cafe in Brookside, you’ll enjoy its second location in Leawood’s Park Place.  Same great food with just a few additions to the original menu.

The decor is fairly dark, but with a big window in the front, a mirrored wall that runs the length of the room, and a separate bar area. It’s certainly roomier than its cramped sister restaurant, though the four top tables don’t leave much room for maneuvering glasses, wine, bread plates, a bread basket and the marvelous bread dipping sauce (more on that below).

But all is forgiven when the food arrives. The house salad, is a classic Italian mix of iceberg lettuce, romaine, pimento, red onion, artichoke and Parmesan,  almost identical to the Rich & Charlie salads of my youth in St. Louis. The bread is soft, with sesame seeds on the top. Nothing special on its own, but practically mouth-watering when used as a vehicle to mop up the dipping oil that accompanies it.  Though easily duplicated at home, somehow it always tastes better here. Olive oil,  red pepper flakes, black pepper, Parmesan and julienned basil sit on a small plate, tempting diners to spoil their appetites. It’s quite hard to resist, and I usually don’t!

The list of pastas is lengthy, there’s something to satisfy every palate. Without or without meat, seafood or no, spicy or tame, shells and strands. A favorite of mine is the Fettucine al Diablo. Pasta is tossed with mussels, scallops, shrimp and calamari, and  a spicy tomato sauce  for a hearty and incredibly satisfying meal. This time though, I ordered the Paella Valencia, a dish that was a signature of Don Pepe’s when he was in the kitchen at Carmen’s on the Boulevard many years ago. It was obviously popular, as it has remained on the menu despite being a Spanish rather than Italian dish. The paella was as good as it gets this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the aroma of saffron wafting in the air as it’s placed before me. The huge platter of rice also has a healthy dose of mussels, squid, beef, chorizo, shrimp and peas. Like the Fettucine Al Diablo, the portion is enough for two and the waiter isn’t the least bit surprised that I need a doggy-bag.

Spidini is a big seller here. Chicken, beef and shrimp spidini are offered with a variety of sauces, including Marsala wine sauce, alfredo, and lemon caper and amogio. The chicken spidini we tried, atop angel hair pasta with tomato and basil,  was flavorful and moist.  There is also a large selection of beef, veal and seafood dishes, and all entrees and pastas come with a house salad. Though we didn’t have any appetizers, the stuffed artichoke is consistently a big seller.

The reasonably priced wine list has a mix of Italian and Californian wines, so a little vino with your meal will complete the picture.

Carmen's Café on Urbanspoon