Scopa and Campo Fina in Healdsburg, CA

Scopa and Campo Fina share a chef and owner. And while they are both Italian and serve pizza, Campo Fina is the more casual of the two, with all day menus and a bocce court out back. On a recent visit to Healdsburg, we had dinner at one the first night and the other on the last.

Scopa has some serious cuisine going on in a very cozy, casual setting. The dining room is long and extremely narrow. We were lucky to get a table by the front window which looks out onto the tiny one-table sidewalk patio.

The menu is heavy on antipasti and pizza, so we indulged in both. We started with pan roasted and hot padron peppers that had been tossed in olive oil and sea salt, after which we fought over the grilled calamari with white beans and arugula. The squid was not at all chewy and had a perfect char to it.

The pizzas tasted better than they look in the pictures. The crust was chewy but crisp, and the pizza maker was liberal with his use of toppings. It’s hard to beat a good Margharita pizza, but the Salsiccia with peppers was everyone’s favorite.

Not one to pass up the specialty of the house, we also split Nonna’s chicken, which had been tomato-braised and cooked in a pot with polenta and greens. I have overcome my lifelong disdain for polenta, at least when it’s soft like this was, which is a good thing since otherwise I would have missed out on a comforting, satisfying dish.

We had some great wines that night, including a blend from Preston Vineyards that we liked so much we visited the vineyard the next day and ordered a case to take home.

Pizza also sounded good on our last night in Healdsburg, so we decided to check out the newly opened Campo Fina. We ordered a glass of wine and played bocce while waiting for our table, getting our evening off to a great start as the women beat the men in a fierce competition.

Thinking we needed something at least a bit healthy before diving into pizza, we started with an arugula salad with figs and burrata, which was light and lovely. The octopus is prepared similarly here to the calamari at Scopa, only at Campo Fina it is served with grilled potatoes, wild chicory and black olives. It turned out to be my favorite dish of the night, because though the pizza may have looked better at Campo Fina and had a better char, both the crust and toppings lacked the flavor of their counterparts at Scopa. But it was fun to eat outside below the vines, the restaurant has a festive vibe and it was a pleasant way to end a fabulous trip.

Scopa 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

Prairie Fire Oven

I first met David White and sampled his pizza while attending Art in the Vines at the Somerset Ridge Winery in Paola Kansas. Prairie Fire Oven is similar to a food truck in that the oven is on a trailer that hitches to a car or truck, but a separate fold up tent is part of the operation. It’s set up at each site and becomes command central. That’s where orders are taken, ingredients are put on the pizza crust, and finished pies are handed over to their expectant customers.

The oven is primed with cherry and oak fired wood and, according to White, the oven itself is the same as the type used at Pizza Bella, so you know you’re going to be getting a restaurant quality product. At 800 degrees, each pizza bakes quickly, getting the char that I love.

White acknowledged that he doesn’t make the dough himself, but it is made locally,   shaped and delivered. The crusts are chewy, but thin enough to fold.  David uses fresh and gourmet ingredients to create delicious pies.

We sampled several of them: The Queen, a traditional Margarita pizza with tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, sea salt and olive oil; The Somerset Truffle pizza, undoubtedly given that name because it was served at the Art in the Vines; and a pear pie with sliced pears, gorgonzola, mozzarella,  Parmesan, tangerine balsamic vinegar, arugula and roasted walnuts. The truffle pizza, with mushrooms, mozzarella, spinach and truffle oil was my favorite. I intended to just have one piece since we were on our way to dinner, but I absolutely couldn’t resist having another.

David travels around, mostly in Kansas, but he’s trying to find a way to make his presence felt on the Missouri side of the state line.

Follow Prairie Fire Oven on Facebook to find David and his fine pizzas.

Prairie Fire Oven, Inc. Mobile Wood-Fired Oven on Urbanspoon

The Pump Room–Chicago

No, it’s not your mother’s Pump Room, the one that hosted celebrities for decades in the old Ambassador East Hotel. Though black and white photos from those halcyon days grace many of its walls, the new Pump Room is a total redo. Ian Schrager (of Studio 54 fame) recently bought the hotel and renamed it the Public Hotel. It has very quickly become THE place to be seen in Chicago. The bar is packed at all hours and the Pump Room is an impossible reservation to snag, undoubtedly due in part to Schrager’s decision to install Jeans-Georges Vongerichten in the kitchen.

Knowing we had to pace ourselves through a weekend of eating, my sister and I wanted to have a light lunch after checking into the hotel, and this was the place to do that without sacrificing excitement or flavor. Perusing the menu, I was delighted to find that JG has imported many of the signature dishes from his wildly successful ABC Kitchen in New York City. While vegetables used to be an afterthought, today’s chefs have relegated them to exalted status. At both ABC Kitchen and the Pump Room, they are the stars of the show.

Ever since my visit to ABC Kitchen last spring, I have been extoling the virtues of the Roasted Carrot and Avocado Salad to anyone who will listen. Though it may be hard to believe that this dish could be so memorable, my sister agreed with me that it deserves the accolades it gets because fortunately, this was prepared as flawlessly as the first time I reveled in it.

Another dish on both menus is the Roasted Beets with Homemade Yogurt. The dish was pretty as a picture and the beets were as sweet as candy. But the surprise of the meal was the broccoli side dish. Who knew this green veggie could be so addictive? It was roasted with garlic, jalapenos and pistachio and every bite made us smile.

We almost ordered a pizza, but when we saw the homemade bread and green olive oil that our server brought to the table, we opted to enjoy that instead…and an order of crisp house cut French fries. What a great lunch!

Since the restaurant is in a hotel, one of course can expect the obligatory hotel menu items like a cobb salad or turkey sandwich, but Jeans-Georges gives these classics a new twist. The hamburger is finished with herb mayo and pickled jalapenos, the mushroom pizza (a huge seller at ABC) is finished with a fried egg, and fried chicken comes with sweet corn and a chile glaze.

The hotel, too, is a visual treat. The common rooms are spectacular and very cozy for coffee or people-watching.

Pump Room on Urbanspoon

Making Pizza at Home–Kansas City Star Food section

What a fun assignment!  I interviewed three of Kansas City’s finest pizza makers–Jake Imperiale, Quillan Glynn and James Landis–to get their take on translating the art of pizza making to a home kitchen. I also got to try my hand at shaping crusts, spreading the sauce and  toppings and using a peel to rotate the pizza while it cooked in one of those red-hot wood-burning ovens.

If you missed it in last Wednesday’s paper, here’s a link to the story.  Because the newspaper doesn’t archive its stories, I’ve also reprinted it below for future reference.

DIY Pizza | Making the perfect pie at home
Pizza pros offer pointer on how to make a savory pies at home
Pros offer pointers on achieving a satisfyingly chewy crust.
BY MARY BLOCH
Special to The Star

Kansas City has its share of artisan pizza parlors, but you really don’t have to venture out to enjoy restaurant-quality pizza. With a modicum of patience, it’s possible to make chewy and crusty pizza in the comfort of your own home. And no, you don’t have to own a commercial-grade, Neopolitan-made wood-burning oven.

A few of Kansas City’s finest local pizzaioli reveal tips that the casual cook can emulate to create a savory pie.

Just how did these guys learn their craft?

Jake Imperiale didn’t start making pizza until six years ago, when he journeyed to Naples, his mother’s birthplace. This Italian-American visited Sorbillo’s restaurant there and struck up a conversation with owner Gigi Sorbillo.

Sorbillo taught Imperiale on the spot how to make pizza dough and then emailed him the recipe once he returned home. After a month of experimentation, Imperiale perfected the recipe, and he has been making authentic pizza pies ever since at Jake’s Bella Napoli in Brookside.

James Landis, a relative novice when it comes to pizza-making, acquired his skill from an Italian flour distributor after taking the reins of Blue Grotto’s kitchen a couple of years ago. The trendy restaurant is also in Brookside.

Owner/chef Quillan Glynn of PizzaBella learned the art of pizza-making from his mother when he was only 8 years old, and he continues to use her recipe when making pizza at home. At his restaurant in the Crossroads, Glynn uses a more sophisticated formula, which includes beer and a longer fermentation process.

Basic pizza dough is simple to turn out, even for the unaccomplished bread-maker. All you need is yeast, water, flour and salt. Some recipes also call for a splash of olive oil, but it’s not essential. Using anything beyond the four basic ingredients is “a sin,” according to Imperiale.

“We’re all about tradition,” he says. “No sugar in the sauce, the finest tomatoes and flour. They’ve been doing it this way in Naples for generations, so why mess with it? You can’t improve on perfection.”

Choosing a flour

Many pizza dough recipes call for bread flour, which has a higher gluten content. When flour and water are mixed and kneaded, an elastic dough is produced called “gluten.” The more protein in flour, the more gluten, and the higher the percentage of gluten, the chewier the pizza will be.

Glynn prefers all-purpose flour. “Just look. We’re obviously doing something right,” he says pointing to the pizzas emerging from his red-hot wood-burning oven.

Imperiale and Landis swear by 00 flour (double-zero flour) from San Felice, Italy. “It’s the only flour they use in Naples, so why would I use anything else?” Imperiale says.

00 flour is finely ground, and much of the germ and bran have been removed. The amount of protein in 00 flour ranges from 10 percent to 12 percent, the same as in all-purpose flour, but it absorbs less water than all-purpose or traditional bread flours do.

00 gives bigger bubbles and a lighter spring because of greater elasticity than all-purpose flour, but 00 flour dough also is less forgiving of unskilled handling, so bread flour or all-purpose is fine for the casual pizza-maker. In addition, when using 00 in an oven with a temperature under 750 degrees, the crust is not likely to brown.

Where to find 00 flour? Bella Napoli, 6229 Brookside Blvd.; Carollo Gourmet Grocery, 9 E. Third St.; Dean and DeLuca 4700 W. 119th St., Leawood.

Take time to rise

When making pizza dough, time is important; the longer the dough rises, the better the results, regardless of whether in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter. The number of rises also affects the quality of the crust. “Slow and low” is the preferred way to go, giving the crust complexity, character and those professional-looking air holes.

Landis allows for a 24-hour rise; four at room temperature and the rest in the refrigerator to add fermentation.

“It’s better to add less yeast and then let it rise longer,” he says. “With more yeast it rises really fast, but it also goes down fast. Wherever it sits, cover your dough while it’s resting; otherwise it will dry out within five minutes.”

Toppings

When it comes to tomato sauce, San Marzano tomatoes are Imperiale’s choice, but Landis finds Alta Cucina tomatoes the most desirable. Look for San Marzano tomatoes at Dean and DeLuca, Carollo Gourmet Grocery and Marco Polo Italian Market, 1201 W. 103rd St.

“If you have quality tomatoes, the balance of sweetness and acidity is already there — no need to add anything else,” Landis says.

Cookbook recipes often suggest sautéing onions, a bit of garlic and canned tomatoes in a pan to cook down and make tomato sauce. But most professionals prefer to puree uncooked canned tomatoes or run them through a food mill.

Simply puree one 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes and a pinch of salt to taste. Spread sauce on an uncooked pizza.

Glynn adds dried oregano, dried basil, roasted garlic and sugar to his tomatoes.

Forming a round

Home cooks generally roll out the dough or push it out with their fingers until stretched to the desired size. But Glynn says that to avoid a flat pizza, never use a rolling pin. Instead, he advises tapping the center of the dough to flatten it slightly, while leaving the outer edge untouched. He considers this step to be crucial in creating a bubbly and airy rim á la the upscale pizza bistro.

Landis adds, “if you put the pizza toppings in the middle, that part of the crust stays down and the rim is lighter and tends to bubble up.”

Pizza stone

Before transferring the pizza to your oven, preferably with a floured wooden or metal peel (a large, flat paddle), place a pizza stone on the floor of the oven or on the lowest rack for an electric oven and preheat to 500 degrees, or as high as your oven controls will go. A pizza stone distributes heat evenly, helping to achieve a crisp crust. If you don’t own one, the underside of a thick baking sheet is an adequate substitute. Keep an eye on the oven, but resist the temptation to open the door until the pizza is dark brown and the toppings are cooked through.

On the grill

More free-form and certainly less traditional, cooking pizza on the grill gives a char and adds a smoky quality that is hard to beat.

Before trying this method, keep in mind that meat toppings need to be precooked, and you should have all ingredients at the ready for quick assembly.

Shape the dough on an olive-oiled cookie sheet or pizza pan. Take it to the grill and, as delicately as possible, lift and place it on the grates. The pizza will taste the same regardless of whether the round shape is retained. In fact, an oblong or asymmetrical design brings creativity to the table.

Within 1 minute, as the bottom starts to char, monitor it carefully. As soon as the dough appears cooked on that side, flip it and add your toppings. Cook until the cheese is melted and the other side is crisp and charred the way you like it. Take the pie off the grill and slice for sharing or serve it whole.

Mary Bloch is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City. Her blog is aroundtheblockkc.com.

Nancy Silverton’s Pizza Dough
If you’re looking for detailed instructions on how to roll out pizza dough, Nancy Silverton of the highly acclaimed Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles offers this recipe in “The Mozza Cookbook.” She makes a “sponge” first, using bread flour and a bit of rye flour. After she combines them with yeast and water, the mixture ferments for several hours to make the dough more pliable and thus easier to shape. When baked, the crust develops pockets of air that give it fabulous texture, similar to yeast bread.
Makes enough dough for 6 pizzas; each pizza serves one
22 ounces warm tap water (2 cups, 6 ounces)
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) compressed yeast or 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
26 ounces (5 1/2 cups) unbleached bread flour, plus more as needed
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) dark rye flour or medium rye flour
1 1/2 teaspoons wheat germ
1 1/2 teaspoons barley malt or mild-flavored honey, such as clover or wildflower
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) kosher salt
Olive oil, grapeseed oil or another neutral-flavored oil, such as canola oil, for greasing the bowl
To make the sponge: Put a scant 2 cups water and the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and let it sit for a few minutes to dissolve the yeast. Add 2 3/4 cups bread flour, the rye flour and the wheat germ. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine the ingredients. Wrap the bowl tightly in plastic wrap and tightly wrap the perimeter of the bowl with kitchen twine or another piece of plastic wrap to further seal the bowl. Set the dough aside at room temperature (ideally 68 to 79 degrees) for 11/2 hours.
Uncover the bowl and add remaining scant 1 cup of water, the remaining 2 3/4 cups bread flour, and the barley malt or honey. Fit the mixer with the dough hook, place bowl on the mixer stand and mix the dough on low speed for 2 minutes.
Add salt and mix on medium speed for 6 to 8 minutes, until dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Note that the dough will not pull so much that it completely cleans the bowl, but if the dough is too sticky and is not pulling away from the sides at all, throw a small handful of flour into the bowl to make it less sticky.
While the dough is mixing, lightly grease with olive oil a bowl large enough to hold the dough when it doubles in size. Turn the dough out of the mixer into the oiled bowl. Wrap the bowl as before. Set dough aside at room temperature for 45 minutes.
Dust your work surface. Acting as if the round has four sides, fold the edges of the dough toward the center. Turn the dough over and return it, folded side down, to the bowl. Cover the bowl again with plastic wrap and set it aside for 45 minutes.
Dust your work surface again lightly with flour and turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Divide the dough into six equal segments. Gently tuck the edges of each round of dough under itself. Cover the dough rounds with a clean dishtowel and let them rise for 5 minutes.
Lightly flour your hands and use both hands to gather each round of dough into a taut ball. Dust a baking sheet generously with flour and place dough rounds on the baking sheet. Cover the baking sheet with the dishtowel and set them again at room temperature for 1 hour to proof the dough. (Or leave the dough on the counter to proof instead.)
To assemble and bake your pizzas: Prepare your topping ingredients.
Remove oven racks from the oven and place a pizza stone on the floor of the oven if it’s gas; place on the bottom rack of an electric oven.
Preheat oven and the stone to 500 degrees, or as hot as your oven will go, for at least 1 hour. Create a pizza station that includes bowls full of olive oil, kosher salt and other necessary ingredients. Have a bowl of flour ready for dusting your countertop. Have a bowl of semolina ready for dusting your pizza peel.
When your dough is ready, generously flour your work surface and place one round of dough in the center of the floured surface. Dust the dough lightly with flour.
Using your fingertips as if you were tapping on piano keys, gently tap on the center of the dough to flatten it slightly, leaving a 1-inch rim untouched. Pick up the dough, ball both of your fists, and with your fists facing your body, place the top edge of the dough on your fists so the round stretches downward against the backs of your hands, away from them. Move the circle of dough around your fists like the hands of a clock so the dough continues to stretch downward into a circle. When the dough has stretched to about 10 inches diameter, lay it down on the flour-dusted surface.
Brush the rim of the dough with olive oil and sprinkle kosher salt over the surface of the dough. Dress the pizza how you have chosen, making sure to leave a 1-inch rim with no sauce or toppings around the edge.
Dust a pizza peel with semolina and slide the pizza peel under the pizza with one decisive push. You are less likely to tear or misshape the dough with one good push of the peel than several tentative pushes. Reshape the pizza on the peel if it has lost its shape. Shake the peel gently to determine whether the dough will release easily in the oven. If it is sticking to the peel, carefully lift one side of the dough and throw some more semolina under it. Do this from a few different angles until there is semolina under the entire crust.
Open the oven door and slide the dough onto the preheated stone. Again moving decisively, pull the peel toward you to leave the pizza on the stone. Bake the pizza until it is golden brown and the rim is crisp and blistered, 8 to 12 minutes. Cooking times vary depending on the power of your oven. When the pizza is done, slide the peel under the crust, remove it from the oven, and place it on a cutting board or round. Use a rolling pizza cutter to cut the pizza.
Repeat.
Per crust: 486 calories (8 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 93 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 895 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Mary Lou Glynn’s Pizza Dough
Most restaurants guard their pizza recipes, but even if they shared, the quantity would be too much for the home cook to handle. This recipe is from Quillan Glynn’s mom, Mary Lou Glynn, and is the one he uses to make pizza at home. The recipe can be doubled.
Makes 2 (9-inch) pizza crusts
1 tablespoon dry yeast, add 3/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar or honey
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
Tomato sauce
Your choice of toppings
Combine yeast and warm water; allow to sit 5 minutes until the mixture starts to bubble.
Add oil, sugar or honey and salt and stir. Continue to stir, adding 1 cup of flour at a time until a dough forms. You may need to add a bit more flour so dough isn’t tacky. It should be smooth. Work with hands and make a ball and place in lightly oiled bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled in volume.
Roll and pat dough into a lightly oiled pizza pan. Paint lightly with pureed tomato sauce and add desired toppings. Bake in 450-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes until crust is done.
Per pizza crust: 537 calories (14 percent from fat), 8 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 99 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams protein, 1,071 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
No-Knead Pizza Dough
Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery supplies bread to New York City’s finest restaurants. But it was his no-knead bread dough recipe, printed in the New York Times in 2006, that propelled him into the spotlight. He also owns a pizzeria, called Co., which produces bubbly and chewy pies based on the same simple concept.
Makes 4 (12-inch) pizza crusts
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
In a large bowl, mix the flour with the yeast and salt. Add the water and stir until blended (the dough will be very sticky) and forms a ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 12 to 24 hours in a warm spot, about 70 degrees.
Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface and lightly sprinkle the top with flour. Fold the dough over on itself once or twice, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Generously sprinkle a clean cotton towel with flour and cover the dough balls with it. Let the dough rise for 2 hours. Preheat oven to 450 degrees, placing a pizza stone on a rack in the oven.
Stretch or toss the dough into the desired shape, and cover with sauce and toppings. Transfer to oven and bake on top of a very hot pizza stone 25 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is brown and the cheese is bubbly.
Per pizza crust: 342 calories (2 percent from fat), 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 72 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 801 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

 

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

ABC Kitchen–New York City

Recently named the James Beard ” New Restaurant of the Year 2011″, this was not an easy reservation to snag. But it was worth the effort to get a table at ABC Kitchen in New York City. It’s in the old ABC Home space and that alone is an enticement. The restaurant employs artisan, sustainable, local and recycled materials on the walls and at the table, marrying beautifully with the food on the plate.

ABC Kitchen is currently the hottest restaurant in Jean-Georges Vongerichton’s empire, with good reason. It’s an incredibly cool-looking space, with a fabulous array of lighting fixtures hung and strung throughout the restaurant. (The overall effect is quite dark, hence my pictures didn’t come out well enough to give you an accurate portrayal.) It’s also a celebrity hot spot–we saw actor Hugh Jackman and magician David Blaine chatting it up with Chef Jean-Georges.

But the food is the real star here. Though the appetizers and salads were more inventive and eye-popping than the entrees, we enjoyed all the dishes we ordered. And the presentation was marvelous.

We started with spring pea soup. The bright Kelly green puree was dotted with fresh peas and had several mouth-watering croutons floating on top.

Having read countless online reviews that the Roasted Carrot and Avocado salad was a must, we followed instructions and were not disappointed. The way the carrots were roasted brought out their sweetness in remarkable fashion which, when combined with the buttery avocado made for an unlikely but lively duo.

The tuna sashimi marinated with ginger and mint was not the best I’ve ever had, but it was silky and refreshing.

There are a number of pastas and pizzas on the menu, and tempted as I was by all of the raves I had read about the mushroom pizza with a fried egg is a real winner, we decided to go for the mozzarella and bread instead. It turned out to be a great decision, as one of the highlights of the dinner was the large bowl of warm, fresh mozzarella covered with olive oil, sprinkled with freshly grated black pepper and sea salt, and served with a spoon and awesome bread.

We also shared fresh cavatelli with guanciale, ramps, spring vegetables and pecorino. Not a complicated dish at all, but deeply satisfying. We fought each other for the last bite.

The two entrees we split were the steamed halibut with mushrooms, asparagus and topped spring onion chili vinaigrette, and black bass with chiles, herbs, spinach and potato. As I mentioned, next time I’ll skip the entrees, which were lovely but not sensational. They just couldn’t compete with the appetizers and salads. I wouldn’t resist one of those pizzas either.

I would, however, have dessert again. The same one. We ordered a sundae with caramel ice cream, fudge sauce and popcorn. Fortunately, it was a huge bowl, though the three of us managed to scrape the sides. What a stellar combination.

My only complaint about the evening is that the hard surfaces and tall ceilings result in a very loud decibel level, making it a bit problematic for easy conversation. But nothing could detract from the meal itself. It was a glowing example of how fresh is best and food need not be complicated to be delicious– culinary artistry at its finest.

ABC Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Harvey’s at Union Station

It’s no secret that Union Station is very close to my heart. That’s why I was delighted to hear that the space in the middle of the Grand Hall, originally the train station’s ticket booth, and more recently Union Cafe, had reopened as Harvey’s at Union Station. The station needs a restaurant like this to complement the more upscale Pierpont’s, a destination unto itself. Harvey’s has one of those menus with something for everyone, at a price that families can afford, and the food is solid.

Mary Carol Garrity of Nell Hill’s decor shop was brought in to revitalize and improve the look of the space and she has succeeded masterfully. She installed black curtains, pushed open, around the exterior walls so that diners can look out across the expanse of the station yet still feel enveloped and cozy. It’s amazing what a difference it makes in defining the boundaries of the restaurant. And the fabric is a black and white print that helps set off the black and white photos dotting the walls. This living history lesson of Union Station through the decades is all the decoration needed to complete the look, and remind diners of the magnificence of where they are sitting.

I recently went to Harvey’s with some friends who love the station as much as I do, and we were all happy to see it experience some stability after years of hard work to get it there. The relocation of the Chamber of Commerce offices required a restaurant of Harvey’s price point,  and its employees are keeping it hopping at both breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch. (It’s not open for dinner.)

We sampled a hamburger, soft tacos and a Chinese chicken salad. There are also a large number of other entrée salads, sandwiches, a variety of pizzas and fountain classics, a holdover from Harvey House, so you can still get a milkshake or banana split. Nothing revelatory, but that wasn’t the goal here. Union Station finally has a restaurant for parents and kids who want a bite to eat after going to Science City, business types needing a place to meet for breakfast on their way downtown, tourists in search of a meal after touring the station, or temporary exhibit-goers wanting to stick around for lunch. And, at a price that won’t break the bank.

Union Station is one of our city’s prettiest venues. Now it has two restaurants to enhance the visitor experience.

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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.

 

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Sutera’s

Sutera’s has been around for more than thirty years. First in the West Bottoms, then in Brookside, and now on Rainbow Blvd. It’s a family friendly, neighborhood joint, suitable for drinks while watching sports on TV, or for a full meal in the dining room.

Though it’s primarily an Italian restaurant, diners can also order burgers, wraps and salads. But since pasta and pizza has been their bread and butter for so many decades, that’s what we had.

Sutera’s menu states that although ” we didn’t invent pizza, we merely perfected it!”, but after sampling it, I’m not sure I agree. I ordered a large cheese pizza and my mouth started watering when it was placed in front of me. There was tons of cheese and it was nicely browned and bubbly. The crust looked thin, and it was, but unfortunately it wasn’t crisp. The pizza looked done on the top, but lifting up a piece, I noticed that the bottom hadn’t browned at all.  And though there was plenty of sauce, it was the same as the sauce in the lasagna and on the rigatoni. I’d rather have a real pizza sauce, not pasta sauce on my pizza, especially since I didn’t love the taste.

Two of my dinner companions had the lasagna–one with cheese and one with meat. Though it looked good coming to the table, neither of them raved about it. Too much of that same sauce and not enough flavor in any of it.

If you’re watching your carbs, the veggie wrap is a tasty alternative. It’s basically a salad wrapped in a tortilla.

Though the food didn’t impress me, there’s a reason Sutera’s has been around for so long. It has a comfortable vibe and, looking around the dining room, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Whatever they are doing, it seems to be working.

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