Archive for the ‘restaurants’ Category

The Daily Meal’s 101 Best Restaurants – KC BBQ Carries the Local Load

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

The Daily Meal has come out with its list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America, and local greats such as Bluestem, Justus Drug Store and the American failed to make the grade. Instead, Kansas City cuisine is represented by Oklahoma Joe’s (#97) and Arthur Bryant’s (#18).

Is it coastal condescension that turns up its nose at Kansas City’s many fine dining restaurants while embracing our more rustic offerings? Or is it simply true that you can find better fine dining elsewhere, but Kansas City does barbecue better than anywhere else?

I don’t see any St. Louis restaurants on the list; has the Hill been flattened? Would the critics view Kansas City to be merely another fly-over city like our undistinguished cousin to the east if not for smoked meat?

My Dinner at Per Se

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

In writing, as in many other aspects of life, it is unwise to leapfrog over your own abilities, even when offered the opportunity to do so. The hotshot high school quarterback dreams of a shot at the NFL, but would be crushed and demoralized if thrust into the situation. The funniest guy at the office bombs at an open-mike comedy show. The NASCAR fan winds up in a ditch when the speedometer hits triple digits.

Here I go, doing the same thing. An amateur foodwriter visits Per Se, and gets the VIP treatment, and tries to write about it.

Per Se is one of the world’s best restaurants. Those who decide such things have declared it to be the best restaurant in the United States (or anywhere in the Americas, for that matter), and the 6th best in the world. Personally, I’ve not been to any other the other top 100, so I can neither confirm nor deny that it deserves #6. I’ll let the experts defend their own rankings to those of who you swear by the French Laundry in Yountville, California (#12), Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York (#31) or even the obviously crappy #97, Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

Suffice it to say, the restaurant is well-regarded. I wore a suit to dinner on vacation.

First, even before the decor, you are struck by the people. Help is everywhere, from the team of people who greet you at the door and take your coat to the servers walking quickly but without seeming rushed. The staff is urgent in a manner that does not quicken your pulse; they are urgently working to help you feel relaxed and comfortable. It’s a nifty trick, and they pull it off.

Then, the view. A table next to the fireplace, with a view of Columbus Circle and a snowy Central Park. The space is elegant, but graceful instead of “fancy”.

But we were there for the dining. First, a flinty champagne with gruyere puffs and salmon cornets. The puffs (gougeres, actually) were at a perfect temperature, with the gruyere just warm enough to be sensous and flavorful. The cornets (Salmon tartare and Red onion Creme Fraiche in a Savory Cornet) were like tasty little cones of salty tart flavor to wake your palate from the cozy slumber brought on by the gougeres.

Hold it.

I could continue on like this, but I won’t. The reason is I haven’t even hit the menu yet. These were “amuse bouche” – little extras that just happen. Not that the term “menu” means what you think it means here, anyhow. You don’t really order at Per Se – you decide. And all you decide is whether you’re going to be a vegetarian for the evening or if you will have the chef’s menu. Either way, the chef is in control, not you. Which is okay, since either way, you’re down for $275 dollars, and I know my personal imagination cannot conjure a meal worth that much money, so it’s just as well an expert is there to do it for me.

(The $275 does not include the fabulous wines and one ethereal beer, by the way. And there were 4 of us. And we got the VIP treatment, which means that we got much more than the normal $275 meal. Incredible. My son underwrote the entire experience.)

Instead of going through each course, I’ll mention a few of my favorite moments out of the five and a half hour feast. There were 18 courses listed on the menu they gave us at the end of the evening, but it didn’t list a few of the various extras delivered.

“Surf and Turf” was a lobster mitten (just the most tender portion of the lobster’s claw), served with Boudin Noir, a luscious pork blood sausage, and heightened with a vigorous shaving of black truffle at the table.

The black truffles came out again with the “Salad of Young Beets”. I had not ever been a beet fan, but this was out of this world. But the highlight of the dish for me was the “pastrami”, which was shaved and dehydrated crispy foie gras, enhanced with pastrami spices. I never thought I would eat crispy foie gras and black truffles in one bite.

There were four items with foie gras. Three had black truffles. Can you believe that?

One of the most spectacular presentations was “Quail in a Jar”. While I haven’t seen the recipe, my son tells me that the first direction is “Debone a quail” – a ridiculous assignment for your average home cook! Anyhow, they brought a canning jar to the table, with a quail suspended in aspic. The brought it back to the kitchen for plating, and it returned as an amazingly rich quail stuffed with foie gras, and garnished with tiny lettuces and 100 year-old balsamic vinegar.

There were 6 salts at our table, ranging from a volcanic black salt to a pink salt from France.

Probably my favorite dish was the “Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta ‘Agnolotti’”, which was like tiny ravioli filled with ricotta unlike any I have tasted before, and the whole dish was covered with white truffle shaved over it tableside. I’ve never seen white truffle before, much less tasted it, but it is pungent and earthy and mind-altering. The dish was heaven.

At one point during the meal, we were welcomed back into the kitchen. Everything sparkled, even a copper tube leading to a drain. There is no walk-in refrigerator; instead, refrigerators opened to reveal shelves of carefully organized ingredients in clearly-labeled tubs. The pace was urgent, but not frenetic. The person preparing desserts was a friendly young man from Barstow, here in Kansas City.

During the meal I learned that “Cervelle de Veau” is calf brain, and that I love calf brain. My daughter thought for a moment the server said it was “cat brain” . . .

I love food, but I never, ever, expected to have such a meal. I’m glad I did; it was the culinary equivalent of standing on Mount Everest. The fact that I have been there does not diminish my love of Pancho’s or Blue Stem. But, man, it was amazing.

The meal happened two weeks ago tonight, and this is the first time I’ve wanted to write about it. I want to remember it, and I can’t help but share the experience as best I can. I won’t tell you to rush out and visit the place; the tab was more than several cars I’ve purchased in my lifetime.

Chef Thomas Keller, the founder of Per Se, wrote, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” Lots of meals make me happy, but this one was special. Just like your happiest moment does not diminish the joy of other happy moments, my dinner at Per Se was a pinnacle of food appreciation, but it leaves room for plenty more.

Around the BLOCK Puts Food Review in Context

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Not long ago, I stumbled upon Around the BLOCK, a nicely done local food blog. The author presents thoughtful reviews of well-chosen restaurants, and excels at providing vivid descriptions without lapsing into strident superlatives of praise or denunciation. Intelligence and grace abound.

In the temptingly positive review she posted yesterday about 1924 Main, one paragraph stands out as a must-read for those of us who believe that a thriving restaurant culture is an important and reliable sign of a city’s vibrancy:

At 2 courses for $20 or 3 for $25 (all dishes are also offered a la carte), it’s hard to beat the price for an upscale, quality experience. All restaurants are struggling to survive in the sluggish economy, and owner Rob Dalzell has responded by making dinner more affordable without taking away the glamour of dining out. And, he is one of Kansas City’s independent restaurateurs, all of whom should be supported. If we don’t patronize these local treasures, they will not survive and we will be forced to spend our money in chain operations, which typically are less creative, more cookie-cutter, and don’t utilize local farmers. And what fun would that be?

Where will you spend your restaurant dollars in 2010?

The Time When Tips Die

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

The time that passes from when I finish my meal to when I receive my tab is the time that good tips die. It’s a time when good waiters show their attentiveness and earn rewards, and bad waiters cost themselves money I would have been happy to give.

I’m a patient diner and a generous tipper. Where else in your economic life can an adjustment of a couple dollars either way have a direct impact on the happiness level of a hard-working person? On a $15 bill, I can be an ass for $2, a decent human being for $3, a good guy for $4 and a working class hero if I don’t insist on getting a measly buck back from my $20. Most days, I’ll invest in some good karma.

I don’t blame waiters for mediocre food, I don’t blame them for long preparation times, and I’m not fussy about whether my water glass is refilled every time I take a sip. I get annoyed with them for not having a clue about their beer list, but the problem is so widespread I assume there must be some union rule forbidding them from knowing what malted beverages are available, so I grudgingly forgive even that incompetence. Unless I see them hanging around chatting with coworkers, I assume they’re working hard and doing their best.

But my patience lasts only until my plate is empty, or moved to the side. At that time, I expect the waiter to notice, ask whether I want dessert or another beverage, and begin preparing the tab. That is the time period that most impacts the size of my tip.

A couple weekends ago, we had pizza for Saturday lunch at an “upscale” pizzeria in Brookside. The food was better than I had been led to expect (including some inventive salads), and their beer list included Magic Hat #9, so the stage was set for a generous tip. But we became invisible to the waitress when the pizza was shoved to the side. With laser-like focus, she swooped in to seat take orders from tables near us, without even a sideways glance at the table she had already served.

To me, that is like serving a dessert with a roach in it after a fine meal. It ruins what has come before. A pleasant 35-40 minute lunch has been capped off with a 10 minute annoyance of trying to pay for it. Her tip reflected my annoyance, and she probably figured she had gotten stuck with a lousy tipper. 10 minutes earlier, she would have been pleasantly surprised.

Hamburger Helper

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I want your advice.

What kind of burger should be the special at Blanc Burgers + Bottles? In the relatively near future, I get to meet with Chef Josh Eans to design a new burger which will then be put on special for the weekend.

The pressure is on to come up with something amazing. After all, the Inside Out Burger (bleu cheese stuffed burger, applewood smoked bacon, onion ring, home-made catsup, mustard, butter lettuce on an onion brioche bun) is thought by many to be the best burger in the world. My personal favorite is the Au Poivre (pepper-crusted burger, creamy green peppercorn sauce, grilled onions, watercress, salt and pepper brioche bun).

If my name is going to be attached to something that I want people to choose over those two platters of heaven, I need to come up with something world-changing.

Right now, I’m thinking maybe a variation on the Aspen Burger, a regional favorite from upstate New York featuring sour cream and sauteed mushrooms. Perhaps if we jazzed it up a little by using creme fraiche and some gourmet mushrooms, we could bring a bit of Schenectady to Kansas City.

Or we could go to the opposite corner of the United States for some inspiration. How about a green chile and sharp cheddar burger? Maybe serve it with some sort of mole sauce?

I LOVE Blanc Burgers + Bottles. The first time I went there, I returned 5 times over the next two weeks. Their Au Poivre burger may be tied for “Best Sandwich in Kansas City” with “#1 (spicy)” ordered at the counter from Bella Napoli.

I need to bring my “A game” to this assignment. Any advice?

Gustav, Please Don’t Hit NOLA

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

I know it’s a form of catastrophic NIMBY-hood, but I hope and pray that Hurricane Gustav lands anywhere but New Orleans, and that the good people of the Big Easy get to continue rebuilding their lives and bringing joy to the world. Even when I’m miles away from Domilise’s, I’m somehow enriched by the fact that it exists.

Home Again, Home Again

Monday, May 19th, 2008

8 nights in New York City – wow, what a place. A few of the highlights -

* Sam’s graduation ceremony in Yankee Stadium on a gorgeous day.

* Dinner at wd-50.

* 18 miles of bookshelves at the Strand.

* Ducking into PDT through a secret door in a phone booth to dine on $180 worth of hot dogs and amazing cocktails.

* Relying on subways and shoe leather to get around the metro area.

* An evening tour at the Tenement Museum – things haven’t changed all that much since the days when “illegals” were white.

* Catching up with an old friend at beer heaven – the Blind Tiger Ale House.

* Taking a brief train ride out to Chappaqua, and finding prints and sculptures by Brian Andreas all over the home of some new friends.

* Ellis Island and and the feeling of being haunted by history.

* Catching the Mountain Goats and John Oliver at an AIDS benefit at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple.

* Wandering around Harlem for hours.

* Seeing Sam after his first day at his new job as a production assistant for a video game company.

* The most amazing brunch ever on Mother’s Day at Bouchon Bakery, Thomas Keller’s casual eatery, where the chef wowed us with everything from salad to foie gras to lobster macaroni and cheese with shaved black truffle.

There’s more to write about, but that ought to suffice as a start . . .

Fortune Cookie Makers Taking Themselves Too Seriously

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Kind of like bloggers, fortune cookie makers can lose their charm and become annoying when they start taking themselves too seriously and try to be more influential than they really are.

“Today is a disastrous day. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” reads one fortune showing up around the country.

“It’s over your head now. Time to get some professional help,” advises another.

As the messages, contained in cookies made by Wonton Food in Queens, have spread across the country, some diners have registered their reactions online. As a result, the company has a marketing challenge on its hands.
. . .
“We wanted our fortune cookies to be a little bit more value-added,” Mr. Chow said.

Believe it or not, the entire article about fortune cookie messages doesn’t even mention that you’re supposed to add “in bed” to the end of most fortunes – which is why I still have “Your ability is appreciated” and “Do something unusual tomorrow” posted on my bulletin board.

Update on Save the Mango Room and Other Independent Restaurants! – Mexican Fast Food Edition

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

The Mango Room and other fine dining experiences are only part of the issue. Kansas Citians ought to also be aware – perhaps even more aware – of their local options when they’re just looking for something quick, tasty and cheap. Every drive through customer at McDonald’s or Taco Bell is casting an economic vote for homogeneity and corporate control of our food supply. They’re supporting a minimum-wage based, anti-entrepreneurial economy. They’re also getting crappy, chemically-altered products designed by food chemists instead of chefs.

This past week, I tried out two cheap, quick Mexican places for fast food. First I tried Midtown Burritos and More, in a hut connected to the old Lamar’s building on Linwood. A commenter on the original posting in this series had inquired about the place, and I had never noticed it. I’m glad I stopped by. The place had bounteous specials. It had a charming hostess. It had a special vegetarian menu. It had coziness. What it didn’t have was electricity – the cell phone shop next door had blown a fuse or something. Undeterred by the lack of refrigeration, I selected one of the combo specials, which came with a ground beef taco, a ground beef enchilada, and a tamale. I’m not really a ground beef fan when it comes to Mexican food, but that’s what they were offering that day, and somehow under-refrigerated chicken and pork didn’t sound quite as good.

I was pleasantly impressed with the portions, the flavor and the tamale. I LOVE tamales, and this was up there with Pancho’s version. I don’t feel like I got to taste the full potential of Midtown Burrito’s (sic) and More, but I was satisfied enough that I will return and see what they can do when they have power.

My second new Mexican experience was Cancun Fiesta, in Westport. I went in search of the appetizing fish tacos described by DLC in the comments in the original post, but they were not on the menu. Instead, I got one of their specials – 4 “street” tacos for $6. (Street tacos are simply soft tacos, so named because they are sold from carts on the street in many cities.) I had two pork, one beef and one chicken. The beef had great flavor, and was my favorite. Spicy, but not too hot, and finely chopped.

Both Mexican places were vastly superior to Taco Bell. Both provided tasty food at great prices, quickly. Both were run by local families, and were grateful for the business.

If it weren’t for the fact that one of the best restaurants in the world is Pancho’s on Main, both of these restaurants would get ringing endorsements. As it is, I will recommend them both to those who don’t make it to Pancho’s.

(PS: I messed up in my original post by failing to include links to other blogs featuring food, either regularly or in response to my challenge to make August “local food month”. I’ll correct that oversight in a posting very soon. In the meantime, please email me your suggestions, or post them in the comments here.)

Save the Mango Room and Other Independent Restaurants!

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

In a further irony of downtown redevelopment, one of Kansas City’s underappreciated gems is threatening to close its doors. The Mango Room is a locally-owned, minority-owned, woman-owned restaurant located in the street-level space of the Town Pavilion. I’ve eaten there a few times, and the food is truly excellent. Oxtails. Jerk spices. Yum.

Unfortunately, the downtown construction, which will soon (oops – make that “someday”, since the out-of-town developers are failing to live up to their commitments, and postponing the openings) bring us a gaggle of share-holder owned chain restaurants like Famous Dave’s Suburban Minneapolis Barbecue and Planet What City Am I In, is choking off access to the restaurant with heavy equipment and porta-potties. The constricting world of corporate mediocrity is killing off another one of the points of authenticity and distinction in our city.

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation at the office for being a weirdo when it come to local food. When others drive through Wendy’s, I’ll swing by Kitty’s on 31st Street for a burger that is so much better that my coworkers oggle it at the lunch table. When others drop by Taco Bell, I head over to Pancho’s on Main, for absolutely incredible tacos, tortas, burritos and tamales, with the amazing salsas that you ladle yourself rather than squeeze from a plastic packet. Don’t even get me started on Pizza Hut . . .

Kansas City is blessed by great restaurants, but you need to think about it. We get to vote on what kind of city we are every day that we spend money in our town. When you go to McDonald’s or PF Chang’s or the Olive Garden, you are voting for homogeneity over individuality. When you go to Town Topic or Princess Garden or Marco Polo’s, you are voting for a more varied and interesting city. On top of that, you get better food, usually made with fresher, local ingredients, at a better price.

(If you really want to make a difference with the votes you carry around in your wallet, spend your money in the places featured at The Viable Third.)

To me, this is an quality of life issue. I feel like Kansas City is a better place to live because of places like Lill’s on 17th Street, (recently labeled Kansas City’s Cozy Spot by Kansas City Daily Photo), but a new Chili’s doesn’t have that same impact.

This is not just another burst of mid-town superiority, either. There are good, family-owned restaurants serving great meals in Lee’s Summit, the Northland, and even – gasp! – Johnson County. (Wyandotte County is packed with them.) Some of them can be found in strip malls, and others are off the main drag a few blocks.

I challenge each of you – starting now and continuing through the month of August, to seek out Kansas City restaurants whenever you eat out. Find a Winstead’s instead of a Burger King. Blow a bucket of money at Plaza III instead of at Morton’s. Come back and comment on your experiences and recommendations (and disappointments, too). If commenters participate, I’ll bump this to the top of the page for the duration. If you are a fellow blogger, post something on your site about your favorite local places, and encourage your readers to share their thoughts on your blog. Let’s see if we can save the Mango Room and the other gems that make Kansas City different from Indianapolis or Milwaukee or Akron.

(Update: While I was typing this post, I got an email from a great local lawyer, reporting “Last night my husband and I stopped by Scottie’s on 39th, the old Macaluso’s, and had a great meal. We both had salmon, two different ways, and it was terrific. I had the Szechuan style, and it was one of the best and most creative dishes I’ve had in a while. There were a lot of other interesting dishes on the menu, as well. The prices were really decent, too, for an upscale kind of place. It’s worth stopping by.” Thanks for kicking this off, T!)