Feb 26, 2012

New Favorite Burger

Restaurant: The Burger Stand
Location: 803 Mass St., Lawrence, KS
Food: Burgers and fries
Service: Order at counter, pick up when called
Atmosphere: College town burger joint w/ distinct Lawrence feel
Price: Burgers $7-$10, Dogs $3-$5, Sides $3-$7
Rating: three napkins

Over time, I’ve become increasingly agitated at Blanc’s new location… teeny-bopper staff, scuffed painted concrete floors, inconsistent music and the general feeling that I’m eating in someone’s refinished basement are all kind of adding up. But these were all forgivable sins for what was, to me, the best burger-eating experience in town. But now Josh Eans is gone. Quality is going downhill. Service, too. And the menu is even changing. All signs of a place that feels like it’s finally well enough established to make some cutbacks on quality and increase profit margins.

...Upon entering
I don’t like it. The Inside Out burger and its delicious gooey blue cheese and bacon are still fantastic, so I keep going. But I’m willing to accept other burger choices more readily these days.

That led me to The Burger Stand in Lawrence some time back. We were there for a concert last summer and based on its wildly favorable reputation from the few actual KU students I still knew, we gave it a try.

Upstairs bar
One of the biggest differences between The Burger Stand and Blanc is, indeed, the college scene. On a Friday night in Lawrence, TBS feels like a college place. It’s not exclusively filled with students by any means, but you’re guaranteed to see plenty of KU apparel… and sweats--kids who are used to treating Lawrence with the mentality of “this is our town and we’re college students and college students wear sweats.” I would also point out that for every bit of clubby sleekness you’ll find in Blanc, TBS has the same amount of laid back Lawrence charm. Blanc’s hard surfaces and all white everything (splashed with orange accents) contrast with TBS’s exposed limestone walls (priceless), wood floors and bar structures. Ultimately, preference between the two is a matter of personal taste but one certainly has a more welcoming vibe than the other.

Downstairs bar and seating
But with all the cosmetic issues aside, what really matters to me is how the food stacks up. And in the end, while I still have to give Blanc the edge in terms of gourmet, envelope-pushing menu items, the food at TBS is nearly as good (and a tiny bit less expensive).

On our first trip, a busy Friday night, there was some kind of snafu and I ordered the Lentil burger. Mildly disappointed, we decided to consider it a potential twist of fate and tried it rather than revising our order. I’ve had the lentil burger at Blanc, too, and the two were similar but the one at TBS was the tastier of the two, hands down. I’d suspect a lot of people would have considered this lentil patty over-seasoned. It was, indeed, quite salty. But lentils have an otherwise dull taste, so I was appreciative of the added flavor. Also adding unique flavor to the lentil burger were green beans that seemed to be pickled and a roasted red pepper sauce. At blanc, the lentil burger seemed like a consolation – not something they were as proud of. And I remember its wheat bun being very wheaty and dry in the mouth. Advantage TBS.

Fire burger & Free State Imperial Stout. Magnificent.
More recently, I had the Fire Burger at TBS. This one had me spewing Guy Fieri-esque colloquialisms like “killer,” “dynamite” and “off the chain.” Were I not so completely in love with it I may have been embarrassed. This was a beef patty, thick and juicy, topped with avocado which was drastically upstaged by habanero cactus jam. The jam was both sweet and zippy without being too much of either. I think habanero is a great ingredient with its peppery kick that wells up from the stomach after eaten, as long as it’s incorporated subtly so as not to obliterate one’s palette... and this was just right.

Downstairs bar
On both trips we enjoyed fries. The first time we had truffle fries which I found to be crunchier and overall less greasy than Blanc’s with every bit as much of the funky, rich truffle aroma. On the recent trip I tried the Cajun fries which were the same in texture but lightly dusted with a seasoning that was great but, admittedly, I couldn’t really taste due to the strength of the burger’s accoutrements.

The menu at The Burger Stand also offers many other neat sides like duck fat fries, beer battered rings and fried pickles. And whereas Blanc hands out miserly portions of homemade ketchup and chipotle aioli, The Burger Shack lets diners fill up their own little containers with several different sauce choices including guajillo chili, rojo ranch, Guinness whole grain mustard and chipotle cocoa ketchup, (not unlike the vanilla ketchup I enjoyed at Gram & Dun recently), all of which I enjoyed sampling.

Also on the menu at The Burger Shack are other vegetarian burger options, hot dogs/brats and chili which I may never have just because I'm so in-love with the burgers. The beer list at TBS isn't quite what you'll find at Blanc but there are plenty of great choices with the Boulevard and Free State selections alone. ...Not to mention the fact that the last time I was in Blanc, our server told us they were cutting back on some of their beer selections, so it's entirely possible that on my next trip I'll find less than what I've enjoyed there recently.

The Burger Shack and Blanc both serve great burgers from geographic locations I enjoy mightily. But lately, the trends I’m finding in Blanc are leading me to want to hit K10 for a jog down memory lane to my college days and the satisfying burgers available at the heart of Mass St. The Burger Stand is, without question, worth the drive for those of us still not over the burger craze in America.

Rating: three napkins

Feb 20, 2012


Restaurant: North
Location: 4579 W. 119th St., Leawood, KS
Food: Northern Italian
Service: Traditional Waitstaff
Atmosphere: Modern, vibrant
Price: Starters $8-$12, Pizzas $11-$13, Entrees $14-$30
Rating: one napkin

A restaurant's food should be a catalyst for good conversation and fun times. That's my philosophy. So it was a bit disappointing that after our birthday-foursome's meal there, we felt our good times were had in spite of a lackluster dinner.

The night started off well... a glass of wine at the vibrant bar at La Bodega on 119th street. The place was packed. There was a roar of enjoyable conversation mixed with the clinking of plates and glasses as exotic but homey tapas were passed and shared at the many tables surrounding us. In the distance, a server spun flaming stemware in a shower of sparks as she prepared their signature Spanish coffee. Brisk outside but toasty warm inside, we enjoyed an adult beverage and then bounced over to North, on the opposite end of the shopping center.

There, too, we were greeted with a raucous, buzzing scene. It was dark with strategically placed spot lights illuminating tables and the brick walls. Lime green seats, which would likely have looked cheap in higher light, worked to add a splash of color to the otherwise stark interior. I got the feeling North was working much harder to come across as modern and intriguing than homey despite its rustic food and northern Italian concept.

Starting at the bar here, too, we found a mediocre list of cocktails but a better wine list. I take issue with cocktail menus that go too far to please all tastes; case in point at North were examples like their "Sangria Rosso" and "Tuscan Margarita." Better would have been to have some actual Italian cocktails... why not a Negroni or Bellini on the list? Birthday boy Tyson ordered a Valente for $9 which was an interesting mix of rye whiskey, red bell pepper, basil, lemon juice and honey. He liked it but didn't seem to love it, the bell pepper seeming to have been an eye grabber but not actually prevalent in the taste of the drink.

What I like about the wine list is that North offers it by the glass, terzo (individual carafe) or bottle. When the table isn't up for sharing a bottle, terzos are a nice way to get an affordable second glass at a price slightly less than two full glasses of wine. And it's nice to be able to refill your own without worrying about offering it to the rest of the table first.

Our kind, attentive server came by and immediately set down a tiny saucer of olives--five in total. It seemed a little laughable to be given so few, bringing a humorous Oliver Twist-type expression to our faces. Regardless, being a party we were up for apps that night, so we set forth to pick out a few, ignoring the microscopic bowl of drupes.

The zucca (zucchini) chips were nice. Incredibly thin and loaded with salt, there was really nothing not to enjoy about them. And being zucchini instead of potato, they had a slight sweetness to their aftertaste I liked. Next up was an attractive wooden board lined with thin sheets of salami and topped with a pretty mixture of greens, provolone, roasted peppers and olives. It had nice Italian flavors and a good balance of briny saltiness against the earth, slightly bitter greens and their acidic vinaigrette. Of everything we had that night, this simple starter was the thing that stood out as my favorite.

Last starter was, what else, friend calamari. It seems to be a trend for restaurants these days to claim their calamari is a cut above the rest. The message has apparently gotten through that lighter, less breaded, less fried calamari is preferable to that of a few years ago which was all-too-often indistinguishable from a Church's chicken tender. North apparently had gotten the memo, too. Their calamari was indeed lightly breaded and fried and I was appreciative of the lemony bed of arugula on which it was served. Revelatory, no, but quite good and I'd recommend it to those who enjoy calamari and haven't tired of it yet.

Lots of restaurants feature a selection of pizza, even if not claiming to be a full-on pizzeria. North does so with an added bit of legitimacy being an Italian restaurant. I was interested to try their take on it, always craving a good, authentic Italian pie. Their style is a cracker-thin crust which I didn't hate but seemed a little disappointing. I had just recently tasted something very similar at Seasons 52, listed on their menu as "flatbread," which seems more apt of a name. My selection was the roasted mushroom variety which was too sparsely topped with mushrooms and I guess some onions though there were barely any. I appreciate when a pizza isn't overly-laden with toppings but there was little flavor on this one and I was left wanting.

Elizabeth's entree was quite nice--a pretty bowl of spaghetti with succulent, plump, juicy shrimp, delightful brussels sprouts and cubes of butternut squash in a creamy brown butter sauce. By the time I gained the courage to request a bite, it was somewhat cold, but even then I enjoyed it. I salivated over its simplicity and undeniable richness.

Tyson had the ambitious braised beef short rib dish, a big hunk of meat sitting atop a white pile of polenta, garnished with cooked veg. I refrained from trying any as this was his big day and there's something exceedingly enjoyable about eating every last bite of one's own meal. It looked tasty enough, the meat, though, clearly fatty. And after dissecting it for a few minutes with a fork, I ascertained that it was not the best piece of meat he'd ever consumed. He said as much after finishing, noting that it wasn't bad, per se, but hadn't wowed him, either.

In the end, we all felt a little "meh" about the meal. It was all fine, with a few high points (the salami/greens starter and pasta dishes) but the low-lights of the menu, somewhat high price and distinguishable chain restaurant characteristics had us agreeing it was likely a one-and-done place for us.

Italian cuisine is about simple dishes that feature the freshest, seasonally inspired ingredients. Few chains can pull off that kind of food. The food at North wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't hitting home runs, either. KC is loaded with Sicilian-inspired Italian-American red sauce and garlic restaurants. I hoped North would be a successful foray into a more old-world Italian experience. It doesn't fail at its task but I wouldn't recommend its fish/meat dishes over Il Centro or its pizza over even Spin.

Rating: one napkin

NoRTH on Urbanspoon

Feb 4, 2012

Seasons 52 Winter Menu

Restaurant: Seasons 52
Location: 340 Ward Pkwy, Plaza
Food: American, healthy bent
Service: Traditional Waitstff
Atmosphere: Biz Casual Dining
Price: Apps
Rating: two napkins

The kind folks at O'Neill Events and Seasons 52 invited me back recently to try their winter menu (*free food alert! My whole meal was comped). I apreciated the offer and gladly accepted, wanting to experience the restaurant on a normal night with other patrons filling the place.

When we arrived for our 7:00 Friday night reservation, the restaurant was packed. The bar/lounge on the West end of the space was filled with a crowd of well-to-do looking people, warm and smiling, enjoying a glass of wine before their food. A woman played piano and sang... pleasantly, for the most part.

We were quickly seated in a booth in the main dining room which was almost entirely full, buzzing with conversation, clinking of glasses and forks on plates... the kind of commotion in which I like to be enveloped when eating out.

The invite explained the highlights to of the new menu:
"From hearty root vegetables such as butternut squash and golden beets, to delectable fruits such as grapefruit and pear, Seasons 52’s winter menu is full of refined flavors. By utilizing natural cooking techniques, such as wood-fire grilling, brick-oven cooking and roasting, winter’s freshest produce shines on the new menu in memorable dishes that enable diners to celebrate living well."

Because this was a free meal, we felt like the restaurant would probably want to feature the bright points so we started the affair by asking for our server's recommendation, which was the best thing we could have done.

She started us with the Spicy Chipotle Shrimp Flatbread. They specialize in these things at S52 but, admittedly, I'm always skeptical of flatbread. It usually comes off like wannabe pizza. Filler. What you normally get is a piece of flat, dry, stale toast with some Parmesan and herbs. Maybe a veggie or two, but that's it.

Not the case here. What struck me was that this one had such a fun combination of flavors! Flatbread usually makes me want pizza. This basically was a pizza. Studded with pineapple, roasted poblano pepper, feta cheese and succulent, plump shrimp, then drizzled with chipotle sauce and garnished with cilantro, it almost had the flavor of tacos al pastor sub seafood for pork. It had me thinking and feeling Baja, which is a good thing.

Our other appetizer selection was the Ahi tuna. And whereas the flatbread was so well-engineered, the tuna was appropriately simple. They set before us a rectangular plate of five beautiful, deeply colored, rare slices of tuna, barely seared on the outside and garnished with typical sushi accoutrements (plus wildly unnecessary multi-grain crackers which I ignored). It was exactly what I'd wanted. Cold, fresh, delicious.

For entrees, we honed in on the Specials and kept the seafood theme alive. First, I had the swordfish. It's a pretty solid bet, swordfish is. Probably won't knock your socks off, but it's a predictable, meaty steak of a fish that won't leave you hungry. Seasons 52's preparation is a grilled steak resting atop a tiny bed of shrimp risotto. Keeping all menu items under 475 calories, the risotto was less than plentiful, as I expected. But it added just enough starch to serve its purpose. I would've liked more, but certainly didn't need it.

To call the rice risotto was a bit of a stretch, though. I'm not even sure it was made with arborio rice. Seemed more like regular short grain rice with a lot of creamy substance in it. But, again, it was nothing to complain about.

Around the outside of my dish were steamed veggies which caused me to think: I could have made these at home. But that simple fact notwithstanding, they were steamed nicely which is to say al dente. Not overdone.

The fruity sauce atop the fish served its purpose of lubricating that thick piece of grilled fish. I have misgivings about the sauces at Seasons 52... no butter, no cream... what's in them? But I can't say there was anything bad or wrong with it. It was just suspiciously healthy tasting, I suppose. And that's what the whole plate can be characterized as. Adequate, but suspiciously healthy.

On the side, we got a small plate of the shrimp, lump crab and spinach-stuffed mushrooms. After eating one, let's just say they were ambitiously entitled. They were spinach and Parmesan mushrooms with a light contribution of shellfish. Hardly enough to bare mentioning, in reality. And a stuffed mushroom is a fatally flawed food-item in my opinion anyway as the mushrooms are almost always overly watery in the mouth. Pretty mediocre.

Elizabeth ordered the Grilled Cobia Curry for her entree. It was plated very similarly to my dish, the grilled fish sitting atop and surrounded by veg, all covered in sauce. She truly enjoyed it. I found it pretty mediocre, the curry being my biggest hang up. It didn't really taste of curry. It was a mixture of spices and, again, some kind of fruitiness (I think maybe they use some kind of pureed fruit to build their sauces and keep them healthy), but wasn't taking me anywhere in Asia, we'll just say.

Her side was a plate of crescent-shaped roasted golden beets with a wasabi dipping sauce. It was an interesting thought, the fibrous, earthy beets offset by the burn of the wasabi cream. But it was a little too extreme, the beets being too plain and dry and the wasabi sauce too one-note and spicy to slather the hunks of beet adequately. Definitely wouldn't recommend or get them again.

Seasons 52 keeps on going with their shot glass desserts, 275 calories or less. And they should. They taste great and so many diners want an inexpensive, small dessert option like this. I applaud the idea and think every restaurant ought to have small, affordable desserts like this available. We tried four and I feel no embarrassment in saying so. All were good. Not mind blowing, but just what we wanted. For the record, they were mocha macchiato, pecan pie, key lime and German chocolate. Try them out.

In the end, my impression of Seasons 52 is unchanged. On the one hand, I appreciate the healthier options and preparations. Nothing really sucks on the menu. On the other hand, is there really any incentive to go to a restaurant with twenty dollar fish entrees that are pretty darn forgettable?

Here's what I say: there are plenty of diners out there who eat out a lot and get tired of menus full of nothing but rich, indulgent options. Business travelers flood the plaza every week and many of them are forced to eat out and want something tasty but reasonably healthy. Seasons 52 gives them that option. You can find better food at a better price in this city but you can't find any restaurant with the upscale atmosphere and balance of healthier/good-tasting food they have.

So I must applaud Seasons 52 on filling a void many of us recognized but for which we didn't have a good resolution. I'd love to see a local place open up, serve the same niche and gain favor with Kansas Citians, but until then, Seasons 52 will stay on my radar each time I have clients in town for my nine-to-five job.

Rating: two napkins

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon
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