Aug 28, 2008

You Say Tomato. Me, too.

Here’s the next thing they should add to that blog Stuff White People Like: hidden, local, organic, neighborhood restaurants.

Why? Because it’s exactly the type of thing white people, especially those who deem themselves as in-the-know, tuned-in to their local scene, down-to-earth and perhaps artsy/urban, seek out (me, me, me, me – Guilty on all four counts). That’s why it’s no surprise that when someone turned me on to
You Say Tomato at 28th and Holmes, I immediately started spreading the word to all my friends. I’m a hog for that white guy street cred.

I say these things not to diminish You Say Tomato in any way, but to properly characterize part of my love for the place. The food is good, the service nice, the ambience chill – but when I recommend You Say Tomato, I’m doing so partly, ever-so-slightly, because of an inborn desire to amass white guy street cred.

Let me break down the categories that give this place the mojo I’m talking about:

Location: The neighborhood around YST is classic old Kansas City. The houses are brick and have been there since just after 1900. Character exudes out of ever imperfection. It also bumps up against a socioeconomically diverse area of town which gives it that anti-suburban cred. It’s not some cul-de-sac ridden mulch-covered “bubble” neighborhood (*cough* LEAWOOD). It’s a little gritty. It’s real. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s the authentic type of neighborhood where you certainly will not find the Desperate Housewives of Johnson County. Major bonus. In fact, that leads into the second factor…

The crowd: Like I said – this isn’t the First Watch Sunday brunch crew that just got out of 11 o’clock church service. The people here are younger, more urban-minded, bike riding, community gardening, art loving types who, as a group, define the word “eclectic”. Some are sort-of the hippies of the new millennium. Others are (like me) probably hipsters who hate the idea that they are, in fact, hipsters. At any rate, this crowd helps preserve the relaxed atmosphere the building’s façade and décor convey.

Funky-factor: It’s original. Not only are there great meals to be purchased here, you can also buy a selection of great products: from locally grown produce to a selection of marinara sauces from KC’s iconic Italian mainstays. The display cases, seats and chairs are all vintage. When you walk in to YST, you feel like you’ve warped back to an era when people worked harder, were more connected with the earth and community around them, and lived simpler, more sustainable existences. It’s funky. And you like it.

Local/organic: They’re more than buzz words. To the type of crowd that eats here, these truly are important factors. By eating at places like YST, you are supporting the community around you and eliminating unnecessary shipping-bred pollution. Moreover, locally grown/raised products, more often than not, taste better than imported ones. The restaurant itself is buried in the 28th/Holmes neighborhood, not planted in the middle of a 4 sq. acre parking lot. To go is to bury one’s hands into the soil of this city.

Early morning appeal: I read a quote in a
review/blurb on YST that said, “If you go to You Say Tomato for breakfast, the rest of your day will be 68% better than it otherwise would have been." That pretty much sums it up from my perspective, too. Also, you’ll leave with an incredible caffeine buzz! The coffee is hot, rich and delicious. It sits in constantly-refilled pump-thermoses on a small table in the middle of the restaurant. Self-serve. Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, by now you get the point. Let me “dish” on the food, then.

I’ve been to You Say Tomato three times now, each time for breakfast. Really, that’s what it’s good for. Get yourself up by 9:00, get there by 10:00. You’ll be glad you did. Then go take advantage of something in the city you’ve been meaning to but just never do (might I recommend a visit to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Contemporary Art?). Not a fan of big breakfasts? You can go for one of the delectable sweet treats, like the coffee cake, or something more healthy, like a fruit and yogurt parfait. The coffee cake definitely comes across every bit as home made as your mom’s did. And the fruit is fresh and juicy. Big breakfast fan? You’re in luck. This is one of the few restaurants in town where you can get good biscuits ‘n gravy. Perhaps even more uniqure were the cheesy grits I had there on my first visit. Creamy, salty, just riiight. But when people talk about the food at YST, I think the big winner is usually the quiche. There are several different varieties and they’re all warm, freshly baked, have fantastic from-scratch crust and make for the perfect brunch item. I challenge you to find one better at any other restaurant in this city.

I must admit, I’ve not lunched at YST. And as mentioned earlier, I feel strongly that it should be patronized, most often, for breakfast. Especially for your first trip. You’ll leave feeling as though you are on the path to becoming that better you you’re always chasing, and when You Say Tomato to someone else, you’ll instantly gain mega white-guy street cred. Try it. You’ll see.

Rating - 3 Napkins

El Patron on Urbanspoon

Korma Sutra: Complaints? Naan.

Caveat: You know how when you first get something that you've wanted for a long time, your initial opinion of that thing usually starts out extremely high? But then once the initial thrill factor wears off, your opinion of that thing levels out? Well, I'd been wanting to try Indian food for a long time, and so when I finally did, recently, at Korma Sutra in Westport, well… I died. But, read on to see why, even after several visits, my opinion of Korma is still somewhere up around Cloud 9…

If you’re like I was until recently, and are inexperienced with Indian food, let me give you a shortcut to sheer 

bliss: Tikka Masala. Tikka Saag. Naan. These words are now etched in my mind in the same way that sausage, brisket and cheese have always been; mention any one of them and my mind and stomach immediately scream, “YES – WHERE? – LOTS,” in that order, in unison. Now that I’m salivating, let me explain why:

Go to Korma Sutra and try Chicken Tikka Masala – it’s a classic in Indian restaurants and rarely disappoints. At Korma Sutra, it’s perfect. Large chunks of tender chicken come in a beautiful, heavy copper bowl, smothered in a rich, creamy tomato and red curry sauce that has an almost caramel-like essence when it first hits the palette, that gives way to the curry’s tangy sweetness. Spooned over a bed of long grain rice, it’s as hot as you could ever want (spicy means SPICY), and satisfies like your favorite comfort foods (think of the warm fuzzies you get after a great helping of jambalaya).

Speaking of rice, the rice at Korma sutra is presented in beautiful silver-domed dishes that stand 3 inches off the table. Laced with bits of orange zest, the rice could be appetizer, entrée and dessert alone. It has just the right sticky-factor, and a delicious sweet essence that compliments the tomato curry sauce beautifully. It’s tremendous. Know how they stopped throwing rice at weddings because the birds would eat it and then blow up? Every time I walk out of Korma Sutra, I’m thinking regretfully of those birds and wondering how long I have before my gut explodes. Keep your distance.

Tikki Saag looks like sewer sludge. It really does – but believe me, sewer sludge was not the inspiration for this dish. Take all the good things about Tikka Masala – the spiciness, the texture, the comfort food factor – and give it a dark green tint and more earthy flavor (spinach is the main ingredient if you aren’t counting the butter). That’s Tikki Saag. Chicken tikki saag is the object of my affection here, to be more precise. The chicken is almost superfluous in the meal, since the sauce is so rich, but there’s something about that added bit of protein that takes it from a 10 to an 11.

Naan. It is your friend. Your new Indian friend. It’s listed as an appetizer in the menu, but I’m telling you about it last for the following reason: at Korma Sutra, they give you so much of the stuff in one order, you’ll inevitably have a large chunk of it left when you’ve filled up and decided you’re taking the rest of your meal home in a doggie bag. But that’s when the temptation of the Naan hits you. There it sits, still warm. Still soft, with that tiny bit of charred crust from its contact with the tandoori oven’s hardened clay surface. It has all the wonderful qualities of a great brick oven pizza crust, but it’s so good, you don’t need any of the pizza toppings. And you can’t resist it. As your stomach waves a white flag, frantically sending your brain signals that you’re about to make a bad decision, your short term memory and salivary glands kick in and flood your consciousness with thoughts of food-born happiness. You tear off a chunk the size of your hand, swab the bottom of the Chicken Tikka Masala bowl out with it and in two enormous bites, stuff the softened pillow of breaven (bread + heaven) into your gullet. A gluttonous smile reaches ear to ear and as you look across the table, you can tell your companion is beginning to think you’ve turned into Seinfeld’s Newman.

Quick notes on décor and service: the walls were most likely painted by hand, by the owners and are pretty gaudy. Like pink? Hope so. The carpet, silverware, accoutrements… all feel a little cheap. The service may not be super friendly, but it’s usually quite prompt and if you have questions about the menu (say, if you’re a first-timer at an Indian restaurant), they’ll most likely do a good job helping you figure out what’s what, providing recommendations, etc. These things in mind, I find the combination of poor atmosphere and decent service is found often in restaurants with some of the best food around, so I hope you don’t hang your opinion solely on those less-important factors.

Now that I’ve experienced Korma Sutra on several different nights and have tasted several of its menu’s dishes, you ask whether my opinion has leveled out to something more modest and practical. I answer: no. Go there and experience the sensuous cuisine of India for yourself, and try not to be repulsed when you see me diving face-first into my order. I think the silverware is slowing me down.

Rating - 2 Napkins

Korma Sutra Cusine of India on Urbanspoon

Aug 7, 2008

Blue Bird Bistro: Just How I Like It

I live near the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City and if you’ve been familiar with the area over time, you know that it is steadily becoming overrun with chain retail and restaurants, devoid of character or originality. Any time this fact gets me down, my thoughts begin to turn toward certain areas surrounding Kansas City’s downtown district which, to me, are the sections keeping the soul of the city alive. (Note – the new P&L is NOT included in these sentiments. It’s as guilty as the Plaza for bringing chains into what otherwise could have been a unique Kansas City epicenter of business.) We need a new epicenter of Kansas City, a new bastion for our unique food and culture. And high atop one of its western hills, Blue Bird Bistro serves as a beacon of this current paradigm shift.

Okay, maybe that suit of armor is a skosh heavy for this Bird. But credit BBB for what it does represent so well: locally grown and organic foods prepared with pride and care.

Perched at the crest of the west downtown area on 17th and Summit, this quaint restaurant draws deeply from the history of the neighborhood around it, which dates back to the 1870’s. Filled with original Victorian homes, the area provides a perfect example of old Kansas City charm, not to mention a fantastic view of the Bartle Hall spires and crossroads district in the valley below. Blue Bird’s exterior carries the same old-world feel but stands out nicely with its brightly painted woodwork and corner location. You can’t miss it (and you’ll be glad you didn’t).

Seating is laid out in four equally pleasant areas. First, are four small two-seat tables with crisp white linens hugging the north and east walls of the brick exterior. With little traffic in the area, the outdoor seating is fantastic on a warm fall day. Just inside the yellow front door frame, is one of the main dining areas and the design and architecture-adept will immediately treasure its hexagonal tiled floors, vaulted pressed-tin ceiling, and antique trim and cabinetry housing art from local galleries. Filled with natural sunlight from the large front windows and doors, it is a wonderful place to wake the senses at breakfast or brunch hours. I call the bar a third seating area because unlike most restaurant bars, this one appears so welcoming one might actually enjoy dining there. The weathered stone table top is a beautiful aesthetic blend with the historic-feeling room. Soft lights on the shelves of alcohol create a transfixing visual backdrop. And with plenty of elbow room and service that’s neither intrusive nor neglecting, it’s far less formidable as a dining space than most bars. The fourth seating area is a more formal dining room at the far west end of the property. With no wall cabinetry or notable décor, the tight grid of elegant tables amid exposed brick walls creates an intelligently engineered sense of formality which helps justify some of the menu’s weightier selections, e.g., Bison Tournedos for $32 or the cheddar, chevre, colby Ravioli for 25. Regardless of your mental or emotoinal state upon arriving, there is a seating area that will envelop your mood perfectly.

With such high marks for décor and ambience, I had to make a concerted effort to focus on the taste and preparation of the food while dining, lest I sophomorically bestow BBB with an A++. My first entrée experience was like a good first kiss – sweet, spicy, memorable and had me coming back for more. Analogy aside, we’re talking about a scrumptious green curry here. Since the farm fresh ingredients are all locally grown, I can’t say much for its ethnic authenticity, but the tender Yukon gold potatoes, snappy carrots, crunchy onions and succulent mushrooms are right at home in the mild sweet curry sauce and bed of jasmine rice. To me, this curry has a dangerously inviting blend of all the things I love in a light, refreshing meal – spice, sweetness, salt, vegetables and starch. If you’re a carnivore, look elsewhere on the menu. This curry is actually vegan fare and if I could have it every day the rest of my life I’d gladly become one.

My second entrée choice, however, was decidedly UNvegan. In fact, bison meat is an extremely dark red meat. I’d heard a hundred and one times that bison was a lean alternative to beef, but given my unchanging genetic predisposition to stick figure proportions, that factoid had little bearing on my decision to try it. My foray into “the other red meat” was meant as a discovery of taste and texture alone, and I was pleased with what I found on the adventure. The bison was very tender and juicy (despite my special request that it be cooked to medium-well as opposed to the waiter’s recommendation of med-rare). You ask about the gaminess? Not bad. Really, not bad. It does have a unique flavor and one might call it gamey, but if gamey is the right word, it shouldn’t necessarily be understood as a bad quality. I found the flavor quite pleasant as did my skeptical companion. It carries the same qualities we love in a beef hamburger. It’s meat. It’s protein. It doesn’t taste like a foreign creature, it tastes familiar and satisfying. Also, go for the local white cheddar cheese on top. It comes nicely melted and brings a wonderful flavor to the burger.

Condiments did not come with the bison burger but were offered up by the waiter. I asked for them and was brought house-made ketchup and whole grain mustard. Impressive as they were, I will leave them off next time and consume the burger with the bison, cheese, lettuce and tomato only, as the bison meat’s flavor belongs as the focus. Organic potato chips were served as a side and even though they were entirely forgettable, at $9 this burger was a bright spot on the menu that will no doubt have me coming back, even on nights when I don’t feel like spending much of money.

At this time I have not yet tried any of Blue Bird’s desserts, which leaves me with good excuse to go back for another “review”, however, as I conclude, I’ll mention the wine list. Often, wine lists in this city suffer from collections of over-exposed grocery store mega labels (Cavit, Woodbridge, Ravenswood, etc.). Blue Bird’s wine list is a natural extension of its menu with diverse selections from all over the globe, including even some rare organic choices (and none of which can be purchased at Price Chopper).

As we who cherish all that is original to Kansas City struggle against the harrowing infestation of chain restaurants and retails stores, and as our suburban areas expand like the city’s metaphorical waistband, Blue Bird Bistro serves as an important culinary refuge. Its hilltop location is a foodie’s fortress and I know I’ll go back often to ensure it remains the important stronghold that it is, while benefitting from the sustenance it provides.

Rating - 2 Napkins

Blue Bird Bistro on Urbanspoon

Lidia's KC Ristorante Needs Loving Touch

The idea of going to Lidia’s always excites me.

The restaurant itself is a beautiful spectacle. If you haven’t ever been to any of the 3 restaurants in the old downtown rail yard south of the Crossroads district, you must go see. Mega-high ceilings and wide open dining rooms are warmed with natural wood beams and exposed brick walls, leaving room for unique, large-scale décor unlike anywhere else. I must warn you, however, tread lightly. A good visual experience here can turn into a bad dining one without proper guidance.

(Caveat: I’m going to start throwing some pretty nasty barbs here, so let me say up front that there is a crazy turn of events in the end of the review, so I plead that you hear me out and get through every last word. Thanks.)

City Tavern serves good oysters, if you can stand ‘em, but also pummels the wallet for otherwise mediocre American fare. (Since writing this, I think it may have gone out of business or announced that it would soon.)

Jack Stack is easily the city’s most overrated Bar-b-que now that KC Masterpiece has fallen from grace. The sides are fantastic (best beans money can buy), but the meat is fatty and less tender than at the cheaper, more endearing Bar-b-que shacks around town.

Lidia’s, however, may be guilty of the most ghastly blasphemy. It has become an Italian restaurant that lacks heart. I found this out on my most recent outing.

My recent visit was an embarrassment from beginning to end. When we first arrived, the entire restaurant was packed. There were business partners, dating couples, women’s knitting groups, all crowding around the bar, jammed into the waiting area, hovering around the host’s stand salivating. Our group of 5 was seated in a perfectly sized round table in the northwest end of the restaurant. I had the misfortune of being seated with my back to a main walking path between the rear quarters of the restaurant and the bar. This proved bothersome throughout the night, as it felt like I had been seated in the middle of I-70. I stopped counting how many times my chair was kicked by scurrying staff at six. Never was the disturbance acknowledged by the offender.

Boulevard Wheat, though shamefully overpriced ($5/draw when I could hit the brewery itself with a rock if I winged it from the Lidia’s parking lot?? Anything more than $4 is an insult), was fresh and cold enough to earn a passing grade. To my dismay, the “Wines by the glass” list was limited to one selection per varietal, and no vineyard names were indicated on the menu. Are we ashamed of our selections, Lidia’s? I’d at least appreciate some assurance that my “Chianti” was actually grown in Italy, please and thanks.

Our waitress came by in decent time to tell us about the “specialties” for the evening. We were only able to hear 50% of the list she rattled through without inflection or expression, as she continually turned her head to gaze across the dining room with disinterest mid-sentence. Ever watched the kids (or creepy 40 year old pedophiles) running the rides at Worlds of Fun as they recite passenger instructions on the megaphones? They’ve said the words so many times, they don’t actually have to engage their brain at all to go through their spiel. Our waitress must have done some time running the Fury of the Nile.

Beverage maintenance is always a good indicator of the level of service at a restaurant. Great service means prompt order taking, service, and refills. We ordered drinks immediately upon sitting. 30 minutes later, we flagged down our waitress A) for a glass of mystery “Chianti”, B) for more Wheats, C) to remind her the birthday girl in our party had yet to receive her Diet Coke.

The freebie appetizer at Lidia’s is a curious choice. Italian breads were logical. Seen ‘em a hundred times with a side of oil and vinegar. And I’ve seen hummus (or should I call it an Italiain bean puree in this case) before in this situation, but why? The combination of fiber-laden beans pureed with rich olive oil is deceptively heavy. Does it taste good? Absolutely. Does it fill the belly exponentially once swallowed? Apparently so. I had one piece of focaccia smothered in the stuff, washed it down with a slowly sipped beer and felt like I wouldn’t be hungry again until breakfast. If I were George Costanza, I’d go back to Lidia’s on a date, eat a few pieces of bread with the puree, have a side salad and call it a night, taking my entrée home in a doggie bag for tomorrow night’s dinner. Seriously – one could easily be full enough before ever getting to the main course here.

Two types of salads were ordered at our table – Arugula and Caesar. The “Insalata di Rucola con Gorgonzola” proved a mild success, though completely unoriginal. A generous bowl filled with spicy Arugula arrived with meager bits of gorgonzola and a zesty white wine vinegarette. The pears, of course, were hard and snapped like a radish when bitten. No surprises there. Demerits for sure.

The Caesar Salads were an abomination. All of the romaine in our 3 bowls was jaundice-yellow and could have been mistaken for old iceberg. Flecks of parmesan floating in the pools of dressing were wonderful but couldn’t tread fast enough to keep from drowning in the dressing. I’d bet serious money the gigantic bowl of pre-prepared salad from whence these came had been sitting out in the kitchen for 2 hours or more. Et tu, Brute?

We all tried the Papa al Pomodoro after our salads. Never before have I been so… perplexed… by a soup, of all things. Initially I was hit by the temperature (or lack thereof). It was luke warm minus 5 degrees. Visually, the appeal was there. It appeared to have nice chunks of tomato and garlic, was garnished with strips of fresh basil and had a gorgeous pillow of buffalo mozzarella resting in the middle. Flavor presented the second layer of perplexity. With all those chunks and that vibrant color, how could it have so little flavor? Obviously what I mistook for chunks of garlic were not garlic. They were pieces of mushy bread. Great idea, Italy – soggy ciabatta in a bowl of cool tomato soup served to starving people as a joke! Wait – nevermind. Did the seasoning or garnish help? Answers: it was not seasoned, and the basil garnish must have been tissue paper. All in all, I’ve had better experiences with tomato soup in a can of Always Save puree. (Note – if Papa al Pomodoro is a common Italian meal that’s usually made in this fashion, clearly I’m naïve to its existence. I will say, though, nothing passes my palette’s test with so little flavor. Nothing.)

Now on to a more serious matter – I have a crime to report. In the process of hurriedly clearing our table between salads and entrees, the busser stabbed me with a knife. I kid you not. No blood was drawn, but an apology might have been in order. Okay, he only brushed me with it, but he was wielding it so maniacally I did feel my comfort zone being violated. This certainly did not feel like fine dining.

I’ll work on the entrées individually…

Sea Bass sounded promising but disappointed greatly. Rustic went too rustic here. The unattractive, sauce-less filets of sea bass were laid out like skinned roadkill. They contained approximately the same amount of bone content as meat, and we’re not talking pork chops here, were talking flaky white fish with hundreds of sharp little quills in it. My companion spent most of her evening picking them out. Needless to say, after all that surgery, she wasn’t too hungry for her fish and she also needs a tetanus booster. Bad fish would have been more forgivable if she had a succulent side dish to fill in. Unfortunately, she had, instead, the (I say again) rustic presentation of lightly grilled whole onion, tomato and potato piled on the side of her plate. Look, I love grilled vegetables. But they need to be dressed with, if nothing else, some olive oil. This vegetation had none and the result was an extremely bland, cheap looking plate of grocery store produce.

Let me start in on my manicotti with two statements: 1) I make much better manicotti than what I was served at Lidia’s, and 2) I have made Manicotti twice in my life. We’re in dangerous territory here. In the manicotti, I was supposed to have “Tender egg pasta sheets, rolled around a filling of fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, baked under a light tomato sauce, and topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Tender egg pasta sheets? Good enough. Fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheeses? If you say so. Baked under a light tomato sauace? Whoah, whoah, whoah. I do recall a tinge of red, but there was no tomato actually on the pasta. It was a mere puddle of reddish bilge in the bottom of the boat in which the manicotti was served. This “sauce’ was thin and flavorless, at that. The parmesan topping on the egg pasta may have been the most glaring offense, however. Before baking, it must have stood 2 inches thick. After being cooked, it reduced to a molten casing and then at room temperature froze itself into an impenetrable canvas of oily plastic. The edge of my fork was useless in hacking through the protective coating. I really wish our waitress had refreshed the silverware at the table once it was cleared after we had been “appetized” so I’d had a knife to work with. Obviously, they were hiding the weapon so it couldn’t be used as evidence.

Nearing the conclusion of this review, one might expect that I’d end with an indicator that I’ll never again return to Lidia’s. Well, I hope you like surprises, my friend, because here’s one for you: I’d happily return to Lidia’s anytime. The atmosphere and visual appeal are magical there. Again, if you haven’t been yet, you must see it. The high ceilings, the light fixtures, the decorative wine bottles and huge windows, they all work together very nicely with a slight nod to that magical Kansas City of the 20’s when the best parts of town were constructed. You find it at Union Station, in the River Market, 39th street and in Hyde Park. And you find it at Lidia’s. Look, go there with friends, avoid the menu landmines and go straight to the $16 Pasta Tasting Trio. It’s the best all-you-can-eat buffet in town (it’s not really a buffet – servers show up table-side and provide heaping spoonfuls of whatever you’d like), and it tastes good enough that you won’t remember the anemic service. Do that once, and you’ll find yourself excited at the prospect of returning, too.

Rating: 1 Napkin

Lidia's Kansas City on Urbanspoon


Welcome to you. And welcome to me! This is the first of many posts to come on Here, I will be posting my impressions of many things as they relate to food, but mostly, I'll be blogging about restaurants in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

There will be full reviews (I've even established my own signature rating system), quick thoughts on short dining experiences, posts on what I'm cooking, what I want to cook and more!

So check back often for new posts, recommendations and more. Thanks!
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