Aug 7, 2008

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

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1 comment:

abruce said...

I laughed out loud at the bits of parmesan treading water in olive oil, but unable to keep up. Truly wish I could bring my own gluten-free rice pasta to experience the dining at Lydia's! Hmmm...maybe they would let me!

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