Sep 30, 2009

My company stopped working to volunteer in the community today. Worked at Harvesters assembling food pkgs for the needy. A great operation. Please consider supporting/volunteering for them. (mobile post)

Sep 27, 2009

Tapa v. Tapa: La Bodega

Our recent experience at tapas restaurant Extra Virgin left us wondering just how much competition it gives perennial KC tapas favorite La Bodega. With more beautiful early fall weather in front of us and a hard week of work behind, our minds were thinking happy hour come 4:00 this Friday, giving us the perfect excuse to ramp up the competition by heading over to La Bodega.

We wasted no time, immediately rattling off all our HH favorites for our slightly alarmed waitress who was simply expecting to take drink orders. Service coming back from the kitchen was equally fast. With a set list of HH tapas, the kitchen has many plates ready/waiting to churn out the highest volume possible in this daily period of cheap prices.

Diving right in, top honors went to the Pimientos Rellenos de Piquillo - roasted red peppers stuffed with ahi tuna and rice. This chilled plate of stuffed peppers is served as a little roll diced into three beautiful lipstick-red segments - almost like a Spanish sushi roll. Savory, but refreshing at the same time due to the sweet roasted bell pepper, I always love this dish. Never done it before, but next time I think I'm going to order it twice. That good.

Our other favorite is Queso de Cabra al Horno, a round earthenware dish filled with a pool of beautiful tangy tomato sauce around a pillow of goat cheese, baked and served hot with small slices of garlic toast. Spoon some of the brothy tomato pulp and creamy goat cheese onto the toast and enjoy the two perfect bites that follow.

The Pintxos de Higo - bruschetta of goat cheese and roasted red peppers with a fig coulis - have a lot of the same pleasing qualities and a similar flavor profile as the Pimientos, but the sweetness from the fig coulis is a scrumptious addition. Almost like apple butter, it's a delicious sort of condiment I'd greedily smear on all kinds of things.

The Tortilla Espanola is nothing like a Central/South American tortilla (great reference here). It's a tall, filling pie of egg and thinly sliced potato... actually, more potato than egg. The La Bodega version comes topped with a slightly spicy, creamy red pepper aioli that compliments the plainly flavored, yet delicious egg and potato fluff nicely. At $4 during HH, this is a must-have if you're concerned with keeping  your bill down (and let's face it - it's Happy Hour - so you are).

Coming literally from the Mediterranean - talking seafood here - is Calamares a la Plancha. Usually a solid choice, this time the squid segments and tentacles were either undercooked or over-marinated, with an unusually mushy texture. The texture is normall one of my favorite things about the cephalopod - a little chewy, but in a fun way, if that makes sense. Overcooked, it can be inedible, so there's a fine line between perfect and yucky. I'm also questioning whether maybe the dish was assembled early in the day and then warmed slightly before serving. This could have contributed to the disintegrating squid. Served with yellow rice, cucumber and a delicious olive oil, lemon and garlic sauce, it's normally a solid bet, but maybe not a good HH selection.

Bringing up the rear were the Albondigas Caseras: simple meatballs in a spicy garlic sauce, served, too, with small pieces of garlic toast. A "safer" choice on the menu, the meatballs are very simple and unoffensive. And the rich, slightly creamy garlic sauce has a great level of spice. A fantastic sauce one would eat on almost anything. Do a biscuit slathered in this sauce and you've got a fantastic garlicky Spanish version of biscuits and gravy! (Okay, I may have lost some of you on that one.) Yes, count on the sauce to be great, but also count on the meatballs to be overcooked and hard as a Super Ball. Especially at happy hour.

In the end, we determined this to be an unfair tapas comparison. Some of our favorites, we think, were submarined by the fact that they were prepped ahead, kept warm too long or rushed altogether for happy hour service. We also didn't order some of the very best dishes because they aren't on the happy hour menu (read: Solomillo con Cabrales).

Given past experiences that were wonderful, I'm comfortable giving La Bodega a rating of three napkins, equal that of Extra Virgin. But look for a future review in which a direct Tapa v. Tapa comparison crowns one of these restaurants the true King of the Mediterranean.

Rating - three napkins

La Bodega on Urbanspoon

Sep 26, 2009

Blue Good-o

Last Friday my team at work got to take the afternoon off for a fun outing. After a few beers and a severe beating in "fearsbie", as we called it, I returned home and took an uncharacteristic nap. When I woke up at 8:00, a couple hours later, I was completely discombobulated - wasn't sure if it was 8:00 am or pm. The only thing I really did know at the time was that I was hungry.

A light pizza sounded good, so we headed over to Brookside to try Blue Grotto for the first time. Walking in, I immediately felt the name's representation in the decor and atmosphere - dark colored walls with a high ceiling created a cavernous feel, though cozy at the same time.

After checking in at the hostess' stand in the middle of the restaurant (weird, but smart - gets you into the interior where you feel almost obligated to have a drink in your hand while you wait to be seated), we sat down at the long bar in comfortable chairs for a beer, but were immediately retrieved and shown to our seats before ordering.

I have a soft spot for multi-level dining rooms because I like a certain level of intimacy at restaurants. Houston's, upstairs at Lidia's and the second-floor at Blue Grotto, where we had a nice table for two, are some of my favorites. PF Chang's, where it feels like every person in the restaurant is staring at you all night, exemplifies my least favorite type of floor plan.

Forgot to take a picture of our salad, but that's probably a good thing for Blue Grotto. We went with the Greek, and the presentation bears a second-thought. Rather than chopped romaine, whole leaves are laid side-to-side and dressed with plenty of crumbled feta, a pile of red onion slices, a couple olives and cucumbers and a dressing that had more dill in it than any other I've had. It was good, but not befitting of the $9 price tag. The assembly of the romaine leaves gives the plate a very sparse, de-constructed look that says "lack of effort" more than "artful". I can't imagine the typical BG Brookside diner is pleased when this salad is set before them.

Our pizza, the "Funghi" selection, came topped with delicious, large chunks of roasted cremini mushrooms, "champagne marinated onions" (maybe), beautiful fresh mozzarella, tangy, savory fontina and a delicious san marzano sauce. Briefly I'll mention that the crust was nicely done and I enjoyed the pizza very much, but in an admittedly anticlimactic way, I'm going to cut the description and rating short here...

I'm going to find a way to conduct a city-wide pizza comparison in the near future. This might be done as a dinner party where everyone is in charge of bringing a pizza from one of KC's different artisinal pizzerias, or with a one-week tour of my own. Please feel free to leave comments suggesting how I should go about conducting this tasting/rating or different restaurants to be included, but here are the parameters I have already decided: only restaurants focused on pizza will be included. Lots of places have pizzas on the menu. Heck, even Kona Grill does. But I want to focus on the places that hang their hat on their pizzas, so those joints are out.

Completely Americanized or the "non-artisinal" places, I'll call them, won't be included either. So, the major chains like Papa John's and Dominos: no. And even the local places with similarly styled pies won't either: Minsky's. Look, I love all kinds of pizza, down to the greasiest, cheapest types imaginable. But pizza is a huge category and only a handful of pizzerias use fresh enough ingredients or a thoughtful enough approach to warrant a KC Napkins rating, so I'm setting my sights on what should be the best of the best.

A few of the places I know I'll include: Spin!, Blue Grotto and Pizza Bella. I need more recommendations so if you know of others that fit the criteria above, please, please let me know!

Blue Grotto on Urbanspoon

Sep 20, 2009

Second Anniversary: Dinner of Firsts

“You know why I wish Sharper Image was still open on the Plaza?” I asked.  

“Because you need to get a nose-hair trimmer?” she shot back with comedic immediacy.  

We broke into pathetic laughter at Extra Virgin as we continued sipping our wine and gobbling an assortment of lusciously rich, briny olives in the amazingly perfect September night air. Tuesday night was our second anniversary dinner and from this snippet of conversation it would seem apparent we’re already turning into our deepest darkest fear: an old married couple. Good thing the edgy restaurant and, in particular, its unique menu, helped steer things back where we like them… a state of feeling opposite the pathetic, mind-reading, nose-hair-monitoring couple illustrated by this inane banter.  

A lot of restaurants these days are making we foodies want to eat seemingly stranger things… the castoff and forgotten foods that those with a closer connection to the source of their meal – land or animal – have always appreciated (read: offal). Extra Virgin, Michael Smith’s newish tapas restaurant at 19th and Main connected to his flagship, falls squarely into this group and may be the best example of this food trend come to life in Kansas City.  

Seating is about 55/45% indoor to outdoor. We went al fresco since it was such a beautiful night, but the indoor dining room is mostly filled by a large, rectangular bar with only a few outlying tables and chairs. The kitchen is semi-exposed, showcasing a beautiful wood-fire oven. Our outdoor seating was very comfortable – a large patio just off the main sidewalk, and on a Tuesday night when the restaurant wasn’t too busy, we felt like we were welcome to stay there as long as we liked.  

Last year's anniversary dinner was steak at Capital Grille, so this year we chose EV to try some more… interesting things. Some "firsts". How’s this for interesting: halibut cheeks, cabrito tacos, wild boar sausage, lamb kebabs, Campo Lindo chicken livers… Let’s back up, though.  

We started with a simple assortment of olives. I’ll definitely enjoy these again with a couple happy hour beers and half-price tapas in the near future (all the tapas with asterisks next to them on the menu are on the happy hour list). Our wine selection, La Posta del ViƱatero Bonarda at the normal 50% markup over normal retail, was perfect for our meal, and I’d trust the rest of the wine list is equally well-geared toward the eclectic menu.  

Round one selections were the cabrito tacos: shredded, slow-cooked, spiced goat meat, with a simple slaw topping and spicy, citrusy mojo dressing on tiny homemade corn tortillas. Assemble yourself. These were our favorite item the whole night… they were intensely flavorful and satisfying, and our addiction to spiciness was aptly fed by the mojo’s kick. The tortillas were hands-down the best I’ve ever had.  

Next we devoured the spicy halibut cheeks, served in a miniature cast iron skillet with sugar snap peas and a beautiful sauce of roasted grape tomatoes and plenty of course grain mustard. The cheeks were perfect round medallions of halibut, almost similar to a scallop but less sweet. Exceptional. All-the-while we were maximizing the richness of our intake with bites from a meat board covered in slices of carpaccio-thin sopressata, speck, Spanish chorizo and wild boar cacciatorini. You know what you’re getting with a meat platter like this and we certainly weren’t disappointed. The tiny pickled peppers were delightful, wrapped up in the rich meat slices.  

Round two brought us lamb kebabs, crab and corn fritters, and Campo Lindo chicken livers. I love the taste of lamb meat and the spices that work so well in it. These skewers could have used just a little more flavor, but the tomato sauce was helpful. I spooned large amounts of it on top of the meat and picked up the whole stick, devouring each in 3 or 4 huge bites. 

The fritters were the biggest let-down to me. A great recipe, no doubt, but fried too long. The crab and corn flavor was virtually non-existent, drowned out by the pungent burnt taste overwhelming our palettes. I'd like to try these again, fried less, and see how well the crab and corn stood out.

The chicken livers arrived last. We had assumed they would come more as a pate' to be spread on crostini, but were surprised to receive a plate with one sizable piece of grilled toast topped with a huge heap of whole chicken livers, covered in a rich, fruity balsamic reduction with caramelized onions. If you like chicken livers, I'd recommend getting this dish - it's a very filling portion with tremendous flavor and a beautiful creamy texture. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what the fruit also used in the sticky sauce was - berries? dates? figs? Whatever the case, I was surprised by how much I liked this dish.  

At this point you’re probably asking yourself whether we were actually eating everything on each of these plates – hoping the answer is no. Wrong. We took it all down, without ever stopping long enough to gain any perspective on the level of gluttony we were exhibiting. I admit this with a strange mixture of embarrassment and pride. This was easily one of my best gastronomic performances to date. 

The richness of all that fatty food required some sort of digestif before we bid our anniversary good night, so instead of dessert, we opted for cocktails. My modernized version of an old fashioned was hands-down better than any I've ever had. Those happy hour olives and beers I mentioned earlier... add one of these to that order.

Here's how I'd sum up Extra Virgin: You owe it to yourself to pick a night when the weather is perfect for outdoor dining, and go drop $100 downing a bottle of wine and plate after plate of these original Mediterranean tapas, delivered to you over the course of a couple relaxing hours of sheer indulgent bliss. You may hate something you try, but I guarantee you'll also love something, and the original experience will almost assuredly win you over.

Rating: three napkins

Extra Virgin on Urbanspoon

Sep 14, 2009

The Cherished Napkins

If you've seen any of my earliest posts, you may have noticed a ridiculous rating system I devised and then quickly abandoned. Didn't take me long to grow tired of the amount of time it took me to score each aspect of the restaurant, its ambience, food and service, on the scale I had created, then multiply by the correct "weight" factor, add and publish the final score.

I'm going to go a much simpler route now: borrowing from the NY Times' 4-star rating system, I'll be doling out the soon-to-be cherished Napkins:

- 1 Napkin. Good or better.

- 2 Napkins. Very good or better.

- 3 Napkins. Excellent or better.

- 4 Napkins. Extraordinary.

I anticipate that 4 Napkins will be very difficult to achieve, and keep in mind that while I may find, say, the hot dogs sold by the owners of Gilhouly's at 39th and Bell to be as deeply satisfying as a baked lobster tail and foie gras from The River Club, some weight will be given to the level of expertise required to create the dish and inventiveness in the chef's use of the ingredients.

Looking forwar to hearing arguments, reactions, objections and affirmations on these ratings.

Chelly's & The Great Mexican Food Conundrum

Our friends Amanda and Jared, new parents to beautiful baby twin girls, were gracious enough to find time to get together with us Sunday night for dinner (thanks, in part, to their live-in day care provider, Amanda's mom Brenda!). The girls are only a few months old, still waking up each night wanting to be fed, so Amanda and Jared's time is now, more than ever before, a precious thing. We were honored and thrilled to enjoy their company and see Aida and Ella.

All of us being a little worn out and not wanting to make a huge to-do over the actual dinner choice, we went with a guaranteed crowd pleaser - Mexican. Chelly's Cafe, located at 218 W. 85th, in Waldo. Located in a non-descript strip mall bumping up against a residential neighborhood just East of Wornall, the decor was typical... brightly painted walls and token Meixcan posters and art pieces. Nothing special but who cares? I don't rate places like this on decor. Ambience, in general, is nearly removed from the equation because you pretty much know what you're signing up for whenever you step into a strip mall ethnic restaurant. You're there for the food on your plate, not the aesthetics of the restaurant.

Pulling into the parking lot, we had a good laugh about the name. Chelly's? What could that possibly mean? Sounded like a culinary experiment. I was picturing a stew of shredded beef and beans with jalapeno jelly mixed in. Chelly. But of course not - it's just the name of the owner, Chelly Campos. She and her husband, Ruben, previously owned a Chelly's in Grandview but moved it up to Waldo a few years back.

I mention in a previous post a forthcoming soliloquy on bar-b-que. Similarly, I am developing a thesis of sorts on Mexican food or, more specifically, the Mexican restaurant scene in the greater KC area. It's not fully baked, but it revolves around my belief that Mexican cuisine is the most abused, under appreciated food out there... its identify beaten down to a nearly unrecognizable buffoonery, shaped by we American philistines who have allowed Taco Bell and the ubiquitous Cactus (enter anyone's first name here followed by 's) "American Mexican" menus to shape our definitions of Mexican food.

Don't get me wrong. I love a manhole-sized flour tortilla stuffed with shredded chicken and refried beans, topped with a mound of bagged shredded cheese with sides of red rice, superfluous shredded iceber lettuce and flavorless diced tomatoes as much as anyone. I really do. But that Americanized Mexican food only holds a place in my heart cohabitated by things like Vienna Sausages... I grew up eating them so I still have fondness for them. (For my wife, gefilte fish falls in this category.)

What I'm interested in now is authentic Mexican food (read: pozole, etc.). You can count the number of Mexican restaurants in town who make and serve their own mole' (one of the true treasures of Mexican cuisine) on one hand. It's a shame. But, for now, I digress. I still only know a little bit about authentic Mexican food myself.

The segue I'm getting to is that I was thrilled to find that Chelly's featured a section on its menu of authentic Mexican dishes. Why, oh why, can't all Mexican restaurants do this? It would go so far in teaching Kansas Citians the difference betwteen true, authentic Mexican dishes and their usual Prairie Village Burrito.

Needless to say, my order came from this section of the menu. After devouring a basket of chips and salsa (thin but very fresh - enjoyable) I had a generous serving of chiles rellenos, two beautiful, deep green, roasted poblanos filled with ground beef and cheese. Sadly, no pork, but tasty nonetheless. The gooey cheese stretched a foot long each time I forked another bite and brought it to my mouth. Another quality I appreciated - Chelly's chiles were barely battered, and I'd have to admit I felt far less guilty eating them that way. In fact, I'm convinced I'd enjoy eating a completely non-fried variation of this dish. I'll give it a test run and then post something about it when I have a healthy/ier Chile Relleno recipe nailed down.

[One small critique on plating: the choice to leave the stems on the peppers might need to be re-thought. My immediate reaction to the plate was that it looked like two fat mice were held by their tails and dippd in the fryer, then laid facing each other on my plate and topped. I'm not a squeamish person so I had no problem yanking off the stems and diving in, but I'd still recommend Chelly's lose the "tails", or at least reconsider laying them head to head this way.]

You'll notice in the photo of my plate that the side of beans was actually whole pinto beans rather than refried or black beans. I liked that. Nothing against the other beans, but I just don't get pinto beans at Mexican joints often and thought they were nice for a change. More healthy than refrieds, I'd imagine, even if they were cooked with some pork for flavor.

Amanda and Jared wisely ordered guacamole for the table, as well (credit Amanda for the artfully placed tortilla triangle in the photo at right).

Now, I'm a guacamole fiend. I absolutely love it and have strong opinions about its preparation and ingredients. The good thing is that most Mexican restaurants don't screw it up too bad. Chelly's certainly did it justice. Good seasoning and huge bonus points for including what I consider to be the most critical ingredient after tha avocadoes... fresh diced jalapeno!

But what was so great about the guacamole was simply the quality of the avocadoes themselves. Lately, the grocery stores have had the worst avocadoes. Mushy on the outside, eternally hard on the inside, and completely devoid of flavor. My guacamole as of late has seemed as waxy and artificial as the fake flan you see on a restaurant dessert tray. Chelly's guac assuaged my fear that I'd not have another good batch before next summer. What a godsend.

Not being in the mood for libation, I discreetly downed enough Diet Coke to drown a whale, but the others all enjoyed frozen margaritas (traditional) which they agreed were exceptionally strong. (Sly grins crept across their faces as they nodded in agreement and giggled at each other, so I got the impression they were right about that.) I'll need to return to sample one my way - traditional, on the rocks with salt. The quality of margarita says almost everything you need to know about a Mexican restaurant.

I was happy with the food at Chelly's, and the comfortable night out with good friends was a complete success. I'll bet we return again soon, knowing the dinnerwill satisfy and the atmosphere, if nothing else, will stay out of our way enough to allow us to focus on each other, the great conversation and good time we're all sharing.

Rating - one napkin

Chelly's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sep 7, 2009

I'll save my soliloquy on bar-b-que for a later post, but last night's brisket sandwich and baked beans from Gate's were the ultimate impromptu Saturday-night-in-Kansas City meal choice. Intensely satisfying. (Best enjoyed with the sound stylings of Billie Holiday.) (mobile post)

Sep 3, 2009

Souperman: What a crock

A good meal out ends with thoughts like "I'd do that again tomorrow" or "well worth the money". A bad one makes you wish you could take back the previous hour or two of your life.

Souperman sent me spiraling into curses that technology, in my lifetime, would never provide us time traveling abilities.

Lunch rule #1: The seven dollar rule. This applies to all restaurants where the style of service does not necessitate a waitstaff. If you walk up to a counter, order and seat yourself, you should not have to pay above $8.99 for your meal. If I'm paying $9.00 or more, I'd better have a server. It's lunch, for crying out loud. If I'm up for spending double-digit dollars on it, I'm going somewhere with linen napkins and the aforementioned waitstaff.

That receipt on the left of my tray reads, "Total: $9.37".

Violation. A little bit mental, a LOT fiscal, and even a tad physical.

In fairness, I got a lot of food for that $9.37 including a cup of Souperman's Spicy Pork and Hominy Soup (they were calling it Posole that day) with complimentary oyster crackers and a whole sanditto (hate that name) of roasted pork with ham, pickles, swiss and mustard aioli. But it was too much food. They made me pay for too much food.

And don't give me this, "you could have just gotten a bowl of soup or a sandwich on its own" stuff. A bowl of soup with no accompaniment isn't satisfying. A sandwich needs a side. Soup and sandwich restaurants take heed: your soup/sandwich combo is your main offering, which will be expected to comply with lunch rule #1.

The posole was decent, but lacked seasoning.

They seemed to skimp on the meats a bit - there were only small crumbles of what I'm assuming was ground, cooked pork, but tasted more like hamburger. The spice factor was agreeable. I liked it fine. But overall the soup lacked gusto, and I look forward to sourcing a better recipe and mamking it for myself.

My sanditto had lots of promise. As I stared down the shredded pork and ham, pickles and mustard, I knew I was about to get a fantastic bite of food. And I did. It was a great mouthful. Unfortunately, albacore tuna was also on the menu that day, and apparently all over the cutting board where my pork was shredded. That big, meaty bite that was supposed to be salty and distinctly porkly was, instead, fishy. Bleh.

I had problems with the wrap, too. Was it a tortilla? A wrap? Is it whole wheat, because it kinda tasted like it. Kinda crusty, kinda chewy. Worst of all, the steam it let out condensed inside the foil wrapper and soaked into the outside of the wrap, making it soggy. Its appearance was reminiscent of something you'd see on CSI or Law & Order... the flesh on a dead person found floating in water. Maybe that's extreme, but it clearly grossed me out.

Maybe I should stop there. I was going to fully review the Thai Coconut Chicken Soup with Rice Noodles and Thai Peanut Chicken w/ Ginger Slaw sanditto my wife had but let me cover it with just a few words: inedible tendon-laced hunks of chicken. Soup - fine.

Have I written Souperman off? Yes. Too many infractions in one meal to be forgiven. I've never had a great experience there, but now I can say I've had my last.

Rating - zero napkins

Souperman on Urbanspoon
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...