Dec 30, 2010

A Good Bloody at Blue Grotto

Restaurant: Blue Grotto
Food: Brunch, lunch and dinner w/ Italian flare
Service: Normal waitstaff
Atmosphere: Charming. Features wood fire oven.
Price: Brunch entrees $6-$10, Drinks for $3
Rating: Two napkins

Word is slowly getting out that Blue Grotto, the tasteful Italian/wood-fired pizza restaurant in Brookside, serves a mighty fine brunch—and $3 breakfast cocktails to boot.

We made the trip a couple weeks ago after waking up on a cold weekend morning and thinking brunch near a warm hearth with a bit of alcohol in our bellies would be a great way to ease our way into the frigid day.

There were several folks at the bar when we arrived, each keeping to him or herself and reading a newspaper. Perhaps these were the worst of the hangovers BG was helping nurse that morning. A few other diners were seated in the main sections of the restaurant and a few more trickled in after we were seated. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t depressingly slow, either.

We were led to the quaint and scenic upstairs loft area, which gave us a great view of the centrally located open-air kitchen below, where a chef busied himself amid breakfasty ingredients. Being picky about seats, we were quite pleased.

We’d been to Blue Grotto before and found their pizza to be one of the best in the city, if not comparable to the best Napolitano pizzas in bigger cities across the country. But brunch was of particular interest to me because though its dishes often are so similar, the quality can vary so widely. Would Blue Grotto be the soggy, watery and unripe type? Or would it be among those that stand above?

The first advantage of Blue Grotto’s brunch is that it is not a buffet. No Styrofoam eggs tasting of metal chafing dishes. No sterno-burnt pancakes or overly greasy, soggy bacon inadvertently poached in its own rendered grease. All the dishes appeared to come straight out of that stone oven that ascends from the back of the kitchen on the ground floor all the way up to the ceiling, infusing the dishes placed inside with beautiful wood fire scent.

After giving our orders, we were brought our $3 – yes, $3 – drinks: a bloody mary for me and a mimosa for Elizabeth. The bloody came in a boulevard pint glass with a wedge of lime and spear of three pimento-stuffed green olives. Plenty of girth to appease my rumbling stomach. It was perfectly done, spicy but not too spicy, thick but not too thick. No huge chunks of garlic of horseradish to chomp, which I find a little off-putting at that hour of the day… in a drink. I honestly can’t claim to have had a better bloody mary ever. Mimosas tend to be uniform, but this one was at least served in a pretty tall glass. It, too, hit the spot.

Service was quite slow. There only appeared to be one server but from our bird’s eye point of view, we saw both the chef and the bartender roll their eyes and complain to each other about her performance while we were there. We became slightly agitated with the wait but our food came before we ever came close to complaining. Those who are apt to complain, though, may have done so. Still, she was friendly and we were quite content to sip our delicious beverages as we shook off the cobwebs.

The menu is in a small state of flux as told to us by our server. Currently they list things like Panne Fratau, Pizza Benedict, Omelet, Quiche, B&G, Corned Beef Hash, French Toast and Granola. I ordered a staple, the Biscuits and Sausage Gravy. Elizabeth ended up choosing the Omelet.

I can’t say there was anything exceptional about the B&G, except that it was B&G, which, to me, is always exceptional. I would marry a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy if I could. In fact, I made a point of making B&G with my brother on the morning of my wedding as a sort of “last breakfast” before taking the plunge. And those B&G were comparable to the ones at Blue Grotto.

The biscuits were delicious – a brown crusty exterior protecting a light, fluffy interior. Certainly seemed to be made from scratch. The gravy seemed a little lacking in sausage flavor somehow, though I think I like an unusually high proportion of meat in my sausage gravy.

Elizabeth’s omelet surprised me. It was the best-cooked omelet I’d ever had (hopefully the photo of it here shows that), which is to say that it wasn’t at all overcooked. So often an omelet is overdone on the outside – airy and dry - with uncooked, watery ingredients inside. This one, filled with artichokes, peperonata and asiago cheese, was uniformly correct in its doneness and such a pleasure to eat. The savory artichokes and peppers were just right for that “I’m not breakfast but I’m not lunch” meal.

Being honest, the cubes of herbed breakfast potatoes on the side were terrific, too. So much flavor from the freshly chopped herbs. The salad on the side was a total throwaway – just lettuce and a little vinaigrette. Something a little more inventive could have been better paired with the dish.

Each of us received a ramekin of fruit on the side – cantaloupe and red grapes. They weren’t especially great, but requisite, I guess.

And so it was, in the end, a satisfactory brunch, indeed. There are more inspired options in town, but if a breakfast cocktail is on your mind, Blue Grotto gets a big leg up on the competition. That bloody mary was a standout.

Rating: two napkins

Blue Grotto on Urbanspoon

Dec 28, 2010

KC Smoke Burgers: Don't Blink Or You Might Miss It

Restaurant: KC Smoke Burgers
Food: Burgers, Phillies, etc.
Service: Simple waitstaff
Atmosphere: A burger joint in Jerusalem
Price: Burgers $7-$10
Rating: zero napkins

I may have found the worst, most ill-fated restaurant in all of Kansas City.

The other night I was headed home after a late night of work, debating what to grab for dinner that wouldn’t be too far out of the way. A good ol’ burger sounded right, and I remembered seeing a new place open on 39th street, curiously near Fric & Frac, whose burgers I’ve had in the past and enjoyed. A quick comparison post for the blog seemed in order, so I figured I’d try one at the new place and then have one from Fric & Frac soon thereafter and write about whose was better.

But when I left KC Smoke Burgers, the comparison article was off. There was no comparison. Because KC Smoke Burgers is so weird and so bad on almost every level, I found it to be one of the most pathetic restaurants I had ever witnessed.

...because dated pop culture icons, civil war-era weaponry
and antiques go so well with cheeseburgers.
Leading off the list of issues with KC Smoke Burgers is their massive, obvious identity crisis. Located in the vacated Jerusalem Café spot on 39th street across from Aladdin Café, there is already a Middle Eastern image it has to overcome. Jerusalem Café had specially built and decorated walls that looked as thought they were formed from clay in the holy land itself, cracks hand painted on them in an attempt to drive home the look. Those walls remain at KC Smoke Burgers. So one can’t remove the image of hummus, falafel and pitas from his or her mind while looking around.

Cheerleaders? Yep. Quarterbacks? Yep. Clowns?
Are you kidding me? YES!
Perhaps even more curious are the new pieces of décor, however. As I sat and waited on my burger, I took note of the odd, hand-painted items adorning the walls, which included the following: NASCAR banners and cutouts, scenic photos of Jerusalem, generic photography of cheeseburgers and Philly cheesesteaks, cutouts of James Dean, Captain Kirk, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and the Statue of Liberty. On top of the cashier’s stand that occupies the center of the restaurant were two faux antique cannons and a chest filled with faux cannon balls, as well as an antique sewing machine. Behind me, on the East side of the dining room, the walls showcased more hand-painted cutouts: a cheerleader, football player and clowns. Lastly, sprawling nearly the entire width of the front of the restaurant, hanging above the front door, was an expansive hand-painted banner featuring what was either an image of the plaza lights, or another scene from the holy land, but with Christmas lights adorning the buildings. It was hard to tell.

I was eating in the most random and quizzically decorated restaurant I had ever patronized.

The remnants of the restaurant’s Mediterranean/Middle Eastern past crept beyond the photos on the walls – and the walls themselves – and onto the menu, I found. Laced throughout the laminated, flame-adorned sheet were decidedly Greek ingredients: a Mediterranean Philly cheesesteak, a gyro smoke burger and a lamb and pesto smokeburger. Disguised among the traditional burger toppings like ketchup and mustard lurked Greek dressing. And the extra toppings included feta, a garlic cucumber sauce and pita chips, as a side.

I ordered the Fire Smokey Burger from the short list of featured burgers, which came with a good pile of sliced jalapenos under a blanked of melted American cheese. I also opted for grilled onions instead of raw, tomatoes, dill pickles and lettuce (iceberg was the only choice, which was fine). Ketchup and mustard came in plastic bottles on the side, DIY.

The jalapenos were great, but I’d have enjoyed a different flavor of cheese. The bun was quite un-special and while I’m aware of how snooty it sounds to criticize the bun, I feel compelled to point out that we live in a city where Farm to Market-brand brioche buns can be had with your burger. So the bar is set quite high and the cheap Wonder-style white bread buns used here certainly don’t add anything to the burger eating experience.

Then there was the meat. Level of doneness was not asked of me, and well done is what I got. I’m also quite certain that there are some secret spices going into the beef before hitting the griddle – cumin, maybe – which wasn’t awful, but led me to want to put the thing down rather than polish off the last few bites, which is not indicative of my normal burger consumption habits.

These fries may actually have been the best part
of the meal. Not bad.
In the end, the burger, upon which the last chances for attaining a mild level of success hung, failed to help KC Smoke Burger’s case at all, rounding out a pitiful dining experience.

Let me now pause to point out that the staff – the only other folks in the restaurant during the entirety of my meal – were all friendly, went out of their way to serve me quickly and get me whatever I needed, and the manager came over to chat, hoping I’d been treated well and would be coming back again. I didn’t have the heart to lie and admit I wouldn’t even dream of it, but based on my experience at KC Smoke Burgers, I see a huge change of cuisine coming in the near future if they don’t board it up altogether.

With a neighborhood favorite like Fric & Frac serving quite decent burgers one block away, KC Smoke Burgers is spraying a bonfire with a small squirt gun, and, I’d imagine, will be going up in smoke itself sometime not long from now.

Rating: zero napkins

KC Smoke Burgers on Urbanspoon

Dec 24, 2010

A Biased Review of Café Sebastienne

Restaurant: Café Sebastienne
Food: Contemporary American
Service: Competent yet relaxed
Atmosphere: A cozy buzz... dinner among art.
Price: Starters $9-$14, Entrees $18-$30
Rating: Three Napkins

It’s nearly impossible to objectively review the restaurant that catered your wedding reception. So know, from the beginning, my review of Café Sebastienne is tainted with puppy love sentiment.

On September 15, 2007, this restaurant located in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art laid out for our guests and us a fine spread that, quite frankly, I don’t remember much. I was beaming with an ear-to-ear grin and paying special attention to greet as many of our friends and loved ones as possible, who had been so kind to spend their evening celebrating our marriage. Elizabeth, I remember, inhaled her food with double take-inducing speed, and rushed me to finish mine, feeling obligated to play the gracious hosts. And so I did.

So it was with great zeal that we made our recent reservation, having received a gift card to the restaurant.

It was colder than freezing outside but magically warm inside the narrow restaurant, whose walls are covered top-top-bottom with paintings of all sorts. The mélange of vibrant canvases is an art lover’s fantasy and contributes to the hearty conversation taking place among the diners. Elizabeth and I were seated at a lovely, small table in the middle of the restaurant where we started with complimentary multi-grain rolls and a dollop of herb compound butter, alongside which sat a dish of Moroccan spiced olives. The spice tasted of cumin and turmeric – curry-like – and balanced out the briny saltiness of the olives. A lovely start.

The fried risotto balls sounded too good to miss, so we ordered those to go along with our spinach salad. They came four to a plate, which was covered with a vibrant red coating of fresh, slightly spicy marinara and a sprinkling of Parmesan. The spheres of risotto were a perfect breadcrumb shell protecting a soft, gooey, cheesy center of rice.

The spinach salad was a lesser success. I’d argue it was underdressed, but it was perfect for Elizabeth who considers an overdressed salad worthy of capital punishment. Its toppings of dried apricots seemed a little odd combined with poached egg on top. Apricot and egg would seem fine, almost breakfasty together normally, but on the earthy spinach salad, the egg lends meatiness--protein, overpowering the light vinaigrette and fruits. It just didn’t come together as well as conceptualized. All that said, we’re still talking a “B” salad, not a “D” or “F” by any means.

Salad now being sufficiently over-analyzed, I move on to the entrees. Elizabeth’s was a wonderfully seasonal and healthy vegetarian dish: spaghetti squash with kale, soft hunks of tangy, savory tomato and plump artichoke hearts. The small mountain of squash “pasta” gave the dish its richest component, against which the acid and salt from the other ingredients played nicely. It was tremendously satisfying to eat, not just for its superb flavor and texture but in knowing that it was, with the exception of its probable high butter content, quite healthy.

Not having the opportunity often, I ordered the duck, which I love for its indulgent fatty taste that always pairs so nicely with the fruit and berry sauces of the season. The chefs on this night were serving their duck with a syrupy, zesty orange glaze. Though my plate had an overabundance of the sauce which caused me to feel like I’d drunk a bottle of Karo corn syrup by the time I was done, it was tasty and an absolutely perfect pairing with the duck, making subtle any trace of gaminess it may have had.

Splitting hairs, I’d ask for the skin to be even crispier than it was. One can see from my pictures that it had certainly been cooked properly – scored and rendered until dark – but it stretched and pulled too much as I ate it. So this was, unfortunately, not quite my best experience with duck breast (Le Fou Frog is, so far).

The side of wild rice topped with custard was easily the most decadent side dish I’d ever eaten. One bite was enough. So was the next. And the next. I ended up eating the whole serving despite its unimaginable richness, which surprised me. I have to applaud the inventiveness but I’d guess this is a side that garners mixed reviews. Mine: gooood.

After all that, we were completely stuffed and dangerously cozy, so we each ordered an espresso, she devouring her tantalizing cube of natural brown sugar upon arrival, me admiring mine in concept but not in consumption.

In the end, though not a perfect meal, the setting and the cast of memories that surrounded us throughout the experience made for a magical evening and sparked eagerness to return soon. Café Sebastienne is a forgotten gem in our city, as is the museum itself. But be certain that on September 15th, for the rest of my life, I’ll think of it fondly. And I plan to return as a customer far more often than that.

Rating: Three Napkins

Cafe Sebastienne on Urbanspoon

Dec 19, 2010

My Cheesesteak Joint

Restaurant: Chartroose Caboose
Location: 10636 Metcalf, Overland Park, KS
Food: Philly Cheesesteaks
Service: Quick Service counter
Atmosphere: Comfortable and homey
Price: Cheesesteaks for $6, Fries for $2
Rating: One Napkin

I’d argue there are few sandwiches that can provide as much satisfaction as the Philly cheesesteak. So much flavor. All that filling meat and cheese. A cheesesteak is an absolute gut-bomb, no doubt, but it’s the kind I welcome with open arms jaws.

Over the years, I’ve grown to love one in particular: the Super Chief at Chartroose Caboose. Discreetly located between a car dealership and Hooters near the on-ramp to 435 west on Metcalf lies this homey little family owned business.

The setup and décor of the restaurant have improved little by little since I first started going. It’s comfortable and clean with a mix of everyone from white-collar lunch breakers to families with young kids, construction workers and high school students.

My favorite selection, the Super Chief, comes with steak, cheese, diced onions, mushrooms and green pepper. It’s a huge pile of flat top grilled, chopped steak with just enough flavor from the veg and cheese to be really interesting.

CC also offers turkey, chicken and ham variations for those not worried about desecrating the classic. On our recent trip, I went for my hallowed favorite and Elizabeth grabbed the turkey variation which is surprisingly satisfying, too, but much lighter tasting.

Whichever you choose, do yourself a favor and be sure to order a cup of au jus on the side. I know it’s not classic cheesesteak affair, but it’s perfectly delicious; that puffy, soft bun sops up the jus perfectly, creating bites that positively melt in the mouth.

The fries are the go-to side, here… thick cut, always crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside. Be sure to load up on ketchup and mustard to go along with them because the cry out for that sweet, tangy moisture.

Chartroose Caboose is one of those restaurants whose menu I’ll never even care to explore. I hit the sweet spot my first time in and gladly return for the exact same thing every time back. I'm sure many of their other selections are plenty good, too, but I don’t need ‘em. This is my cheesesteak joint.

Rating: One Napkin

Chartroose Caboose on Urbanspoon

Nov 7, 2010

It's Not Magic

Restaurant: Aladdin Cafe
Location: 3903 Wyoming, KC MO
Food: Normal Middle Eastern selections
Service: Underwhelming waitstaff.
Atmosphere: Lacking, but comfortable outdoor seating featured.
Price: Quite fair. $10-$15 entrees.
Rating: One napkin

One of the things I love about going to big cities like New York or Chicago is their diversity. Their culinary diversity, in particular, which births pockets of restaurants offering authentic dishes to clustered ethnicities whose relatives years ago immigrated and started a community mimicking their culture from home.

In New York you've got Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Fuzhou within Chinatown, Curry Hill, Curry Row, Little Manila... the list goes on and on, representing almost any ethnic group I can name.

Here in Kansas City, with a smaller population, we lack diversity on this level. Southwest Boulevard houses a concentration of Mexican restaurants, but few of them offer a menu full of the food Mexican people actually eat on a daily basis. Columbus Park used to house a small Italian population and now has shifted toward Vietnamese, but not an overwhelming number. We have 5 or less Greek restaurants. Very little Korean food. Almost no West African food. And our sushi is pretty weak.

Perhaps most diminutive compared to larger cities is our Middle Eastern selection. We have a few restaurants under the header of “Mediterranean” but certainly no abundance. Two hands are plenty for counting our choices for food like hummus, falafel, shawarma, gyros... ingredients like chickpeas, pine nuts, olives (and their oil), grape leaves and pitas. Not only does Kansas City have too few restaurants serving this food, but it has basically no standout known for doing it exceptionally well.

Midtown - namely Westport and Valentine - is where one finds what's probably the most notable restaurant in this category--Jerusalem Café. I've been there several times. It does the job. I'll give it an official review sometime, I'm sure. But it's probably telling that when I had my most recent craving for this kind of food, I sought a new choice.

Wanting to pause, on this occasion, and take in the glorious fall weather, Elizabeth and I stopped in at the little Aladdin Café on 39th whose outdoor seating had been beckoning us for some time. We decided to officially moved it off the sticky list of "we should really go there sometime" restaurants for the sake of a KC Napkins post.

The mission was to determine whether Aladdin was a cut above. I'd read good things on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon from fans, but I trust your average reviewer on those sites about as much as a used car salesman. So here's my take:

Started with a cup of lentil soup. It was a stunningly beautiful bright yellow color and tasted of sweet Middle Eastern spices - turmeric, especially. This was easily the best lentil-based soup I've ever eaten. Get it. The smooth, rich, sweet curry flavor came to the fore nicely. Not too much coconut milk; just right.

Then we split the sizable Agrabah Appetizer Combo. It came served on a large platter, smooth dips across one side – hummus, baba ghanouj, genie dip – and solids on the other—two crusty falafels and two dolmas.

The plain hummus was good, but not revelatory. It came dusted with red sumac and an obligatory sprinkling of parsley with plenty of olive oil pooled on top. The genie dip in the middle, bright red with infused roasted red peppers and a dollop of sambal-like chili paste on the side, was my favorite of the three. A good spice factor and the red pepper flavor really sang. I would’ve enjoyed twice as much. The ghanouj was only fair. It had a bitterness to it that surprised me. Lots of tahini going on there, I believe. Maybe too high of a ration to the pureed eggplant.

The falafel were fun, with a hearty crust on the outside. Perfect deep-fried balls of chickpea batter. A little salty and soft in the middle. And the dolmas were good – better than the last ones I had at Jerusalem Café with tender leaves around loosely packed meat and rice. Not too dense the way they can be when they’re bad.

Having tried the whole plate, if I were allowed to customize it for my own liking, I’d eliminate the baba ghanouj and dolmas and increase the falafel and genie dip proportions in creating the John Special.

A basket of pitas accompanied the platter. The soft triangles smeared with rich dips filled us up quickly, and we were pleased that our waiter offered us a refill, though we declined.

Little room in our stomachs to spare, we chose to split an entrée—the Shawrma Platter. Here again we were served a large plate heaped with food. A decent value at $9.99.

What we got seemed quite different than what we were picturing based on the description on the menu, though. On the plate was the curry marinated chicken (no surprise) on a bed of rice with cooked zucchini, carrot and onions and raw tomato; the menu described it as curry marinated chicken on warm pita and topped with onions, parsley and tomato sauce. So where our pita and tomato sauce went, I’m not sure. Regardless, the plate of food tasted okay. It was a little bland, but not offensively so.

And that’s how I end up characterizing Aladdin Café, in the end. It didn’t surprise, impress or wow (except the standout lentil soup). The service was pretty bad, but the server, I believe, was new so we cut him a lot of slack. The tables outside weren’t particularly comfortable, nor has much of anything been done to cozy-up the atmosphere inside or out. But if you want to take your Middle Eastern food al fresco, I’d certainly give Aladdin Café a try. Just don’t expect magic.

Rating: one napkin

Aladdin Café on Urbanspoon

Nov 2, 2010

Sometimes Adventured Doesn't Need to be on the Menu

Restaurant: Cafe Europa
Location: 323 E. 55th St., KC MO
Food: Unsurprising, but delicious American/European Cuisine
Service: Buttoned up, professional waitstaff.
Atmosphere: Cozy, affluent; just on the safe side of stiff.
Price: Starters $6-$10, Pizza $8-$10, Entrees $11-$25
Rating: Two Napkins

I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to restaurants. I don’t tend to like the big, shiny, impersonal places nearly as much as the tiny, hidden, quaint ones. Knowing Café Europa to be the perfect example of the latter, I found myself almost fearing that I wouldn’t like it. Because I liked the idea of it so much.

Café Europa is located in the charming Crestwood neighborhood, home also to the more visible Aixois, some antique stores, a stationery store and a florist. It’s a pleasant little outpost with affluent Brookside/Sunset Hill/Mission Hills  patrons and the appropriate fare for them, billing itself as a restaurant, bar and bakery.

Diners are beckoned to enter by a small, brightly lit, refrigerated display case, filled with decadent frosted cupcakes, tarts and other such pastries.  A cute invitation. Just behind is a small bar—not a destination unto itself, but certainly a cozy place to wait for a table to open up. A tantalizing amalgam of scents fills the front room – coffee and alcohol, sweet baked goods and warm dinner aromas from the dining room and adjacent kitchen.

Though the entrance is admittedly dark and cramped, the dining room, still on the small side, is brighter with warm incandescent light filling the air above the open, square wood floor. An old fireplace adorns the East wall, bringing an inherent homey quality to the space.

Seated at a two-person table near the kitchen door, I was slightly disappointed about the plastic floral tablecloths. There was nothing offensive about their design, but the sticky feel of it on my forearms seemed oddly cheap for an otherwise upscale place. It reminded me of eating on similar tablecloths Thursday nights during my childhood in the carpeted second floor of our house where we were only allowed to have dinner when The Cosby Show was on. A pleasant memory, I suppose, but not befitting Cafe Europa’s upscale ambience.

My wine selection threw our server. Wanting a bottle of white for one of our last warm weather dinners of the year, I picked the Cote Jardin White Cotes du Rhone. After some delay, she returned with a red. I quickly pointed out the error and she admitted all she had heard me saw was “Cotes du Rhone” and assumed I meant the one she had selected “because we have been selling so much of it lately.” An honest mistake, to be sure. She soon returned with the correct bottle which turned out to be a fine choice, quite minerally with almost no sweetness of which to speak. At first, I was actually concerned it had too little taste as it so completely disappeared from the palette once down the hatch, but as the wine warmed up a little sitting on the table and we gulped more and more of it, it blossomed enough to win us over.

Everything on the small menu sounded delicious and seasonal, but we were both in the mood for some sort of trusty favorite, as opposed to an adventurous selection (this mood doesn’t strike often). So Elizabeth chose the wild mushroom risotto with scallops and I had the special – a massive double thick pork chop on a bed of greens, on a cloud of mashed potatoes in a pool of jus. (For evidence of our propensity for ordering these types of dishes, see what she ordered at Webster House and I at Grand Street Café.) To start, we split a mixed greens salad with blue cheese and bacon, with a bacon vinaigrette.

The salad was average as far as nice-restaurant-salads go, but we liked it. The blue cheese was a creamy, unctuous treat, the pancetta cubes a salty (thought somewhat chewy) accompaniment. But altogether, this was not a reinvention of the bacon, blue cheese salad. Just a good representation of the classic.

We enjoyed the risotto, more-so for the scallops than the rice. The rice may have been sitting, ready to serve, in a pot in the kitchen for some time already that evening and had swollen into large, grains. But for my taste, while pasta truly needs to be al dente to be perfect, risotto that’s slightly overcooked is just super-creamy risotto. I love it. But oh – the scallops! It’s gotten to the point where I expect risotto with scallops dishes to be served with too much buttery risotto and a scant two, maybe three scallops. Not the case at Europa. Elizabeth’s dish was filled with five of the most perfectly cooked scallops either of us had ever eaten. Each had that golden brown crust but was tantalizingly soft and smooth throughout, and not overly raw. Setting that bowl down in front of us was the equivalent of extending a bowl filled with full-sized Snickers bars to a couple trick-or-treaters.

My pork dish was equally impressive. The cut of meat was hearty to say the least. It was clearly overcooked – an opaque whiteness throughout the meat – but only barely so as it wasn’t too tough or dry. And c’mon… with a palette of buttery greens, creamy potatoes and rich, steamy jus to drag each bite of pork through, dryness was easily remedied.

I wasn’t told what exact type of greens I was given, but my strong inclination was mustard greens, given their twangy, earthy flavor. They were simple and had been cooked to perfection, in that textural nook between stemmy and mushy: fork-tender. Despite being such a humble ingredient, they were completely enjoyable. And the mashers were a dream, as restaurant mashed potatoes so often are. I may not be the foremost connoisseur of mashed potatoes, but I know the difference between good and bad ones, and these were definitely good.

I suppose it was something about the warmth in our bellies and the warmth in the intimate room around us that led us toward the ice cream du jour… sweet potato. Curiosity, too. It tasted much as we suspected – sweet, with autumnal spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice. It also retained the potato’s starchiness, which was curious but not altogether bad. It cooled us down and paired quite nicely with our salutatory espressos. We paid, thanked the kind server, swung our jackets over our shoulders and strode back toward the car with happiness exuding from the contended smiles on our faces.

Café Europa offered up little to surprise or shock, but it wowed us, nonetheless. I loved that it was a nice place, content to serve good food that people like to order. It wasn’t trying to be anything unnatural, and there was something exceedingly comforting about that fact. I think several other restaurants in town could offer up the exact same menu but fail to leave me as pleased as Café Europa did. It’s a pleasant little restaurant, located in the perfect spot, serving just what is wanted to those who want it.

Rating: two napkins

Cafe Europa on Urbanspoon

Oct 29, 2010

5 Questions With Jasper Mirabile Jr.

The Zagat 2011 survey was recently released, including some surprises (like Oklahoma Joe's being rated best overall restaurant).

Maybe not as surprising was the publication's pick for best Italian in KC, which went to Jasper's, the eponymous outpost of the highly visible, active and energetic Chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. No stranger to awards, the restaurant had also recently taken the award of Best Tableside Dish 2010 from The Pitch for their Mozzarella. Prior to all this hoopla, I chased down Chef Jasper to get some insights into his food, his philosophies, his goals and his life in a little game I like to call 5 Questions:

You’re a chef who’s very much in the public eye, doing demos in Kansas City and recently in Italy. You’re on facebook and twitter and even in front of customers at the restaurant with your famous tableside mozzarella. Why is it important to you to be so visible? Marketing is my life.  I love to cook, I love to meet people and I combine it all by marketing myself and promoting Jasper's.  Whether by radio or TV, it does not matter, I am everywhere.  I never turn down an event or cause.  I love to be at the local farmer's markets doing demos or at The Hen house teaching class.  As chef ambassador for Wisconsin Cheese, I get to travel everywhere and talk about cheese.  What a life.  I have met so many interesting people along the way. Captain Phil on The Cornelia Marie and Captain Johnaton from The Time Bandit...I worked on their boat during filming for the Deadliest Catch.  Traveled to New York to cook at The James Beard House this fifth visit. Worked for American Italian Pasta Co. and cooked in Times Square for World Pasta Day. TV every Monday with NBC Action News Midday.  I have cooked with Giada, Paula Deen, worked with Red Gold Tomatoes, Farmland, Certified Herferd Beef, Eggland's Best etc...too many to name. I am head of Slow Food KC and on the biard of American Inst. of Wine and Food along with VP of Midwest of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiano.  fRadio show every Saturday...not a paid advertising...tKCMO owns the show and I am the host!   It is my life, my passion and my love! I am finishing my third cookbook, On The Cannoli Trail.  All desserts, you will love it! 

What have you been cooking lately… that is NOT Italian? Asian dumplings...I am obsessed with them.  Also roasted pig and pork loin in my La Caja China. (

For those who aren’t familiar, describe the difference between typical Northern and Southern Italian food, in which type are you rooted and why?  If you asked me this question two weeks ago I would have said Southern is more peasant style and North is rich with the bounty of Italy.  After retuning from Italy yesterday, I can say this is SO TRUE.  In Bologna, Parma and Modena last week, we ate so much butter, Parmigiano Reggiano and cream. All the food was so rich.  In Sicily, where my famiglia is from, we eat a lot of bread, olive oil, goat, pasta and fresh seafood.  All light and fresh.

You moved from Waldo to 103rd. How do you like the newer location and are there any plans for expansion? We love the newer location...all under one roof.  So easy to manage.  Business here is about 40% more than the old Jasper's.  We have such great access from 435 highway and  Johnson County.  No expansion...we are big enough.  Maybe a Mobile Cannoli Truck. That would be cool.

Give me a little-known-fact about Jasper Mirabile Jr.  Ha!  I cannot make a grilled cheese sandwich for the life of me...I always end up burning them.  My wife and daughter think this is the funniest thing.   I love BBQ and I crave pies...along with cannoli!!! 

His enthusiasm jumps off the page and is just as apparent in person. Jasper's is located at 1201 W. 103rd Street.

Oct 27, 2010

BRGR Battle

Restaurant: BRGR Kitchen + Bar
Location: 4038 W. 83rd St, Prairie Village, KS
Food: Burgers and a good bar
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Loud and lively
Price: Burgers $8-$10, Sides $2.5-$7, Salads $8-$10
Rating: One napkin

What bar-b-cue is to Kansas City, the burger is to the United States as a whole.

In KC, bar-b-cue is obsessed-over. Done with infinite variations on the same classic idea and set of techniques by several restaurants, each claiming to have the very best.  And today, across the nation, burgers are very much in the limelight garnering the same type of obsession with chef-driven, gourmet ingredients and chic dining rooms popping up all over.

It would be unwise for me to say this burger trend could ever manifest itself here in Kansas City to an extent rivaling King Barbecue, but it is clearly seeping in.

Swept up in the burger craze, I ventured to the heart of PV recently to try BRGR Kitchen + Bar and, specifically, to compare it to the impressive Blanc Burgers + Bottles. Blanc, having received 4 Napkins in the past, is clearly a favorite. Would BRGR be on the same playing field?

Of foremost interest to me was the atmosphere at BRGR. Prairie Village is a hotbed of young families and, as such, many of its restaurants feel more like a McDonald’s play place, teeming with grubby faced toddlers, than I like. Listen, I’m a 20 something.  I want everything to be “cool,” “modern,” and “innovative.” Terms like “family-friendly” send shivers up my spine (I’ll grow out of this soon enough, I’m sure). So I was afraid BRGR would feel too juvenile.

It did not. The restaurant has a sort of warm industrial feel. A wooden sign and front door, wooden bar, wood-plank room dividers and wood ceiling lend a sort of contemporary cowboy toughness to the place. The walls were exposed brick and the floor a simple concrete. The materials and appearance were delightfully adult-appropriate, I decided. A great relief.

We bellied up to the bar during the short wait for our table, where we encountered a fantastic surprise – Free State Brewery beers on tap! Being Jayhawk alum, this is a sentimental favorite. Our Oktoberfests were deliciously malty with a crisp hoppy finish.  Across from the bar are a few indoor tables and then the outdoor patio, at which I can easily picture myself relaxing and enjoying a beer sometime in the future.

Next thing we knew, we were being seated at our table smack-dab in the middle of the main dining area, perusing the list of 23 entrée selections – 12 with beef, 2 slider selections and nine non-beef choices. Choosing among so many different burgers was difficult but I landed on the Big Hoss. All BRGRs are a half pound of certified angus beef (75/25). Massive and juicy. The Big Hoss also came with a fried egg, maple bacon, Wisconsin cheddar, steak sauce and onion straws on a corn bun, with a little bottle of Tabasco on the side ($9).

The quality I found most remarkable about this burger was its size, rather than any of its flavor components. I immediately cut it in half after deciding there was no way I could pick up the whole thing without dropping half its contents. It was huge. Too big, really.

I’m a big fan of burgers with a fried egg on them. At BRGR you can add one to any burger for a buck (same for Blanc). The one on my Big Hoss was nicely done, with a still-runny yolk. The bacon was thick cut which would have been great, except it wasn’t quite crispy enough. Each time I bit into it, the whole piece of bacon got yanked out of the burger; I couldn’t get just a single bite to come off. The other slight disappointment was the corn bun, which seemed bulky, a little dry and stale. When eating a burger, especially one with a half pound of meat, plus two other proteins on it, I don’t want to be overwhelmed with a thick, spongy bun, too. So a less-cumbersome choice would have been preferable. Still, these nits aside, it was a pleasurable burger.

For sides, we chose “THE COMBO,” which allows you to select ay three for $7. We chose the BRGR fries, sweet potato fries and onion rings (other choices were onion straws, truffle fries and truffle tator tots). Here, again, we were shocked at the portions, as we were delivered two metal coffee carafes filled to the brim with the fries and three giant onion rings. The BRGR fries were good, seemingly hand cut and with a nice texture. The sweet potato fries were pleasantly crispy, too. Not mushy the way they can be when done poorly. The onion rings could have been great – large and firm with a heavy, crumbly crust – but the breading had a cheap-tasting Italian herb flavor that we didn’t completely appreciate. It seemed unfitting in the context of the rest of the all-American menu.

Half of our burgers and two thirds of the sides did us in, despite starting out with huge appetites. We liked BRGR a great deal for its laid back, fun atmosphere, good selection and decent prices. Truth be told, though, I went back to Blanc last weekend with friends, had an Au Poivre burger on their Farm to Market salt and pepper brioche bun and confirmed that its smaller portion and superior taste/textures gave it a clear edge over what I had at BRGR. I’ll go back to BRGR, but it will likely be upon someone else’s request rather than my own.

Rating: one napkin
BRGR Kitchen + Bar on Urbanspoon
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