The most talked about restaurant in Kansas City right now, easily, is the casual little place in the heart of Brookside called Julian. I set my sights on the place more than a month ago, and we finally honed in on it last weekend.
If you didn't already know, Julian is the new offering from award winning chef Celina Tio (on twitter), formerly of The American Restaurant and of James Beard Best Chef Midwest fame. We scheduled our reservation for Saturday night at 8:15. Elizabeth didn't think there would be anyone else there due to the weather and that we were picking a slightly later time slot, but when we arrived it was absolutely packed. We were early, so we squeezed ourselves into a nook in the bar area, just around the corner from the hosts' stand, ordered a glass of wine, and began observing.
First impressions were that the place was quite small, decoration surprisingly minimal, noise level high but not absurd. And it smelled guuuhd. The dining room screams "look at your scrumptious food" not "look at our... walls!".
From our nook we had time and proper vantage to contemplate our seating options, and agreed to take a hard-line stance that if the staff tried to put us in one of the four front-most tables by the entrance, we'd ask to wait for something better.
Sitting in any of those tables would have ruined our night. I guess someone's got to sit there but with so much traffic whizzing by, and the front door opening constantly, letting in the elements, it would have been incredibly frustrating. As we hooked pinkies, bonding our agreement, Chef Tio herself stuck her head around the corner, grinned and said, "your table's ready!" Great, I thought. No pushing back when the chef is seating you.
Thank goodness Elizabeth has more backbone than me, because the table we were headed to was the worst - right in the middle of the front dining room, too close to the front door, next to the hosts' stand and in the opening between the bar and the kitchen. Might as well have been in the middle of the Grandview Triangle. Upholding our bond, Elizabeth politely requested the table back in the corner that was just opening up. I nodded silently in an impressive show of solidarity. Chef Tio obliged. Phew!
Next observations were focused on the menu. It was nice and small, which I expected and was honestly glad to see. The idea of doing a few things really well always appeals to me more than trying to have something for everyone, which this menu may still have accomplished with its assortment of familiar but innovatively executed American dishes.
Starters: ruling out the salads (we eat too many lettuce salads), we landed on the house-smoked salmon on potato-chive pancake, quickly agreeing it was a solid choice. We were famished after hanging out among the aromas from the kitchen for a half hour, and the rich mayonnaised salmon was plentiful and satisfying. The pancake was hardly noticeable but its chives added a bright hint of flavor against the salmon, as did the crispy fried capers. I'd order this again, robbing myself of the chance to try the other delicious-sounding starters on the menu which should tell you something about how much I liked it.
As I perused more of the menu, and took in the surroundings, I was taken by just how casual Julian was. I knew it was supposed to be a relatively casual place but as I looked around, I noticed Chef Tio, herself, was in jeans, as was the rest of the staff, most of whom were also wearing Julian t-shirts. I'd worn a typical work outfit - dressier jeans, collared shirt and sweater - but I'd feel totally comfortable returning in tennis shoes and everyday jeans, so long as I appeared pressed and clean. Don't show up in a dress or jacket. Too pretentious for Julian. And there's something refreshing about that.
Another unexpectedly casual thing: sandwiches on the dinner menu - a choice of chicken, cheeseburger or pulled pork. Deciding that trying a restaurant's burger ($13) is a good way to gain insight on the motives of the chef, we ordered one, medium, with the works - lettuce, sweet red onion slices, shrooms, bacon, cheddar and - because "why not?" - a fried egg (see this post for a related comment on fried eggs). This turned out to be a remarkably wise choice.
I opted for a no-meat dish: pappardelle with organic squash, brown butter and sage ($15) because, admittedly, I was hopeful the portion would be large. I'd seen a few plates come out of the kitchen while at the bar including the short ribs and basted beef. Exquisite plates but small-ish. I was too hungry for that on this night.
Side dish offerings are not well varied but are exceedingly well priced: $4 for grits, onion rings, french fries, cheesy broccoli, or mac & cheese. I'd have appreciated something with a little crunch to go with my pasta, and the burger was already coming with fries. But wanting to sample at least one of the sides, I went with grits. I've enjoyed grits my whole life but have only had them in restaurants a few times, so I was interested to see Chef Tio's take on them.
It took very little time for the orders to come back, and as soon as we saw the food, we were happy customers. The burger was one of the most appetizing things I had ever seen - a thick patty of sizzling beef topped with bacon lardons, sauteed mushrooms, rings of vibrant red onion, and a big, glistening fried egg.
The burger was cooked to a perfect medium - bright pink in the very center, but otherwise fully cooked. No blood oozing out of the meat. As our friendly server set it down, she commented that the burger was the envy of the kitchen staff and we were lucky it made it out to our table. This amused me greatly as I was feeling a slight bit of shame for ordering something as ordinary as a burger at a restaurant with such a high caliber chef.
A few minutes later, Chef Tio came by to check on us and mentioned the same thing! They were right, it was a great looking burger and it really did taste fantastic. So juicy and rich. The chunks of bacon were my only point of criticism. Of course they tasted fine - bacon always does - but not crispy at all. So they blended in with the shrooms and made me wish I had omitted one or the other. The heap of fries disappeared rapidly, and their house-made ketchup was even good! (So often, they're not. Runny, pulpy, lacking sweetness...). Overall a terrific burger. See my following comment for a comparison to Blanc, a four napkin burger restaurant I've previously reviewed.)
My pappardelle, too, was the exact dish for which I was hoping, and hit a personal culinary sweet spot. Wide, flat, soft noodles came in a steaming bowl with nothing more than cubes of orange butternut squash, toasted seeds (of unknown origin, though I'm guessing they were the squash seeds... or sunflower seeds), fried sage and butter. This was a daringly simple dish, especially with just butter as a sauce, but it was, nonetheless, delicious and hugely satisfying.
Chef Tio had no way of knowing, but when I was younger and, on spaghetti night, we ran out of sauce but I was still hungry, my mom would give me more pasta with a pad of butter on top, which I loved. For a while, I even shunned sauce, preferring the simple butter and pasta, perhaps one of the most comforting plates of food in my sensory memory.
Today, I noticed that this menu item has been replaced with pasta and meat sauce, so perhaps other diners or the chef, herself, grew tired of this dish. All I can say is that, to me, it was a home run.
Neither Elizabeth nor I was the least bit hungry when desserts were offered, but at just four dollars, we couldn't turn them down! Our baked chocolate "puddin'" with a ginger doughnut was easily the best chocolate pudding I'd ever had (my apologies for not having remembered to shoot a photo) . Maybe that's not saying much, but the texture was nice and airy, but creamy at the same time. Not too gelatinous, the way I've found pudding before. Even better, crunchy crystals of sea salt rested atop the puddin' and provided a fantastic flavor and texture contrast to make the pudding more interesting.
The doughnut was pretty dry, the way gulab jamun usually is at Indian restaurants. I guessed that it was probably fried earlier in the evening and kept warm under a heat lamp. It could have benefited greatly from having been freshly fried and piping hot.
In summation, I found Julian to be not just a remarkably good restaurant, but a new treasure in the city and a place that will, I think, serve as the beating heart of Brookside for as long as it remains open. It's a friendly neighborhood place in the middle of a friendly neighborhood with appropriate menu items at a great price. With attention to the right details - the food itself and pricing wine, desserts and sides modestly to ensure diners have a full, enjoyable experience - Julian is poised for success. I will return soon and often.
Rating: three napkins