Apr 25, 2010

YST4

Restaurant: You Say Tomato
Location: 2801 Holmes, KC MO
Food: Home cooked - lovingly cooked - breakfast and lunches
Service: n/a (but everyone is friendly and they wear knitted hats that look like tomatoes)
Atmosphere: relaxed, comfortable, inviting, cheerful
Price: $2 coffee (free refills), $6.95 quiches, $4.95 corned beef hash a la carte, etc.
Rating:  three napkins

Currently, I find it incomprehensible to allow a weekend to pass without going out to brunch. And if you follow Napkins (hah!), you know what the favs are - Room 39, Blue Bird Bistro (1 and 2) and You Say Tomato (1, 2 and 3).

This morning, it was YST that called our name the loudest, so I vowed, at least, to try something new ensuring it was not only worthwhile, but bloggable.



Same inviting scene when we arrived - crowded, happy looking people, the smell of coffee, eggs and baking crusts in the air.

I had not seen (though it may have been there) the corned beef hash on the menu before, which normally comes with eggs and toast, but can be purchased a la carte. Bingo. Sounded just right for me; I was looking for something savory and with a little meat. Healthy not really on my mind. I chose the a la carte route and added a side of the cheese grits.

Elizabeth attempted to order the first quiche on the list - blue crab - but we'd arrived just too late. Sold out. It was with only the slightest amount of disappointment, then, that she ordered the eggplant and broccoli quiche instead. We've yet to have a bad experience with a YST quiche, so we weren't worried.

With the quiche she ordered a side salad: romaine with tomato, zucchini, red onion and red bell pepper, covered in balsamic vinaigrette. A little too much vinaigrette, actually, as it ran all over the plate and spoiled the texture of her otherwise immaculate quiche crust (a small infraction not to be held against YST).

Her quiche was lovely - fluffy and smooth. It needed a little salt but the eggplant and broccoli worked well in it. The crust was a thing of beauty, thick, flaky and buttery.

I was a little underwhelmed with the appearance of my hash. Everything was diced smaller than I expected, and the potatoes and onions lacked color from frying. I was skeptical they would have any flavor or texture, but boy was I wrong. The pile of salty corned beef and small-diced potatoes and onions was packed with flavor and had plenty of texture contrast - crunch from the well cooked bits and smoothness inside.

I knew what I was getting with the grits, which emitted a thick column of steam when I extracted my first forkful. They were hot but tangy and oh so intensely satisfying. Craving spice, I doused everything with several dashes of Tabasco since it was noon and my taste buds were ready for the added pizazz. These grits were, indeed, perfect.

Everything we put in our mouths was a success this morning and we left only deeper in love with YST. YST review five may be only a week away :)

Rating: three napkins
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You Say Tomato on Urbanspoon

Apr 24, 2010

Cupcake Break!

Restaurant: Cupcakes a la Mode
Location: 1209 West 47th Street, KC MO
Food: Best cupcakes in town
Service: Friendly counter service

Atmosphere: Eclectic vibe - but the pink will give you a headache w/ prolonged exposure
Price: $3 plus tax for cupcakes
Rating: n/a



I'm not normally one for sweets in the middle of the day, but with my midday coffee, when we passed Cupcakes a la Mode on the way home, it was inevitable.

I've been here several times before. It's a good thing they're not open in the evening or else I'd come after dinner chronically (located within walking distance of my house).

The available selections are a combination of whimsical, unique and classic with selections such as the "Marshmallow Fondue", "PB&J" and "Raspberry Lemonade". Today we brought home two: the "Love Doctor", a chocolate cupcake with chocolate chunk strawberry buttercream and a chocolate-dipped strawberry on top, plus the "Stuffed French Toast" which is a vanilla cupcake topped with scrumptious maple cinnamon buttercream icing and with a decadent cream cheese icing.

If you don't have coffee on hand already, as I did, you can get a splendid coffee drink there, among other choices like Izze sodas. As sweet as they are, though, I recommend coffee or milk to wash it down.

Haute cupcakes and cupcake boutique shops have become a trendy thing as of late. I've not had many, as I like the savory things more than the sweet (e.g. charcuterie over cupcakes), but when comparing to Baby Cakes, located in the river market next to Harry's Country Club, I give the edge to Cupcakes a la Mode for the unique options on their menu that are truly delicious and for the unworldly texture of the cake in their cupcakes. Dense yet somehow fluffy, moist yet light, there's something special going on there that should be noticed.

They really are a treat.
Cupcake a la Mode on Urbanspoon

Fiesta Fiesta

Restaurant: Cancun Fiesta Fresh
Location: 4019 Pennsylvania Ave., KC MO (Westport)
Food: It is what it is, and what it is is good. Simple, authentic Mexican fare.
Service: Surprisingly pleasant on my in-n-out stopoff
Atmosphere: Lots of drunk happy people filling up on good food
Price: Quite reasonable - almost cheap
Rating: Two napkins

After an amusing happy hour at Sol Cantina with coworkers last night, I found myself in the mood for good Mexican food. But here's the situation: it's 7:00, I've already had a couple beers so I'm not totally famished, Elizabeth was out with other friends so I was pretty much headed home to enjoy a rare night of just sitting around and doing whatever the heck I wanted. A big ol' platter of takeout Mexican food was not in order. This was the perfect setup for STREET TACOS!

So I dropped into Cancun Fiesta Fresh to try what I have been told are some delicious and authentic-tasting street tacos. Of course, staring at the menu's options, my eyes became bigger than my stomach and I ordered four: Asada (marinated beef), Adobada (BBQ beef), Carnitas (roasted pork) and Pollo (chicken).



The handmade corn tortillas come warm and, despite small, are filled with rich meat and cheese that will quickly fill you up. Their salsas are fresh and quite tasty. Don't worry - Extra Spicy really isn't too bad. Give it a try. Squeeze the accompanying limes (which come in a little sandwich baggie along with a slice of radish and carrot just for authenticity's sake) on top of the bed of cilantro and lettuce that covers the meat and cheese and you get all the flavors an authentic Meixcan street taco should have.

The Asada and Adobada had magnificent flavor, the meat chopped fine for easy chewing. The pollo  was delicious but less flavorful and slightly dry as grilled chicken can be. By the time I got to the carnitas, I was too full to take on any more than one bite of the deliciously seasoned, soft, shreddable hunks of pork.

I got exactly what I wanted out of my trip to CFF and see myself stopping by here much more often now. I give it a lofty two napkins because I appreciate that it's not trying to be anything it shouldn't. Walking up to this place and getting your order of street tacos, which  you can wolf down in a matter of just a few minutes at one of the little cheap tables they have there (or even just standing and laughing with friends while you gorge) can make you feel like you're actually in Mexico, having the real experience. And I appreciate the heck out of that.

Rating: two napkins


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Cancun Fiesta Fresh on Urbanspoon

Apr 19, 2010

A Smoking Success



My escapades with smoking meats, to date, have included attempts at pulled pork (episode 1 and 1a), brisket and trout (episode 2), the trout being the most successful among them.

No, I can't say I was as pleased as I'd hoped with the other two meats, but perfecting one's barbecue technique is done through time and many, many pounds of meat, not the first few attempts.

With this mantra in mind - that I needed to keep trying any chance I got - I jumped all over a recent opportunity. The family came to town and stayed with us Easter weekend, and Mom, ever-conscious of my love for cooking (thanks for the support, mom! Photo at the end of this post), brought with her an entire turkey breast!

The next Saturday morning as I was making breakfast, I remembered the turkey and placed the frozen bird out to thaw. Sunday morning it was ready to go, so I dried it off and then doused it in tons of my all-purpose seasoning rub from Oklahoma Joe's, being sure it was well coated all the way around and inside. I didn't even check the temp in the smoker when I dropped the bird in, I just made  sure the water pan was full and that it was reasonably hot; put the turkey on the lower rack and three good-sized chunks of hickory in the bottom.

My suspicion, from previous experience, was that I had used too little wood and, thus, hadn't imparted as much flavor into the meat as desired. So this time I amped up the amount of wood I used - about three to four chunks in the smoker at all time. It came billowing out around the cracks between the lid and the sides of its cylindrical base. A good sign.

Eight hours later, I pulled it out and wrapped it in foil. And when we finally sliced into it, we were thoroughly pleased. Dark, super-flavorful skin on the outside, moist white breast meat all the way down to the bone. I cut both of the breasts off whole and then thinly sliced it.

We've been living off that turkey for a while now... one of the benefits of smoking is that the leftovers are available for a long time thereafter - an apt award for such a labor of love. So last night, wanting a good warm weather meal but not in the mood to spend a lot of time on it, we created a menu utilizing the leftover turkey, along with our favorite cookout sides: barbecue baked beans and potato salad.

For the baked beans, we simply buy Bush's Homestyle beans, get rid of the chunks of bacon and drain quite a bit of the liquid, which we replaced with Gate's original style barbecue sauce. Let them simmer in a sauce pan for 20 minutes to thicken up a bit.

For my potato salad:

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds potatoes - Yukon Gold or red new potatoes rinsed and scrubbed
  • 3 scallions finely sliced
  • 1/3 cup chopped dill
  • 4 Claussen mini pickles
  • 4 hard boiled eggs, diced
  • 3 tablespoons dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons coarse grain mustard
  • 1/2 cup mayo (I prefer Hellman's made with olive oil)
Bring a pot of water to a rapid boil. Add a palmful of salt. Dice the potato into half inch cubes and place in a bow. Cover with the hottest water you can get out of your tap, to warm up the diced potatoes and release some of the excess starch. When water is boiling, dump out the water with the potatoes and transfer them to the boiling pot.

Meanwhile, slice the scallions, pickles, eggs and chop the dill. When the potatoes are fork tender, strain the hot water and run some cool water over them to bring their temperature down to warm. Place potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Add the dijon, coarse grain mustard and mayo. Fold with a spatula to combine. Place bowl in the fridge and allow to cool 20 minutes. Remove from fridge and add in the rest of the ingredients. Stir well to make sure ingredients, especially dijon, are well mixed.

The photo doesn't do it justice, but we enjoyed refreshing glasses of sangria to go with our summery barbecue meal. Elizabeth can whip this up very quickly, and the fresh fruit makes it deliciously juicy. Just watch out because it packs a deceiving punch, too.

Elizabeth's Sangria:

Ingredients
  • Ice
  • Bottle of red wine, preferably Spanish
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/4 cup triple sec
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Large bottle sparkling water like Pellegrino or Mountain Valley
Combine all the liquid ingredients in a large pitcher except the sparkling water. Add the sugar and stir to combine. If desired, add slices of the fruit for garnish. Then slowly add the sparkling water, allowing it to preserve as much of its fizz as possible.

Serve in any type of glass over ice.

Mom and Dad with grandparents in the background:



Apr 18, 2010

Another Go-Round at Blue Bird

I'm trying out a new thing with Napkins and I really want some feedback. So send some comments on this.

Basically, I realize that my posts can be long. And I don't mind that they are, because I like giving as much detail as possible. Whatever. You don't have to read it all. However, for those who would prefer a quicker read, I might start posts, now, with an at-a-glance overview. This review of Blue Bird will be my first shot at it. Let me know if you think I should make alterations.


Restaurant: Blue Bird Bistro
Location: 17th & Summit, KC, MO
What I Ate: Coffee, Biscuits and Buffalo Sausage Gravy
Food: Huge emphasis on local and organic ingredients is a plus. Menu could use some new options.
Service: Slightly better than average. Friendly, attentive, no mishaps.
Atmosphere: Relaxing and brimming with character. Superb.
Price: Reasonable given quality of ingredients
Rating: Two Napkins (rating from previous review: two napkins)




Full Review
The family was in town for Easter weekend and Elizabeth and I were charged with picking a brunch spot for Saturday morning. We knew we wanted to take them to a good local place, so we took a few places under consideration.
  • Room 39: took them there recently 
  • Bluestem: too pricey and upscale 
  • You Say Tomato: too big of a group
  • Succotash: scared of the tomato soup-eating painting on the wall
  • Happy Gillis: took them there recently
  • Eggtc.: too crowded
  • reVerse: too "see and be seen"
  • Bristol: didn't want to go to P&L
  • Blue Bird Bistro: perfect
Blue Bird, with its emphasis on local ingredients and decently-sized breakfast/brunch menu was perfect for the occasion. Choose location: done.

I've reviewed Blue Bird before, so this is a "booster review", not a full-on assessment. Previously I rated Blue Bird two napkins. Would that change on this trip?

In short, no. It's worth every bit of those two napkins, but needs some menu  upgrades to go to the next echelon of mouth-dabbing napkindom. Here's the rundown:

The coffee at Blue Bird is done well - Roasterie Coffee. Cream is served in little metal kettles that fit the restaurant's throwback vibe nicely. If you take sugar, it's a high quality pure cane sugar (I don't, though, for the record).

Last time we went to Blue Bird for breakfast, I had eggs served in an out-of-season tomato which were a little lacking in flavor, so this time I went back to something I knew would be a hit - their biscuits and gravy with crumbled bison breakfast sausage added (only $6.40 for the full order plus an extra $2 for the meat). The biscuits aren't radically fluffy or over-the-top rich; they're just good, hand made biscuits with a nice crust on the outside and warm chewy center.

The gravy is heavenly - the perfect consistency, a balance of thick and creamy - and comes infused with mushrooms and herbs, giving it savory, almost earthy flavor. I love this depth. It's nice tasting more than cream, flour and black pepper which is what you often get with average B&G. The bison, then, lends some kick. A little more going on in  your mouth. Yes, it's got a hint of gaminess, but only in the best way. (Same goes for their terrific bison burger.) B&G with some originality yet all the things I love in the classic. Good stuff.

I also stole bites of my mom's green curry (can you tell I steal a lot of food from people who have the misfortune of going to restaurants with me?), which she asked for mild - unsure of whether she could handle its spice. What she was served was, indeed, mild. But it also lacked its signature green color, no doubt from the omission of much of the green curry paste. So, sadly, her first experience with green curry was not a very authentic one. It was mostly an experience with coconut milk. Her vegetables, including carrot, broccoli, roasted sliced potato and lots of onion were all crisp tender and nicely done, though she weeded out the onion - maybe a little too raw.

Elizabeth tried the black bean burger, which I will advise readers to avoid. Was it bad? No. But it's not a burger. It's a pile of black bean mash, which has a naturally starchy consistency to it, served on a bun. Too little contrast in textures and flavors. I've made some black bean and even a chickpea burger once, and the recipes always call for citrus. I don't know why. Yes, it does add flavor, but it seems out of place. Lime stood out in BBB's BBB but I'd advise the use of bell pepper, kernels of corn, and small diced carrot and onion to liven up the patty. Oh, and make it more of a patty, not a cafeteria-style mush lump. Not great.

Her side of potato salad was creamy and delicious with lots of scallion - a great touch in potato salad (which I'm deciding right now I'll be making tonight).

My wonderful, smart, talented sister Christy, a CPA, Dallas resident, dog owner, church goer, world traveler and my culinary polar opposite (just not as adventurous with food choices), set her sights on the French toast (pictured below). "I always get French toast!" she beamed. So I watched her to pick up signs on how it may have compared to the thousands of other French toasts she's had in her life. When prodded, she said it was good, but I caught her spending a lot of time looking at the plates of others. Her toast was thick cut and looked delicious, but was served pretty plain - two "sticks" of toast with maple syrup on the side. No fruit or other accompaniment. Modestly sized. I think she found it quite average in the end.

Overall, the two napkin rating was affirmed. My B&G hit the spot and stands out among the many B&G memories I have. The rest of the table had average dishes. The service is still friendly. The atmosphere will always be a dream.

Rating: two napkins




Blue Bird Bistro on Urbanspoon


Apr 15, 2010

Double Down? No.

Today I decided to be a part of the asinine hype surrounding the release of the fast food world's latest artery clogger and do a little recon for Napkins, and the general welfare of the community. I went with my coworkers Tom and Eric to pick up the new Double Down from KFC.

Why the so-called hype? The Double Down is the latest release in the "horrifically unhealthy food products" category that brought us other reality distorting Frankensteins of fat like the Quad Stacker from Burger King, the 2/3 lb Monster Thickburger from Hardee's and Domino's Breadbowl Pastas (KFC also brought us those "Famous Bowls"... mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, corn niblets, fried chicken and cheese).

These nutrition-less cholesterol carriers have drawn outrage from quality and calorie-concerned eaters in the past, who are opposed by a more jovial-in-nature scoff and grin from the 'hey, let the people have what they want you crazy herbivores" types.

When Tom started rounding folks up to "double down", I was all for it - not for the food itself, but to evaluate and communicate my impression. There were a few things I wanted to find out:
  1. Would it be tasty? 
  2. Just how greasy would it be?
  3. How big was this thing?
  4. How would I feel after eating it?
  5. And what kind of reaction would we get from others?
Our trip started with a lot of laughter and grins. Tom talked coworkers of all types, from our COO down, into trying the product with us (I guess advertisers are just as susceptible to peer pressure as anyone else). Our pickup order totaled nine Double Downs. Tom, Eric and I set out for the KFC north of our office, giggling to ourselves the whole way. Tom commented that he "knew this was going to be a great day" when he woke up that day, excited about the Double Down run. I was enjoying the novelty of the idea, but didn't hold out much hope that the product would actually be enjoyable.

There was a decent-sized line of folks ordering in the drive thru window - I can only assume they were all ordering double downs - when we pulled up.


The hilarity continued as we entered the restaurant and took note of the Double Down signage:

The atrocious slogan "so meaty, there's no room for the bun!" is indicative of how hair brained this idea really is.

As we started interacting with the order taker, General Manager Cheryl*, things started tipping from funny to sad. ...But it was funny for a while yet.

Cheryl was full of memorable one liners. As we tallied up the number of double d's in our order right in front of her, she barked, "I need 18 of them fillets going down right now!" to her crew. Two chicken fillets per Double Down, times nine in our order meant 18. Impressive mental math and managerial skills. Don't underestimate Cheryl.

Other funny quips from Cheryl, delivered in a mumble, shrouded by her own laughter:

  • "It's a pretty big sandwich... if you want to call it a sandwich"
  • "Where's the bun, baby?!"
  • "You gonna eat these here?" ...the joke being how funny it was that she hadn't figured out we were ordering for more than the three of us
As the irritated crew scurried around to fulfill our large order, a pregnant woman walked in (no doubt starving given her condition) unwittingly believing that, because there were few patrons in the restaurant, she would be served quickly. Several minutes passed before she was even acknowledged by Cheryl, and even when she was, it was only a holler from the back that it was going to take a few minutes before she would be helped. She decided to wait it out. Clearly, though, our order had taken a toll.

I thought several times about joking with the pregnant lady that eating for two meant she was literally "doubling down", so she had come to the right place. Thanks God my cognitive mind dissuaded my mouth from opening and embarrassing us all.

(All the while, "You and Me" by Dave Matthews was playing. Its chorus contains the words "end of the world" which are sung twice before moving on to the next verse, meaning that, as we waited on our order of nine Double Downs, containing 540 calories and 32 grams of fat each, softly, almost subconsciously, we were reminded that our lunches were certain signs of the entropy that is bringing the world closer to its ultimate demise.)

As we piled back into Tom's new-ish Mitsubishi, Eric commented on how nice it smelled. Tom pointed out that the vents had clip-on new car smell inserts that maintained its pleasant odor. Only a few short minutes down the road, that pleasant-smelling breeze was heavy and humid, wreaking of fried batter - like the Colonel himself was breathing directly into our faces. The tide was turning.

Walking back in the doors at work we received more sneers than high fives. The gig was up. This was a joke that was best left a hilarious concept, rather than actualized. We headed for a fishbowl (conference room with glass walls) where other DD purchasers would find us and regretfully retrieve their grease-laden cartons of chicken, cheese, sauce and bacon. Everyone seemed a little less enthused with their purchase once it was actually in their hands than they had been when originally talked into the idea of buying one.

Reactions to the actual food were mixed. Here is mine:

EEEEWWWWUH!!!!!!

Think about it. Take fried chicken, which is supposed to have a crispy crust on the outside, let it steam in a little cardboard box saturated with excess grease for several minutes, then open. The crunch has been replaced by sog. Secondly, these two thick pieces of chicken are further saturated with mayo-based sauce and melted pepperjack cheese inside. Also inside is a piece of bacon which probably was never crunchy in the first place, but drowned in a pool of orange goo was repulsively flaccid.

Only one flavor prevailed, and that was frialator grease.

I was able to consume four or five small bites - about 1/4 of the bunless sandwich - before I became nauseous and threw it away. My companions conquered the whole thing, but I'm not sure anyone truly enjoyed it (please comment if you did). I felt horrible and, inside, an urge was growing to protect the world from making the mistake I had of doubling down.

My lasting impression of the Double Down? I can't believe they created it, and I can't believe people willingly eat it. It's wrong on many levels. I hadn't gone into this experiment planning on disliking the Double Down as much as I did, but the frightening lack of texture or flavors, the ungodly amount of calories, fat and sodium... even the amount of paper waste we created were all abhorrent.

I'm glad to know that despite this trend toward creating the ultimate fat-in-hand fast food product, cuisine is somehow, at the same time, also trending toward increasing the availability and service of whole, all natural, organic foods - foods less tampered with by humans for the purposes of preservation, portability and convenience, and more in keeping with how our bodies were designed to consume it.

It was fun while it lasted, I suppose. All four bites. But take my advice - use my mistake for your own wisdom - and stay the heck away from KFC and their awful Double Down. It's truly a disgrace. 


Rating: unrated 

*Names altered for privacy.

Apr 10, 2010

Happy Gillis Leaves Me... Well...

Happy Gillis is so charming it's not even fair.

It's a bit of a hike going all the way down to the river market, and then east to Columbus park, from my home in the West Plaza area. But knowing Happy Gillis is the destination, it's 20 minutes of glee.

Happy Gillis is one of those quaint neighborhood eateries that serves delicious homemade breakfast foods and notably tasty soups, salads and sandwiches. Hearty and high quality with few to no processed ingredients or fast food shortcuts taken. It's run by Todd and Tracy Schulte (I am making the assumption Tracy's last name is Schulte). Todd's a full-blown chef (culinary school grad) with restaurant kitchen experience, but who has apparently figured out that running his own little soup service and neighborhood restaurant is far more fulfilling than fighting through the chefs' rat race. I hear chefs claim, often, that they put a lot of love in their food, but I've never truly experienced that any more than I do in what Todd dishes out at Happy G (he's been there, cheerily cooking and chatting with guests, every time I've gone).

Admittedly, I have not taken advantage of the HG breakfast menu, so I'll have to write a separate review for that (I planned it that way just to create an excuse for going again soon). Focusing on lunch, though, I'll waste no time in telling you that Happy Gillis is a phenomenal spot that I vigorously recommend.

The restaurant has a homey quality few places could ever hope to achieve. Upon entering, diners find themselves standing beside comfortable old (but tasteful) couches, chairs and a coffee table covered with reading material, perfect for a pleasant wait if the tables are all full once you've placed your order. The dining room is unfortunately small, but I've never been served my food before I was able to snatch an open seat. There is also a shallow counter near the entrance looking out onto the street that's a bit cramped, but fun if you're alone or with just one other person. The walls are a funky green color, the furniture is vintage/second-hand, the menu boards are chalk board. It's got a great, unique vibe to it. And now that the weather is nicer, you can even choose to sit at one of three sidewalk tables.

Reading through the menus is an exciting foray itself. Everything sounds good. On past trips, I've had the egg salad, curried chicken salad with cashews, and Plain Jane (turkey) sandwiches. All were delicious. On one of my recent trips, it was a rainy day in the budding spring and I felt like one last wintry meal was in order, so I had Tracy's Meatloaf. I rate this high on my life's list of best decisions.

"Tracy's Meatloaf" is a meatloaf panini with a kick. I was thrilled with the fact that the bread, after having been pressed and grilled, was thinner than the weighty cuts of hot meatloaf inside. Tells you something about HG's philosophy of serving the best-possible-tasting sandwich, not cutting corners for the sake of cost. So despite few other toppings, this is still quite a substantial and filling meal.

What toppings it does have are unique but perfectly suited to my tastes: the white cheddar cheese had a delightful stretchy quality to it and nice sharp saltiness. For a little kick, thinly sliced rings of fresno peppers (think red jalapeno) were layered on top. Sweet, a little crunchy and a little spicy, they were an ingenious addition. And for moisture and a more classic sandwich taste, good dijon mustard was detectable through its slight tartness.

Elizabeth went back for one of her all-time favorite sandwiches - the banh mi (Elizabeth, can you confirm or deny whether this is, in fact, the second-best sandwich you've ever eaten, bested only by La Sandwicherie's salami and provolone?).  I, too, have had and enjoyed the banh mi, which is a Vietnamese-style baguette sandwich. Traditionally the baguette comes sliced and split open like a sub sandwich rather than on two separate pieces of bread as Happy Gillis serves theirs, but HG's technique comes with good reasoning...

The stars of their banh mi are two huge pork meatballs which, in a traditional baguette, would tend to get squeezed out, or just wouldn't fit inside, period. These meatballs are deliciously flavored (great call using all pork), sweet/savory protein spheres. Chomping down on one fulfills a primordial, inborn human desire like few other foods can.

[A word of caution, though: last time I ordered the banh mi, I promptly hoisted it toward my gaping mouth only to then watch in horror, seemingly in slow motion, as one of my meatballs fell out the back of the sandwich, caromed off the table top and onto the floor!!!!!!! I'd liken the experience to that of a junky seeing his stash fall into a deep sewer. Yes, I heavily considered picking it up and popping it into my mouth before anyone else could notice, but it was too late. My shriek of repugnance had already alerted them to the tragedy. I beg of you, please learn from my mistake and ensure your meatballs are safely and securely fastened.]

Offsetting the rich meat are sweet-marinated carrots, sliced cucumber, radish and brightly flavored cilantro. And the bread picks up a little of the gooey, spicy hoisin from the meatballs for added moisture. You just can't find a sandwich like this hardly anywhere else in town, so you've got to go try it.

We also ordered a bowl of HG's Italian lentil soup with sausage. This hearty bowl was a great match for my meatloaf sandwich, thick, deeply flavored and satisfying. The soups at HG are a little on the pricey side, but take it from a cheapskate - they're worth it. They're all truly delicious. Happy Gillis actually hangs their hat on their soups, above all. Their website, happysoupeater.com, allows visitors to register and sign up for weekly soup deliveries. I'm not yet a member but can only imagine the euphoria of finding my new gift of soup waiting on my doorstep... especially when it tastes as good as theirs.

Today we returned and had our first less-than-satisfying experienced due to a disappointingly average salad. At $7, we expected something pretty great (also due to HG's preceding reputation), but were sad to receive a small-ish plate of field greens with an ordinary combination of thinly sliced apples and chunks of goat cheese. The vinaigrette, too, was basic. There was nothing wrong with the salad, but Elizabeth sorely wished she could have gone back in time and ordered a sandwich, knowing how extraordinary they always are.

Getting things back on the right track, though, was the soup we shared. It was a beautiful red-orange Thai tomato and vegetable soup, with a slight chunkiness from mostly-pureed vegetables and flecks of cilantro. The bowlful was satisfying, but we could have eaten a gallon of the stuff.

My sandwich (pictures at bottom) was another wild success: thick slices of beautiful tuna, cooked medium with pinkness on the inside but a nice salty brown crust on the seared surface served on wonderfully crunchy-crusted ciabatta was slathered with a mixture of seasoned tomato, capers and walnuts. A great acidic compliment to the meaty fish.

I struggled rating Happy Gillis. I actually considered it for four napkins, which, if you're into comparisons, can't even be said for You Say Tomato despite my reverence for the like-minded eatery. That should tell you something about how good this little corner hangout really is.

The only knocks on Happy Gillis are the slightly high price/portion ratio and today's lackluster salad. On service and atmosphere, it gets top marks. Make your stomach and your soul happy soon with a trip to Happy Gillis.



Rating: three napkins
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Happy Gillis Café & Hangout on Urbanspoon




 



Apr 4, 2010

Webster House...?

Webster House. Really? How? Why? What the..?

It all started with a Groupon. Are you doing the Groupon? Do you buy Groupons? You should. Elizabeth noticed one day, recently, that the Groupon of the day was $25 for $50 toward your dinner at Webster House. Coincidentally, her mom had been telling us it was an exceptional restaurant that we should try, so this gave us the perfect reason to do so.

I'll dote on the atmosphere and decor at Webster House more than in most of my reviews, simply because it lends such a huge influence on the dining experience there. Webster House is located at 17th and Wyandotte, directly south of the performing arts building under construction in that area. It's a towering Romanesque building built in the 19th century, originally used as a school. Today, first and foremost, it's an antique store. A great antique store with room after room of beautiful (and expensive) pieces. Oddly, walking in, we were greeted by a pleasant Securitas guard who asked us if we'd been to Webster House before and whether we were shopping or dining. Diners are sent upstairs.

The second floor landing has two private dining rooms on its East side, and a hallway heading to the West, at the front of which is the host's stand. As we were greeted, I looked down the hall and through the spectacular double-wide doorway that provided a view into WH's gorgeous gourmet kitchen. Hard wood floors, old-looking tile, a low counter with tall-backed chairs surrounding the working chefs... Next time we go, I'll definitely request a seat at that counter.

On the north side of this hallway is an old world-feeling bar, very gentlemanly and tasteful. We were seated in a room on the south side of the hallway with large windows looking out over the crossroads, hardwood floors, and adorned with some of their beautiful antiques. It felt like we had stepped back in time 100 years, in a very good way. Start to finish, the experience of walking in and being seated felt luxurious and sophisticated. It did the perfect job of setting our expectations that the meal would be equally fantastic.

We'd looked at the menu online and found it to be fairly small. I have nothing at all against small menus - I tend to believe doing a few things really well is the more successful restaurant strategy than its alternative - but for a restaurant the caliber of WH, guessed that there would be several specials or seasonal dishes we'd only find out about once we were seated.

Not true. What we saw online is what we got. I'd have appreciated at least a couple specials, if only because I felt nothing on the menu had much originality to it. Diners may choose from one of eight entrees - one pasta (buccatini), three seafood selections (salmon, mahi, scallops), one poultry (chicken) or three red meats (two beef, one lamb). Simply put, I chose the mahi, she chose the scallops.

Our server was very helpful answering questions about the wine list. We both were in the mood for white with our seafood (having consumed a glass or two of red before we left the house). Elizabeth wasn't in the mood for sweet, so we immediately ruled out the riesling. The '07 Huia Sauvignon Blanc, according to the server, was what we were looking for. We took her advice and were not disappointed. Dry, highly acidic... it really got the juices flowing.

With our miniscule pre-dinner sips of wine, we each gleefully ravaged the heavenly breads that came served with three accompanying butters - pink sea salt, garlic and artichoke-infused and molasses. Our round balls of dough had an unworldly, almost crisp shell (no doubt a product of butter-basting that helped "sear" the outer edges of the dough as it cooked), protecting the pillowy soft center. Each butter was wildly different from the next, and from salt to artichoke to molasses, ate almost like a full meal - appetizer to dessert. Very clever and it certainly left an good impression.

Elizabeth had a salad to start. Delicate field greens came topped with plump blackberries, enormous chunks of creamy, unctuous gorgonzola and a touch of blackberry lime vinaigrette. The whole thing was topped with a homemade potato crisp. We agreed that a little more of the vinaigrette would have been nice but the overly generous amounts of cheese and blackberries were such a pleasant surprise, we hardly felt justified in complaining.

I chose the one thing on the menu I hadn't had before - for just that reason: braised veal cheek in a bath of butternut squash puree with crunchy spatzle. How's veal cheek, you ask? Sadly, about what you'd expect. I could tell that, technically speaking, it had been cooked well. The braising process had really broken down what would have normally been a very tough, fibrous muscle. The meat pulled apart nicely and with little effort. Unfortunately, though, it also had a rather unpleasant looking ribbon of fat that had cooked down into a brown jelly that wrapped itself around the whole meatball and had to be scraped away when building each bite. It grossed me out. I'd have paid more money for a veal cheek that had been shredded and removed of fat before served to the unadulterated one I woozily checked prior to each bite. It was technically sound, but ultimately off-putting.

The squash puree was fine, but without an herb accompaniment, was a little plain. Kinda like baby food. The spatzle was "fun", but in the puree and veal jus, quickly became saturated and soggy. I finished the whole thing but was glad to have it behind me.

The entrees placed before us evoked a better reaction. Elizabeth's perfectly cooked medallions of scallop studded a pretty green pile of bamboo rice, atop which were perched the sassafras turnips and a pleasant garnish of watercress. A tasty, sweet saffron sauce brought everything together on the plate. It wasn't quite the scallop-stunner we had at Nemo in Miami recently, but there was little (nothing, really) to complain about. Highly recommendable.

My Mahi, like the veal cheek, found itself drastically out-shined by her wise selection. Placed in front of me was one of the saddest looking plates of food I had ever been served in a fine dining establishment. No color, no thought, no inspiration.

Mahi is a beautiful fish, lean and clean with a naturally sweet flavor. Mine, though, was cooked a little on the rare side, making it a little too slick for my taste. And too cool, temperature-wise. What had sold me on the selection, though, were the "duck fat potatoes". Frying things in duck fat is an avant garde little trick many restaurants around the country have employed for added cache, and I wanted to see what it was like. The answer: undetectable. These potato wedges - just two of them - contained no special flavor from the duck fat. Honestly, they left me wishing the side was a little spire of pommes frites, or even a green vegetable, as opposed to these flavorless starch sticks.

Similarly, my artichoke was fundamentally sound, but overly simple. It had a nice black char on some of the edges, but that was the only flavor the artichoke inherited from any sort of cooking technique. Plain fish, plain potato, plain artichoke. The sauce on the plate was nice, but not abundant enough to lend its pleasant richness and lemony, acidic kick to all the other components which so desperately needed it.

Overall, there was nothing on this plate to dislike on its own, but as a meal it left a lot to be desired, namely flavor.

Thank heavens for dessert. What could be disappointing about French toast bread pudding with maple ice cream, candied bacon and blueberries?

You're exactly right. Nothing.

Our little rectangular platter came beautifully decorated with a deep purple blueberry sauce and a few plump little blueberries, a round dollop of ice cream with a mild maple aroma and flavor, several crispy and sweet/salty chunks of bacon, with a delicious thin candied coating that made the positively "desserty."

I realize adding bacon to dessert is not, anymore, the wildest idea. But you can count the places in KC that serve it in a dessert dish with the fingers God gave you. Our market has hardly worn out the idea. And the way it was done in this dish was fabulous. The French Toast was... French Toast. Scrumptious. But with the additional richness from the ice cream, cut by the bright blueberry flavor and enhanced by the salty bacon, it pummeled the pleasure sensors in my mouth.

Dessert was also enhanced by the two-person sized French press of Roasterie coffee we ordered to go with it. Deep and rich, both in color and flavor, it gave us the perfect pick-me-up after a dinner that left me still needing some satisfaction. The little French press and the antique kettle the cream was served in fit the establishment perfectly. Charming and beautiful.

Webster House isn't the type of restaurant I'd recommend for many occasions. It was good for a date night when Elizabeth and I were in the mood for something totally different than the norm. Something very quiet, private and fancy. Neither my appetizer nor my entree was a home run, but the quality and preparation of the food was first rate and I'd expect nothing less on my next visit. I'd expect more, actually.

There is a place for restaurants in KC like Webster House. It's a special occasions-only restaurant. And what it has going for it compared to other of KC's old-world, traditional places (The Savoy, for instance), is a touch of modernity in its menu. It's not a restaurant that time has passed by. It's like a vintage convertible roadster: pricey, but undoubtedly tasteful, a bit impractical but more special for that reason. We enjoyed ourselves there and I bet you will, too. If you like to take some time out of your life to enjoy the fine things in life.


Rating: two napkins
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