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

Webster House on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Commenting on the poll....I had to vote twice - once for chicken and once for veggies - and thought I would elaborate. Chicken - I don't really like eating a straight up chicken breast, but throw it on the grill and it brings it to a whole new level. However, same goes for veggies. They go from being a boring side dish that you feel obligated to eat, to something tasty and delightful once they catch some rays on the grate. Therefore, had to vote twice. That said, I like everything better on the grill so easily could have voted for everything :) Maybe next time it should be a ranking instead of vote for your fav. Genius idea.

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