Jun 29, 2010

Three Kansas City restaurants honored nationally | Dollars & Sense

More KC restaurant news in the press. Open Table, which I use to book restaurant reservations online frequently, chose 3 KC restaurants for their list of 50 Best American Restaurants. That's compared to only 6 in NYC! Now, how a chain makes the list (Capital Grille), I'm not sure. But I've been to the one on the Plaza and my steak was pretty darn good, so I'm not too opposed.

Check out the full story on kansascity.com:

Three Kansas City restaurants honored nationally | Dollars & Sense

The New Kids on the Barbecue Circuit - Food - The Atlantic

The Atlantic just ran a fantastic article that validates what many of us in KC have been saying for a while now: that Gate's and Arthur Bryant's, while remaining legendary institutions of KC barbecue, are not the unanimous pics for "best bbq in KC" anymore. Here, author Reeves Wiedman credits Oklahoma Joe's wild success, and speaks to Jack Stack's upscale approach which is also working.

For those not yet willing to admit that the new kid in town has gained an equally impressive nationwide reputation, please read:

The New Kids on the Barbecue Circuit - Food - The Atlantic

Jun 27, 2010

Food Blogging Under Fire

Fat City - the food/restaurant blog put out by The Pitch - has a rerun of a good article about food blogging no-no's from eater.com here: http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck/2010/06/16_sins_food_bloggers_commit.php.

Happy to say the only infraction I've incurred against this list is against #10 - using my cell phone pics on my blog. Note that the number 16 no-no is using your flash in a restaurant. So apparently the author feels very strongly that food bloggers should take pictures with high quality cameras, but not using a flash. What' s the point?

Otherwise, though, he makes some good points. Especially number #1. Hopefully Napkins doesn't come off as too serious of a rag. It's just one dude's opinion. (I just happen to think I'm always right ;).)

Filling Up At Filling Station

Food: Some breakfast, but mostly coffee shop fair and full lunch menu
Service: Quick and quite friendly. Love that there were lots of fast-paced workers there, not just a couple lethargic teens. Almost felt like the restaurant was their co-op. 
Atmosphere: Laid back coffee shop meets bustling deli
Price: Competitive coffeehouse and deli sandwich prices
Yet to be determined 

I'd describe The Filling Station as more coffee shop than breakfast spot, and more lunch spot than coffee shop.

We went last weekend at about 11:30, not sure, ourselves, whether we wanted breakfast or lunch. Figured I'd take a look at the menu and let something tasty-sounding make my mind up for me. Lunch won out, but I got a coffee just because I saw they use Broadway beans and I wanted the caffeine. 

I don't have any idea how anyone could have a negative thing to say about the digs at The Filling Station. It's a retro-themed gas station garage set in the southeast point of a funny, triangular strip of land just east of Gillham. The exterior still feels like an actual filling station, only lacking its gas pumps which are now replaced with a relaxing and pleasant-looking patio filled with comfy chairs and tables under umbrellas. Separating the patio and interior of the building are garage door style windows which can be raised and lowered for maximum outdoor exposure. Both fitting for the type of building and for their intended purpose.

On their website, The Filling Station describes itself as "KC's only coffee garage - where we pride ourselves in the art & knowledge of coffee, and our rockin' menu!" Their emphasis on coffee definitely shows. I'm a big supporter of Broadway Roastery, who I think serves up some of the richest, smoothest tasting brew in the city, so I took Filling Station's use of Broadway beans to be a sign of promising like-mindedness. I ordered up a cup of their drip, which came served in a wide-mouthed mug and tasted every bit as good as promised. And when the torrential downpour let loose on us shortly after sitting down with my steaming cup of joe, it sipped doubly pleasing. On a subsequent trip, I also had a double macchiato which was sublime, though verged on the thin side.

Many people also know the filling station for its incredible fresh juices, which are made from whole fruit, juiced to order, right there on the premises. Elizabeth ordered up the Beastie Beet - a magenta combination of beet, apple, orange and lime juices. Not being a fan of the underlying dirty taste beets have, it wasn't my fav because that was the flavor that dominated, but the fresh squeeze was totally appealing and I look forward to returning and trying other selections from the menu.

My sandwich selection was the grilled salami - a panini pressed pile of soft, herby foccocia*, salami, tomato, red onion slices, plenty of tender green spinach leaves, horseradish pepper mayo and pepperjack cheese. It's a salty, extremely flavorful mouthful. The salami is piled high, as is the spinach. I was almost concerned with the amount of foliage layered into this sandwich, but it was so pleasantly tender, I found it quite delicious. [*Foccocia lives on the same list with croissants, naan and my mom's Pumpkin bread, of breads I'd eat until causing myself bodily harm if given an infinite supply.] Overall, an extremely flavorful and enjoyable sandwich.

I also gobbled some of a Blue T wrap: a large, soft wheat tortilla filled with smoked turkey, spring greens, tomato, onion, swiss cheese, garlic herb cream cheese and "Blue Koi dressing." Often, I find warps displeasing, I think because the warp itself doesn't blend well, texturally, with the other ingredients. Soft bread is much better in this regard. But that's where Filling station is ahead of the "wrap game", because their cream cheese really binds the wrap together with the other inner ingredients. That cream cheese, with the added Blue Koi dressing made this easily one of the best cold cut-filled wraps I've ever had.

I asked about the ingredients of the Blue Koi dressing, intrigued by its name. Turns out it's made especially for The Filling Station by Blue Koi on 39th street (my review). It's a soy-based dressing with basil and ginger for sure. The employee (or should I call her an attendant?) said customers tend to either love it or hate it, but no one is lukewarm about it. I was hot for it. Very tasty.

The soup of the day was chicken with dumplings, a favorite of mine from the comfort soups category, so at $3, I decided to give a cup of it a try and ended up enjoying it just fine. The broth was light and relatively clear, with deliciously textural veggies - carrot, celery and onion. The chicken was decent andthe dumplings were nice little puffs of dense breadiness. Their shapes were funny, like white cheese curds.But I liked them all the same.

A final, but not unimportant, aspect of the lunch were the chips that came on the side - one of my favorite brands, Miss Vicker's - which are always nicely crunchy and heavily seasoned. My place of work stocks these at the coffee bar for $1 and I have a daily mental battle at 3:00 about whether or not I deserve them as a treat. A quality product, adding that much sought-after crunch to our lunch.

Start to finish, this was quite the tasty occasion. All the gals behind the counter and cleaning up the dining room were remarkably friendly, which adds to the entire vibe of the bright, sunny restaurant. 

I'm reserving rating Filling Station because I feel that I need to have a more breakfasty experience there before making a call, but so far things are looking quite good and if you need to pick out a lunch spot this week or weekend, I highly suggest you keep it in  mind.

Filling Station on Urbanspoon

Jun 20, 2010

Bittersweet Experience At the New Majestic

Restaurant: The Majestic
Location: 931 Broadway, downtown KC, MO
Food: Traditional Steakhouse
Service: Traditional Steakhouse
Atmosphere: Traditional Steakhouse + Jazz!
Price: Traditional Steakhouse
Rating: two napkins

Where is the line drawn between wonderfully traditional and sadly stodgy? 931 Broadway, KC, MO. The dining room of The Majestic.

We went there Saturday night and I left with the distinctly uneasy feeling that it was straddling this line between success and failure.

I'd been romanticizing the idea of visiting The Majestic for quite some time. I love steak, I love jazz, and I tend to love old restaurants that have been around so long that walking in their front doors makes you feel like you're stepping back in time. But, as I mention above, there's a fine line between pulling off the feeling of a steadfast, successful establishment and one that sadly hearkens to days of roaring success long since gone by. The Majestic seemed to teeter at that tipping point.

If you have an appreciation for preservation of old architecture, your first reaction to The Majestic's dining room will be a good one. The white tile floor and vast, dark-wood bar is impressive, reportedly imported from New Orleans, fashioned in the 1800's. It's the kind of place where one expects the drinks to be stiff and the bartenders that pleasant balance between witty, humble, helpful and wise. Unfortunately, at 8:30 on Friday, it was completely empty. No patrons to be found taking in the classic ambience.

We made our way downstairs where the live jazz was being played. It's a unique experience, listening to live jazz while eating a steak in a dimly lit restaurant basement. A markedly cool one, in fact. It felt almost like Al Capone or Baby Face Nelson could have been at the table next to us.

The basement at The Majestic is quite narrow, so diners practically sit in the laps of the band members. Everyone has a front row seat. The band kept their volume down to a good level. Talking to your neighbor was a little difficult during most of the songs, but if that was a problem, you shouldn't have chosen the jazz club. The jazz, alone (and another stiff drink or two), would bring me back for another visit.

I wish I was equally excited about the food we had, but there were issues. That may have partly been the fault of our dreary-mooded server, as well, whose expression and tone conveyed "I want to go hoooome," persistently. From seating us to picking up the check on our way out, he was dry, expressionless and unhelpful. He actually made us feel unwelcome. Wish we could have traded him in for the other guy who ended up paying us more attention than our assigned waiter.

But back to the food. To settle into the appropriate mood for a night of jazz, we quickly ordered up a couple cocktails from the short, relatively lackluster $9 cocktail menu (the wine list is far more impressive). I wasn't sure whether to assume the restaurant just didn't take pride in their cocktails, or if the implication was that diners were of the old school sort who didn't stray from the classics like martinis, Manhattans or particular spirits straight up.

Either way, I think the short list was a miss and The Majestic would do well to take a page from restaurants like R Bar (my review) and Justus Drugstore, who make their innovative cocktails a major attraction to their business. My sidecar was refreshing and quite tasty. Elizabeth's Strawberry Bubbly seemed flat and flavorless. Overall, good enough, but give me more choices!

At The Majestic, dinners are served with sides: salad or soup, plus vegetable, and rice or potato - garlic mashed, baked, or fries. As such, the only thing we needed to consider ordering prior to entrees was an appetizer. Starving, we picked out the fried risotto balls, despite their oddly straightforward name. We'd pictured rice given, you know, "risotto". Truly, though, there was none to be found. The cute and appetizing, perfectly round fried balls oozed only bright orange (think nacho) cheese when fractured with the edge of a fork. They were quite tasty, just lacking in rice.

The red sauce in which the risotto balls were served was surprisingly spicy. We can handle pretty spicy foods, so enjoyed the sauce, but I can imagine many diners could find the spice level a bit out of their range. Selfishly, I commend the chef for "going there." Though one might call these some pretty low-brow risotto balls, they were good and I'd easily recommend them.

For dinner, she ordered filet mignon, and I, the Ribeye, often deemed the most flavorful cut of steak. When in Rome, right?

Here, The Majestic earned top marks. The steaks were every bit as expertly cooked, flavorful and juicy as one could expect from a top flight Kansas City steak restaurant. Absolutely superb. The problem is, there are several places in KC, heck, in the midwest and beyond, where one can find a steak of excellent quality anymore. Let's not kid ourselves, good steaks aren't really an art form. They're a simple formula. Good meat, simple preparation methods, large cuts, and you're set to please. So while I commend the heck out of The Majestic for the sinfully delicious hunk of fat-laden beef they set before me, I have to make mention of the after thoughts they call salad, vegetables and potatoes that came with it.

The salads arrived first, straight out of 1987. Leaf lettuce (at least it wasn't iceberg) with a token cherry tomato and waffle-cut carrot wafer. The salad's undoing, though, was the vinaigrette, which came on the side. It was broken, oil on top, acid resting unattainably on the bottom, along with the flecks of dried (c'mon!) basil. To get at them, I had to pour the entire vessel onto the salad, rendering it helplessly oily and overdressed. I almost didn't want to eat it because it was so flavorless and oily.  This kind of side salad no longer deserves the label "classic". It's just unimaginative, uninspired, and weak. Why serve this? Who is enjoying this salad today?

The chef's vegetables alongside the steak were green beans with a little onion and red bell pepper. The beans were haplessly watery, having been steamed to death and then some. The onions and red pepper were helpful, I guess, for the flavor of this side. But overall it gets the same unfavorable reception as the salad. My thought: don't even put it on the plate if you take this little pride in it.

Even the mashed potatoes were sub par. Mine were dry, having that day-after-Thanksgiving reheated quality, but I didn't have any gravy at my disposal to revive them.

I realize this is a lot of griping about the aspects of this restaurant that are the least essential to its overall existence. People aren't going to The Majestic in anticipation of its side salads, steamed vegetables and starches. They're there for the jazz and the steak. And, in so much as they remain focused on those elements, they'll leave quite pleased, indeed. My only plea to The Majestic, since it is a place I find myself rooting for - I'm a fan, I suppose - is that it pay just a little more attention to the details. Don't settle for putting thoughtless, token items on any plates, or in any glasses. A little more effort, a little more savvy, will go a long way with customers. Give us something to brag about on your behalf and we will.

I give The Majestic two napkins. In comparison to other two napkin reviews on this blog, one might find this review to be more critical-sounding in nature, but the reason is that The Majestic had a high bar. It's a relatively pricey place with upscale fare. So it asks to be scrutinized. But it's a rare occasion to have a piece of beef as nice as what they'll serve you at The Majestic, and its air of class and throwback vibe are nearly impossible to replicate. So I commend the owners for reviving this Kansas City institution and keeping the concept of the live jazz steakhouse alive in downtown.

Rating: two napkins

Majestic Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Jun 5, 2010

Esquina: A New Concept in Mexican Restaurants

Restaurant: Esquina
Location: 708 Mass St., Lawrence, KS
Food: Fun, authentic-inspired quick Mexican 
Service: Unconventional order, pay, sit, be served. Awful, but friendly.
Price: Nice restaurant fare for Chipotle prices
Rating: two napkins

Traveling to Lawrence yesterday specifically for dinner at Esquina, I came to an incredible realization: Lawrence is, impossibly, an even cooler town now than when I was a student there. The Mass St. area alone has gained several great-sounding restaurants like the aforementioned, Genovese (La Parilla and Zen Zero family), Local Burger, Angler's Seafood and more.  Point is: if things go according to plan, I'll have several more reviews from Lawrence to add to Napkins soon. So stay tuned for those.

To the task at hand (this review), I keep repeating three words over and over in my mind, which aptly describe our experience at Esquina, meant in the most flattering and endearing way possible: Chipotle on steroids. That said, know that I have a mild obsession with Chipotle, whose high quality ingredients and fantastic-for-quick-service-restaurant preparation methods have me coming back almost every weekend. So this truly is meant as a compliment, not degradation.

The reasons for the comparison are twofold. The first is its funky vibe and service model. Oberving the decor, it's clear the owners wanted to give Esquina a unique, memorable feel and they accomplished this incredibly well. Occupying what used to be the old Round Corner Drugstore space on the southwest corner of 8th and Mass, the decor is anything but sterile, yet equally capable of instilling vitality in its visitors as that of its preceding business. From the industrial metallic sign above the funky green front door, to the panoramic glass windows exposing the dining room to passers by, the exposed stone walls and giant luminous fixtures hanging above the tables... it's flat-out cool.

Walking in, visitors run smack-dab into the seats at the bar, and what a fun bar for eating and partaking of libations it is! Greeters will read your expression and quickly judge whether you need to be told how ordering works or stay out of your way so you can do your thing. To order, proceed past them across the back of the space, down a chute to the counter above which hang the vibrantly colorful chalkboard menus and upon which sits a bucket full of ice and icy cold Mexican beers. (Looking at that bucket, it was all I could do to restrain myself from snagging a can of tecate and chugging it down right then and there, purposely obtaining a severe brain freeze. Its refreshing appearance was tantalizing!) Customers are to pay a cashier directly after ordering (like at Chipotle), but then take a number to their seat of choice and wait to be served.

The second similarity to Chipotle is Esquina's apparent food philosophy: offer authentic Mexican dishes (not Tex Mex), prepared in traditional ways, but done so super-quick. No, it's not Chipotle quick, of course, but a little more expedient than your normal Mexican place with the traditional sit-and-be-served model. This entire method creates a certain kinetic energy in the restaurant that can be felt in its boisterousness, the comfort exuded by all the customers and a tangible happiness or friendliness that hangs in the air. This feeling could never be achieved in a white tablecloth fine dining establishment. You walk in, it's loud, you order and pay, seat yourself, next thing you know your food is there, you eat and talk as long as you want, then pick up and leave. The experience can be whatever you want it to be - laugh and linger or eat and jet.

The prices are quite reasonable, too, I should mention. Our huge, filling order of chips and guac (chips and salsa, too, which are free all summer), two entrees, rice and beans, a glass of Malbec and a margarita totaled $35.99 all said and done. Five to 10 dollars less than what we'd have paid at a typical sit down Mexican place in KC with the same order. And the food did not disappoint, either.

The salsa was quite unique and absolutely delicious. It was a dark orange-red color and had a deep of char flavor from its well-roasted chilies. Great depth. The guacamole was the only pitfall of the night, which tasted like the kind you get in a plastic bag from Costco or the grocery store. It also reminded me of how my guac tastes after sitting in the fridge overnight. So perhaps it had been hanging around long enough that it oxidized and got a little muddy. The guac also lacked cilantro and I'd bet that if it had any acid, it was lemon, not lime (a fatal flaw according to my philosophy on guacamole). So I was largely dissatisfied with the guacamole, but things looked up from that point on.

Elizabeth ordered a taco basket - three tacos from their list of seven: steak, chicken, pork, corn, fish, tofu and corn. Her picks were steak, pork and potato. All were delicious. The steak was immaculately cooked, medium rare and soft as could be. My problem with steak in tacos is often that it's too chewy. This stuff melted in our mouths. It came topped with crunchy shredded cabbage and a delicious salsa verde which had more of a cooling effect than a spicy one. The pork was almost, but not quite, too tender, having been braised for what tasted like hours. Its pineapple (mango, too, maybe?) salsa with tomato and red onion was an interesting combination. Pineapple is not a collaborative flavor - it always shines through and seems unaffected by other ingredients - but it added a nice acidic component against the luscious pork and was a welcomed topping.

The potato taco was unlike anything I would have expected. I had pictured cubes of diced potato with lots of seasoning on them, like breakfast potatoes, almost. No. This taco was filled with creamy mashed potatoes(!), seasoned, mixed with what I think were black beans that gave the potatoes their dark color, and kernels of corn. How or why this taco worked as well as it did is inexplicable. It hearkened to the sensation of eating a bite from the dregs of my Thanksgiving plates, with several different components incorporated into a big bite of mashed potatoes. This was my first experience with what I'll call Mexican comfort food.

All of the tacos were large, came served in wonderfully soft corn tortillas, topped with cabbage and at least one other flavor/texture component that made them the satisfying bite one hopes for in a good taco. We loved them. They were quite filling, too, rendering Elizabeth's nicely spiced, huge bowl of black beans and rice entirely superfluous.

Also falling into the comfort food realm was my heaping plate of Chilaquiles, aptly described on the menu board as tortilla casserole with tomato chipotle sauce, a fried egg and cheese. This really was a huge plate of chopped  up corn tortilla fragments, soft and covered in the red sauce, topped off with a nicely fried egg and a sprinkle of queso fresco crumbles. It was scary how quickly I was able to maneuver heaping forkfuls of the tortillas into my gaping mouth and swallow them down my gullet, pausing only briefly for a sip of wine or to bead sweat off my brow (combo of spice and warm night). The egg's yolk had broken and further saturated the tortilla under it, which tastes way better than it sounds. Given my druthers, I'd have more cheese added as its ratio seemed scant, but what bites did include the cheese were that much more enjoyable.

I'd synopsize chilaquiles by describing them as nachos meet a hot brown, but less saucy and less meaty. They were good and I'd have them again, but not before I try everything else on the menu, which all sounds superb.

A funny, and rare-for-Napkins, note on service: the girl at the register was apparently new - either high school or early in her college days. And apparently she didn't understand how things work at Esquina yet. We were first tipped off when I had to repeat my order of "a glass of the malbec" five times before she turned to a coworker and asked for help as if I was speaking a different language. Her compatriot understood immediately, as would be expected, and when she repeated "malbec" to the young'un, further described it as "the house red" which finally made the light bulb go on.

Perhaps flustered by the oddity of that altercation, she then proceeded to look at us silently with eyebrows raised as if to convey "anything else?" We asked whether we needed to pay before being seated (after all, there was a cash register between she and us), but she said we simply should take our number, choose a seat and the server would come to us. Off we went. It wasn't until we were ready to leave and asked one of the servers nearby whether we were to pay her or go back up to the counter that we collectively understood we had been given bad instructions and ought to have paid immediately after ordering to the confused girl behind the counter.

We were thanked profusely by both the server and the more experienced cashier who took our money for our honesty. We wondered, though, how many Esquina customers took advantage of the free Friday night meals being dolled out by the new employee, though, and hoped it hadn't been many.

If I lived in Lawrence, given Esquina's moderate prices, delicious Mexican fare, and my propensity for craving moderately priced, delicious Mexican fare, I can safely assumed I'd eat there weekly. And given the look of some of the other plates of food we saw on the tables of our fellow customers, I can't wait to go back again (add it to the list).

With slightly better seasoned (some things were a little bland) dishes, an improvement in the guacamole and a better experience with service, I might consider Esquina for a third napkin. Its service model and the subsequent atmosphere it creates in the restaurant is truly noteworthy. Based on our first experience, though, I confidently bestow Esquina with two napkins and highly recommend it to anyone... except "Dave," the hopeless sap on Urbanspoon who says "Horrible food and concept" and berates Esquina for only having Mexican beers (he's looking for Sapporo or something?), hurting his stomach being greasy and spicy (welcome to Mexican food, dope), being too confusing in its layout (I guess he got lost in the one-room, open layout restaurant?), being too expensive (his sack of change wasn't sufficient to cover his bill?), and having bad guacamole (okay, he's right on one account). Dave, go across the street to Noodles & Co. and leave the good food for the rest of us.

Rating: two napkins

Esquina on Urbanspoon
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