Jul 30, 2010

A Solid Experience at Grand St. Cafe

Restaurant: Grand St. Cafe
Location: 4740 Grand, KC MO
Food: Solid, unpretentious American cuisine
Service: A pleasure. Attentive but unobtrusive.
Atmosphere: Fun, but upscale, too. Decor looks outdated.
Price: Moderate. Sandwiches and burgers for $9, dinner entrees $17-$30
Rating: three napkins

For quite some time, I've wondered why Houston's seemed to be the only upscale yet reasonably priced American cuisine in town that provided a dependably pleasant experience on each trip. Who were its peers in the local restaurant scene? And why was I always going back there?

City Tavern downtown was mired with issues during its entire existence, finally bringing it to its knees and being replaced recently by the new Grunauer, which I'm anxious to try.

The Fairway Grill was nice, but I only had the pleasure of eating there once, before it turned into another houlihan's branch - such a disappointment.

There's J. Gilbert in OP, Capital Grille, Prime Rib Grill, The Majestic, Benton's, Plaza III, etc., but they're squarely in the well-defined steakhouse category, which is a different thing, entirely.

And then there are several other very decent American restaurants that aren't in the same price range (Bluestem, The American, Michael Smith, Skies, R Bar), level of service/ambience (The Westside Local, Blue Bird, Farmhouse), or seating capacity (Room 39, Pot Pie, Julian).

So, it would seem I've been on a bit of a quest to find a Houston's peer - hopefully a locally owned one - I can add to my repertoire of enjoyably predictable and high quality American fare restaurants for those frequent family events and life occasions that require a crowd pleasing, approachable menu and reasonably large dining room.

Enter Grand Street Cafe. With Groupon in hand, we made the quick jaunt across the Plaza Friday night for my very first meal there. This moderately sized restaurant is located just East of the Plaza's boundary and immediately South of the original Winstead's. I'd heard good things about the food, but no one seemed overly excited about the place... like it just didn't make for a special occasion. To say it's an unassuming restaurant on the exterior is an understatement. One could easily enter the secluded parking lot and not even notice its entrance, as it occupies the bottom floor of what looks like an off-plaza office building.

Inside, however, ordinary appearances are replaced by a sparkling bar above which hang luminous contemporary light fixtures. Also lighting up the place are the smiles of the patrons. Last night was one of those occasions when it seemed as though everyone was having the time of their life. It's an intangible quality that a few restaurants exhibit and adds attractiveness to the possibility of returning in the future.

Just past the bar on the right, as you walk back to the main dining area, is the exposed kitchen, clean and well-kept. Always a positive sign and indicator of good food to come. I'd be remiss not to mention, though, that the rest of the dining room - its floral wallpaper and rattan chairs - seemed outdated. So for those who want their dining experience to be ultra contemporary or classically chic, Grand St. strikes out, here.

I like my wine lists long and my menus short. Grand St. hit the mark on both. Elizabeth ordered up a $10 glass of Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay (good call) and I got the house Merlot (bad call). The waiter was visibly pleased with Elizabeth's decision ("Always a great choice") and, judging by the scowl on his face, had a hard time not kicking me for mine. I take it Grand St.'s philosophy is that the house wine is for cheapies. Given the accuracy of that assumption as pertains to myself, I say "point taken, Grand Street."

The weather being dangerously hot and humid, ceviche was a clear winner for our starter. Winner turns out to have been an understatement. In a short, pretty tapered glass, our waiter delivered a bright, citrusy, but meaty, helping of halibut, scallops, shrimp, onion, tomato, chunks of avocado, jalapeno and cilantro, layered on top a small amount of shredded romaine. We thoroughly enjoyed every bite of this delicious, cool, flavorful app that we spooned onto our assortment of tasty, crisp wafers. On the side, as an added bonus, was a square shot glass filled with what tasted like a very good virgin mary, finishing the dish with a nice peppery kick. Result: we were happy, yet appetized. Ready for the serious eating.

I went neolithic with my entree choice, ordering up Grand Street's massive double-thick pork chop. This mammoth chop of meat was brined, then marinated in herbs and spices, and cooked to a perfect medium. Not the juiciest of cuts, Grand street did a wonderful job ensuring the combination of their cooking process and ham hock sauce gave the pork a pleasingly tender texture. The ham hock jus itself added needed salt and a nice porky undertone. The whipped potatoes on the side were super-light in texture, almost like the cauliflower  puree we make at home often (a good thing), and the green beans, though the tiniest bit overcooked for my taste, were a nice green addition. I cleaned the plate.

Elizabeth went with chicken, which turned out to be some of the better chicken we've ever had. A warm plate with two succulent oven roasted cuts (thighs, I believe), bone-in and skin-on, with tart artichokes, tasty oven-roasted tomatoes that were so sweet and tangy they almost seemed to be sun dried, and a lemon jus came with green beans and two ravioli filled with Grand Street's homemade chicken sausage. The only element on the plate not remarkably tasty were, surprisingly, the ravioli, whose sausage filling was completely lacking in flavor - odd for sausage - and pasta casings were waxy... rubbery... needing a sauce or some kind of moisture. I'm intrigued about ordering this meal again, if for not other reason than to see if these ravioli were an anomaly. I bet they're usually better.

When the dessert menu came around, we laughed it off, already happy and round from our feast.

Circling back to where we started, my finding is that not only is Grand Street quite comparable to Houston's, but it's also a better value. I did a quick menu comparison and found many of the same items on both, Grand Street being equal or cheaper in each case:

Caesar Salad: Houston's - $13, Grand St. - $9
Ahi Tuna Salad: Houston's - $16, Grand St. - $13
Chicken Sandwich: Houston's - $13, Grand St. - $9
Burger: Houston's - $13, Grand St. - $9
Salmon: Houston's - $23, Grand St. - $20
KC Strip: Houston's - $38, Grand St. - $29
Filet: Houston's - $31, Grand St. - $30

A good value for good food. I'm not trying to say Grand St. is a top 10 place in town by any means, but I did like it (outdated decor being its biggest drawback), and I think it's an offering in a category that is surprisingly vacant in KC (or north of 95th, at least). So I give it three napkins, value being the largest driver for that third prestigious cloth. Hope you find it as enjoyable as I did.

Rating: three napkins
Grand Street Cafe on Urbanspoon

Jul 23, 2010

A Hellish Return to P.F. Chang's

Restaurant: P. F. Chang's China Bistro
Location: 102 W. 47th St., KC, MO
Sweet, gooey, unauthentic Chinese
Service: Inexcusably, ridiculously bad
Atmosphere: Sleazy chain
Price: No matter what you get and what it costs, you'll end up feeling like it was overpriced.
Rating: zero napkins

I have to admit that it was extremely difficult for me to approach this dining experience at P. F. Chang's without bias. I have a short and largely unceremonious history with the place, to put it lightly. (To put it more accurately, I hate P. F. Chang's.)

To be fair, I'll give context to my disdain: I think P. F. Chang's has the most uncomfortable sort of feel emanating from its every visible detail. From the unanimously inept, up-sell-scripted waitstaff, to the sloppy service and food, its vibe absolutely screams "we're a sleazy chain!" Watch what's going on around you and you're sure to pick up on any number of atrocities that ruin the restaurant-going experience. But to be specific, the catalyst of my true ire for P. F. Chang's was a particular night gone terribly, but typically, wrong, in which Elizabeth and I sat for 45 minutes without ever receiving any service whatsoever, despite making eye contact and speaking with servers and hostesses on numerous occasions, resulting in us deciding to get up and leave without ordering.

Now, for those skeptics reading, know that we both are exceedingly lenient restaurant customers. I don't judge restaurants heavily at all on their service, because I think service can vary widely depending on the one or two people in charge of your experience on a given trip. Servers and hosts come and go in the restaurant industry with a rapid turnover rate, so I don't believe one should place too much emphasis on that aspect of their experience at a restaurant. But at Chang's, it's always been bad.

What the heck, then, brought us back at Happy Hour this day? I read a post on Fat City that the KC P. F. Chang's was going to debut a new Happy Hour menu that, if well-received, would be rolled out to the rest of the country. (I found the inherent insult of Chang's market partner Mark Kirke's comment that "The Kansas City palate was a draw. If it goes over well here, it will extend well to the coast, as opposed to vice versa," to be a challenge I had to accept.)

So after a movie on the Plaza and then a stiflingly-hot walk down to restaurant, we seated ourselves at a high top table in the bar area, asked for a couple ice waters and perused the new Yum Cha menu. Immediately, the flaws started piling up.

First, a technicality: "Yum Cha is a dining experience which involves drinking Chinese tea and eating dim sum dishes (wikipedia)." Its literal Cantonese translation is "drink tea." Yet, there's no tea on the supposed Yum Cha happy hour menu. Thus, I'm led to believe Chang's must have made the decision that this selection of handrolls and flatbreads, which should simply be called dim sum,  needed an exotic, less-familiar title in order to sell... cultural accuracy be damned.

The Yum Cha menu is like a do-it-yourself sushi menu with the selections listed on a piece of paper that guests mark with a provided pencil. We quickly put a "1" next to the top three hand rolls listed.  When our server (finally) came to take our order, she noticed we were going with the Yum Cha menu and asked that we please fill out the provided survey before we leave that captures diners' thoughts on the experience. Placing that aside, we watched her pour our ice waters, which she managed to drip all over my phone.

Elizabeth ordered a cold glass of Pinot Grigio - appropriate for the current weather - which was brought back after an acceptable wait, in an unacceptably dirty glass. She held it up in the light between us, and I could hardly see her through its dingy sides. She used her napkin for the next few minutes to wipe it down and we prayed the alcohol would kill any caked on germs, not yet ready to cut our losses and haul our keisters out of there.

The hand rolls (mamenori), though not incredible, were easily the best part of the entire experience. At three for $7.95, we felt they were a tad overpriced. Six dollars would seem perfect, making them $2 per roll. They're fairly small in size, so even eating all three one won't be filled up. And given the other happy hour specials available on the plaza, $7.95 doesn't seem competitive (for instance, I can go right next door to M&S Grill and have fish tacos or a Pizza Margherita for just $3.95).

Each comes in a colorful soy wrapper, a little papery in texture, but they melt in your mouth. The first came with poached shrimp, strips of cucumber, lettuce and a big glob of sriracha-infused mayo. Its spiciness was nice, but the mayo completely drenched the otherwise fresh and delicate ingredients. The second was by far the best - pink chunks of ahi tuna with shallots, chives, light sesame oil, lime juice, smoked black pepper, cucumber strips and butter lettuce. The only thing wrong with this delicious roll was our fear that the restaurant's lack of cleanliness might have tainted the raw fish. Otherwise, we loved the lightness of it, the brightness... it was like a hand-held tuna ceviche salad.

The last of the rolls was the most substantial - nicely done shredded duck confit with lots of rice noodles and tons of crispy bacon bits which were apparently sugar coated and overwhelmingly sweet. Also in this wrap were parsley infused oil, tiny bites of pineapple, sweet soy peanuts, butter lettuce, other herbs and sweet soy drizzle. If this sounds like a lot of stuff, it was. Too much. This wrap needed some serious editing and to be lightened up, overall. With so much bacon and sauce amongst the noodles and overpowered greens, what should have been a nice spring roll-esque wrap turned into a bit of a gut bomb lacking in Asian influence.

Thank goodness the plates we were given only served the role of catching fallen ingredients from the mamenori, because they, too, were dingy with fingerprints and what was, at best, soap scum and at worst, remnants of someone else's meal.

Once the rolls and wine were gone, we were, too. The comments we left on the survey admitted we would have the mamenori again, but listed the above criticisms of the recipes and price. I'd imagine whoever picked it up and read it merely rolled their eyes and then went back to diligently ignoring their other job responsibilities and customers.

I still say folks should avoid this restaurant at all costs, but the new Yum Cha menu and its hand rolls are not the reason. It's everything else you'll experience there that'll disturb you. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Rating: zero napkins

P.F. Chang's China Bistro on Urbanspoon

Jul 18, 2010

Veggie Burger Follow Up

A little while back I posted something about my favorite veggie burgers, which I find at Costco, and was immediately inundated with questions (three!!!) about what brand they were and how they compared to other veggie burgers. Got another pack of them recently, so thought I'd follow up and share the mystery brand in case you readers are still curious.

These famous veggie patties turn out to be made by Don Lee Farms, who I'm happy to report is a typically high quality Costco-stocked brand. With just a little research, Elizabeth found their nutrition information on FatSecret.com and I also found Don Lee Farms' blog, dedicated to informing the public about these patties!

So, those of you who had questions or interest about my Big Mac (mystery) Veggie Burger patties, here's what you were looking for!

...And remember my cooking tip for these patties: they get better and better the more you cook them. Throw them in a toaster or toaster oven on a really high heat - 400 to 450 degrees - and let them cook until the edges start to get dark and crispy. The rest of the patty will still have a nice soft, but slightly chewy texture, but the slight tooth of the crustier exterior will keep them from blending into the feel of your bun (if you use one, which you don't need to) and creating a mouthful of mush.


Jul 17, 2010

Poco's: Being Good Wins Out

Restaurant: Poco's On the Boulevard
Location: 3063 Southwest Boulevard, KC MO
Food: Latin American Cuisine, both upscale and traditional, plus down-home breakfast
Service: Casual, but attentive and nice
Atmosphere: Laid back, easy going, but not rundown
Price: All over the board. Entrees ranging from the $20's down to single digits
Rating: two napkins

Poco's On the Boulevard is a restaurant it seems few people know much about. And after my recent trip there, I'm still not sure I know much about it, either. The one thing about Poco's of which I am certain, however, is that it's surprisingly good.

It was quite some time ago I read a story in The Pitch saying the vacated Waid's on Southwest Boulevard was going to become a new Latin American restaurant called Poco's. The owner had apparently achieved some success with a place on Broadway called Poco's, among other things (The Grille/Boca Boca). Always looking for upgrades to the Mexican and Latin American cuisine scene in KC, I was pretty excited to try it. And then the next three years passed. So it felt like a long awaited and fateful moment last Saturday night when we found ourselves rolling down the Boulevard and pulling into that old diner's lot, hungry for something spicy.

Walking in I said, "I have no idea what to expect with this place. I think it'll either be close to my expectations and extremely pleasant, or totally bogus and a huge letdown." My confusion about what Poco's really is starts with their website. The logo in the upper left - used on all the restaurant's signage - though presumably tasteful, is fairly whimsical and lighthearted in its design. The food photography and fonts used on the rest of the pages, however, would make one think the place had a black tie dress code. Let's review the restaurant based on the main pods on the website's home page:

Reservations: The scripted, styled font and photo of a hard-backed, lined, formal guest book with gold-tipped fountain pen screams "fine dining - better call ahead". When we walked in at 8:00 on Saturday, there was only one other couple in attendance, mostly done with their food. So calling ahead would seem less critical than we were led to believe. Regardless, our hostess/server was nice, fun, prompt, happy... she was a true pleasure. Not at all formal, but perfectly professional. A great fit for the place. (She also did a fantastic job of complimenting our choices, like corn tortillas over flour for my mole and Elizabeth's decisions to switch from beer to a margarita. She made us feel... wise, almost. How nice!)

Menu: Here the site showcases a lamb chop, with the rib bone perfectly "Frenched" (if that's a word), cleared of meat for use as the handle of a beautiful meat popsicle. Red wine and delicate greens are romantically blurred in the background. And to Poco's credit, grilled rack of lamb (Cordero Borracho) is the first thing listed on the dinner menu. Indeed, the small-ish menu is all over the place, with the aforementioned elegant $24.99 entree juxtaposed with Mexi-classics like Fajitas ($13-$16) and Fish Tacos ($12.95), also mingling with real head-scratchers like Risotto and the Pasta of the Day. With such a romantic yet strangely varied menu, I'm calling Poco's the Don Quixote of the Boulevard.

The chips and salsa were... interesting. The salsa seemed fresh, yet somehow muted in flavor. Little spice, little acid from the tomato. Not a whole lot of flavor, but not terrible, either. The chips were slightly thicker than the "restaurant style" tortilla chips you find most other places in that area. Better, I'd say. They were lightly salted and seasoned with what looked to me like cumin, or possible paprika. All in all, a good chips and salsa combo, but nowhere near the best in town.

Elizabeth went with the Goat Cheese Vegetable Tamales appetizer, which turned out to be a tamale revelation for us. Two nicely sized open corn husks were the bed for tightly packed massa, inside of which were thin strips of roasted onion and red pepper. A green sauce and crumbles of goat cheese sat atop each of the tamales and looked to have been quickly heated under a broiler. As tamales can be slightly flavorless, these were exceptional for the charred taste that came on the pepper and onion, and the tang from the goat cheese on top. I'd had jalapeno cheese grtis for breakfast that morning and these tamales seemed almost like a fancied, more exotic cousin to that dish, the main difference being they were pressed and steamed, drier and holding their form. Delicious, indeed, though I wish the order came by the dozen.

I had a furious mental debate - enchiladas v. mole (chicken) - when contemplating my order, but decided I was craving the sweet sauciness of the mole the most and went that direction with the server's nod of approval. The platter that was returned as my reward was exactly what I'd envisioned. The left third of my plate held the typical Mexican rice and refried beans (hearty, flavorful beans, though, not the runny bland ones I'm more used to getting). The right side was a big pool of deep brown mole sauce and tender chunks of chicken. Admittedly, it was a lot of sauce and only a little chicken, but definitely enough to fill the three warm, pliable corn tortillas that came wrapped up in a paper towel on the side.

I found it exceptionally pleasing, then, that when our server noticed I'd gobbled down all three tortillas, she took it upon herself to offer up additionals... at no extra cost. It was insightful that she apparently knew I wasn't loving the idea of either wasting the rest of the sauce and chicken left on my plate or being forced to eat it like soup (either way, I was going to consume every last bite of it). The mole was a chocolatey one but, unlike others I've had in town, had the nice slow burn as an undertone. Clearly the appropriate regimen of chilies had been employed in the cooking process, which made this mole's depth far better than its local competitors that I've sampled.

Cutting the richness of our slightly heavy meals were a couple of sugary, citrusy margaritas. I couldn't quite see how they were made, but given the server's recommendation and the flavors I was picking up, I'd bet they were NOT from a bottle of Jose Cuervo pre-mix. It really hit the spot.

And then a funny thing happened. When we reflexively declined a look at the dessert menu, being completely full and with sport-eating regret seeping into our psyches, a beautiful plate of honey and cocoa scented flan showed up. A darn good flan. Now, Elizabeth and I are not custard people. Creme brulee has to be really good to not gross us out, and flan has even less of a chance of hitting the mark, what with being cold and served outside a container, molded like a Mayan temple of fat (okay, I have issues). It was firm, yet so incredibly smooth, and the cocoa gave the caramelly liquid in which the flan rested a wonderful bitterness and depth of flavor. It was truly a sweet treat to end the meal.

Catering: On the right hand side of the web page is the Catering pod, decorated with a photo of shining stainless steel heated trays with linens primly knotted around each handle. Contrastingly, but not disappointingly, the Poco's catering trucks were parked out back, somewhat less ceremonious in appearance. If they serve the same food as can be found in the restaurant, though, who cares? Bring it to me in a dump truck as far as I'm concerned.

To end the evening, our server told us that Poco's also still specializes in breakfast/brunch, too, which contains both diner classics like those found at the Waid's back in the day, as well as great Mexican favorites like huevos con chorizo. A promising idea for our next fuzzy morning after over-indulging, perhaps.

Poco's may not be exactly what it's trying to market itself as, but I'd urge you not to get hung up on that confusion. It's a Latin American restaurant on the Boulevard with good service, a comfortable dining room, and some solid food. That's really all you need to know.

Rating: two napkins

Poco's on the Boulevard on Urbanspoon
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