Oct 29, 2010

5 Questions With Jasper Mirabile Jr.

The Zagat 2011 survey was recently released, including some surprises (like Oklahoma Joe's being rated best overall restaurant).

Maybe not as surprising was the publication's pick for best Italian in KC, which went to Jasper's, the eponymous outpost of the highly visible, active and energetic Chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. No stranger to awards, the restaurant had also recently taken the award of Best Tableside Dish 2010 from The Pitch for their Mozzarella. Prior to all this hoopla, I chased down Chef Jasper to get some insights into his food, his philosophies, his goals and his life in a little game I like to call 5 Questions:

You’re a chef who’s very much in the public eye, doing demos in Kansas City and recently in Italy. You’re on facebook and twitter and even in front of customers at the restaurant with your famous tableside mozzarella. Why is it important to you to be so visible? Marketing is my life.  I love to cook, I love to meet people and I combine it all by marketing myself and promoting Jasper's.  Whether by radio or TV, it does not matter, I am everywhere.  I never turn down an event or cause.  I love to be at the local farmer's markets doing demos or at The Hen house teaching class.  As chef ambassador for Wisconsin Cheese, I get to travel everywhere and talk about cheese.  What a life.  I have met so many interesting people along the way. Captain Phil on The Cornelia Marie and Captain Johnaton from The Time Bandit...I worked on their boat during filming for the Deadliest Catch.  Traveled to New York to cook at The James Beard House this year...my fifth visit. Worked for American Italian Pasta Co. and cooked in Times Square for World Pasta Day. TV every Monday with NBC Action News Midday.  I have cooked with Giada, Paula Deen, worked with Red Gold Tomatoes, Farmland, Certified Herferd Beef, Eggland's Best etc...too many to name. I am head of Slow Food KC and on the biard of American Inst. of Wine and Food along with VP of Midwest of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiano.  fRadio show every Saturday...not a paid advertising...tKCMO owns the show and I am the host!   It is my life, my passion and my love! I am finishing my third cookbook, On The Cannoli Trail.  All desserts, you will love it! 

What have you been cooking lately… that is NOT Italian? Asian dumplings...I am obsessed with them.  Also roasted pig and pork loin in my La Caja China. (www.lacajachina.com)

For those who aren’t familiar, describe the difference between typical Northern and Southern Italian food, in which type are you rooted and why?  If you asked me this question two weeks ago I would have said Southern is more peasant style and North is rich with the bounty of Italy.  After retuning from Italy yesterday, I can say this is SO TRUE.  In Bologna, Parma and Modena last week, we ate so much butter, Parmigiano Reggiano and cream. All the food was so rich.  In Sicily, where my famiglia is from, we eat a lot of bread, olive oil, goat, pasta and fresh seafood.  All light and fresh.

You moved from Waldo to 103rd. How do you like the newer location and are there any plans for expansion? We love the newer location...all under one roof.  So easy to manage.  Business here is about 40% more than the old Jasper's.  We have such great access from 435 highway and  Johnson County.  No expansion...we are big enough.  Maybe a Mobile Cannoli Truck. That would be cool.

Give me a little-known-fact about Jasper Mirabile Jr.  Ha!  I cannot make a grilled cheese sandwich for the life of me...I always end up burning them.  My wife and daughter think this is the funniest thing.   I love BBQ and I crave pies...along with cannoli!!! 

His enthusiasm jumps off the page and is just as apparent in person. Jasper's is located at 1201 W. 103rd Street.

Oct 27, 2010

BRGR Battle

Restaurant: BRGR Kitchen + Bar
Location: 4038 W. 83rd St, Prairie Village, KS
Food: Burgers and a good bar
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Loud and lively
Price: Burgers $8-$10, Sides $2.5-$7, Salads $8-$10
Rating: One napkin

What bar-b-cue is to Kansas City, the burger is to the United States as a whole.

In KC, bar-b-cue is obsessed-over. Done with infinite variations on the same classic idea and set of techniques by several restaurants, each claiming to have the very best.  And today, across the nation, burgers are very much in the limelight garnering the same type of obsession with chef-driven, gourmet ingredients and chic dining rooms popping up all over.

It would be unwise for me to say this burger trend could ever manifest itself here in Kansas City to an extent rivaling King Barbecue, but it is clearly seeping in.

Swept up in the burger craze, I ventured to the heart of PV recently to try BRGR Kitchen + Bar and, specifically, to compare it to the impressive Blanc Burgers + Bottles. Blanc, having received 4 Napkins in the past, is clearly a favorite. Would BRGR be on the same playing field?

Of foremost interest to me was the atmosphere at BRGR. Prairie Village is a hotbed of young families and, as such, many of its restaurants feel more like a McDonald’s play place, teeming with grubby faced toddlers, than I like. Listen, I’m a 20 something.  I want everything to be “cool,” “modern,” and “innovative.” Terms like “family-friendly” send shivers up my spine (I’ll grow out of this soon enough, I’m sure). So I was afraid BRGR would feel too juvenile.

It did not. The restaurant has a sort of warm industrial feel. A wooden sign and front door, wooden bar, wood-plank room dividers and wood ceiling lend a sort of contemporary cowboy toughness to the place. The walls were exposed brick and the floor a simple concrete. The materials and appearance were delightfully adult-appropriate, I decided. A great relief.

We bellied up to the bar during the short wait for our table, where we encountered a fantastic surprise – Free State Brewery beers on tap! Being Jayhawk alum, this is a sentimental favorite. Our Oktoberfests were deliciously malty with a crisp hoppy finish.  Across from the bar are a few indoor tables and then the outdoor patio, at which I can easily picture myself relaxing and enjoying a beer sometime in the future.

Next thing we knew, we were being seated at our table smack-dab in the middle of the main dining area, perusing the list of 23 entrée selections – 12 with beef, 2 slider selections and nine non-beef choices. Choosing among so many different burgers was difficult but I landed on the Big Hoss. All BRGRs are a half pound of certified angus beef (75/25). Massive and juicy. The Big Hoss also came with a fried egg, maple bacon, Wisconsin cheddar, steak sauce and onion straws on a corn bun, with a little bottle of Tabasco on the side ($9).

The quality I found most remarkable about this burger was its size, rather than any of its flavor components. I immediately cut it in half after deciding there was no way I could pick up the whole thing without dropping half its contents. It was huge. Too big, really.

I’m a big fan of burgers with a fried egg on them. At BRGR you can add one to any burger for a buck (same for Blanc). The one on my Big Hoss was nicely done, with a still-runny yolk. The bacon was thick cut which would have been great, except it wasn’t quite crispy enough. Each time I bit into it, the whole piece of bacon got yanked out of the burger; I couldn’t get just a single bite to come off. The other slight disappointment was the corn bun, which seemed bulky, a little dry and stale. When eating a burger, especially one with a half pound of meat, plus two other proteins on it, I don’t want to be overwhelmed with a thick, spongy bun, too. So a less-cumbersome choice would have been preferable. Still, these nits aside, it was a pleasurable burger.

For sides, we chose “THE COMBO,” which allows you to select ay three for $7. We chose the BRGR fries, sweet potato fries and onion rings (other choices were onion straws, truffle fries and truffle tator tots). Here, again, we were shocked at the portions, as we were delivered two metal coffee carafes filled to the brim with the fries and three giant onion rings. The BRGR fries were good, seemingly hand cut and with a nice texture. The sweet potato fries were pleasantly crispy, too. Not mushy the way they can be when done poorly. The onion rings could have been great – large and firm with a heavy, crumbly crust – but the breading had a cheap-tasting Italian herb flavor that we didn’t completely appreciate. It seemed unfitting in the context of the rest of the all-American menu.

Half of our burgers and two thirds of the sides did us in, despite starting out with huge appetites. We liked BRGR a great deal for its laid back, fun atmosphere, good selection and decent prices. Truth be told, though, I went back to Blanc last weekend with friends, had an Au Poivre burger on their Farm to Market salt and pepper brioche bun and confirmed that its smaller portion and superior taste/textures gave it a clear edge over what I had at BRGR. I’ll go back to BRGR, but it will likely be upon someone else’s request rather than my own.

Rating: one napkin
BRGR Kitchen + Bar on Urbanspoon

Oct 22, 2010

5 Questions with Danny O'Neill - "Bean Baron" The Roasterie

And you thought your coffee consumption was out of control...

Three? Four? A half-dozen coffees in a day? That's child's play... compared to Danny O'Neill, owner, founder, "Bean Baron" of Kansas City's arguably best known coffee company - The Roasterie.

Coffee may not be a food, per se, but it's used in cooking frequently, goes well with food as a beverage, fuels many of our nations finest chefs and is most certainly an essential part of restaurant culture. The Roasterie knows and embraces this correlation with food so well, one can find Roasterie blends individually customized for Kansas City's favorite restaurants at their neighborhood grocery store.

So it's fitting that my next game of five questions is with The Bean Baron. And if you're thinking to yourself, "Man, I bet that guy drinks a lot of coffee," my friend, you have no idea. But read on to find out...

Who is "The Bean Baron" - at work and in life, generally?
I always start with fun…life is fun, should be fun…I’m all about fun. I’m very high energy and love performance and excellence in all things. I love being with my family, my friends, my staff, our customers…and they are all really in one big pot. I’m driven…to have fun, to do my best…I love and am intensely passionate about coffee, espresso, entrepreneurship, giving back, helping others, Roasterie Coffee ice cream, chocolate, anything with an internal combustion motorJ.

Average weekday morning. You wake up. I assume you drink some sort of coffee drink. What is it and how do you prepare it or where is it prepared for you?
I don’t like to be more than a few meters from a commercial espresso machine! So we have them everywhere…at home in Brookside, at our farm outside Excelsior Springs, in our Airstream Mobile Coffee Unit, in our offices…everywhere. I love espresso and normally go straight from bed to the La Marzocco in our kitchen…and I usually pull anywhere from 6 to 9 double shots…then go to the shower. I may stop at the Café and when I do, I always get a double macchiato. At the office I’ll usually have either French Press or whatever Amanda has brewed. The boys will usually be cupping so I jump in whenever I can. After around 3:00 or 4:00 I switch to decaf…but have had at least 20 + cups of regular by then so it’s time. Over the years, there has been such dramatic improvement in the decaf processes that you really have to have a discerning palate now to tell the difference.

What does the average coffee drinker not know about coffee that he/should?
Perhaps the work that went into getting it in their hands. We spend all year sourcing…and the farmers growing, the best coffee that we can find on the planet. Those beans have likely gone through nine sets of human fingers, taken one tree a whole year just to produce 1 to 1.5 pounds of coffee; and nearly five years for that tree to produce it’s first full crop! So, an intense amount of work goes into those beans…but they don’t need to sweat all that…’cause that’s what we do!

Now there are two Roasterie Cafe's in Kansas City. What are the company's plans for expansion considering cafes, facilities and distribution?
We spent five years studying the local market before we decided on the 2nd Café. We want each one to play a major role in their local community…we’re not interested in the “drive-by” locations. We want to be a part of our neighborhood, wherever we are. So, it’s likely we’ll continue to be very methodical in our future Café expansion plans.
We continue to build locally, regionally and nationally in terms of sales and distribution. But we really focus here in the Midwest and that’s where most of our growth continues to be, except online…which we’re really pleased with and it’s really spread across the country.

What's your best or favorite coffee-related travel memory? 
Being lost in Ethiopia at night when a roadblock came down and ‘rebels’ got on the bus with AK47’s to steal and/or kidnap. When our guides told them we were just poor coffee buyers, they let us go. It was very fun and exciting.

Clearly, this is a man living a caffeinated lifestyle. A true KC original and an interesting subject for 5 questions. Hope you enjoyed!

Dog Nuvo Drama Update

Dog Nuvo reportedly opening back up today at 11:00, with the restraining order having been lifted.

Oct 20, 2010

Dog Nuvo Drama

Dog Nuvo may turn out to be the shortest-lived restaurant I've ever reviewed.

Apparently chef Marshall Roth and Harry Blasco are being sued by their former employer in Independence, Ken McClain, for allegedly stealing his idea to open an upscale hot dog restaurant in the KC metro area.

Roth and Blasco admit to having been in on the idea to open such a place in Independence with McClain previously, but when their input for the menu and overall concept were shot down, they high-tailed it to P&L to start up Dog Nuvo.

Adding to the story's juiciness, McClain, in an attempt to squelch Roth and Blasco's start up momentum with Dog Nuvo, bought up dognuvo.com and several other iterations of the URL in order to keep Roth and Blasco from launching a website for their new business at that online address!

Links to related articles for your enjoyment follow. I'll update this post with additional links as more info becomes available.

Oct 11, 2010

Sinking Feeling at Pizza Bella

Restaurant: Pizza Bella
Location: 1810 Baltimore, KC MO
Food: Wood-fired pizzas
Service: Unremarkable waitstaff
Atmosphere: Tiny. Somehow vibrant & cold at once.
Price: $9 - $14 pizzas. A little steep.
Rating: One napkin. Barely.

Kansas City doesn't do pizza very well.

Now that I have your attention, let me qualify that statement. In other cities across the country, Neapolitan pizza (pizza napoletana) has had a huge uprising. We're talking freshly made crusts, pies with simple, artisinal toppings (and not too many of them), cooked in a brick or wood fire oven at super high heats, not a pizza conveyor. We're talking freshness, chewy-but-crispyness, and hints of char flavor. We're talking long handled pizza boards that slide delicious pies into and out of ovens with a learned dexterity. We're talking pizzas made with love.

Kansas City has a lot of Americanized chain pizza places, but there are really only about three different Neapolitan-style pizza places here: Spin!, Blue Grotto and Pizza Bella.

As I grow older, I find this style of pizza far more refreshing and enjoyable than its thick crusted, heavily topped counterpart that made up such a big part of my childhood (approximately 1/8 of my body is made of Little Caesar's).

So when I found a discounted gift certificate for Pizza Bella online recently, I jumped on it. And last Saturday evening, after taking in "The Social Network" (really good and interesting movie), we went for a long-awaited visit.

Pizza Bella's status has been a bit shaky lately. Its ownership may have changed, but I haven't been able to confirm. Those familiar with Rob Dalzell's other establishments including 1924 Main, Souperman and Yummo know that a run of unfortunate circumstances have led all three to close, so there were lots of rumors Pizza Bella would bite the dust, too.

A quirky location would seem to be bad for business. They're located in a bit of a no man's land half-way between the Crossroads and P&L. I personally like the spot, but there is no foot traffic there and if you're trying to cut through downtown expeditiously, you most likely aren't driving down Baltimore, either. So it's rather hidden.

Those who seek it out, however, find a quaint little spot with big front windows and a modern-chic interior of tasteful wood, painted concrete, white curtains and bright red accent chairs. A tiny bar sits just inside the entrance and the hearth of the restaurant, its wood fired oven, is in the southwest corner wafting delicious aromas that immediately induce salivation. For my taste, the place could use a little more of the wood accents on the walls for increased warmth, and sound deadening materials would be nice, too. But overall, this is a tastefully designed dining environment.

On our trip, we were afflicted with the misfortune of sharing a server with a large birthday party. These were 30 somethings with a white limo parked out front who were clearly excited to be away from their kids for the first time in forever and not used to drinking the amount of alcohol they may have consumed at such parties in their younger days. They were tipsy and unbearably obnoxious. Increasingly so as the night went on.

Needless to say, attention to our needs was lacking. Eventually our water arrived in a pretty bottle and we hastily ordered beers (Boulevard Pale Ale and a Stout). We were elated to find Brussels sprouts among the appetizers and upon our server's recommendation, ordered them plus the Butter Lettuce salad. The server was wrong about the portion of the Brussels sprouts, though, which was large and incredibly filling. By the time we finished them and the salad, we were full.

They were worth it, though. Piping hot, served straight from the oven in a ceramic dish, the Brussels were covered in pancetta vinaigrette and parmesan, flavored with cranberries, almonds and their own char. Absolutely killer. Brussels sprouts cooked this way are my all-time favorite vegetable, hands down (hey family - get ready to see those on the Thanksgiving table, by the way).

The salad was, unexpectedly, overdressed with a creamy white dressing. Described as "anchovy lemon vinaigrette," we thought it would have been less... opaque. Maybe it was the anchovies? Regardless, there was too much of it. Otherwise, the butter lettuce would have been nicely crisp and we could've actually tasted the shaved fennel, sliced radish and chives also mixed in. Great recipe, poor execution.

This unfortunate execution was, sadly, the theme of our mushroom pizza, as well. What would have been a beautiful, thin, crispy crust was reduced to a soggy goo. Caramelized onions, themselves, are a wet, soggy ingredient which would have been okay, but the mushrooms must have gone onto the pie raw and when mushrooms are first cooked, they release most of their water, which makes up 90% of the mushroom itself. This dirty-tasting water seeped into the crust and reduced it to an unrecognizable mush. A tragic murder of an otherwise delicious pizza.

Pizza Bella has all the earmarks of a good restaurant concept that just hasn't been maintained. Nearly everything in our trip was lacking. The entire experience felt like competing in a sports match in which we were losing by an insurmountable margin and failure was a foregone conclusion.

Walking out, we agreed that despite a theoretically good menu and mostly nice dining room, we weren't likely to return. At least not on our own dime. I'd love nothing more than to hear scuttlebutt that a new owner or new chef was pumping life back into the place, but I fear it's more likely I'll hear of it closing instead. I like Pizza Bella, but I'm not sure Pizza Bella likes me back.

Rating: one napkin. barely.

Pizza Bella on Urbanspoon

Oct 9, 2010

Chicago Dog Throwdown

The Chicago Dog. As a kid, I used to see a picture of one on the menu board at the Manhattan Town Center A&W Hot Dogs & More and think to myself, "Yick! Who would eat a hot dog with all that stuff on it?" Mind you, this was during a time in my life when I refused to eat any food in which I could detect even the tracest amount of onion, because I thought I hated onions. ("They make me gag" I would say with tearful eyes. What a weenie.)

Now, I love Chicago Dogs - and onions, for that matter. But I'd wager this classically loaded frankfurter garners "skepticism of the palette" from even the heartiest of adult eaters on its appearance alone. So what, exactly, is it? There are strict criteria to be met for a normal loaded dog to qualify as an authentic Chicago Dog. Unequivocally, the essential componentry includes:

  • Steamed poppy seed bun
  • Kosher, all-beef frankfurter (Vienne Beef is the most popular brand. Red Hot Chicago makes a competing dog.)
  • Diced onion (white)
  • Neon Relish (a.k.a. piccalilli)
  • Sport peppers (pickled serranos)
  • Fresh tomatoes (usually sliced, not chopped)
  • Kosher dill slice
  • Yellow mustard
  • Celery salt
So after being pleasantly surprised by the Chi Dog I found at a nearby eatery, I decided to expand my search to the whole city to come up with a comprehensive list of where these beloved dogs "dragged through the garden" could be found.

In my search, I found several variations and liberties taken with this list of ingredients--deli mustards, red onion, chopped tomato or omission of entire ingredients, even. In fact, of eight different vendors in town claiming Chicago Dogs on their menu, I found only two that met all of the criteria exactly.

But this post is not only about where you can find the real thing here in KC, but also whose I liked the best. All comers were eligible to win the badge for authenticity. Only one could win my heart. Here they are from worst to best. Let the throwdown begin.

#8 - The Brick: This establishment finds itself at the bottom of the heap because of its lack of authenticity in lieu of worse ingredient choices. Don't get me wrong - of all the places I visited, The Brick gave me one of the best hot dogs - the most filling for sure - but it was a far cry from a real Chicago Dog. The bun was toasted, not steamed, and contained sesame seeds instead of poppy. The hot dog was a big, juicy one, but other errant ingredients were red onion slices instead of chopped white onion, regular dark green relish instead of the bright green stuff, and an absolute head-scratcher: a blanket of romaine lettuce covering the whole thing, weighed down with yellow mustard making for a sloppy mess. Not so appealing. Not worth the caloric investment.

Authenticity (out of 3): 0
Taste (out of 5): 2
Love (out of 2):1
Dining Experience (out of 3): 1
TOTAL: 4 out of 13

#7 - The Pizza Man: Located a solid 25 minute drive from my house in a Lenexa industrial park is a hidden strip mall where The Pizza Man resides. The Pizza Man is a Chicago-themed restaurant in the same way Arrowhead Stadium is a chiefs-themed establishment. The walls are painted garish Cubs blue and red and adorned with Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks paraphernalia including classic posters and trading cards. It's like walking into the bedroom of any 10 year old Chicago sports fan - even down to its lack of cleanliness. I hate to sound snooty, but truly, I was afraid my chances of contracting food poisoning from The Pizza Man were slightly better than NOT contracting it. Gutting it out, though, my Chicago dog from Pizza Man was, not surprisingly, 100% authentic. Vienna Beef hot dog, all the right toppings. A spot-on representation of the basic thing. So in the end, it wasn't the dog itself that dropped Pizza Man to the bottom of this throwdown - it was the establishment in which it was served.

Authenticity (out of 3): 3
Taste (out of 5): 2
Love (out of 2): 1
Dining Experience (out of 3): 0
TOTAL: 6 out of 13

#6 - CJ's: Besting The Pizza Man by the slimmest of margins, CJ's is located way up north in a little strip mall near KCI. The dogs here, too, were the model of a Chicago Dog but with a bonus - they were Buy One Get One Free! I don't know if this was normal or not - nothing was very normal about my trip to CJ's, which was operating out of a neighboring restaurant while the real CJ's was under renovation. The fill-in staff, though, quickly served up my Chicago Dogs and I enjoyed every bite.

Authenticity (out of 3): 3
Taste (out of 5): 2
Love (out of 2): 1
Dining Experience (out of 3): 1
TOTAL: 7 out of 13 (tie)

#5 - Miami Ice: Featuring a Red Hot Chicago hot dog, Miami Ice is the first of the upper-tier dogs--the ones good enough to garner a return trip. The Red Hot was the perfect plumpness and length, fitting the bun but with plenty of girth for the perfect, meaty bite. The toppings weren't all there, though. It lacked the poppy seeds on the bun and the neon relish. And the tomatoes were chopped, not slices, but that's hardly a knock. Overall, this was a tasty, satisfying dog I was happy to have in my neighborhood.

Authenticity (out of 3): 1
Taste (out of 5): 4
Love (out of 2): 0
Dining Experience (out of 3): 2
TOTAL: 7 out of 13 (tie)

#4 - Rock-N-Moroccan: Just a few doors down (Westward) stands Rock-N-Moroccan which I've already reported as having pretty awful Moroccan food, but a tremendously satisfying Chicago Dog. No, it's not perfect. The tomatoes were chopped, the relish not neon, and I don't believe the celery salt was there, either. But what Rock-N had was a gut-busting, meaty, mustardy, oniony Chicago Dog. Of all the dogs I had, this may have provided the single most satisfying bite. All the toppings being such a uniformed dice, it was easy to chomp down without causing an avalanche of vegetables to go tumbling down my face and wrists. So for its shortcomings in authenticity, it makes a big comeback with taste.

Authenticity (out of 3): 1
Taste (out of 5): 4
Love (out of 2): 1
Dining Experience (out of 3): 2
TOTAL: 7 out of 13 (tie)

#3 - Dog Nuvo: Dog Nuvo doesn't sell hot dogs, it sells haute dogs. And in my earlier review of the place, I note that the condiments here are all house-made and truly delicious. The Chicago Dog there was no exception. The onion was not diced. Or onion. It was thinly sliced shallot which gave a slightly more modest crunch--but enough--and still a good mild but bite-y zing. The relish was, surprisingly, neon green. The mustard, though, a delicious but hardly authentic coarse grain. And the pickles and peppers were thinly sliced into "ribbons". Altogether, it created a manageably topped and sized hot dog, but the dog itself was pretty darn thin. I was left wanting more (that's what she said). So while this is a delicious and applaudably well crafted Chicago Dog, it's not quite the best in town.

Authenticity (out of 3): 2
Taste (out of 5): 4
Love (out of 2): 2
Dining Experience (out of 3): 3
TOTAL: 11 out of 13

#2 - Big City Hot Dogs: Little known fact: There's a hot dog place in Grandview called Big City Hot Dogs. Lesser known fact: their hot dogs are great! Even lesser known fact - this is also where KC's locally made artisan soda brand, Soda Vie, is based. How was the dog? Good enough to be second best on the list. First off, buyers have their choice of the normal 1/8 lb or heartier 1/4 lb hot dog. Always a huge plus to have the quarter-pounder available. And aside from having regular colored relish instead of neon green, the rest of the dog was spot-on Chicago style. The only real drawbacks to Big City were its location and atmosphere. The place is in an awkward, hard to reach spot and feels more like a soda vie bottling plant than a restaurant of any sort. No, hot dogs don't require studly digs to be passable, but we're talking about a small difference between #1 and #2 on the list here, and this building just saddened me a bit. (If you make the trip, be sure to check out the rest of the menu selections. This truly is one of the most legit hot dog-focused menus in the city.)

Authenticity (out of 3): 2.5
Taste (out of 5): 5
Love (out of 2): 2
Dining Experience (out of 3): 2
TOTAL: 11.5 out of 13

#1 - Clay's Curbside Grill: This little hot dog stand off Armour road in old downtown North KC wasn't even on my Chicago Dog hit list until I was nearly done with the Throwdown research. Good thing I found this article in The Pitch about its return. Here's why it's the winner: a great hot dog that's the perfect size - not too big, not too small; all the right toppings from the real Chi Dog list; a friendly, quick-moving chef prepares every dog by hand (Clay himself) from a real hot dog cart, not a kitchen - somehow hot dogs taste best this way; a comfortable curbside seating arrangement available to enjoy your fast, unpretentious, perfectly satisfying lunch. Clay's does hot dogs the right way, and his Chicago Dog is spot-on.

Authenticity (out of 3): 3
Taste (out of 5): 5
Love (out of 2): 2
Dining Experience (out of 3): 2
TOTAL: 12 out of 13

So there you have it. The current Chicago Dog king of Kansas City is Clay's Curbside Grill, and a worthy winner it is. Notice, though, potential future challengers, that there is no one listed here with a perfect score. None of the establishments quite achieved the perfect authenticity to enjoyment ratio. So to anyone who may be considering jumping into the pool with their own Chicago Dog offering, come hard and you could claim the crown.

Oct 6, 2010

5 Questions With Celina Tio

A local chef just shot into celebrity status with the airing of Sunday night’s first episode of  The Next Iron Chef on Food Network.

Celina Tio of Brookside’s JULIAN is one of the 10 contestants in this, the third season of the series. In celebration of her appearances on the show, the chef/owner/star is hosting weekly watch parties at JULIAN where diners can watch the show and eat recreations of the foods she made in the challenge on that week’s episode. On the first episode, which she survived, the chefs were given a 30 minute challenge involving a secret ingredient – bread! All chefs were required to use the bread to make a standout sandwich. With 30 minutes, Tio composed an absolutely gorgeous Breakfast Cuban on Brioche with Slab Bacon, Chorizo Vinaigrette and Housemade Pickles… You know – kids’ stuff.

In episode one’s main challenge event, chefs had to create a dish made from an ingredient which, during the lead-up to the show, they identified as the one ingredient they’d choose if stranded on a desert island. Most chose a protein; there were several suckling pigs, a duck, chicken and a turkey. Tio’s selection? Corn.

Breakfast Cuban on Brioche with Slab Bacon,
Chorizo Vinaigrette and Housemade Pickles (FN.com)
On the sands of a wind-blown beach, using a small prep table and with only a small charcoal grill for heat, she whipped up a perfectly cooked prawn with fire-roasted corn and a raw oyster with raw corn salsa served on a tiny nest of corn silk. (Salivating? For reservations call 816.214.8454 or visit the website.)

A true media busy-body, Tio is active on facebook and twitter. On the day she caught up with me at Blanc Burgers+Bottles on the Plaza, she had already given three other interviews. So as a change of pace, we sat down for a quick game of five questions – a KCNapkins feature I hope to continually publish with questions and answers from other area chefs. A little light reading.

Over a Boulevard Smokestack Series selection (hers) and Bob’s 47 (mine), here’s what chef Tio had to say:

Who’s your favorite Iron Chef?
(Masaharu) Morimoto. He’s funny as hell and I love his clean food. Also like Michael Symon because of similarity in cooking styles and his infectious laugh.

There is some apparent confusion in the community about what kind of restaurant JULIAN is. How do you describe it?

Really casual neighborhood restaurant. Some just haven’t gotten the memo yet that this is a casual place. I think because of my time at The American, it’s tainted as “Fine Dining”, but it’s really chef-driven seasonal food.

Between being active on Facebook, twitter, shooting The Next Iron Chef and spending a lot of time at JULIAN, you’re a busy lady. Where do you get your energy?
Pure passion. It’s what gets me up in the morning.

Prawn with Fire-Roasted Corn and Oyster
With Raw Corn Salsa (FN.com)
Portion size – What’s your philosophy on the ideal?
You should be able to finish it all, and I want it to leave you wanting just one more bite. I think huge portions are a disservice. Who wants to eat that much food? I want people to visit (JULIAN) frequently so I’m steadfast in not having huge portions that drive up the cost for customers. I could put lobster on the menu every night but it’s important to me that I have affordable $15-$17 entrees. Our portion size is a good value for what you’re getting.

Most thrilling food celebrity you’ve ever met?
Julia Child. I had lunch with her in 1998. I was the Epcot Food and Wine Festival coordinating chef and she came in. I’m not normally a stargazer but that was great.

The Next Iron Chef airs every Sunday night at 8:00 CT and Chef Tio can often be found cooking/serving guests at JULIAN in brookside.

Oct 2, 2010

Dog Nuvo = New Dogs in KC

Restaurant: Dog Nuvo
Food: Gourmet hot dogs, house-made condiments and sides
Service: Quick counter
Atmosphere: Incomplete. 
Price: $4-$6 dogs, $3-$5 sides 
Rating: One napkin (with potential)

My life, it seems, now revolves around hot dogs.

It all started with a hankering for a Chicago Dog at the place that turned out to be Rock-n-Moroccan. That morphed into a decision to try every Chicago Dog in the city (still on the hunt - one more place to go).

Then Ink Magazine called for a quote in their latest issue, which features a giant article on the city's boldest hot dog eateries, with special attention paid to the same place this review is about: Dog Nuvo.

So what is Dog Nuvo? Well, right now it's a walk in, carry out only hot dog joint that consists of a tiny waiting area and cashier's counter with several outdoor seats lining Main St. What it will soon be is a full service, casual hot dog eatery with upscale, gourmet hot dogs, a dining room and even a full service bar. Simply put, from a concept standpoint, it'll be the Blanc of Hot Dogs.

Behind the concept and, most importantly, the food, is chef Marshall Roth who has run the kitchens in several of Cordish's P&L Establishments, as well as the nearby Hotel Phillips. His reputation as a chef precedes him. Would Dog Nuvo match up?

First of all, I like - or am going to like - the space. Located on the bottom floor of ad agency Barkley's orange and glass-front office building on Main Street, it's got the right curb appeal to establish the trendy vibe. And what little is there to be viewed at this point all centers on a cohesive aesthetic of orange, blue and black. The attention to detail is quite refreshing. Even the napkins and plastic silverware exhibit the funky, fun colors.

The outdoor seats are quite nice in that there are several tables that seat four people comfortably, and there isn't too much foot traffic on the sidewalk that might cause agitation for those trying to relax and enjoy their tasty frank.

Also intelligently planned and presented is the menu which has a narrow focus on classic and original hot dog concepts with homemade condiments and sides. I'm sure the temptation was there to play it safe and offer a burger, chicken caesar salad and club sandwich as a catch-all for the non dog lovers who might stop in, but they were deftly avoided in favor of a focused restaurant with fewer barriers in growing its reputation.

Among the choices are dogs you won't find anywhere else in town, like Le Poodle, a French-themed dog topped with Boeuf Bourguignon, melted Brie, radish, chives and pinot noir mustard and The Blue Pig with blue cheese crumbles, crispy shallots, applewood smoked bacon and Maytag blue mustard. Those who would prefer to create their own can select the Dog Nuvo option and choose their own kraut and mustard, which are all house-made and thoughtfully done.

My selection on trip #1 was their Chicago Dog which I'll review as part of my upcoming Chicago Dog throwdown, but suffice it to say Dog Nuvo's Chi-Dog was a thoughtful representation of the classic with its own gourmet twist. Perfectly sufficient. Also on that trip I treated myself to a side (a large one) of cole slaw, which was creamy (maybe a little too much so) and, thankfully, not too sweet. It came with nice additions such as walnuts, sliced red grapes and thinly sliced red onion for some bite. This was a tasty slaw to be sure, the added touches giving it increased depth and textures that were appreciated.

On trip #2 I felt a moral obligation to try The KC, almost as if I'd somehow neglected, my whole life, to familiarize myself with a famous city staple, though I'm almost certain this dog was only conceived in recent history (the only other place I know of serving a hot dog with burnt ends on it is the new Arrowhead stadium). The KC did not disappoint - too much. While the "burnt ends" (written in quotation marks on the menu, even) that topped the dog were a little sparse and lacking in smoky flavor, their tender texture was better than expected. And the barbecue sauce selection - one of the only condiments on the menu Roth doesn't make in house -  is the super-tasty "The Secret Sauce" of American Royal winning fame. Adding a contrasting sweet and vinegary taste to the rich dog were bread and butter pickle slices, cut thin enough to fit the bun well, but thick enough to stand out with some pungent crunch.

And while I commend Roth for his culinarily advanced hot dog preparation method, it's a little lost on me... because the dogs themselves get lost in the buns and toppings. Touted as being "crafted using natural casings and infused sous vide before grilling in our secret Nuvo brine," the hot dogs are definitely tasty. But for this all-beef-frank fan's tastes, they're just too skinny. I imagine the smallish size is a calculated decision made so that the other toppings, when piled on, have at least some chance of nestling down into the bun enough that the whole thing can still be picked up and eaten without completely falling apart, but I couldn't help feeling as though I was left wanting more meat in my dogs.

Prices seem right-on what they should be for these dogs with a gourmet twist. The dogs themselves range from $4 to $6, sides from $3 to $5 in generous portions. Yeah, you could leave here having spent $10 on a hot dog for lunch, which seems steep, but given the quality of the food one should feel like they got what they paid for.

There's more to come from Dog Nuvo. Some menu tweaks are inevitable given the youth of the restaurant, and they've yet to reveal the dining room and full service bar, which will completely enhance the entire restaurant's experience. So consider this review a sneak peak at Dog Nuvo; and so far, I like what I see. 

Rating: one napkin (with a high level of potential for gaining another after the full rollout)

Dog Nuvo on Urbanspoon
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