Nov 7, 2010

It's Not Magic

Restaurant: Aladdin Cafe
Location: 3903 Wyoming, KC MO
Food: Normal Middle Eastern selections
Service: Underwhelming waitstaff.
Atmosphere: Lacking, but comfortable outdoor seating featured.
Price: Quite fair. $10-$15 entrees.
Rating: One napkin

One of the things I love about going to big cities like New York or Chicago is their diversity. Their culinary diversity, in particular, which births pockets of restaurants offering authentic dishes to clustered ethnicities whose relatives years ago immigrated and started a community mimicking their culture from home.

In New York you've got Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Fuzhou within Chinatown, Curry Hill, Curry Row, Little Manila... the list goes on and on, representing almost any ethnic group I can name.

Here in Kansas City, with a smaller population, we lack diversity on this level. Southwest Boulevard houses a concentration of Mexican restaurants, but few of them offer a menu full of the food Mexican people actually eat on a daily basis. Columbus Park used to house a small Italian population and now has shifted toward Vietnamese, but not an overwhelming number. We have 5 or less Greek restaurants. Very little Korean food. Almost no West African food. And our sushi is pretty weak.

Perhaps most diminutive compared to larger cities is our Middle Eastern selection. We have a few restaurants under the header of “Mediterranean” but certainly no abundance. Two hands are plenty for counting our choices for food like hummus, falafel, shawarma, gyros... ingredients like chickpeas, pine nuts, olives (and their oil), grape leaves and pitas. Not only does Kansas City have too few restaurants serving this food, but it has basically no standout known for doing it exceptionally well.

Midtown - namely Westport and Valentine - is where one finds what's probably the most notable restaurant in this category--Jerusalem Café. I've been there several times. It does the job. I'll give it an official review sometime, I'm sure. But it's probably telling that when I had my most recent craving for this kind of food, I sought a new choice.

Wanting to pause, on this occasion, and take in the glorious fall weather, Elizabeth and I stopped in at the little Aladdin Café on 39th whose outdoor seating had been beckoning us for some time. We decided to officially moved it off the sticky list of "we should really go there sometime" restaurants for the sake of a KC Napkins post.

The mission was to determine whether Aladdin was a cut above. I'd read good things on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon from fans, but I trust your average reviewer on those sites about as much as a used car salesman. So here's my take:

Started with a cup of lentil soup. It was a stunningly beautiful bright yellow color and tasted of sweet Middle Eastern spices - turmeric, especially. This was easily the best lentil-based soup I've ever eaten. Get it. The smooth, rich, sweet curry flavor came to the fore nicely. Not too much coconut milk; just right.

Then we split the sizable Agrabah Appetizer Combo. It came served on a large platter, smooth dips across one side – hummus, baba ghanouj, genie dip – and solids on the other—two crusty falafels and two dolmas.

The plain hummus was good, but not revelatory. It came dusted with red sumac and an obligatory sprinkling of parsley with plenty of olive oil pooled on top. The genie dip in the middle, bright red with infused roasted red peppers and a dollop of sambal-like chili paste on the side, was my favorite of the three. A good spice factor and the red pepper flavor really sang. I would’ve enjoyed twice as much. The ghanouj was only fair. It had a bitterness to it that surprised me. Lots of tahini going on there, I believe. Maybe too high of a ration to the pureed eggplant.

The falafel were fun, with a hearty crust on the outside. Perfect deep-fried balls of chickpea batter. A little salty and soft in the middle. And the dolmas were good – better than the last ones I had at Jerusalem Café with tender leaves around loosely packed meat and rice. Not too dense the way they can be when they’re bad.

Having tried the whole plate, if I were allowed to customize it for my own liking, I’d eliminate the baba ghanouj and dolmas and increase the falafel and genie dip proportions in creating the John Special.

A basket of pitas accompanied the platter. The soft triangles smeared with rich dips filled us up quickly, and we were pleased that our waiter offered us a refill, though we declined.

Little room in our stomachs to spare, we chose to split an entrée—the Shawrma Platter. Here again we were served a large plate heaped with food. A decent value at $9.99.

What we got seemed quite different than what we were picturing based on the description on the menu, though. On the plate was the curry marinated chicken (no surprise) on a bed of rice with cooked zucchini, carrot and onions and raw tomato; the menu described it as curry marinated chicken on warm pita and topped with onions, parsley and tomato sauce. So where our pita and tomato sauce went, I’m not sure. Regardless, the plate of food tasted okay. It was a little bland, but not offensively so.

And that’s how I end up characterizing Aladdin Café, in the end. It didn’t surprise, impress or wow (except the standout lentil soup). The service was pretty bad, but the server, I believe, was new so we cut him a lot of slack. The tables outside weren’t particularly comfortable, nor has much of anything been done to cozy-up the atmosphere inside or out. But if you want to take your Middle Eastern food al fresco, I’d certainly give Aladdin Café a try. Just don’t expect magic.

Rating: one napkin

Aladdin Café on Urbanspoon

Nov 2, 2010

Sometimes Adventured Doesn't Need to be on the Menu

Restaurant: Cafe Europa
Location: 323 E. 55th St., KC MO
Food: Unsurprising, but delicious American/European Cuisine
Service: Buttoned up, professional waitstaff.
Atmosphere: Cozy, affluent; just on the safe side of stiff.
Price: Starters $6-$10, Pizza $8-$10, Entrees $11-$25
Rating: Two Napkins

I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to restaurants. I don’t tend to like the big, shiny, impersonal places nearly as much as the tiny, hidden, quaint ones. Knowing Café Europa to be the perfect example of the latter, I found myself almost fearing that I wouldn’t like it. Because I liked the idea of it so much.

Café Europa is located in the charming Crestwood neighborhood, home also to the more visible Aixois, some antique stores, a stationery store and a florist. It’s a pleasant little outpost with affluent Brookside/Sunset Hill/Mission Hills  patrons and the appropriate fare for them, billing itself as a restaurant, bar and bakery.

Diners are beckoned to enter by a small, brightly lit, refrigerated display case, filled with decadent frosted cupcakes, tarts and other such pastries.  A cute invitation. Just behind is a small bar—not a destination unto itself, but certainly a cozy place to wait for a table to open up. A tantalizing amalgam of scents fills the front room – coffee and alcohol, sweet baked goods and warm dinner aromas from the dining room and adjacent kitchen.

Though the entrance is admittedly dark and cramped, the dining room, still on the small side, is brighter with warm incandescent light filling the air above the open, square wood floor. An old fireplace adorns the East wall, bringing an inherent homey quality to the space.

Seated at a two-person table near the kitchen door, I was slightly disappointed about the plastic floral tablecloths. There was nothing offensive about their design, but the sticky feel of it on my forearms seemed oddly cheap for an otherwise upscale place. It reminded me of eating on similar tablecloths Thursday nights during my childhood in the carpeted second floor of our house where we were only allowed to have dinner when The Cosby Show was on. A pleasant memory, I suppose, but not befitting Cafe Europa’s upscale ambience.

My wine selection threw our server. Wanting a bottle of white for one of our last warm weather dinners of the year, I picked the Cote Jardin White Cotes du Rhone. After some delay, she returned with a red. I quickly pointed out the error and she admitted all she had heard me saw was “Cotes du Rhone” and assumed I meant the one she had selected “because we have been selling so much of it lately.” An honest mistake, to be sure. She soon returned with the correct bottle which turned out to be a fine choice, quite minerally with almost no sweetness of which to speak. At first, I was actually concerned it had too little taste as it so completely disappeared from the palette once down the hatch, but as the wine warmed up a little sitting on the table and we gulped more and more of it, it blossomed enough to win us over.

Everything on the small menu sounded delicious and seasonal, but we were both in the mood for some sort of trusty favorite, as opposed to an adventurous selection (this mood doesn’t strike often). So Elizabeth chose the wild mushroom risotto with scallops and I had the special – a massive double thick pork chop on a bed of greens, on a cloud of mashed potatoes in a pool of jus. (For evidence of our propensity for ordering these types of dishes, see what she ordered at Webster House and I at Grand Street Café.) To start, we split a mixed greens salad with blue cheese and bacon, with a bacon vinaigrette.

The salad was average as far as nice-restaurant-salads go, but we liked it. The blue cheese was a creamy, unctuous treat, the pancetta cubes a salty (thought somewhat chewy) accompaniment. But altogether, this was not a reinvention of the bacon, blue cheese salad. Just a good representation of the classic.

We enjoyed the risotto, more-so for the scallops than the rice. The rice may have been sitting, ready to serve, in a pot in the kitchen for some time already that evening and had swollen into large, grains. But for my taste, while pasta truly needs to be al dente to be perfect, risotto that’s slightly overcooked is just super-creamy risotto. I love it. But oh – the scallops! It’s gotten to the point where I expect risotto with scallops dishes to be served with too much buttery risotto and a scant two, maybe three scallops. Not the case at Europa. Elizabeth’s dish was filled with five of the most perfectly cooked scallops either of us had ever eaten. Each had that golden brown crust but was tantalizingly soft and smooth throughout, and not overly raw. Setting that bowl down in front of us was the equivalent of extending a bowl filled with full-sized Snickers bars to a couple trick-or-treaters.

My pork dish was equally impressive. The cut of meat was hearty to say the least. It was clearly overcooked – an opaque whiteness throughout the meat – but only barely so as it wasn’t too tough or dry. And c’mon… with a palette of buttery greens, creamy potatoes and rich, steamy jus to drag each bite of pork through, dryness was easily remedied.

I wasn’t told what exact type of greens I was given, but my strong inclination was mustard greens, given their twangy, earthy flavor. They were simple and had been cooked to perfection, in that textural nook between stemmy and mushy: fork-tender. Despite being such a humble ingredient, they were completely enjoyable. And the mashers were a dream, as restaurant mashed potatoes so often are. I may not be the foremost connoisseur of mashed potatoes, but I know the difference between good and bad ones, and these were definitely good.

I suppose it was something about the warmth in our bellies and the warmth in the intimate room around us that led us toward the ice cream du jour… sweet potato. Curiosity, too. It tasted much as we suspected – sweet, with autumnal spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice. It also retained the potato’s starchiness, which was curious but not altogether bad. It cooled us down and paired quite nicely with our salutatory espressos. We paid, thanked the kind server, swung our jackets over our shoulders and strode back toward the car with happiness exuding from the contended smiles on our faces.

Café Europa offered up little to surprise or shock, but it wowed us, nonetheless. I loved that it was a nice place, content to serve good food that people like to order. It wasn’t trying to be anything unnatural, and there was something exceedingly comforting about that fact. I think several other restaurants in town could offer up the exact same menu but fail to leave me as pleased as Café Europa did. It’s a pleasant little restaurant, located in the perfect spot, serving just what is wanted to those who want it.

Rating: two napkins

Cafe Europa on Urbanspoon
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