Dec 30, 2010

A Good Bloody at Blue Grotto

Restaurant: Blue Grotto
Food: Brunch, lunch and dinner w/ Italian flare
Service: Normal waitstaff
Atmosphere: Charming. Features wood fire oven.
Price: Brunch entrees $6-$10, Drinks for $3
Rating: Two napkins

Word is slowly getting out that Blue Grotto, the tasteful Italian/wood-fired pizza restaurant in Brookside, serves a mighty fine brunch—and $3 breakfast cocktails to boot.

We made the trip a couple weeks ago after waking up on a cold weekend morning and thinking brunch near a warm hearth with a bit of alcohol in our bellies would be a great way to ease our way into the frigid day.

There were several folks at the bar when we arrived, each keeping to him or herself and reading a newspaper. Perhaps these were the worst of the hangovers BG was helping nurse that morning. A few other diners were seated in the main sections of the restaurant and a few more trickled in after we were seated. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t depressingly slow, either.

We were led to the quaint and scenic upstairs loft area, which gave us a great view of the centrally located open-air kitchen below, where a chef busied himself amid breakfasty ingredients. Being picky about seats, we were quite pleased.

We’d been to Blue Grotto before and found their pizza to be one of the best in the city, if not comparable to the best Napolitano pizzas in bigger cities across the country. But brunch was of particular interest to me because though its dishes often are so similar, the quality can vary so widely. Would Blue Grotto be the soggy, watery and unripe type? Or would it be among those that stand above?

The first advantage of Blue Grotto’s brunch is that it is not a buffet. No Styrofoam eggs tasting of metal chafing dishes. No sterno-burnt pancakes or overly greasy, soggy bacon inadvertently poached in its own rendered grease. All the dishes appeared to come straight out of that stone oven that ascends from the back of the kitchen on the ground floor all the way up to the ceiling, infusing the dishes placed inside with beautiful wood fire scent.

After giving our orders, we were brought our $3 – yes, $3 – drinks: a bloody mary for me and a mimosa for Elizabeth. The bloody came in a boulevard pint glass with a wedge of lime and spear of three pimento-stuffed green olives. Plenty of girth to appease my rumbling stomach. It was perfectly done, spicy but not too spicy, thick but not too thick. No huge chunks of garlic of horseradish to chomp, which I find a little off-putting at that hour of the day… in a drink. I honestly can’t claim to have had a better bloody mary ever. Mimosas tend to be uniform, but this one was at least served in a pretty tall glass. It, too, hit the spot.

Service was quite slow. There only appeared to be one server but from our bird’s eye point of view, we saw both the chef and the bartender roll their eyes and complain to each other about her performance while we were there. We became slightly agitated with the wait but our food came before we ever came close to complaining. Those who are apt to complain, though, may have done so. Still, she was friendly and we were quite content to sip our delicious beverages as we shook off the cobwebs.

The menu is in a small state of flux as told to us by our server. Currently they list things like Panne Fratau, Pizza Benedict, Omelet, Quiche, B&G, Corned Beef Hash, French Toast and Granola. I ordered a staple, the Biscuits and Sausage Gravy. Elizabeth ended up choosing the Omelet.

I can’t say there was anything exceptional about the B&G, except that it was B&G, which, to me, is always exceptional. I would marry a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy if I could. In fact, I made a point of making B&G with my brother on the morning of my wedding as a sort of “last breakfast” before taking the plunge. And those B&G were comparable to the ones at Blue Grotto.

The biscuits were delicious – a brown crusty exterior protecting a light, fluffy interior. Certainly seemed to be made from scratch. The gravy seemed a little lacking in sausage flavor somehow, though I think I like an unusually high proportion of meat in my sausage gravy.

Elizabeth’s omelet surprised me. It was the best-cooked omelet I’d ever had (hopefully the photo of it here shows that), which is to say that it wasn’t at all overcooked. So often an omelet is overdone on the outside – airy and dry - with uncooked, watery ingredients inside. This one, filled with artichokes, peperonata and asiago cheese, was uniformly correct in its doneness and such a pleasure to eat. The savory artichokes and peppers were just right for that “I’m not breakfast but I’m not lunch” meal.

Being honest, the cubes of herbed breakfast potatoes on the side were terrific, too. So much flavor from the freshly chopped herbs. The salad on the side was a total throwaway – just lettuce and a little vinaigrette. Something a little more inventive could have been better paired with the dish.

Each of us received a ramekin of fruit on the side – cantaloupe and red grapes. They weren’t especially great, but requisite, I guess.

And so it was, in the end, a satisfactory brunch, indeed. There are more inspired options in town, but if a breakfast cocktail is on your mind, Blue Grotto gets a big leg up on the competition. That bloody mary was a standout.

Rating: two napkins

Blue Grotto on Urbanspoon

Dec 28, 2010

KC Smoke Burgers: Don't Blink Or You Might Miss It

Restaurant: KC Smoke Burgers
Food: Burgers, Phillies, etc.
Service: Simple waitstaff
Atmosphere: A burger joint in Jerusalem
Price: Burgers $7-$10
Rating: zero napkins

I may have found the worst, most ill-fated restaurant in all of Kansas City.

The other night I was headed home after a late night of work, debating what to grab for dinner that wouldn’t be too far out of the way. A good ol’ burger sounded right, and I remembered seeing a new place open on 39th street, curiously near Fric & Frac, whose burgers I’ve had in the past and enjoyed. A quick comparison post for the blog seemed in order, so I figured I’d try one at the new place and then have one from Fric & Frac soon thereafter and write about whose was better.

But when I left KC Smoke Burgers, the comparison article was off. There was no comparison. Because KC Smoke Burgers is so weird and so bad on almost every level, I found it to be one of the most pathetic restaurants I had ever witnessed.

...because dated pop culture icons, civil war-era weaponry
and antiques go so well with cheeseburgers.
Leading off the list of issues with KC Smoke Burgers is their massive, obvious identity crisis. Located in the vacated Jerusalem Café spot on 39th street across from Aladdin Café, there is already a Middle Eastern image it has to overcome. Jerusalem Café had specially built and decorated walls that looked as thought they were formed from clay in the holy land itself, cracks hand painted on them in an attempt to drive home the look. Those walls remain at KC Smoke Burgers. So one can’t remove the image of hummus, falafel and pitas from his or her mind while looking around.

Cheerleaders? Yep. Quarterbacks? Yep. Clowns?
Are you kidding me? YES!
Perhaps even more curious are the new pieces of décor, however. As I sat and waited on my burger, I took note of the odd, hand-painted items adorning the walls, which included the following: NASCAR banners and cutouts, scenic photos of Jerusalem, generic photography of cheeseburgers and Philly cheesesteaks, cutouts of James Dean, Captain Kirk, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and the Statue of Liberty. On top of the cashier’s stand that occupies the center of the restaurant were two faux antique cannons and a chest filled with faux cannon balls, as well as an antique sewing machine. Behind me, on the East side of the dining room, the walls showcased more hand-painted cutouts: a cheerleader, football player and clowns. Lastly, sprawling nearly the entire width of the front of the restaurant, hanging above the front door, was an expansive hand-painted banner featuring what was either an image of the plaza lights, or another scene from the holy land, but with Christmas lights adorning the buildings. It was hard to tell.

I was eating in the most random and quizzically decorated restaurant I had ever patronized.

The remnants of the restaurant’s Mediterranean/Middle Eastern past crept beyond the photos on the walls – and the walls themselves – and onto the menu, I found. Laced throughout the laminated, flame-adorned sheet were decidedly Greek ingredients: a Mediterranean Philly cheesesteak, a gyro smoke burger and a lamb and pesto smokeburger. Disguised among the traditional burger toppings like ketchup and mustard lurked Greek dressing. And the extra toppings included feta, a garlic cucumber sauce and pita chips, as a side.

I ordered the Fire Smokey Burger from the short list of featured burgers, which came with a good pile of sliced jalapenos under a blanked of melted American cheese. I also opted for grilled onions instead of raw, tomatoes, dill pickles and lettuce (iceberg was the only choice, which was fine). Ketchup and mustard came in plastic bottles on the side, DIY.

The jalapenos were great, but I’d have enjoyed a different flavor of cheese. The bun was quite un-special and while I’m aware of how snooty it sounds to criticize the bun, I feel compelled to point out that we live in a city where Farm to Market-brand brioche buns can be had with your burger. So the bar is set quite high and the cheap Wonder-style white bread buns used here certainly don’t add anything to the burger eating experience.

Then there was the meat. Level of doneness was not asked of me, and well done is what I got. I’m also quite certain that there are some secret spices going into the beef before hitting the griddle – cumin, maybe – which wasn’t awful, but led me to want to put the thing down rather than polish off the last few bites, which is not indicative of my normal burger consumption habits.

These fries may actually have been the best part
of the meal. Not bad.
In the end, the burger, upon which the last chances for attaining a mild level of success hung, failed to help KC Smoke Burger’s case at all, rounding out a pitiful dining experience.

Let me now pause to point out that the staff – the only other folks in the restaurant during the entirety of my meal – were all friendly, went out of their way to serve me quickly and get me whatever I needed, and the manager came over to chat, hoping I’d been treated well and would be coming back again. I didn’t have the heart to lie and admit I wouldn’t even dream of it, but based on my experience at KC Smoke Burgers, I see a huge change of cuisine coming in the near future if they don’t board it up altogether.

With a neighborhood favorite like Fric & Frac serving quite decent burgers one block away, KC Smoke Burgers is spraying a bonfire with a small squirt gun, and, I’d imagine, will be going up in smoke itself sometime not long from now.

Rating: zero napkins

KC Smoke Burgers on Urbanspoon

Dec 24, 2010

A Biased Review of Café Sebastienne

Restaurant: Café Sebastienne
Food: Contemporary American
Service: Competent yet relaxed
Atmosphere: A cozy buzz... dinner among art.
Price: Starters $9-$14, Entrees $18-$30
Rating: Three Napkins

It’s nearly impossible to objectively review the restaurant that catered your wedding reception. So know, from the beginning, my review of Café Sebastienne is tainted with puppy love sentiment.

On September 15, 2007, this restaurant located in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art laid out for our guests and us a fine spread that, quite frankly, I don’t remember much. I was beaming with an ear-to-ear grin and paying special attention to greet as many of our friends and loved ones as possible, who had been so kind to spend their evening celebrating our marriage. Elizabeth, I remember, inhaled her food with double take-inducing speed, and rushed me to finish mine, feeling obligated to play the gracious hosts. And so I did.

So it was with great zeal that we made our recent reservation, having received a gift card to the restaurant.

It was colder than freezing outside but magically warm inside the narrow restaurant, whose walls are covered top-top-bottom with paintings of all sorts. The mélange of vibrant canvases is an art lover’s fantasy and contributes to the hearty conversation taking place among the diners. Elizabeth and I were seated at a lovely, small table in the middle of the restaurant where we started with complimentary multi-grain rolls and a dollop of herb compound butter, alongside which sat a dish of Moroccan spiced olives. The spice tasted of cumin and turmeric – curry-like – and balanced out the briny saltiness of the olives. A lovely start.

The fried risotto balls sounded too good to miss, so we ordered those to go along with our spinach salad. They came four to a plate, which was covered with a vibrant red coating of fresh, slightly spicy marinara and a sprinkling of Parmesan. The spheres of risotto were a perfect breadcrumb shell protecting a soft, gooey, cheesy center of rice.

The spinach salad was a lesser success. I’d argue it was underdressed, but it was perfect for Elizabeth who considers an overdressed salad worthy of capital punishment. Its toppings of dried apricots seemed a little odd combined with poached egg on top. Apricot and egg would seem fine, almost breakfasty together normally, but on the earthy spinach salad, the egg lends meatiness--protein, overpowering the light vinaigrette and fruits. It just didn’t come together as well as conceptualized. All that said, we’re still talking a “B” salad, not a “D” or “F” by any means.

Salad now being sufficiently over-analyzed, I move on to the entrees. Elizabeth’s was a wonderfully seasonal and healthy vegetarian dish: spaghetti squash with kale, soft hunks of tangy, savory tomato and plump artichoke hearts. The small mountain of squash “pasta” gave the dish its richest component, against which the acid and salt from the other ingredients played nicely. It was tremendously satisfying to eat, not just for its superb flavor and texture but in knowing that it was, with the exception of its probable high butter content, quite healthy.

Not having the opportunity often, I ordered the duck, which I love for its indulgent fatty taste that always pairs so nicely with the fruit and berry sauces of the season. The chefs on this night were serving their duck with a syrupy, zesty orange glaze. Though my plate had an overabundance of the sauce which caused me to feel like I’d drunk a bottle of Karo corn syrup by the time I was done, it was tasty and an absolutely perfect pairing with the duck, making subtle any trace of gaminess it may have had.

Splitting hairs, I’d ask for the skin to be even crispier than it was. One can see from my pictures that it had certainly been cooked properly – scored and rendered until dark – but it stretched and pulled too much as I ate it. So this was, unfortunately, not quite my best experience with duck breast (Le Fou Frog is, so far).

The side of wild rice topped with custard was easily the most decadent side dish I’d ever eaten. One bite was enough. So was the next. And the next. I ended up eating the whole serving despite its unimaginable richness, which surprised me. I have to applaud the inventiveness but I’d guess this is a side that garners mixed reviews. Mine: gooood.

After all that, we were completely stuffed and dangerously cozy, so we each ordered an espresso, she devouring her tantalizing cube of natural brown sugar upon arrival, me admiring mine in concept but not in consumption.

In the end, though not a perfect meal, the setting and the cast of memories that surrounded us throughout the experience made for a magical evening and sparked eagerness to return soon. Café Sebastienne is a forgotten gem in our city, as is the museum itself. But be certain that on September 15th, for the rest of my life, I’ll think of it fondly. And I plan to return as a customer far more often than that.

Rating: Three Napkins

Cafe Sebastienne on Urbanspoon

Dec 19, 2010

My Cheesesteak Joint

Restaurant: Chartroose Caboose
Location: 10636 Metcalf, Overland Park, KS
Food: Philly Cheesesteaks
Service: Quick Service counter
Atmosphere: Comfortable and homey
Price: Cheesesteaks for $6, Fries for $2
Rating: One Napkin

I’d argue there are few sandwiches that can provide as much satisfaction as the Philly cheesesteak. So much flavor. All that filling meat and cheese. A cheesesteak is an absolute gut-bomb, no doubt, but it’s the kind I welcome with open arms jaws.

Over the years, I’ve grown to love one in particular: the Super Chief at Chartroose Caboose. Discreetly located between a car dealership and Hooters near the on-ramp to 435 west on Metcalf lies this homey little family owned business.

The setup and décor of the restaurant have improved little by little since I first started going. It’s comfortable and clean with a mix of everyone from white-collar lunch breakers to families with young kids, construction workers and high school students.

My favorite selection, the Super Chief, comes with steak, cheese, diced onions, mushrooms and green pepper. It’s a huge pile of flat top grilled, chopped steak with just enough flavor from the veg and cheese to be really interesting.

CC also offers turkey, chicken and ham variations for those not worried about desecrating the classic. On our recent trip, I went for my hallowed favorite and Elizabeth grabbed the turkey variation which is surprisingly satisfying, too, but much lighter tasting.

Whichever you choose, do yourself a favor and be sure to order a cup of au jus on the side. I know it’s not classic cheesesteak affair, but it’s perfectly delicious; that puffy, soft bun sops up the jus perfectly, creating bites that positively melt in the mouth.

The fries are the go-to side, here… thick cut, always crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside. Be sure to load up on ketchup and mustard to go along with them because the cry out for that sweet, tangy moisture.

Chartroose Caboose is one of those restaurants whose menu I’ll never even care to explore. I hit the sweet spot my first time in and gladly return for the exact same thing every time back. I'm sure many of their other selections are plenty good, too, but I don’t need ‘em. This is my cheesesteak joint.

Rating: One Napkin

Chartroose Caboose on Urbanspoon
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