Nov 5, 2011

Seasons 52 Preview

Restaurant: Seasons 52
Location: 340 Ward Pkwy (Plaza)
Food: Traditional American cuisine
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Traditional upscale chain
Price: Apps $6-$12, Entrees $15-$26, Desserts $2.50
Rating: TBD

Seasons 52, the new restaurant opening in the old Eddie Bauer space on the Plaza, started off on the wrong foot with the people of Kansas City, electing, at first, to remodel some of the exterior of the building to something more contemporary and less Spanish-inspired than the rest of the Plaza’s iconic architecture. Understanding it to be a chain restaurant with several other locations across the country, I was surprised they actually heeded the cry of the annoyed plaza patrons and nixed the alterations.

Then in another surprising move, I got an invitation to a bloggers’ preview lunch of sorts, to come try the menu, meet the chef, their on-staff Master Sommelier and see the remodeled space.  Yes, it was complimentary, so I must disclose that up-front. But let me share with you my opinions. After all, that was the point of the whole thing.

The event took place at 11:30 last Saturday. We walked in and were immediately greeted by name (impressive), introduced to the managerial staff and handed champagne. I had my camera in tow and they advised that first we would be taken on a champagne tour and picture-taking was, indeed encouraged. Immediate impressions of the space were A) warm and comfortable, B) wholly unsurprising for a chain restaurant serving seasonally-inspired American fare. Reddish-hued wood, typically uninspired fabrics (and particularly tacky animal print-ish bar stool seat covers), but pleasant overall. And I did appreciate the "Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired" touches visible in their use of horizontal wood slats that created modern-looking walls between rooms. Gave the place a little character and needed freshness. The kitchen was moderately exposed, with gleaming stainless steel, white dishes and the lovely scent of a wood-burning grill wafting through the air. A nice touch.

There’s a big bar area to the left upon entering, plenty of seats around it (think Houston’s bar area but with much more space). Then a big dining room to the south of the east of the entrance and a big private room for business meetings (projector and screen built-in for those unlucky enough to get roped into a serious lunch meeting). Seasons 52 is definitely (and smartly) working hard to appeal to the business crowd and for a chain, that makes all the sense in the world. Straight back, behind the entrance and just outside the kitchen is the chef’s table, a private dining area for special reservations.

After our tour, my fellow bloggers and I were herded into the bar area, introduced to and toasted by the staff, and then ushered into the main dining room and seated together at a big table in the middle. I grinned as the waiter helped me with my chair and I looked across the table, covered in no fewer than six wine glasses per place-setting for our upcoming wine samplings. Wine is a major focus for Seasons 52, employing the services of Master Sommelier George Miliotes. Mr. Miliotes was present throughout the meal, effectively serving as our wine tour guide, explaining each of the pairings, what was to like about it, where it came from including specifically relevant tidbits about the vineyards and vintners themselves. His presences was a treat and I appreciated his straight-forward answer to my question for further information about biodynamic wine-making and its quizzical standards.

As I segue into my descriptions of the meal, I have to start out with what was, to me, a shocking and lovely revelation about the menu at Seasons 52: nothing is over 475 calories! I didn’t know that about their menu going into it and learning this blew my preconceived notions about their food out of the water. Standard chain-restaurant practice has conditioned me to anticipate massive portions of abominably fatty foods. Only 475 calories? This was impressive in principle alone. Would the food be able to stand up to our expectations of good taste, though?

We started with an amuse bouche (which diners at the Chef’s table will also be served) that I loved: an Asian-style soup spoon filled with a very simple but crafty pop of flavors: pico de gallo with a small flaked piece of trout that smelled of the smoky wood from the wood-burning grill, and a dollop of avocado mousse which our decidedly un-pretentious chef Cliff Pleau admitted to be “guacamole.” The ingredients and combination didn’t surprise me or knock my socks off, but it tasted great.

Following the amuse we jumped right into my favorite thing of the day, seafood. A cedar plank dressed with sprigs of thyme was topped with a glossy piece of organic salmon, a perfectly cooked scallop and a mixture of veggies including golden beets, carrot, asparagus, green beans, peppers and a ring of caramelized red onion. The entire plate was divine… sweet seafood and well-cooked veg all working together with light essences of cedar and thyme to accent each bite. This is the kind of food I wish I could eat a lot more often.

Somewhat oddly, we took a step back after the seafood course for salad. But it was an unctuous, hearty salad. A huge pile of baby arugula came perched in the middle of a white plate, contained by a transparent cylinder tower. After the plates were set before us, the servers removed the tower allowing the greens to relax and spread out, exposing the other ingredients including pistachios, mushrooms, shaved parmesan and wafting through the air was the luxurious scent of truffle oil, mixed into the dressing. I'm a total sucker for arugula and parmesan and, when applied appropriately, truffle. All worked together perfectly in this "meaty" tasting salad. I loved its substance and savory, earthy flavors and would most definitely order this upon return or recommend it to friends and (hah!) readers.

Next was a pasta course, two big goat cheese-filled ravioli in a pool of tomato broth, topped with lots of fresh basil and with fresh tomato on the side. The pasta was nice. Personally, I didn't feel goat cheese made the best of fillings, only because it's low in moisture and, to me, less-satisfying to devour than a more gooey cheese filling would have been. But I loved the simple, well-done tomato broth and overall clean presentation. (It would have been nice if my server hadn't sloppily laid this plate down, splashing the broth up onto the rim of the plate, though. Ruined the photo op.)

Then came the heartiest of the lunch plates, one item from their lunch "meat" menu and one from the dinner menu: Piedmontese sirloin steak and quail, respectively. Chef Pleau spent a good amount of time describing his relationship with the farmers in Nebraska who raise the Piedmontese steak for him. It was a good sell and the meat was truly delicious, as well as healthier and leaner than a lot of corn-fed beef. The quail, as quail tends to be, was miniscule. Cute, tiny little legs with about one good bite on each. Again, I liked it but was left exceedingly curious as to what the portion of meat would be if I ordered just that as my main meal.

The rest of the meat plate, though, left a little something to be desired. Each meat came with its own sauce. The sauce on the beef tasted like any plain old brown gravy I'd ever had, masking the flavor of the meat too much and reminding me of cafeteria food. And the bourbon chili glaze on the quail had little discernible flavor. It was somewhat sweet but I detected no bourbon or chili.

The sides on this plate ware brussels sprouts – one of my favorite vegetables – and a sweet potato mash. Again, they were lacking as compared to the rest of the food we'd eaten that day. The mash had a little sour cream in it and nothing else. Chef Pleau explained he doesn't believe in making them overly-sweet with things like marshmallows or a sugary topping like so many families do with their sweet potatoes at the holidays – great, me neither – but it was a bit of a cop out to just add some sour cream to smooth them out and then drop 'em on the plate. I'd like to see a chef challenge himself a little more to do something else with them aside from just not doing what everyone else does. They were bland and still a little too sweet. The roasted brussels weren't bad but they, too, were so simply prepared that unfortunately even my own home-cooked version outshone them. What really makes brussels sprouts special is when they get charred and have that extra depth of flavor added to their naturally earthy, peppery taste. Chef's comment was that everyone's mother overcooked brussels sprouts and ruined them for us when we were young. I don't think he did much better with them. They weren't overcooked, but left a lot to be desired. Overall, the food on this particular plate just wasn't of a high enough restaurant quality to make me want to order it on a return trip.

So then dessert. And here things got back on the right track. Seasons 52's desserts are a delectable assortment of little square shot glasses filled with all sorts of classic flavors like Key Lime Pie and Rocky Road. They were the perfect size (meaning reasonable) and at only $2.50 each, a truly smart idea. I'd contend that everyone wants a little dessert after their meal but so often we don't buy them at restaurants because they're too big to be eaten with a clear conscience or too pricey to be worth it. More places ought to rethink their dessert menus this way.

I don't have time and you don’t have the desire to read about all of the wine pairings. There was one for each course. The whites were decent, the reds were sublime. No doubt the wine menu has perfectly adequate options for whatever you're eating.

Overall, lasting impressions: Seasons 52 is a chain restaurant that doesn't run from being one. It capitalizes on accepting that fact. I think they know they're catering a little more to a business and out-of-town crowd than the locals. I appreciate the healthy menu selections and found a lot of what I ate to be quite good. It's not the type of place I look forward to visiting, personally, but I can't knock it for doing what it does. It'll probably do just fine. And I appreciated the free meal. Thanks for the preview, Seasons 52.

Rating: TBD (I don't rate special events like this as I feel it's not a true representation of the typical diner's experience. Perhaps sometime in the future on my own dime.)

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon

Oct 24, 2011

Aixois: French Heavy Hitter In Brookside

Restaurant: Aixois
Location: 251 E. 55th St., KC, MO
Food: Classic French
Service: Traditional Wait staff
Atmosphere: Fine dining
Price: Entrees from $12 (burger) to $28 (filet)
Rating: three napkins

There’s good French food to be had in Kansas City, but you have to seek it out. Several great little spots are buried in the city’s neighborhoods, inconspicuous and unchanging… just as you’d expect of the French.

Up in the hills of Parkville, there’s Café des Amis. Cross the river southward and you’ll find Le Fou Frog, crouching in the River Market defying you to find it. Hidden in plain sight in the middle of Prairie Village is Café Provence. And don’t forget Westport Café and Bar in the heart of Westport which isn’t working too hard to be strikingly French, but even that credo is sooo French. It’s stiff competition. These are all decent, if not great restaurants. The one missing from this list is the one I recently visited and, as I found, it stands up boldly to the competition.

Aixois is located on Brookside Boulevard and 55th. From the street it gleams with black awnings and a gorgeous patio, a bright green lawn in front, and the promise of a dim, fancy dining room inside. That stretch of 55th, the Crestwood shops, has always been picturesque and Aixois is the cornerstone of it all.

On our first trip to Aixois, we went for lunch and sat out on the patio. This was a long time ago, but I remember having a decent salad with a generous portion of cold salmon on it (…cold in a good, refreshing sort of way that allowed the salad to avoid wilting. A creamy, lemony dressing perfectly coating the salad with plenty of freshly cracked black pepper and beets. Quite tasty.

On this trip, we were there for a casual dinner. We arrived around 8:00 and it was a quiet night. The dining room was probably only ¼ full but, even though brisk outside, there were several diners on the patio—people savoring the last warm evenings of the fall. We were given a two-top in the northern dining area, against the west windows looking out to the patio. A nice view. Maybe best seat in the house for our sensibilities.

Our waiter was attentive and quite competent. We decided to get a bottle of wine, so we told him we’d need to figure out what we were eating before we ordered drink. He checked back twice before we were actually ready, but in a helpful way. Not pestering. And as we chose our wine, salad, appetizer and two entrees, I think he said every single thing we ordered was his favorite, less my steak. Despite being hard to believe, we appreciated the encouragement that our selections would not disappoint.

The salad was immaculate, starting with its shrimp. Listed as Salade d'Avocat et de Crevettes Grillees on the menu, the salad came with at least three big, plump and perfectly cooked shrimp on the side, well cleaned and bursting with sweet flavor (shrimp is so wonderful if cooked perfectly and can be a nightmare when overcooked), with a nice cup of aioli in which to dip. The mixed greens supported a beautiful fan of avocado (a generous portion of it, to boot), which was cut nicely by the vinaigrette, acidic cherry tomatoes and sweet raisins. The thinnest imaginable strip of sliced red onion was elegantly laced across the top, adding a final savory bite. There was nothing not to love on this salad--a salad one could actually be excited to eat, rather than obligatory roughage.

Lest we forget we were eating at a French restaurant, we ordered a hot boat of decadent, buttery escargot. Plump, unctuous snails swam with little shoots of mushrooms in a super-rich buttery pesto-like garlic and her butter, sinfully heavy on both. Once the snails and mushrooms were gone, I continued to slather the flavorful butter sauce on warm slices of French bread, cherishing every bite.

When our wine arrived, I was a little confused, thinking it was not what we had ordered. I scoured the label to see if perhaps I was missing something and had not. We’d been delivered a bottle of Sancerre costing $10 more than what we had actually ordered. Rather than complaining, though, we took it as a sign the perhaps our selection had been subpar, and decided to give it a go. Great choice. It immediately cooled our palettes, ripe with that garlic and salt from the snails. We ended up quite happy with the accident, showing that it sometimes pays to roll with the punches rather than whining about a simple mistake. 

On to entrees, starting with the “lighter” selection—filet of trout, covered in lemon juice, shallots and almonds slivered almonds. But wait, what was this under the fish? Another filet of fish. What at first appeared to be the normally expensive fish+veg+starch dish ($19) turned out to be a very reasonably priced, generously portioned one. The fish was delicious, flaking off the skin easily with a fork. And amazingly, the haricot vert on the side were nicely cooked, not that squeaky, annoyingly al dente doneness we’re served all too often these days. The rice was, well, rice which kept the dish a little on the lighter side, but a potato might have been more luxurious.

I had a fantastic cut of red meat--hanger steak--but ultimately ended the meal with mixed emotions about it. The steak was incredible. Two thick pieces of almost conically shaped beef, long fibers of lean muscle running the length of each cut. Surprisingly tender and with huge flavor. A perfect medium, erring toward medium rare (I’d ordered it medium). The frites on the side, though, were disappointingly flimsy. Clearly pulled from the fryer a few seconds too early, they just weren’t cooked that crispy French way. I was sad and contemplated sending them back, just to make sure they were perfected. But didn’t. Also not perfectly French was the dish of (gasp) ketchup for dipping. No aioli. No mayo.

Also on the slightly disappointing side was the small pile of greens on the side. Warmed by the hot plate, with nothing but a little vinaigrette (okay, one little cherry tomato on the side), it was more a garnish than a true side. Boo. As served, I found myself peeking over to the fish dish, once the meat was gone. With a little more attention to detail on this one, it could have been a French stunner but as served, left something to be desired.

With so many calories consumed by this point, a dessert menu only garnered chuckles. A little espresso from the Aixois coffee bar was all we needed to polish off the delicious French experience.

I hope to sample all the places listed in the opening of this review soon and put together a ranking in the future. For now, Aixois has made a strong showing and will sit high on my list of special dinner options.

Rating: 3 napkins
Aixois on Urbanspoon

Oct 22, 2011

Quick's: Mild Barbecue

Restaurant: Quick's
Location: 1007 Merriam Ln., KC, K
Food: Barbecue
Service: Counter + Server
Atmosphere: No frills BBQ
Price: Sandwiches $4-$7, Dinners $9-$13
Rating: One Napkin

Writing reviews on barbecue places in KC is about as worthless as arguing that my dad could beat up your dad (we all did that, right?).

If you've lived here any amount of time, you've figured out your favorite and are unwilling to even entertain the idea it could have an equal.  And in a way, you're right. We're all right. Because the truth of the matter is that most of the barbecue in this city is darn good, and our individual preferences are derived from the smallest unique components that each different proprietor highlights in their own recipes: the flavor and consistency of the sauce, the spices in the dry rub, the special side dishes or even the location of the restaurant.

So I'll give you my review of Quick's – my most recent new barbecue venture – but I don't expect you to agree with me. As barbecue goes, the bottom line is that KC does it well and Quick's sits squarely in the company of our proud tradition if you happen to prefer their flavors. It's just not my personal favorite.

If I were pressed to describe Quick's in a single word, it would be "mild." Like it or not, if a BBQ joint serves sauce, that sauce is immediately part of the restaurant's identity and mild is how I found Quick's sauce. They poured quite a lot of sauce on the boat of ribs we ordered (in the proverbial debate of wet vs. dry, Quick's apparently is all wet). And as Elizabeth and I tested out the sauce, we both couldn't help feeling like it was darn near flavorless. So thick and with that dark burgundy hue, how could it not be bursting with spice or tomato or molasses?  I don't know, but we agreed the key flavor that we picked out of the Quick's sauce as we ate more and more was… apple. Well, apple sauce, really. And it wasn't bad—just surprising. The stomach wants what the eyes think they see and we thought we "saw" more flavor in that thick red sauce.

We've had ribs, brisket and burnt ends at Quick's, feeling they represent the essential flagship meats in the barbecue world. And without generalizing too much, I can say, across the board, they were mostly tender and lean. Not as tender as the best barbecue I've had, nor as lean, but in a very acceptable range. But in the meat, too, there were aspects we found surprisingly different than we anticipated.

The first of these surprises was the temperature of the food. It was luke warm. As if it had been taken off a buffet line or something. Pretty odd. Not off-putting or disappointing, just not quite as hot as I like barbecued meats. Secondly, though boasting a visible ring of pink on the thinly sliced brisket, it seemed lower on smokey flavor than it should have. It was a little baffling, really. Seeing that pink ring and with a good, soft texture, I wouldn't imagine there wasn't anything strange about the methods used to smoke Quick's meats, except that, perhaps, they use mild-flavored wood and not too much of it. Bite after bite, I kept asking myself where all the flavor could be.

Even after the meal, the toned-down flavors of Quick's meats haunted my thoughts. The conclusion I've finally come to is that the recipe-makers for Quick's simply prefer a subtler-tasting plate of barbecue. And you know what? That's okay. I went back to Oklahoma Joe's after my trip to Quick's to study and compare and had my eyes opened about just how far on the other side of the seasoning spectrum OK Joe's is. No two ways about it: Oklahoma Joe's is wildly strong stuff. The rub on the pork has a ton of salt in it. The famously seasoned fries are doused in salt, too. And the smoke is so strong in the food that a single takeout bag containing no more than two sandwiches can make the inside of a vehicle smell like a meat-smoking chamber.

So what did I learn on my trip to Quick's? More about myself than anything. When it comes to 'cue, I like a LOT of flavor. I want so much smoke and salt that I wake up in the middle of the night parched, with a foot cramp. I want to see my face and fingers swell up from retaining water. I want my lips to taste like hickory the next morning and my hair to reek of it, as I shampoo. For me, barbecue isn't about subtlety. At all. It's about bold, bold flavor and meat that has taken on a tender texture that can only be derived from hours upon hours of low and slow cooking. Quick's is for a more refined barbecue fan, I'd say. I don't know who those fans are, but I'm sure they're out there. And I hope they've discovered Quick's.

Parting note on the sides: we had baked beans, onion rings and fries. The beans will not impress, the fries and rings, though, are good. Thick and crunchy, both, begging for ketchup and lots of it.

Rating: one napkin

Quick's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Oct 9, 2011

Piropo's Grille: High on Formality, Low on Fun

Restaurant: Piropo's Grill
Location: 1 W. 1st St., Parkville, MO
Food: South American
Service: Formal Waitstaff
Atmosphere: Fine dining
Price: Apps $3-$12, Sandwiches/pasta $16, Entrees $18-$30
Rating: Two Napkins

There was nothing I didn't find delicious or perfectly adequate about Piropo's Grill. Located on "the hill" in Parkville looking out over the river and quaint little town, it has a spectacular view either from the large interior window seats (where we were) or the patio on the south side of the building, and the view alone makes Piropo's a special restaurant.

Also special is Piropo's cuisine in that it's unique from any other restaurant in the KC area, the closest thing being one of our Brazilian steakhouses which are, in actuality, quite different. Going into this meal, I knew Piropo's to be South American food, skewing toward what we think of as Argentinian with great red meat, foremost. And while I got the food part right, it was the atmosphere that threw me. More on that later.

First, as mentioned, we were seated at a prime table right up against the big east-southeast-looking windows. Great lighting. Awesome view. Since it was sprinkling outside, this was just about the best seat we could have been given.

Our experience with the server was pleasant... though odd. He had a hard time answering our few questions and allowed us to order something that was already sold out, so we had to change our order. Nonetheless, he did make a good recommendation on - strangely enough - the bread. Listed at the very bottom of the menu as "bread" for $2, this starter turned out to be several long shards of seasoned fococcia toast accompanied by garlicky traditional chimichurri and aioli sauces. We were ravenous and the bread, which was served very quickly, hit the spot with bold flavors that immediately satisfied.

Get the bread.
To cool our palettes, we followed up the bread with the avocado and tomato salad. The fruit (right?) were served in nicely sized chunks, garnished with some diced red onion and cumin, salt and pepper and olive oil. It was sublime in its simplicity, the tomatoes' sweet acid cutting the fatty, rich avocado. A classic pair done nicely.

Quickly, then, we descended upon steak. Elizabeth had hers sliced on a bun... the Filet Mignon Sandwich. Plenty of tender, sliced filet mignon was piled onto the grilled bun with red onions and a chipotle sauce. There were nice red ripe tomatoes on the side, with her spinach and french fries, crisp and well-seasoned. We both thought the steak was cooked to perfection--not chewy the way a steak sandwich can so easily be. Admittedly, the meal felt a little more like a lunch than a dinner, but that was an error in ordering as opposed to menu creation. Overall, at $16 it felt reasonably priced and was, in fact, delicious.

Something we could easily make at home but still delicious.
My selection was the 12 oz. KC Strip. Though the cut may have been midwestern, the preparation was very much South American, starting with the fried egg on top. Superfluous protein? Maybe. But that runny yolk was a nice natural sauce that complimented the meat's natural juices.

Somehow the steak was tougher than I expected, perhaps only in comparison to the softness of Elizabeth's filet. It wasn't over-cooked by any means but took more jaw-work than I expected. Still, it was tasty and fun with the Argentinian preparation.

My side of fries was equally good but the spinach was close to inedibe--as salty as I've ever encountered. I enjoy lots of salt and, thus, ate all the spinach, but each bite required an accompanying sip of wine or water.

With a notable wine list and several other unique (for KC) selections on the menu including fish dishes and a set of skewers that sounded terrific, I was left with only one reason for regret and that was the atmosphere. Piropo's is a very attractive and classy restaurant. The aforementioned view is a crucial asset. But knowing the cuisine to be of Latin influence, I was expecting some kind of flare or pizzazz. It lacked that.

The tasteful dining room is filled with pretty hard wood floors and white tablecloths, further decorated with antiques and old-world furniture. The surrounding clientele on Saturday night was a crowd exclusively 60+. Our waiter glided around without sound and spoke too quietly. We caught ourselves eavesdropping on the neighboring table's conversation only because we could hear them so clearly, and them us if we didn't whisper.

I wanted more fun. I hoped for something less - hate to say it - pretentious.

Piropo's is a lovely restaurant that borders on fine dining with one of the best views in KC (save for The American). I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique special-occasion dinner. But not for groups of friends wanting to live it up in a Latin setting. That's all.

I'm giving Piropo's a rating of two napkins only for my slight disappointment in the atmosphere. The food is on a higher level, to be sure.

Rating: two napkins

Piropos Argentinian Grille on Urbanspoon

Sep 28, 2011

Port Fonda: Taco Tweets

Restaurant: Port Fonda (food truck)
Location: Crossroads (follow @PortFondaKC)
Food: Authentic Mexican with a flare
Service: Walk-up window
Atmosphere: n/a
Price: Single-digit selections
Rating: two napkins

Five years ago, I had no idea the process of making dinner reservations would become a game of cat and mouse involving social networking applications on my mobile device.

Five years ago, I had no idea that some of the city’s yummiest food would be served out of trucks and Airstream trailers.

Enter: @Portfondakc

These guys, cooking fun, authentic Mexican street food out of a gleaming chrome Airstream trailer, usually in the Crossroads downtown, have become the most shining (literally) representation of the nation’s food truck craze in Kansas City.

The hardwood trimmed main door to the trailer, held open at 180 degrees, serves as the life-sized daily menu board for Port Fonda. Each day they feature a handful of street food-themed selections for downtown lunchers who know where to find the truck. Figuring that out is easy, but requires some digital savvy; the proprietors make their location known via Tweets from their Twitter handle, @PortFondaKC. Their most common landing pad is the parking lot on 20th next to The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange.

When I showed up with coworkers Erin and Brandi the other day, we found several other friends from the office there, too. And therein lies the intrigue of the Food Truck methodology. We felt as though we were heading out to a secretive underground food connection that only a few of those who are in-the-know would find. And yet, what we actually discovered was a festive gathering of friends, excitedly deciding their orders, hanging out on the curb oohing and ahhing over their delicious food and generally enjoying the escape from the office. It’s a great way to spend a lunch hour, start off or recap a night out carousing.

On this particular day, I tried three different items. I’m a bit of a torta freak, so I had the Ahogada version: lots of slow-cooked, shredded beef short rib meat and rancho gordo beans with chile de arbol and pickled onions, adorned with some crema. Surprise number one was that it was served in a horizontal bun type of carrier instead of on flat bread, as is traditional. This was likely a calculated decision by the chef to make the sandwich easier to pick up and eat with one hand, hot dog style, rather than needing two hands—a thoughtful gesture knowing his customers are, most often, eating the food right then and there on the curb with no table to accommodate plates, napkins and perched elbows for two-handed sandwich eating.

The sandwich was massively filling and the meat was cooked perfectly. Being short rib, it was fatty, though, so the guilt factor was pretty high by the time I was done with it. Leaner beef or pork would have been better for me but I’m sure a lot of people like the luxurious fatty short rib and it made for heightened interest.

The tacos, though, were the star. These were carnitas tacos, so basically Mexican pulled pork. So much flavor and such great texture! And with the addition of pineapple, adobo, onion and cilantro, were nearly a classic serving of Tacos al Pastor, one of my favorite Mexican treats. After tasting my taco, I honestly wished I could give back the torta and have more of them. Not a knock on the torta but a testament to how good the tacos were.

A special that day were the chilaquiles. I’m not the biggest fan of chilaquiles which are like smothered tortilla chips (purposely saturated, not crunchy like a nacho) as I find them to be more filling than delicious. These came with chorizo verde – herb, spice and chile-infused chorizo sausage – as well as crema, salsa de mocajete and a fried egg on top. They were, true to form, quite filling but the flavors infused in them were delicious. Probably the perfect food for alcohol saturation after a long night of drinking.

Altogether, my first impression of Port Fonda was strong. As the choices for Mexican food get stronger and stronger in Kansas City with heavier emphasis on serving authentic dishes over yellow cheese-slathered Tex-Mex dishes, Port Fonda holds its own and then some.

Adding to its intrigue, Port Fonda also does private dinners in the tiny sitting area toward the front of the trailer. Reservations fill up months in advance and the menus—still authentic Mexican cuisine—sound divine. I hope to get in on the action soon and report back on the experience.

Rating: two napkins

Port Fonda on Urbanspoon

Aug 27, 2011

Home With Saigon 39

Restaurant: Saigon 39
Food: Standard Vietnamese
Service: Traditional waitstaff & takeout
Atmosphere: Quiet, friendly, sterile
Price: $10 entrees
Rating: two napkins

I think a lot of people have a favorite takeout restaurant whose food they’ve adopted as akin to their own cooking. Eating this takeout feels just as satisfying, nourishing and comforting as eating mom’s (insert favorite nostalgic food your mother made often when you were growing up). It’s not Friday-night-on-the-town food, it’s lazy Sunday night dinner when it's too hot to cook. Or Tuesday night's “I burnt the chicken casserole” backup. It’s the only restaurant food I would even consider getting after a grueling two week road trip. And for me, it’s Vietnamese food from Saigon 39.

There’s good reason why I specify Saigon as a takeout restaurant. Like an unfortunate number or Asian restaurants in this city, their… facility leaves something to be desired. Sterile atmosphere, cold stone walls… almost no décor to speak of. It's usually quiet and dull when I walk in. So I rarely eat there. Their takeout containers are of a high quality, though, and everything comes tightly packaged up so it transports easily to my house only a few short blocks away. I'm back home in less than five minutes with piping hot food.

The staff has always been friendly in my experience and, over the years, has come to recognize me and my family/friends, too, who also frequent the place. I appreciate the consistent staff and the fact that it's a family-owned business. Over time, I've noticed that many of the other patrons in front of me in the takeout line, too, are regulars who the staff knows and chats with during their short transaction.

As typical with go-to takeout food, I have a few standby menu items I order over and over again: the bright yellow, rich, soupy curry with chicken and vegetables, rice vermicelli noodles with its anchovy sauce, egg noodles and fried rice.

And both the spring rolls and their peanut sauce are the best I've ever had. I certainly understand the viewpoint of others who prefer fewer noodles packed inside, and perhaps thai basil or mint. But Saigon's thick, sticky-fresh rolls with a sprig of cilantro and halved shrimp always start a meal off in a healthy, satisfyingly cool way, drenched in that dark brown, sweet peanut sauce that then runs across the rest of my plate, devilishly soaking into the noodles and rice of my other entrée items.

I recently had the pho which I found to be average. The broth was deliciously flavored with nuances of spice but a little light on the beef flavor. I added hoisin and as much lime and jalapeño as I was given to give it a little more kick, which helped. And the sliced beef itself, though overcooked, was good meat, to be sure. I can certainly see myself coming back to this dish in the winter when soup becomes such a life saver.

The dumplings hit the spot when dumplings are needed. Eight to an order, pan fried and topped with scallions and fried onions, they're as good as any other I've ever had.

Of my four mainstays, the curry, rice vermicelli, egg noodles and fried rice, though, I constantly debate with myself as to which are my top three. Currently the rank is 1) egg noodles, 2) curry and 3) rice vermicelli, but on any given night, that can get all switched around. In each, the veggies always taste fresh, and at a medium-spiciness level they wake up my taste buds and burn in my stomach in a way that perpetuates takeout addiction.

It's not light-the-world-on-fire food but it's good. And coming back to it is as routine as familiar as laying my head down on my pillow at night. It's part of me, at this point, and will be for a long time to come, I'm sure.

Rating: two napkins

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