Jan 22, 2011

Return to Genessee

Restaurant: Genessee Royale Bistro
Food: Lovable chef-driven, comfort-oriented approachable cuisine
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: 'Typical' casual stockyard-based American bistro
Price: Breakfast entrees $4-$9, Lunch $7-$9
Rating: Three napkins

Today was my friend Tyson’s 30th birthday and to help him celebrate, we chose the brunch spot—Genessee Royale Bistro, about which I gushed in a recent post.

The test: could it live up to the standard set on our first trip?

The quick answer: indeed.

There were several familiar faces there this morning—folks we had seen last time we were there, which was pleasing. I happen to think a solid base of regulars is a good sign of predictably good service.

On this trip, celebration being the purpose, cocktails were in order. We tried both the Campari and fresh grapefruit, as well as the champagne cocktail.

The Campari drink was a luscious pink color served in a lowball glass with a lime wedge garnish. It was slightly bitter and a bit tart, as expected, but not too much so. Quite refreshing, actually, and good enough that it was ordered repeatedly.

Note the little green soldiers.
The Champagne cocktail came served in an elegant stemless champagne flute. A cube of raw cane sugar in the bottom increased the quantity of bubbles that shot up from the bottom of the glass in pretty little mesmerizing plumes. The drink became sweeter and sweeter (in a good way) as it went along.

Smart cocktails, both of these.

The food was, again, excellent. This time around I sampled Philip’s Soft Egg and the Omelet.

What I loved about the soft egg dish was its whimsy. The soft egg, served in a dainty little white egg-sized saucer came with a cute stack of toast sticks on the side which were perfect for dunking in either the soupy egg or the jam… and not just any jam, but rather a seriously delicious bacon marmalade (which, if it sounds good, is exactly what you’d hope and if you don’t think it sounds good is way better than you think). There was also a lightly dressed mixed green salad on the side.

And among the toast structure, marmalade pond and jungle of greens were two classic little green toy soldiers. Perhaps a food fight taking place on my plate. I added a side of sausage which were served as two thick meat patties, lightly seasoned and deliciously juicy.

The omelet was standard fare. It was quite thick and filled with Gruyere, which I love, but it might have benefitted from a little more as I couldn’t get much Gruyere flavor out of it. The potatoes on the side were perfectly golden, but plain. Tabasco jazzed them up and I appreciated being offered a choice of that or Sriracha. Condiments can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

I pushed Tyson toward the fantastic creamtop buttermilk biscuit dish I’d had previously and he devoured it instantaneously, giving me reassurance that we’d successfully delivered an A plus birthday brunch. What better gift could there be? (Well, I’d imagine he’ll enjoy his Patron, too.)

We polished everything off with desserts, pictured below. Decadent lemon meringue pie and a chocolate chocolate chip cookie. At that early hour, I wasn't up for sweets, but the pie disappeared in a hurry and everyone ooh'd and aah'd over the cookie. I trust they were superb.

Rating: Still three napkins

Genessee Royale Bistro on Urbanspoon

Jan 17, 2011

What It Means to be Effortlessly Chic

Restaurant: Westport Cafe & Bar 
Food: French Bistro-inspired
Service: Traditional waitstaff. Attentive, never cheesy.
Atmosphere: Laid back, European, cosmopolitan.
Price: Cocktails around $8, apps $4-$11, sandwiches & salads $6-$12, entrees under $20 
Rating: Three napkins

Effortlessly chic. When used to characterize a restaurant, it’s a descriptor that makes no sense unless one has experienced it firsthand. And that’s how I’d describe Westport Café & Bar, one of the newest establishments in Westport and quite possibly its very best.

The lighting is utilitarian-chic. The white
subway tiles on the walls are clean & classy.
Discussing my upcoming trip to the new-ish restaurant with friends, none of whom had been yet either, there seemed to be a theme: that they’d heard it was good and were interested to try it, but hadn’t pulled the trigger because they’d looked at the menu and nothing really jumped out at them. There was nothing extravagant. Nothing unique. No big hook. I bet if you asked owner Aaron Confessori, he’d tell you that’s the whole idea.

In fact, the home page of the website reads as follows: “Westport Cafe & Bar is a casual Paris-style Bistro that offers an American menu with classic French inspiration and preparations. Simple, quality ingredients are braised, grilled, poached, confit, or cured in the same old-world techniques that have been practiced by the French masters for years.”

You see, it’s really not about originality. Westport Café & Bar pays homage to the time-honored French dishes and techniques that have earned French cookery its reputation as the most influential in the culinary world, but with just enough of a twist to still achieve a discernable individualism.

And then there's this over-the-top beautiful framed
mirror toward the back that adds an ornate old world flare.
Part of the tradition of Parisian bistros and brasseries is good alcohol and Westport Café & Bar serves up, truly, some of the finest in the city (local mixologists Ryan Maybee and Beau Williams of Manifesto crafted the menu). Last night after taking our seats in the long hallway between the front and back dining areas just outside the door to the kitchen, I ordered up the Winter Smash and Elizabeth the Granny’s Westside.

Cocktails here are a must.
The Winter Smash was a tart, seasonally inspired mixture of Bourbon, fresh lemon juice, spiced honey syrup and peach, garnished with a skewer of three red berries and delicately walking a line between sour and sweet. Burying my snout in that lowball glass was a treat I was sad had to end.

Elizabeth’s Granny’s Westside looked the part of an old school cocktail in its small juice glass with egg white foam on top. Other ingredients in the lip-smacking libation were a homemade baked apple infused vodka, lemon, lime, simple syrup and soda. She didn’t want to share hers and I was confident I was winning out by not having to share mine.

Check out my mussels.
The gal who cuts my hair – a bit of a foodie herself and a great restaurant-talk cohort of mine – had been to WC&B and said the mussels were a must. Between choices with bacon and blue cheese or shaved fennel and roasted tomato, we went with the latter. It had been quite some time since we’d had mussels, so it wouldn’t have taken much for them to earn our adoration, but I absolutely did love them.

The mussels were plump and sweet with hints of garlic but not an overpowering amount. The tomatoes, though a little sparse, were soft and savory. And that broth, the best part of a steaming bowl of mussels, was a heavenly bath for the slices of baguette studding the bowl. My only gripe was that the fennel was not shaved, but rather came in long, undercooked strips. They lacked finesse and actually seemed more like long strips of Vidalia onion than fennel at all. Not bad, but not what we’d hoped for. Still, I’d order another bowl of those mussels with the exact same preparation in a heartbeat.

Seared tuna sandwich with ginger aioli.
One can go as pricey or cheap as they wish on this dinner menu. The salads and sandwiches are quite reasonable—Chicken Paillard for just $11, Tuna Nicoise for $12, Croque Monsieur for $9, Madame and her fried egg for just another dollar.

We didn’t go there on this trip, but the dinner entrees include plenty of seafood: fish of the day, arctic char, cod or scallops. There’s also pasta, roasted chicken, steak frites and pork shoulder. All range from $13 to $19.00.

Our first choice was the seared tuna sandwich. On a soft, sweet roll, rare strips of gorgeous pink tuna were heaped with a thick bedding of tender baby spinach and a brightly contrasting, sweet ginger aioli, which I loved. On the side was a small pile of sweated shallot, which I added to the sandwich, not knowing if they were just an optional topping or meant to go with my side salad. Each pleasurable mouthful melted away effortlessly. I instantly devoured the entire thing, which was not huge but certainly an adequate size.

The salad on the side, with shaved Parmesan and radishes, was lightly dressed with a heavenly, unctuous vinaigrette containing luxurious truffle oil. It didn’t overpower but was, rather, the perfect amount to make the salad a true bonus as opposed to a compulsory side.

Steak sandwich.
The steak sandwich came on another soft roll (though not the same one as came with the tuna sandwich) again with strips of delightfully tender meat and with a beautiful complimentary slathering of horseradish cream and sautéed onion; quite similar to the tuna sandwich in preparation, but an entirely different world of flavors. My fear with steak sandwiches is always overcooked stretchy, chewy meat. Not so here, as the steak melted away almost as easily as did the rare fish. I’m salivating now, as I relive the memories of each of these sandwiches.

As we conquered the French-inspired sandwiches, we also crammed salty pommes frites, buttery sautéed mushrooms and garlicky wilted spinach down our respective hatches. It was all so satisfying… so delicious… so… French. The attractive clientele sitting around us all seemed so laid back and satisfied, too. Our old neighbors Steve and Janie stopped by to chat. Steve’s a trained chef who knows his restaurants. I took his patronage as a sign we were on to something good.

Food finally gone, I polished off my backup drink – a glass of Tank 7 – and then glanced over at Elizabeth with an “I don’t want to leave yet” expression. She read me perfectly and “insisted” that we stick around for a cup of coffee (French Press, of course). I grinned and reclined. And as I sat back, sipping the warm coffee, I thoroughly felt and enjoyed the relaxed, collected French vibe emoting from every detail of the place. No one rushing, yet with superb service. Tasteful yet somewhat sparse décor. So much attention to detail yet not enough detail to be fussy.

I doubt I’m describing this all well enough to accurately convey the experience of dining at Westport Café & Bar, so here I’ll just circle back to my original point: I can call it effortlessly chic, but you simply have to experience it to understand.

Rating: three napkins

Westport Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon

Jan 13, 2011

Genessee Royale Bistro Opens In West Bottoms

Food: Lovable chef-driven, comfort-oriented approachable cuisine
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: 'Typical' casual stockyard-based American bistro
Price: Breakfast entrees $4-$9, Lunch $7-$9
Rating: Three napkins

Fans of Happy Gillis, Todd Schulte has given you something new to be fanatical about: Genessee Royale Bistro.

Many things excite me about this new restaurant. Please see the following:

The Owner: Schulte and his wife, Tracy Zinn, brought their lovable, eclectic style and vibe to the new place. Both Happy Gillis and GRB have that comfortable feeling like you’re eating at your buddy’s restaurant. The style and décor of both are a little retro but whereas Happy Gillis plays up the 40’s/50’s drug store feel, borrowing from that building’s original identity, GRB, in keeping with the bistro theme, has a slightly more European and old world flair… within the setting of a former service station. (That’s right, KC has yet another gas station-based eatery.) The “style” of their food, too, is something I’d call “lovable chef-driven, comfort-oriented approachable cuisine” with a bistro slant (catchy, right?).

...Upon entry
The Location: GRB joins R Bar on Genessee St. in the west bottoms, just north of the Golden Ox and Kemper Arena, an area whose renaissance I’m hoping the city will support. GRB’s opening would seem to elevate the possibility of success in creating a new “stockyard district” in the West Bottoms that could be a fun dining, art and entertainment destination in the future.

The Patio: When spring starts to… spring, I start looking for patios where I can dine al fresco. GRB has one. It was barren on my first visit but I’m sure that when temps are conducive to outdoor leisure, they’ll make it into a hospitable environment. The huge windows between the patio and building raise like garage doors which is always a lovely effect.

I love it when my camera catches people like this guy
thinking "is that guy taking my picture?"
We were brunching on our initial “preview trip” to GRB. It was a Saturday and I was shocked at the crowd that was there considering how new the place was and given its somewhat remote location. I figured it would take a while before people started thinking about going to the West Bottoms during the lunch hour. We got the last seats in the house, including the ones at the bar.

Breakfast menus were no longer being handed out, but I picked on up and saw a thoughtful list of meals, from the simple and healthy like steel cut oats or ruby red grapefruit with caramelized sugar, to the heartiest of warm breakfasts like the Farmer’s Plate, corned beef and potato hash and cornmeal pancakes. The lunch menu, though, is thoughtfully breakfasty, as well. Clearly Schulte realizes folks like me may stumble in past noon still seeking their first meal of the day and a cup of hot coffee. How accommodating.

We somehow avoided the many sandwiches, including grilled cheese, a hamburger on Wolferman muffin, turkey and ham, corned beef, chicken salad and ham salad. Elizabeth got the Vegetable Tartine and I the Creamtop Buttermilk Biscuit and Fried Chicken.

Vegetable Tartine
The tartine was a healthy eater’s dream: a large piece of perfectly browned toast with a bed of caramelized onions, shaved Brussels sprouts, roasted slices of butternut squash topped with mixed greens. One of those meals that, at first glance, you wouldn’t think would be filling, but when done, you’re completely sated and feeling good about your healthy decision.

My chicken and biscuit, though falling on the opposite end of the health spectrum, were equally satisfying. The bottom half of a perfectly golden, soft biscuit was dog-piled by a big piece of fried, juicy white chicken breast, gravy and a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg. Lightly dressed mixed greens on the side. Delicious down-home indulgence. That’s all I have to say about that.

Creamtop buttermilk biscuit and fried chicken.
After finishing our meals, our attentive, friendly server kept dropping by to top off our coffee cups. We hung around and relaxed for a while, took in the comfortable surroundings, noted the generally pleased expressions of the other patrons (among them John McDonald of Boulevard), watched Schulte pass from the kitchen area (sparkling stainless steel and white tile seen through a rectangular cutout in the wall back by the restrooms) to the bar and back with food and dishes, greeting all the guests with a familiarity like he knew them as established regulars and I thought to myself that this is how it should be. This is my favorite type of restaurant. Classy yet relaxed, unique but not kitschy. Whether upscale or affordable, this is what I’m always looking for in a dining experience.

Schulte and team in the beautiful kitchen.
As with Happy Gillis, one could make the argument that the prices are a little on the high side (just a tad) compared to other lunch spots' sandwich prices and portions. I don't totally disagree, but I'll knowingly pay two or three bucks more per entree  for food and atmosphere like this. I can't afford it every week but it's a great treat and worthy, in my mind, of a three napkin rating.

I’ll return soon and provide an update on other items from the menu. But I’d say Genessee Royale Bistro is off to a great start with a solid, proven concept that I’d happily travel a few miles, over a river and through a dark and vacated stockyard to enjoy.

Rating: three napkins

Genessee Royale Bistro on Urbanspoon
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