Feb 27, 2011

Dog Nuvo: Five Months Later

Restaurant: Dog Nuvo
Food: Gourmet Hot Dogs
Service: Walk-up counter, dining room w/ wait staff, delivery
Atmosphere: Casual chic
Price: Starters $4, Dogs $5-$7, Sides $3
Rating: two napkins

In late October, I wrote that Dog Nuvo might turn out to be the shortest-lived restaurant I’d ever reviewed. Five months later, thankfully, that has turned out not to be the case.

A legal battle over ownership of the Dog Nuvo concept ensued, then, between chefs/restaurateurs Marshall Roth and Harry Blasco and their former employer in Independence, Ken McClain, but quickly thereafter dissipated, becoming removed from public view.

With that speed bump behind it, Dog Nuvo has since moved forward expanding into the rest of its space at 1724 Main St, becoming a full service dining room with a wait staff serving the dogs and sides, as well as booze and coffee. I returned to Dog Nuvo recently to follow up on my initial review and check out the finished product.

Dog Nuvo is now basically split in two, with a walk up counter for takeout orders to the south, and the sit-down restaurant to the North. An open door connects the two, so they’re not completely independent. The servers walk between the two sides in order to pickup orders from the kitchen and deliver them to their tables.

Maintaining the quick service counter was smart, in my opinion. A hot dog place should have a speed component to it and Dog Nuvo has that covered. But the sit-down restaurant is what delivers on the “haute dog” concept that Dog Nuvo was about from the beginning, so we parked ourselves there, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows just inside the front door. It was a tastefully decorated joint, and comfortable, as well, with modern-styled chairs and tables, a west wall made of large planks of reclaimed wood, with splashes of electric blue light from two wide, upward turned fixtures. It’s vibrant and fun; a great fit for a trendy, progressive hot dog spot downtown.

The bar seems like a little bit of a stretch to me. I wouldn’t mind an ice-cold Boulevard beer with my dog, but I don’t see myself coming in for a Jack and Coke anytime soon. But maybe that’s just me.

Given the small dining room, our server had no trouble keeping up with us. She was attentive but not bothersome. The staff seemed to get it; they’re serving hot dogs, not eight course tasting menus, so the task is simply to keep folks comfortable and give them an experience that’s a clear cut above fast food.

We started our lunch with a selection from the Starters menu: the Pierogies. For $3.75 we got a little foil pouch with two potato and mozzarella pierogies, pan fried and steaming hot, with a large dollop of sweet tomato jam resting atop a pretty basil leaf on the side. Delicious cheesiness oozed out of each savory bite, which was nicely livened up by the tart tomato jam. I could’ve eaten a dozen of these things or more, but at $1.75 for each additional, I decided to hold back. Worth $3.75? Tough call. But they were, indeed, tasty so I didn’t regret having them.

Elizabeth and I wolfed down two dogs. I had the Mac ‘n Cheese Dog, which was a traditional hot dog in a pretzel bun topped with a pile of tantalizingly gooey cheese and pillowy macaroni. For texture and saltiness there were bacon crumbles on top, and an added bite came from chopped scallions. It was a beautiful looking plateful, cleanly presented and immediately inducing a strong salivary reaction.

Tasted decent, too. The smooth texture of the mac ‘n cheese on top was sinful and the garnishes were just the right touch. But both the mac and the hot dog lacked, for me, a little flavor. For some reason the cheese involved with the mac was a little muted as far as taste goes, and my initial gripe about cooking the hot dogs sous vide was reinforced with this dog. Some flattop or actual charcoal grill flavor would do the DN franks a world of good.

Moreover, this, and I think most dogs at Dog Nuvo, actually seemed like it was more about the topping than it was about the hot dog, both due its lack of grilled flavor in the context of each bite, as well as its diminutive stature. …What I’m trying to say is that the wieners are too small, okay?! Still, the Mac ‘n Cheese dog was delicious and I do recommend it despite these remaining points of contention.

Contrasting the smooth texture of each massive bite of pasta, cheese, beef and bun were crunchy bites of truffle and asiago potato chips. These slightly thick, hugely crunchy chips were dressed with just the right amount of unctuous truffle oil to give them a rich, earthy odor and taste. The asiago cheese, too, added a tangy, luxe component to the chips that made them some of the best fried spud wafers I’d ever had.

Elizabeth surprised me and went for the Blue Pig, a regular hot dog smothered in buffalo sauce and maytag blue cheese mustard with big melted crumbles of blue cheese and garnished with a sprinkle of finely sliced celery. Cute, right? Everything one likes in a basket of buffalo wings, all perched atop a hot dog. Love it. (Note, the recipe appears to have been altered since the online menu was created. Looks like, originally, it was topped with crispy fried shallots instead of celery. We both liked the green component, too, for the same reason I like knowing on one or two of the sticks of celery in a basket of wings. Palette cleanser.)

This guy suited me more than Elizabeth. I’m a blue cheese fiend but she finds it overpowering if heavily applied. And it was. The crumbles were generously large and flavorful enough themselves, but the mustard sauce, too, had that earthy blue cheese twang that doubled up the crumbles. So the cheese blew her out of the water. Would’ve been better with more buffalo sauce, less mustard. Here again, though, if someone walked up and handed me this hot dog while I was walking down Main Street, no matter the time of day or the current state of my appetite, without hesitating to think, I’d demolish the thing happily. I liked it.

Around us, the tables were all full. It was a random Saturday afternoon and the dining room was keeping busy. A good sign for Dog Nuvo.

I find myself rooting for this place to survive. It’s in a tough spot, but I think the concept makes just enough sense to pull through if costs aren’t too terribly high. Not only do they cater to leisurely diners as well as take-and-go business lunchers, they also now offer delivery in the crossroads and city market areas. While folks with whom I work are big fans of Clay’s Curbside Grill, myself included, I can see factions from the south side of I-35 getting into a Dog Nuvo habit pretty easily. So I’m happy in believing that this wiener workshop will win out.

Rating: two napkins

Dog Nuvo on Urbanspoon

Feb 20, 2011

The Westside Local: Energy & Excitement at 17th & Summit

Restaurant: The Westside Local
Food: New American specializing in local ingredients. Great beer list.
Service: Traditional Waitstaff
Atmosphere: Laid back beer garden + Contemporary Dining Room
Price: Starters $6-$13, Sandwiches $9-$11, Entrees $13-$25 
Rating: three napkins

Walking into The Westside Local at 9:00 Saturday night, I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen the dining room before, but only passing through from the beer garden to the front door as we were leaving. Never as a diner. What I was eager to know was whether anyone would be there?

I don’t hear a lot of chatter about the place, though what I do typically hear is generally good. Had it gained a reputation good enough to lure diners from the crossroads and hold its own just caddy-corner from Blue Bird Bistro at 17th and Summit?

The buzz and bustle of the dining room that flooded our senses as soon as we cracked the front door and peered through the front curtains was our definitive answer. It was dark, warm, the music was loud and every table appeared to be filled. The bar area to the left, too, held several drinkers. Good thing we’d made a reservation.

The host showed us to a small four top, slightly hidden by an old vertical wood beam near the middle of the dining room. I sat with a view of the west side of the room, looking all the way back to the partially open kitchen. There were couples of all kinds: young, old, straight, gay, hipster and homely. Back by the restrooms there was a large group laughing boisterously. The music blared loudly, yet Elizabeth and I could hold a conversation without feeling strained. It was fun and we were instantly glad to be there.

It was quite dark at WL so I had to use my
blaringly bright flash on some of these
photos. My apologies for the low quality.
The menu at Westside Local is quite small, an understandable consequence of their dedication to using local products. I’m a big fan of the $2 Localities menu that features cheeses, charcuterie, beers and other small bites, but on this trip we were investigating the dinner menu, so we leap-frogged down to the real starters.

Ironically, we couldn’t say no to the deviled eggs for $6, thought they’re one of the items on the Localities list, and we’d already had them. Funny how it’s hard not to go back for a good thing. This time around, the deviled eggs were surprisingly plain. Dressed up with parsley vinaigrette, smoked paprika aioli and local microgreen we expected some flavors to pop, but these almost seemed pretty normal. Still, they were tasty little devils and I have a strong suspicion I’ll be ordering them again.

The salad we had next was exceptional. I love arugula and my only gripe about arugula salads at restaurants is that they can sometimes be too stemmy. Too grassy. This arugula was super tender and had a subtle bite to it. Mixed in were crunchy pieces of apple, deliciously pungent maytag blue cheese and roasted grapes. Everything was dressed with a sour cherry vinaigrette that cut through the blue cheese nicely, and on the side was a small piece of sticky, sweet and salty pumpkin seed brittle. Nice but unnecessary. A little too much geared toward dessert in my opinion.

Westside Local is a beer and wine joint, which sounds lame at first when one considers the high caliber cocktails coming out of so many other good restaurants in town these days, but their lists are superb. Fans of obscure, highly regarded beers, in particular, will have a field day with these selections. Upon Elizabeth’s recommendation, I ordered that night’s special beer, the Lagunita’s Hairy Eyeball ale, a 9.0% abv dark brown, sweet beer that reminded me of Boulevard’s Sixth Glass. It was a little strong with the eggs and salad, but a fantastic pair with my entrée, the Westside Roast Beef.

My French dip was almost everything one hopes for in a classic roast beef sandwich. The huge roll was soft and crusty, covered with gooey Emmentaler cheese. The thinly shaved beef was the star, though. Incredibly tender, it absolutely melted in the mouth. And just to guarantee the ideal, soft, salty bite, I plunged each deep into my pool of au jus.

The only thing lacking in this roast beef sandwich was the bite of horseradish. The au jus was listed as "molasses-horseradish au jus," but I couldn’t detect either of those two decidedly recognizable flavors in it. Still, I was supremely satisfied with this sandwich, and utterly stuffed. Somewhere throughout the process of devouring the sandwich and forkfuls of tiny-diced potato salad (with hints of mustard coarse grain mustard) I ordered a glass of the house red to combat the salt, which turned out to be a good choice, as well.

All the while, Elizabeth, too, enjoyed the red with her huge plateful of quinoa. If quinoa sounds too boring of an order for  a fun restaurant like Westside Local, fear not. For added textures and flavors, the super grain was loaded up with roasted butternut squash, tart dried cherries, green beans, funky little Brussels sprouts, Parmesan cheese and arugula. I liked it all but the cherries, which made sense theoretically – acidic and sweet to cut the other starchy, savory ingredients – but another dried fruit, less intense and sweet, could’ve paired better.

Did we need dessert? Yeah, we needed dessert. Specifically, we needed bread pudding. So we got some. Truth be told, I don’t even remember what was in it. But it was sweet, smooth, a little eggy, a little chewy, topped with delicious ice cream with a bright red line of raspberry coulis running beneath on the pretty rectangular plate. It was the ending for which we hoped.

So chalk The Westside Local up as another in Kansas City’s growing list of truly cool places. Not only does it have the absolute best beer garden experience during happy hour, it also boasts a chic, energetic dining room in the night hours. With the lights low and the music up, it vibrates with the energy of a restaurant that’s hit its sweet spot.

Rating: three napkins

The Westside Local on Urbanspoon

Feb 19, 2011

Carollo's: This Is Where To Get A Sandwich

Food: Gourmet Italian market, meats & sandwiches
Service: Walk-up counter
Atmosphere: More market than restaurant
Price: Sandwiches $5-$7
Rating: two napkins

If you don’t have a favorite sandwich in KC yet, it’s time to go to Carollo’s.

This little Italian foodstuffs and sandwich shop in the River Market has been quietly pumping out one of the best in town for years now, and it has become my absolute favorite.

This sandwich – like all good sandwiches – is simple in its preparation, but made perfect through the right combination of delicious ingredients. Here’s what I’m talking about: it’s the #1 sandwich on the list of six on Carollo’s old fashioned plastic lettered menu boards—The Napolitano. Isn’t anything labeled Napolitano delicious?

A huge Farm to Market roll (seriously, huge) is piled high with savory, top quality Italian meats including capocollo, salami, prosciutto and provolone cheese. Then come shredded lettuce and sliced tomato. Now here’s the trick to taking the sandwich to epic levels of enjoyment: one must request peppers, as well. Hot or sweet, either are fine. And the more the better. Neither are too hot or too sweet, but they add just enough spice, and a delicious vinegary zip that will blow the mind. It all gets dressed with more olive oil to bind and soften, wrapped up in butcher paper and dropped into the customer's hands with the most satisfying of thuds.

I’m sure a sandwich just like this is what Michelangelo brought in his lunch pail every day while painting the Sistine Chapel.

Carollo’s boasts a few other delicious Italian sandwiches (the #4 with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes is, not surprisingly, also incredible—and if basil isn’t fresh or in season, they’ll sometimes substitute the fresh stuff for delicious pesto). They also have a list of Philly Cheesesteaks and when weather permits, they run a grill outside the store and cook up their delicious sausages, as well as hot dogs and burgers.

The few dine-in seats available.
Among the shelves of imported Italian goods, there are a few tables with benches where lunch friends can stay to eat, but for me, it doesn’t matter where I consume this sandwich. Once I tear open that oil-soaked paper and get a whiff of those peppers and meats, my mind escapes to some little Italian corner of heaven and I temporarily lose my connection with this earth.

Sandwiches are funny things. Many just don’t care much for them, or can only picture anemic slices of turkey slapped on grocery store bread when they hear the word.

But others, like me, have an insatiable affinity for sandwiches, considering them the most estimable of foods.

My message to those not in the sandwich loving category: you just need to go to Carollo’s.

Rating: two napkins

Carollo's Italian Deli on Urbanspoon

Feb 18, 2011

Lulu's: New & Improved!

Restaurant: Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop
Food: Mostly Thai noodles, some other Asian influences
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Vibrant lunch, slow dinner
Price: Entrees $9-$14, $7.49 lunch menu
Rating: two napkins

I always kinda liked the old Lulu’s location right there at the bustling Crossroads intersection of Broadway and Southwest Boulevard. Its bright green woodwork beckoned to those yearning for an eclectic spot with good Asian noodle dishes, like me.

Not visible here is a funny sign in the door that
seemingly bans customers from bringing in durian,
a notoriously stinky Asian fruit banned many places
in the East.
But I had the same complaints about the place that so many others did: too small, too crowded at lunch and nowhere to sit or stand while waiting for a table. Let’s face it; you had to get there before 11:30 to have any chance of leaving before 1:00.

So it was with notable optimism that I watched and waited for this new location to open, just a half block southeast of the original on Central. What else would the “new Lulu’s” have in store… a new menu? New vibe? New clientele?

Yes, there really are those creepy giant
gold fish in there.
Last week I checked out the new location for the first time with a group of friends from the office, a particularly apt method of investigation as it’s always been more of a lunch place for me than dinner. Don’t get me wrong, they’re open for dinner – always have been – but with few other restaurants around it and living as close to the Plaza, Westport and 39th Street as I do, I just don’t tend to head that direction at night as often as I do during the lunch hour when I’m already downtown.

First things first: the favorites from the old menu are still there and some new features have livened it up (I'm particularly excited about the Thai Street Foods section—Gai-Yang, anyone?). So if you liked their food before, you still will. And if not, you’re out of luck. But who didn’t like it? It’s one of the few places in town where one can get Thai food, period, the ingredients are fresh and tasty, there are several seriously spicy options for the heat freaks and the prices are good. Better than the competition, by far, and the food just as good if not better. Get on board, I say.

Lamp shades are upside down woks. Clever!
The new space: upgrade. For sure. Walking in, lunchers are greeted by a new host’s stand and three rows of benches, in case crowds start to form. This Lulu’s is built for speed, which benefits their business and their customers’ sensibilities. Moreover, there’s now a zen-inspired koi pond up front which should offset the angst of hungry stomachs with a soothing sense of calm.

Six person booths are fun. So are the bright walls.
Plush it is not, but why should it be? What once was a bombed out brick warehouse is now a brightly painted, bustling dining room. With concrete floors and brick and cinder block walls, there’s not much sound absorption going on, but it isn’t deafeningly loud, either. I liked that, looking around, there was no doubt I was in a Thai restaurant, yet it was a fun Thai restaurant. To me, more enjoyable than, say, Thai Place in Westport.

Vietnamese spring rolls. Not worth it.
Our group was seated in a wide booth, easily accommodating the six of us. We started with crab Rangoon – some of the best in town – and Vietnamese Spring Rolls—some of the worst in town. The crab Rangoon aren’t over-stuffed with cheese and actually have a bit of a crab flavor, giving them a leg up on 90% of the other Rangoon served in KC. The spring rolls here, on the other hand, are still totally flavorless. The yellow peanut sauce with which they’re served hints at peanut but is otherwise too diluted. And all that vermicelli and rice paper are so filling, I instantly regretted eating them.

Crab Rangoon. Worth it.
Lunch that day was a classic from the old Lulu’s menu: Drunken Noodles, from the $7.49 Lunch Specials list. This is the type of meal I could eat almost every day of the week. A warm bowl comes filled with a bed of wide rice noodles which are stir fried with Thai basil, peanuts, bean sprouts, scallions, Chinese broccoli, lemongrass, green and red peppers and egg. You can count on the veg to be perfectly crisp-tender and this dish, in particular, packs a lot of varied flavors… sweet, salty, bitter, acid, umami… it’s a delight in the mouth.

Look how they stuff so many fresh veg
into this bowl of Drunken Noodles.
My second trip, dinner with Elizabeth, yielded a totally different experience. Different vibe altogether. It was quiet. We weren’t the only diners there, but the larger, partitioned space separated us from each other to the extent that we felt alone. Service was prompt and attentive, the food good, but there was a depressing sterility in the air. The new space is not drawing a new dinner crowd, apparently.

Our dinner started with spring rolls, again, despite my pleading for dumplings. Elizabeth regretted her decision immediately, taking a big bite and then proclaiming the peanut sauce to be terrible. We’ve completely written them off now. But what lacked in our app was made up for with our two delicious entrees.

I tried the Banh Mi, not recognizing it from the menu of old. I was shocked at its size (mammoth, approximately). A heap of ground pork filled a long, soft baguette and came topped with daikon, carrot, cilantro, cucumber and plenty of sriracha aioli. Sweet and salty pork, crisp, sweet veggies, spicy aioli, bright, citusy cilantro… it all played so nicely together. Worth every penny of its $7.79 price.

I was surprised Elizabeth and I both wanted the Pad Num Mun Hoy, as we’re not big Chinese sauce fans, and the menu touts this dish as Pan-seared egg noodles, green beans, mushrooms and broccoli in a Chinese inspired brown sauce ($10.29). But we got it and we loved it. Here again the veggies were cooked perfectly. Crunchy, softened just a little. The noodles were springy and the sauce, though, yes, a dark brown, sweet, sugary substance, wasn’t too goopy or thick. It brought everything together deliciously.

Between Pad Num Mun Hoy and the Drunken Noodles, I’m a bigger fan of the Drunken, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Chinese-inspired Pad to anyone.

So I’m applying the valid clichés: Lulu’s is back and better than ever. New look, same great taste. They’ve cured the most egregious of its former faults (lunch rush overwhelmed-ness) but will have to keep working on the sparse dinner crowd.

Rating: two napkins

Lulu's Noodle Shop & Satay Bar on Urbanspoon
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