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
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