Feb 26, 2012

New Favorite Burger

Restaurant: The Burger Stand
Location: 803 Mass St., Lawrence, KS
Food: Burgers and fries
Service: Order at counter, pick up when called
Atmosphere: College town burger joint w/ distinct Lawrence feel
Price: Burgers $7-$10, Dogs $3-$5, Sides $3-$7
Rating: three napkins

Over time, I’ve become increasingly agitated at Blanc’s new location… teeny-bopper staff, scuffed painted concrete floors, inconsistent music and the general feeling that I’m eating in someone’s refinished basement are all kind of adding up. But these were all forgivable sins for what was, to me, the best burger-eating experience in town. But now Josh Eans is gone. Quality is going downhill. Service, too. And the menu is even changing. All signs of a place that feels like it’s finally well enough established to make some cutbacks on quality and increase profit margins.

...Upon entering
I don’t like it. The Inside Out burger and its delicious gooey blue cheese and bacon are still fantastic, so I keep going. But I’m willing to accept other burger choices more readily these days.

That led me to The Burger Stand in Lawrence some time back. We were there for a concert last summer and based on its wildly favorable reputation from the few actual KU students I still knew, we gave it a try.

Upstairs bar
One of the biggest differences between The Burger Stand and Blanc is, indeed, the college scene. On a Friday night in Lawrence, TBS feels like a college place. It’s not exclusively filled with students by any means, but you’re guaranteed to see plenty of KU apparel… and sweats--kids who are used to treating Lawrence with the mentality of “this is our town and we’re college students and college students wear sweats.” I would also point out that for every bit of clubby sleekness you’ll find in Blanc, TBS has the same amount of laid back Lawrence charm. Blanc’s hard surfaces and all white everything (splashed with orange accents) contrast with TBS’s exposed limestone walls (priceless), wood floors and bar structures. Ultimately, preference between the two is a matter of personal taste but one certainly has a more welcoming vibe than the other.

Downstairs bar and seating
But with all the cosmetic issues aside, what really matters to me is how the food stacks up. And in the end, while I still have to give Blanc the edge in terms of gourmet, envelope-pushing menu items, the food at TBS is nearly as good (and a tiny bit less expensive).

On our first trip, a busy Friday night, there was some kind of snafu and I ordered the Lentil burger. Mildly disappointed, we decided to consider it a potential twist of fate and tried it rather than revising our order. I’ve had the lentil burger at Blanc, too, and the two were similar but the one at TBS was the tastier of the two, hands down. I’d suspect a lot of people would have considered this lentil patty over-seasoned. It was, indeed, quite salty. But lentils have an otherwise dull taste, so I was appreciative of the added flavor. Also adding unique flavor to the lentil burger were green beans that seemed to be pickled and a roasted red pepper sauce. At blanc, the lentil burger seemed like a consolation – not something they were as proud of. And I remember its wheat bun being very wheaty and dry in the mouth. Advantage TBS.

Fire burger & Free State Imperial Stout. Magnificent.
More recently, I had the Fire Burger at TBS. This one had me spewing Guy Fieri-esque colloquialisms like “killer,” “dynamite” and “off the chain.” Were I not so completely in love with it I may have been embarrassed. This was a beef patty, thick and juicy, topped with avocado which was drastically upstaged by habanero cactus jam. The jam was both sweet and zippy without being too much of either. I think habanero is a great ingredient with its peppery kick that wells up from the stomach after eaten, as long as it’s incorporated subtly so as not to obliterate one’s palette... and this was just right.

Downstairs bar
On both trips we enjoyed fries. The first time we had truffle fries which I found to be crunchier and overall less greasy than Blanc’s with every bit as much of the funky, rich truffle aroma. On the recent trip I tried the Cajun fries which were the same in texture but lightly dusted with a seasoning that was great but, admittedly, I couldn’t really taste due to the strength of the burger’s accoutrements.

The menu at The Burger Stand also offers many other neat sides like duck fat fries, beer battered rings and fried pickles. And whereas Blanc hands out miserly portions of homemade ketchup and chipotle aioli, The Burger Shack lets diners fill up their own little containers with several different sauce choices including guajillo chili, rojo ranch, Guinness whole grain mustard and chipotle cocoa ketchup, (not unlike the vanilla ketchup I enjoyed at Gram & Dun recently), all of which I enjoyed sampling.

Also on the menu at The Burger Shack are other vegetarian burger options, hot dogs/brats and chili which I may never have just because I'm so in-love with the burgers. The beer list at TBS isn't quite what you'll find at Blanc but there are plenty of great choices with the Boulevard and Free State selections alone. ...Not to mention the fact that the last time I was in Blanc, our server told us they were cutting back on some of their beer selections, so it's entirely possible that on my next trip I'll find less than what I've enjoyed there recently.

The Burger Shack and Blanc both serve great burgers from geographic locations I enjoy mightily. But lately, the trends I’m finding in Blanc are leading me to want to hit K10 for a jog down memory lane to my college days and the satisfying burgers available at the heart of Mass St. The Burger Stand is, without question, worth the drive for those of us still not over the burger craze in America.

Rating: three napkins

Feb 20, 2012


Restaurant: North
Location: 4579 W. 119th St., Leawood, KS
Food: Northern Italian
Service: Traditional Waitstaff
Atmosphere: Modern, vibrant
Price: Starters $8-$12, Pizzas $11-$13, Entrees $14-$30
Rating: one napkin

A restaurant's food should be a catalyst for good conversation and fun times. That's my philosophy. So it was a bit disappointing that after our birthday-foursome's meal there, we felt our good times were had in spite of a lackluster dinner.

The night started off well... a glass of wine at the vibrant bar at La Bodega on 119th street. The place was packed. There was a roar of enjoyable conversation mixed with the clinking of plates and glasses as exotic but homey tapas were passed and shared at the many tables surrounding us. In the distance, a server spun flaming stemware in a shower of sparks as she prepared their signature Spanish coffee. Brisk outside but toasty warm inside, we enjoyed an adult beverage and then bounced over to North, on the opposite end of the shopping center.

There, too, we were greeted with a raucous, buzzing scene. It was dark with strategically placed spot lights illuminating tables and the brick walls. Lime green seats, which would likely have looked cheap in higher light, worked to add a splash of color to the otherwise stark interior. I got the feeling North was working much harder to come across as modern and intriguing than homey despite its rustic food and northern Italian concept.

Starting at the bar here, too, we found a mediocre list of cocktails but a better wine list. I take issue with cocktail menus that go too far to please all tastes; case in point at North were examples like their "Sangria Rosso" and "Tuscan Margarita." Better would have been to have some actual Italian cocktails... why not a Negroni or Bellini on the list? Birthday boy Tyson ordered a Valente for $9 which was an interesting mix of rye whiskey, red bell pepper, basil, lemon juice and honey. He liked it but didn't seem to love it, the bell pepper seeming to have been an eye grabber but not actually prevalent in the taste of the drink.

What I like about the wine list is that North offers it by the glass, terzo (individual carafe) or bottle. When the table isn't up for sharing a bottle, terzos are a nice way to get an affordable second glass at a price slightly less than two full glasses of wine. And it's nice to be able to refill your own without worrying about offering it to the rest of the table first.

Our kind, attentive server came by and immediately set down a tiny saucer of olives--five in total. It seemed a little laughable to be given so few, bringing a humorous Oliver Twist-type expression to our faces. Regardless, being a party we were up for apps that night, so we set forth to pick out a few, ignoring the microscopic bowl of drupes.

The zucca (zucchini) chips were nice. Incredibly thin and loaded with salt, there was really nothing not to enjoy about them. And being zucchini instead of potato, they had a slight sweetness to their aftertaste I liked. Next up was an attractive wooden board lined with thin sheets of salami and topped with a pretty mixture of greens, provolone, roasted peppers and olives. It had nice Italian flavors and a good balance of briny saltiness against the earth, slightly bitter greens and their acidic vinaigrette. Of everything we had that night, this simple starter was the thing that stood out as my favorite.

Last starter was, what else, friend calamari. It seems to be a trend for restaurants these days to claim their calamari is a cut above the rest. The message has apparently gotten through that lighter, less breaded, less fried calamari is preferable to that of a few years ago which was all-too-often indistinguishable from a Church's chicken tender. North apparently had gotten the memo, too. Their calamari was indeed lightly breaded and fried and I was appreciative of the lemony bed of arugula on which it was served. Revelatory, no, but quite good and I'd recommend it to those who enjoy calamari and haven't tired of it yet.

Lots of restaurants feature a selection of pizza, even if not claiming to be a full-on pizzeria. North does so with an added bit of legitimacy being an Italian restaurant. I was interested to try their take on it, always craving a good, authentic Italian pie. Their style is a cracker-thin crust which I didn't hate but seemed a little disappointing. I had just recently tasted something very similar at Seasons 52, listed on their menu as "flatbread," which seems more apt of a name. My selection was the roasted mushroom variety which was too sparsely topped with mushrooms and I guess some onions though there were barely any. I appreciate when a pizza isn't overly-laden with toppings but there was little flavor on this one and I was left wanting.

Elizabeth's entree was quite nice--a pretty bowl of spaghetti with succulent, plump, juicy shrimp, delightful brussels sprouts and cubes of butternut squash in a creamy brown butter sauce. By the time I gained the courage to request a bite, it was somewhat cold, but even then I enjoyed it. I salivated over its simplicity and undeniable richness.

Tyson had the ambitious braised beef short rib dish, a big hunk of meat sitting atop a white pile of polenta, garnished with cooked veg. I refrained from trying any as this was his big day and there's something exceedingly enjoyable about eating every last bite of one's own meal. It looked tasty enough, the meat, though, clearly fatty. And after dissecting it for a few minutes with a fork, I ascertained that it was not the best piece of meat he'd ever consumed. He said as much after finishing, noting that it wasn't bad, per se, but hadn't wowed him, either.

In the end, we all felt a little "meh" about the meal. It was all fine, with a few high points (the salami/greens starter and pasta dishes) but the low-lights of the menu, somewhat high price and distinguishable chain restaurant characteristics had us agreeing it was likely a one-and-done place for us.

Italian cuisine is about simple dishes that feature the freshest, seasonally inspired ingredients. Few chains can pull off that kind of food. The food at North wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't hitting home runs, either. KC is loaded with Sicilian-inspired Italian-American red sauce and garlic restaurants. I hoped North would be a successful foray into a more old-world Italian experience. It doesn't fail at its task but I wouldn't recommend its fish/meat dishes over Il Centro or its pizza over even Spin.

Rating: one napkin

NoRTH on Urbanspoon

Feb 4, 2012

Seasons 52 Winter Menu

Restaurant: Seasons 52
Location: 340 Ward Pkwy, Plaza
Food: American, healthy bent
Service: Traditional Waitstff
Atmosphere: Biz Casual Dining
Price: Apps
Rating: two napkins

The kind folks at O'Neill Events and Seasons 52 invited me back recently to try their winter menu (*free food alert! My whole meal was comped). I apreciated the offer and gladly accepted, wanting to experience the restaurant on a normal night with other patrons filling the place.

When we arrived for our 7:00 Friday night reservation, the restaurant was packed. The bar/lounge on the West end of the space was filled with a crowd of well-to-do looking people, warm and smiling, enjoying a glass of wine before their food. A woman played piano and sang... pleasantly, for the most part.

We were quickly seated in a booth in the main dining room which was almost entirely full, buzzing with conversation, clinking of glasses and forks on plates... the kind of commotion in which I like to be enveloped when eating out.

The invite explained the highlights to of the new menu:
"From hearty root vegetables such as butternut squash and golden beets, to delectable fruits such as grapefruit and pear, Seasons 52’s winter menu is full of refined flavors. By utilizing natural cooking techniques, such as wood-fire grilling, brick-oven cooking and roasting, winter’s freshest produce shines on the new menu in memorable dishes that enable diners to celebrate living well."

Because this was a free meal, we felt like the restaurant would probably want to feature the bright points so we started the affair by asking for our server's recommendation, which was the best thing we could have done.

She started us with the Spicy Chipotle Shrimp Flatbread. They specialize in these things at S52 but, admittedly, I'm always skeptical of flatbread. It usually comes off like wannabe pizza. Filler. What you normally get is a piece of flat, dry, stale toast with some Parmesan and herbs. Maybe a veggie or two, but that's it.

Not the case here. What struck me was that this one had such a fun combination of flavors! Flatbread usually makes me want pizza. This basically was a pizza. Studded with pineapple, roasted poblano pepper, feta cheese and succulent, plump shrimp, then drizzled with chipotle sauce and garnished with cilantro, it almost had the flavor of tacos al pastor sub seafood for pork. It had me thinking and feeling Baja, which is a good thing.

Our other appetizer selection was the Ahi tuna. And whereas the flatbread was so well-engineered, the tuna was appropriately simple. They set before us a rectangular plate of five beautiful, deeply colored, rare slices of tuna, barely seared on the outside and garnished with typical sushi accoutrements (plus wildly unnecessary multi-grain crackers which I ignored). It was exactly what I'd wanted. Cold, fresh, delicious.

For entrees, we honed in on the Specials and kept the seafood theme alive. First, I had the swordfish. It's a pretty solid bet, swordfish is. Probably won't knock your socks off, but it's a predictable, meaty steak of a fish that won't leave you hungry. Seasons 52's preparation is a grilled steak resting atop a tiny bed of shrimp risotto. Keeping all menu items under 475 calories, the risotto was less than plentiful, as I expected. But it added just enough starch to serve its purpose. I would've liked more, but certainly didn't need it.

To call the rice risotto was a bit of a stretch, though. I'm not even sure it was made with arborio rice. Seemed more like regular short grain rice with a lot of creamy substance in it. But, again, it was nothing to complain about.

Around the outside of my dish were steamed veggies which caused me to think: I could have made these at home. But that simple fact notwithstanding, they were steamed nicely which is to say al dente. Not overdone.

The fruity sauce atop the fish served its purpose of lubricating that thick piece of grilled fish. I have misgivings about the sauces at Seasons 52... no butter, no cream... what's in them? But I can't say there was anything bad or wrong with it. It was just suspiciously healthy tasting, I suppose. And that's what the whole plate can be characterized as. Adequate, but suspiciously healthy.

On the side, we got a small plate of the shrimp, lump crab and spinach-stuffed mushrooms. After eating one, let's just say they were ambitiously entitled. They were spinach and Parmesan mushrooms with a light contribution of shellfish. Hardly enough to bare mentioning, in reality. And a stuffed mushroom is a fatally flawed food-item in my opinion anyway as the mushrooms are almost always overly watery in the mouth. Pretty mediocre.

Elizabeth ordered the Grilled Cobia Curry for her entree. It was plated very similarly to my dish, the grilled fish sitting atop and surrounded by veg, all covered in sauce. She truly enjoyed it. I found it pretty mediocre, the curry being my biggest hang up. It didn't really taste of curry. It was a mixture of spices and, again, some kind of fruitiness (I think maybe they use some kind of pureed fruit to build their sauces and keep them healthy), but wasn't taking me anywhere in Asia, we'll just say.

Her side was a plate of crescent-shaped roasted golden beets with a wasabi dipping sauce. It was an interesting thought, the fibrous, earthy beets offset by the burn of the wasabi cream. But it was a little too extreme, the beets being too plain and dry and the wasabi sauce too one-note and spicy to slather the hunks of beet adequately. Definitely wouldn't recommend or get them again.

Seasons 52 keeps on going with their shot glass desserts, 275 calories or less. And they should. They taste great and so many diners want an inexpensive, small dessert option like this. I applaud the idea and think every restaurant ought to have small, affordable desserts like this available. We tried four and I feel no embarrassment in saying so. All were good. Not mind blowing, but just what we wanted. For the record, they were mocha macchiato, pecan pie, key lime and German chocolate. Try them out.

In the end, my impression of Seasons 52 is unchanged. On the one hand, I appreciate the healthier options and preparations. Nothing really sucks on the menu. On the other hand, is there really any incentive to go to a restaurant with twenty dollar fish entrees that are pretty darn forgettable?

Here's what I say: there are plenty of diners out there who eat out a lot and get tired of menus full of nothing but rich, indulgent options. Business travelers flood the plaza every week and many of them are forced to eat out and want something tasty but reasonably healthy. Seasons 52 gives them that option. You can find better food at a better price in this city but you can't find any restaurant with the upscale atmosphere and balance of healthier/good-tasting food they have.

So I must applaud Seasons 52 on filling a void many of us recognized but for which we didn't have a good resolution. I'd love to see a local place open up, serve the same niche and gain favor with Kansas Citians, but until then, Seasons 52 will stay on my radar each time I have clients in town for my nine-to-five job.

Rating: two napkins

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon

Jan 16, 2012

Frida's: More Than Just Contemporary Mexican

Restaurant: Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine
Location: 14861 Metcalf, OP KS
Food: Upscale Mexican
Service: Traditional Waitstaff
Atmosphere: Suburban Strip Mall Mexican
Price: Apps $7-$9, Entrees $15-$19
Rating: 3 Napkins

A couple years ago, here in Kansas City there were just two types of Mexican restaurants: bustling family-friendly Americanized places specializing in burrito platters and those salads that come in a big fried tortilla bowl, and smaller holes in the wall that had a higher degree of Mexican authenticity but mostly unremarkable atmosphere. The former are typically staples of the busy suburban/white areas of town, and the latter dotted Southwest Boulevard and KCK near actual Mexican neighborhoods. There's tasty food to be found in both locations but they all left me wondering whether this really was all we should expect from Mexican cuisine.

There was also the freakish Mi Cocina on the plaza, a clubby over-priced hot spot with a curious basement drunk partiers would think of late on a Friday night… perhaps the closest thing to an upscale Mexican place in town, but with a reputation for bad food and worse service that led to a collective public understanding that it was on its way out. And soon enough it did croak.

All the while, my affinity for good Mexican food has grown. What started as a weekly pilgrimage to the rug rats’ heaven that is The Salty Iguana in Prairie Village gave way to a new found love for asada and adovada street tacos at Cancun Fiesta Fresh and Tacos el Pastor and Enchiladas de Mole at El Patron. I lost my taste for the concept of ground beef in a basketball-sized flour tortilla covered with cheddar and iceberg and migrated to fresh corn tortillas, slow cooked pork and beef, cilantro and raw onion. And as my tastes have mutated, I believe the Mexican restaurant scene in Kansas City has been evolving.

I surmise this with three relatively new Mexican restaurants in mind: Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine, Zocalo and Mestizo, all of which tout a more sophisticated and proud Mexican dining experience. And of the three new joints, I've started by trying the elder of the group, Frida's.

Frida's, indeed, offers just what I think we've needed in Mexican cuisine for so long: good, carefully prepared and authentic Mexican food in a more sophisticated, cleaned-up atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, the dirty little taquerias have their place and their food is great for what it is, but we've needed a Mexican restaurant that felt nice inside and Frida's provides just that.

My opinion of the atmosphere at Frida's isn't entirely positive, though. After the solid 30 minute drive southward to their 149th & Metcalf location, I found Frida's to be typical of an upscale south KC-suburban restaurant, located in a nondescript strip mall, with mostly forgettable but perfectly suitable decor, enhanced with nice Frida Kahlo-themed touches. It's not at all unpleasant but neither is it noteworthy. Suburban-classy or suburban business casual is how I'd term it.

But for however normal the decor may be, the food is equally as much a surprise if you're not in the know about what they serve there. The food at Frida's is special, flat-out. Heck, just go to the website and check out the hero shots of some of their specialties on the home page and instantly you'll see what I mean. The dishes are beautifully plated on artful white dishes... a far cry from the cafeteria-style black heatproof plastic and aluminum trays they plunk down in front of you at, say, Ponak's. Then peruse the menu and you'll start picking up on ingredients you didn't even know were part of authentic Mexican cuisine. Pomegranate seeds, slivered almonds, raisins, walnut cream sauce... sound like your usual Friday night chiles relleno in Johnson County? Not quite. But that's basically what I ordered and all those ingredients were included.

The dish was called Chile en Nogada and it darn-near blew my mind. And not just because it was spicy--which it was. It's basically two stuffed poblanos in a cream sauce but the refinement and preparation of this dish were wonderful. First, I noticed that the waxy, touch skin on the chiles had been removed, which made them infinitely more enjoyable and easy to eat. Great touch. Stuffed inside each (there were two) was a sweet mixture of small strips of grilled beef, lots of slivered almonds and plump, juicy raisins. The green chiles came smothered in--not stringy, cheap yellow cheese--but a wonderfully decadent walnut cream sauce and bright red pomegranate seeds.

The flavors of the dish play off each other in amazing ways. There's the initial sweetness of the raisins and cream sauce, balanced nicely with the core flavor of beef and the meaty flesh of the poblanos, offset with a pop of acid from the pomegranates, all of which is layered with an undertone of chile pepper spice. Great layers of flavor! Poblanos can be very mild or fairly spicy depending on the individual peppers and these two babies were high on the Scoville scale. Hot enough, in fact, that I had a full-on stomach ache after finishing just one, but I cared not. I was in heaven.

Separating the Mexican flag-colored chiles was a nice big lump of green rice that, too, was far better than average but was mostly lost on my dazzled palette by the time I got to it.

Elizabeth opted for the chicken. Number 24, actually, called Pollo en Hoja Santa. Her rectangular platter came with two thinly pounded, grilled pieces of chicken which were unimaginably moist thanks, I'd say, to the technique of being wrapped in the hoja santa leaf when initially cooked (I'm dying to go back into the kitchen and see how this dish all comes together - I've never had chicken like this before). The chicken was folded around generous hunks of creamy goat cheese and wonderfully flavorful sauteed squash blossoms. The whole thing is sauced lightly with a tomatillo almond concoction that lends some bright acidity to the rich, cheesy chicken.

We loved it. We loved both entrees. And with the clearly discernible buzz from our giant margaritas to compliment the fantastic Mexican food, we were blissful.

So the tough question we debated in the car on the way home was: would we be back? Truth be told, we don't venture south of 95th much when there's as much good stuff in midtown/plaza/brookside/westport/downtown, so much closer to home. Frida's is half way to Tulsa, it's a little pricey (by Mexican restaurant standards) and the atmosphere isn't terribly remarkable. The real answer is that only time will tell. But I have the feeling I'll be seeking excuses to make a return voyage and see what other delights are in store on the menu. Everyone in KC who enjoys Mexican food owes him/herself at least one dinner out at Frida's.

And look for comparison posts in the future when I've had the chance to check out Mestizo and Zocalo.

Rating: 3 Napkins
Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Jan 7, 2012

Not Dun, Just Getting Started

Restaurant: Gram & Dun
Location: 600 Ward Parkway, Country Club Plaza, KC MO
Food: Upscale Gastropub
Service: Traditional Waitstaff
Atmosphere: GastroChic
Price: Starters/Salads $6-$15, Entrees $15-$30
Rating: Two napkins

There's plenty of hubbub about this new restaurant in the former Baja 600 location on the south end of the Plaza, Gram & Dun. And with good reason.

Admittedly, I was as pumped up as anyone about it for a couple distinct reasons: A) it's not a chain and B) its ownership, Bread & Butter Concepts, is responsible for two other respectable places in town, BRGR and Urban Table, both in the PV/Corinth area.

Glass-lighting effect added by me - not part of the table.
Bread & Butter has attached the term "gastropub" to Gram & Dun, essentially meaning it's loosely derived on a traditional pub concept (featuring libations) but is consciously dialing up the emphasis on its food (ergo "gastro"). After perusing the menu, I'd say it's a super-gastro gastropub as the food menu was much larger than I expected and the beers and wines, though also numerous, perhaps a hair less impressive in comparison.

Don't get me wrong, there's lots of booze to choose from--50ish beers and even more wines--but if you rule out the stuff you can find at your local grocery store, it's not jaw-dropping. So my first impression, after parking ourselves at a small two-top in the appropriately noisy bar area some 90 minutes earlier than our projected seating time, was to be slightly underwhelmed at the pub element.

I was in a wintery state of mind on this brisk night on the plaza, having just giggled at the tourists freezing in their carriage rides, and for some reason, to me, that means whiskey (as I write I'm enjoying a bourbon slush). So I picked up the cocktail menu and decided to try their sazerac. Man, did that hit the spot. Elizabeth opted for a Ginger Rogers with mint leaves, ginger syrup, gin, lime juice, ginger ale and lime wedge garnish. It was a nice crisp counter to my warmer, darker drink. And in the classy, dark, swank and positively buzzing surroundings, we were happy.

Soon, some busty, blonde, ditzy ladies grabbed the table next to us... either dressed up strippers or KC socialite/scenesters... the type who perpetually date Chiefs players and will only be seen at the city's current hot spot. Their hundred-dollar-Nordstrom-shirted male counterparts never joined them at the table--they stayed nearer the bar engaging in real man conversation and, generally, to be seen in the epicenter of the newest and arguably most popular restaurants in the city. I mention this only in an attempt to convey a little about what it feels like to be in the bar at G&D right now. This is the frequent clientele. Not a bad thing but humorously predictable and, over time, when they migrate to the next new hot spot, I expect Gram & Dun will take on a slightly more, shall we say, approachable tonality.

Service was very slow but not so bad as to draw ire. Here's what we ordered for food: 

Shishito peppers to start. We'd had these mild, skinny peppers at Ra and Girl & The Goat (Chicago) and thoroughly enjoyed them. Here, they were battered and flash-fried, which was great for one or two, but the bowl of peppers at Gram & Dun is humongous and they were thoroughly salted (thoroughly). Given our porcine-like refusal to limit our gastro-intake, we ploughed through the whole bowl, I'm ashamed to say, and were over greased and over salted immediately thereafter.

See what I mean about the size of the chips?
Bad timing, then, to start in on a bowl of homemade potato chips, each the size of my face. Thankfully the chips weren't mercilessly salty like the shishitos, but they didn't help the cause either. With the chips were three very inspired dipping concoctions: smooth guacamole, vanilla bean-enhanced tomato ketchup and spicy blood orange and habanero ketchup. They all worked despite my skepticism of the vanilla ketchup. Wouldn't want a lot of the stuff but as a counterpoint to the others, I really liked it.

The next item was supposed to be a green reprieve from Saltyfriedville - Brussels sprouts salad - but it failed to play the palette cleansing role we needed. The salad was yet another big bowl, this one full of shaved/shredded Brussels sprouts leaves, Manchego, celery, cranberries, walnuts and arugula, supposedly covered in a lemon vinaigrette though we failed to notice it much. After eating the few bites of the salad I had, I'm convinced Brussels sprouts shouldn't ever be the sole green used in a leafy salad. A mouthful of the stuff was unpleasantly textured, almost like a mixture of softened fingernails, raw kale and hair (this coming from a guy who LOVES Brussels sprouts done well). Okay, maybe that's a little over-the-top. But with each bite the salad seemed less and less edible. I think we each stopped after about three and plopped a napkin on top of the bowl to signal we were done with it. Yes, more vinaigrette may have been in order but wouldn't have cleansed the textural sins in that bowl. Bummer.

Fried, fried fried!
So, we dragged ourselves, parched and withered, toward an entirely unnecessary and abysmally selected (on our part as meal-assemblers) shrimp po' boy. Had we known the Brussels sprouts salad would've come up so short, we would have changed this order or nixed it altogether. Not only did the plate plunked down in front of us contain super salty friend shrimp, it was piled high with deep fried potato wedges. (Listen to me, complaining over my own poorly chosen indulgences and their calories which could sustain 10 human lives for a month when there are so many hungry people in the world.) We wrestled down a few bites and called it a nigh, not really noticing the jalapeno aioli or apple slaw that should've balanced the breadiness of the sandwich and friend shrimp.

Main dining area
Reading the preceding, you'd think my impression of Gram & Dun was not great. And while I admit I think they skew a little too heavy/salty on the food selections, I bear the brunt of the responsibility for ordering items that were too similarly prepared. Were I to do it over again, I'd still have the peppers to start (eating only 50% of the bowl with my companion) and then go into a different salad (Sangria?), perhaps indulging again on an entree that was not deep fried.

Taken in bar area looking toward south wing
There are lots of things on the menu I'd like to go back and try including the wild boar sloppy joe, shrimp and grits, loaded baked potato gnocchi and pork belly. But when I do, I'll be sure not to order and eat them all in one sitting.

A friend recently summed up the Bread & Butter Concepts restaurants well to me in saying that "none of their food is all that great but they do an impressive job of creating an atmosphere people want to be in. And the food's good enough to make for an enjoyable time." In the case of Gram & Dun this seems mostly true. I owe it the due diligence of a restaurant reviewer and to go try some more of the food before passing my full judgment. But based on what I've seen so far, I'm mostly impressed and employing a little more strategy in the ordering process, expect to like this place plenty.

Rating: two napkins

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