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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