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Gram & Dun offers savory fare with a Southern slant

Remodeled Baja 600 space has a European feel, serving grits, shrimp and chicken with waffles.

By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star

Gram & Dun is poised at the top of the Bread & Butter Concepts triumvirate. The budding Kansas City restaurant group has, in less than two years, opened the casual gourmet burger joint BRGR, the more moderately priced farm-to-market café called Urban Table and, now, an affordable yet chic gastropub.

After remodeling the former Baja 600 space, Gram & Dun’s stylish new interior has a vaguely European glow. An angled beamed ceiling and ash-colored plank floor meet to create a grand lodge ambiance. Buff leather banquettes are luxurious and cozy with a slightly clubby feel.

Low lighting turns the expanse of glass windows flanking Ward Parkway into a backdrop for flickering flames that dance in the outdoor fire pits. If it weren’t so warm out I might have been persuaded to curl up with an après-ski hot toddy.

Instead, we order a lovely, soft bottle of J.L. Chave Côtes du Rhone 2009 ($45) and survey the menu, which turns out to have more of a southern slant than I had expected. I fixate on the chicken and sausage gumbo, Brunswick stew, blackened shrimp and grits, chicken-fried quail with red eye gravy, shrimp and oyster po’boy, catfish BLT, a pulled pork sandwich with Carolina slaw, sides of white grits or collard and mustard greens.

“I know the chicken and waffles sounds strange,” the waiter admits to one of my dining companions, “but it’s been one of our favorite dishes.”

I was initiated into the cult of chicken and waffles at Lüke, a Franco-German brasserie by celebrity chef John Besh in New Orleans. The Gram & Dun version is accompanied by ramekins of maple syrup and hot sauce for dipping. Before I know it the sweet fire of the sauces snaps me back to an afternoon at Husk in Charleston, S.C., considered by many critics to be the best new restaurant in the country.

All the restaurant concepts that partners Alan Gaylin and Glynn and Jean Roberts have launched aim to offer modern American food “with a twist.” Chef Bradley Gilmore, who has been the opening chef for all, hails from North Carolina.

The cornflake-fried chicken version at Gram & Dun was greaseless white meat, although a bit less daring than at Husk, where only the fattier chicken skin is served with drips of honey and hot sauce. Instead of sissy-dipping to save calories at Gram & Dun, I doused the savory Parmesan and herb waffles on my plate with the entire contents of the ramekins for a well-soaked, if citified, version of a soul food classic.

One night my dining companions declared the sweet tea braised pork shoulder — which had no strongly discernible tea flavor — the best dish at the table. The braising liquid renders rich, melt-in-your-mouth meat that pairs beautifully with a tangle of peppery arugula barely dressed in a lemon vinaigrette.

The corn pudding that accompanied the meat was a nice idea, although it was actually more like a dry-side dressing than a creamy pudding.

The standout on another night: the rich braised pork belly served with a Rancho Gordo cassoulet studded with shreds of rabbit meat.

The entrée portions are quite rich. To construct a lighter meal, choose from an eclectic range of pub-ier appetizers. I immediately noticed three preparations of steamed mussels, the most unusual steamed in Belgian ale with leeks, pears and blue cheese. As intriguing as it sounded, the tang of the blue cheese seemed to fight with the ale and created a sour edge.

The French onion dumpling appetizer is a clever riff from the kitchen in which classic French onion soup is deconstructed on toothpicks: meat-filled Asian dumplings, melted Gruyere cheese are topped with a cube of brioche. The appetizer is served in a reduction sauce and is surprisingly delicious. Another delectable bite is one of my favorites this winter: Asian Pig Wings, cooked to mahogany perfection in a soy sauce glaze and served with a fiery sambal.

The Jackson Salad, a grilled heart of romaine served with hearts of palm and artichoke hearts, offered a lovely smoky flavor. Trendy offerings included tasty wild boar and bison meatballs served in a mustard glaze with a bit of sautéed spinach for color, and a sprightly, shaved Brussels sprouts salad with Manchego, walnuts and cranberries.

Sadly, the dessert menu had unsophisticated, one-note offerings, which is strange since the desserts were notable on my visit to Urban Table. Heavy on the peanut and caramel flavors, one friend dubbed the offerings “TGIF-style.”

On both nights I dined at Gram & Dun, the waiters made a special plug for the Jar of Budino (that’s Italian for pudding) served in a stout apothecary jar. But the butterscotch-flavored pudding was one dimensional, and slightly grainy. The Butter Popcorn Ice Cream Sundae sounded vaguely intriguing but really wasn’t that different from the Gram & Dun Bar, which looks and tastes like the Little Debbie Nutty Bars my mom used to pack in my lunch when I was a kid. I’d like something less rich and fruity — a cobbler maybe?

Nevertheless, Gram & Dun is a welcome addition to the dining scene.

You’ll enjoy an evening of fun food with casual but courteous service in a stylish yet comfortable space. And it’s a great value, with average entrée prices ringing in at less than $20.

To reach Jill Wendholt Silva, call 816-234-4347 or send email to jsilva@kcstar.com.

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