RESTAURANT REVIEW

Mestizo’s mixed Mexican cuisine yields mixed results

Celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez’s eatery in Leawood is still a bit short of stellar.

Updated: 2012-02-09T13:40:25Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

The first time we went to Mestizo in the new-restaurant magnet known as Park Place, I really wasn’t up on Aarón Sánchez, who is yet another celebrity chef launched by the insatiable Food Network.

But I did wonder why he would’ve attached his reputation to a place that seemed a little woozy and unready for prime time. The service was eager but way too haphazard and Sánchez’s versions of his nuevo Mexico cuisine were inelegantly prepared and insufficiently presented.

Three times I tried to ask what was in the tamale of the day. Oysters and mushrooms and corn meal, I was told, and maybe something that I now don’t remember.

“You mean oyster mushrooms?” I asked, having already had a bite and not sensed the presence of an actual oyster.

“No, oysters,” I was told.

Sigh.

Eventually the server brought out someone else, who mentioned there was squid ink, too, in the tamale. Oh, so, that’s why it looked so unusually dark.

Between that disconnect and whatever else we tried that first visit — a good pozole, a bland and not-as-fresh-as-advertised guacamole and a signature dish of pepita-crusted scallop, in which the seeded, crusty cap kept falling off the not-quite-perfectly-cooked scallop — the experience left me in a dyspeptic mood for two or three days.

Mestizo opened in November, and after our late December visit I wasn’t too eager to go back, so I gave it a few more weeks. We tried again on a wintry Friday night when young skaters glided and frolicked on the little rink out the window and the place had a decent, filled-up buzz about it.

Bottom line: Things seemed to have improved quite a bit, though our experience of the food and the place remained somewhat short of stellar.

It turns out Sánchez trained with Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans and once worked in the Latin-cuisine kitchen at Patria in New York. Then he followed in the footsteps of his restaurateur mother, Zarela Martinez, and opened his own places in New York, first Paladar, then Centrico, with veteran restaurateur Drew Nieporent, in Tribeca.

Mestizo is Sánchez’s first venture outside New York. He was attracted by the Leawood demographics and a chance to test-drive the Heartland — he apparently spends a week per month here — in hopes of developing a successful concept he can replicate elsewhere.

On that chilly night, we wondered about the layout of Mestizo’s narrow, and wind-blasted entry and the lineup of tables that starts so close to the doors. And we wondered why it took so long to get some water at our table, though our server had come over quickly to get drink orders.

I took a peek upstairs, where there’s a tented rooftop bar, and a few people looked to be shivering a bit at some booths lining an inner wall. I’m sure the upstairs has the potential of being a rocking place in the patio seasons.

The menu is heavy on small plates and sharable dishes, so it can be fun to try new things and get a good sense of Sánchez’s culinary roots. The name Mestizo refers to Mexico’s melting pot of cultures, and you can tour the seaside with ceviches, shrimp dishes and fresh fish or graze on countryside and street-style specialties such as pork belly, veal sweetbreads or skirt-steak tacos.

At our second meal, four of us got a good sampling of appetizers, small plates and entrees, starting with a respectable queso fundido, a plate of not-quite-melted cheese, with tiny bits of huitlacoche (corn smut), which we slathered into small, freshly made flour tortillas.

The guacamole was better than on our first visit, though She Who Is Not Easily Pleased expressed what must be a common reaction here: “That’s not very much for $9.” It’s not as if the chips that came alongside the fancy glass vessel of guacamole were anything special either.

Next came a plate of chilaquiles, from the section of the menu Sánchez titled “De Mi Familia” or “Homage to My Family.” It was a fine blend of spicy flavors, with slivers of tortilla chips, chunks of chicken breast and a salsa that showed more cream than tomatillo. (Again, at $13, the shallow plate seemed aggressively priced.)

I asked about the tamale del día and learned, lo and behold, it was made with squid ink and wild mushrooms. I was tempted to try it again, but we decided to move on to other options. The ceviche of the day featured scallop bits and pineapple in a citrus mix; we were underwhelmed by the little dish, sad to say, and put off by the accompanying plantain and yucca chips, which were stale and stuck together.

Word Man, who happens to be a linguist, was not joking when he said he’d skip the braised tongue tacos, which his wife, The Poet, devoured. What he missed was tender, succulent meat, full of flavor. An order of tacos is three small, double-wrapped pieces. Other highlights that night included a silky and savory corn chowder, a beautifully made halibut special, a side of braised greens (including kale and Swiss chard) and a succulent braised short rib Jalisco style, which sat atop ancho chile broth.

With its attractive, varied, though pricy, menu, Mestizo clearly has great potential.

Maybe Sánchez’s experiment in the ’burbs was intended to work out the kinks far from the madding foodie crowd, like opening a play in Peoria, Ill. Sure, location is a start, but more-than-adequate execution and polished service ought to be priorities, too.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. You also can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sbpaul.

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