Lawrence’s 715: A dining adventure worth a road trip

12/05/2012 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 8:28 PM

One thing that’s clear about 715, a downtown destination that opened three years ago, is that it thrives on change and reinvention.

It has evolved from the owners’ original vision of an Italian restaurant, which was partly based on chef Michael Beard’s culinary studies and apprenticeships in and around Florence. As co-owner Matt Hyde put it over the phone the other day, if they’d dangled a sample menu to potential investors with lamb testicles on it, they never would’ve gotten off the ground.

Yet, now whenever those, ah, delicacies appear on the specials list, they sell out. Change is good, as is a surprise-me attitude, but in the land of culinary R, not everything succeeds. A roasted lamb at my first dinner here, in late summer, came out a little tough and flavorless. And at lunch one day I had mixed feelings about a goat panini.

Yes, you must be open to the taste of goat, and this sandwich had not only meat but goat cheese to boot, pressed between two round, nicely crusted pieces of bread. On the barnyard flavor spectrum, the roasted and thinly sliced goat was not too far away from, say, thinly sliced roast beef, though with the latter you might have the benefit of an au jus with which to saturate the meat and boost its flavor.

Just for reference, I’ve eaten “goat three ways” at the Girl and the Goat in Chicago and goat tacos at Café Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, which together, I think, come close to representing the full spectrum of the goat attraction.

The goat at 715 on that day was on the too-dry side, and the arugula leaves, bits of red onion and pepper didn’t quite have the tart heft to stand up to it. Some pickled vegetables — carrot, jicama and onion — came on the side, and it occurred to me as I picked around my plate with not much enthusiasm that a layer of the pickled onion might have made a great complement to the goat in the sandwich. Ah, well, missed opportunity.

But don’t let the nit-picking sway you. 715 is a sleek and energetic place, filled with sensory stimuli and, generally, food to match.

With rough limestone walls and refined wood furniture and accents, the long and narrow room fills easily with sound. A room divider glows with lighted green bottles. The small kitchen along one side is open and gets crowded when four or five cooks are working their stations. On one end of the kitchen counter, a big ham usually is clamped vertically in a stand, awaiting carving for charcuterie plates. On the wall near the bar, chalkboards highlight food and drink specials, which can run from six to a dozen dishes nightly.

If you didn’t know you were deep in the heart of Larryville, our little college town on the prairie, you might think you were in, oh, name a savvy food city of your choosing. Truth is, ever since it opened, 715 has earned a reputation as the best restaurant in Lawrence, though fans of Pachamama’s and one or two other places might beg to differ. For Kansas City eaters, the question becomes, Is it worth the drive? Short answer: What are you waiting for?

On a recent Saturday night we saw Kansas City restaurateurs Todd Schulte and Tracy Zinn (of Happy Gillis and Genesee Royale) and their two daughters dining there. “I love this place,” Schulte told me and the constant companion, She Who Is Not Easily Pleased. They were making a getaway of it and staying the night in town. A few minutes later, as we were downing a plate of hearty, house-made spaghetti and lamb meatballs in a spicy red sauce, She Who noted “a person could drive to Lawrence just to eat this.” (I’m beginning to think of her, at times like this, as Sunny Delight.)

Together, that ham on the counter and that impressive and deceptively simple pasta speak to what Beard’s kitchen at 715 is largely about: food that’s close to the land, and food that resonates with rustic Italian influences.

Another example: a plate of rabbit ravioli. The small-portion dish we ordered as an appetizer included five soft pasta squares filled with a light parsnip and goat cheese puree and topped with what seemed like half a rabbit’s worth of shredded meat. It all sat atop a simple, slightly seasoned pool of olive oil, and it was delicious.

You also have to like a place where even the servers have a role in shaping the tasting experience. When I asked our server to explain the Hog Wash Sazerac — the bartenders at 715 create some terrific, inventive craft cocktails — he replied that he was the one who made it; that is, he mixes the rye with rendered pork fat, refrigerates the concoction, then separates the fat from the spirit, which eventually ends up lightly baconized in your glass.

If all that pork talk makes you wonder if this is another snout-to-tail-or-else emporium, well, it is to a point, but Beard’s menu also includes some superb seafood and seasonal vegetables prepared in thoughtful, piquant ways.

A satisfying garlic shrimp entree, for example, is a regular on the dinner menu, spiced up with harissa, a peppery Ethiopian-style puree. Specials at both of our dinners included fresh and carefully prepared fish — opah on a summery plate with white beans, caper vinaigrette, cucumber, lemon and arugula, and our recent Saturday’s pan-roasted red snapper, which came atop an autumn gathering of sweet potato and spinach hash, a few unassuming bits of pork confit and a pecan vinaigrette. The snapper arrived from Florida that day, we were told, and you could tell: light, flaky and cooked with perfect restraint.

Even a seafood sausage, another special on our first visit in late summer, caused one of my dining companions to swoon. The pan-seared sausage had more of that simplicity in disguise: grilled pickled eggplant on the side with basil and a dill aioli.

“One of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life,” said our friend, The Poet. (Her running commentary that night also included, after tasting some slices of Kansas-grown red wattle ham, the left-field notion that “I can see people fighting the Revolutionary War over this stuff.”)

The night that She Who and I landed on two of the five stools at the kitchen counter, face to face with a few hog tchotchkes, we had a high old time. The cooks treat you nicely, we sampled a lot of food, and we came away with nothing but good feelings about 715. I know I’ll be back, if only to try the bucatini all’amatriciana — a big pasta dish with guanciale and more — and the huge bone-in ribeye, both of which we eyed longingly as they came out of the kitchen.

The companion’s Lawrence memories go back a long way, when eating out meant little more than burger joints and drive-ins. Clearly, it’s a new day; as she said one night in a 715 glow, “Lawrence has kind of stepped up its game.”

Recommended

Apple pecan salad,

$8

715 green salad

, $7

Smoked trout crostini,

$7

Garlic shrimp

, $17

Rabbit ravioli,

$15/$23

Spaghetti and meatballs

, $13/$23 (pork), $14/$24 (lamb)

Fresh fish specials,

price varies

Cotecchino sausage with lentils and sauerkraut,

$9

House-made charcuterie ,

price varies

What to drink

715 has an impressive list of craft cocktails ($9 apiece), some of which come and go with the seasons. Classic cocktails get contemporary injections of mixologist invention — the Andy Sidecar, for instance, is a mix of apricot-infused bourbon, Cointreau, lemon and rhubarb bitters. A Hog Wash Sazerac features rye that has spent a little time with pork fat.

You could spend some quality visits wrapping your palate around unusual and rewarding concoctions such as the Pompelmo, made with averna (an Italian bitter spirit), grapefruit and cava (a Spanish sparkler), or a Fiddle Leaf, featuring Powers Irish whiskey, Niepoort tawny port, fig and grapefruit.

Pours from Free State and Boulevard dominate the beer list. Wines ($4 to $12 by the glass) are nicely chosen, and bottle prices generally seem reasonable or not horribly overpriced. I feel like we got a real restaurant bargain at dinner one night, snaring a Gigondas (a Rhone blend from Clos du Bois de Menge) for $30 — it tends to retail for $20 or more. Bottles are grouped by price — $20, $30, $40 and more expensive “others.”

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