With thick-cut pork chops, custom sausage grinds and meticulously crafted charcuterie back on the American cutting board, Cleaver & Cork is poised to tap into the popularity of the artisanal butcher shop.
Earlier this year, the cavernous 6,000-square-foot space that originally housed Maker’s Mark in the Power & Light District was remodeled and turned into a modern saloon with a meat-centric menu. The new dining room is a coolly comfortable space featuring a chic, understated gray color scheme, tailored booths, reclaimed Kansas barn wood, wagon wheel-style chandeliers and an impressive bar nearly 30 feet long.
P&L’s Cordish Co. management group sought to bolster the butcher concept with local star power: Alex Pope of Local Pig fame holds the position of “culinary director.” Yet despite his considerable business acumen and proven talents in the kitchen, the restaurant got off to a rocky start.
The youthful entertainment district — a popular launching pad for boisterous bachelor and bachelorette parties — turns into a ghost town when there is nothing scheduled at the Sprint Center. It’s not surprising that wildly fluctuating numbers have created service issues. Several tables of eight to 12 people left our server apologizing profusely for leaving us hanging between courses.
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Back in the kitchen, the opening chef and bartender quickly moved on to other opportunities, explaining inconsistencies in the food.
The best way to get to the heart of the artisanal butcher concept is to order the cheese and charcuterie platter to share with friends over a couple of craft cocktails. A presentation of four or five meats and cheeses (the selections are always changing) bolstered by relish, caper berries and pickles were served on a pottery platter that nearly dwarfed the spread visually, even though there was plenty to nibble on for a table of four.
The slab of ruby-red beef tartar was a tasty bit with the high quality that Local Pig is known for. My only quibble is that the server didn’t include enough grilled toasts to cover our party. The braised pork jowl also caught my eye, but it turned out the grits and green pepper sauce were more interesting than the star of the plate, a deeply fatty but ultimately bland piece of meat that lacked the satisfaction of bacon.
For a lighter snack, try the tangy pickled green beans. Each bean was sheathed in a light tempura batter, and they were served with a slightly spicy Italian pork sausage spread known as ’nduja. The dill-infused beans were a clever and unexpected combination that went well with pork and practically screamed for a cold beer to be flung down the length of the bar.
Surprisingly, some of the non-meat side dishes were the most impressive bites. The roasted beets and burrata was a pairing that spurred me to make my own version at home. It’s no longer on the menu, but it was replaced by another seasonal standout: an heirloom tomato salad.
Slices of yellow tomatoes and halves of small, purple-ish grape tomatoes were layered with slabs of creamy sheep’s milk feta from Israel that had been marinated in lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil and fresh thyme. The tomatoes were showered in fresh corn kernels, then garnished with wafer-thin wheels of lemon that had been slowly sauteed in olive oil for 10 to 15 minutes.
The bright pop of citrus and flecks of fresh thyme were perfect accompaniments, although the kitchen could tinker with the too much cheese-to-tomato ratio; there may have been $10 (the price of the entire dish) in cheese alone on my plate.
Even more off balance was the organic salmon entree, which was marred by the overwhelming licorice notes of the accompanying fennel risotto.
Heavy-hitting entrees include the tender smoked rib-eye served with Parmesan potatoes and asparagus, and the KC strip. The handsome and hefty strip, which I asked to be cooked rare, arrived precisely at temperature and dazzled in its simplicity. It was served with a blue cheese butter. The house-made French fries — which even to my low-sodium tastes should have arrived at the table with at least a shake of salt — made a worthy steak frites combo.
The pork osso bucco arrived at the table with slightly comical Flintstone-esque heft. It’s served atop creamy polenta with roasted apples, braising jus and parsley relish. The dish seems a bit heavy for the season, but there’s no denying it’s deeply delicious.
The polenta is available as a side, as are the Brussels sprouts with dried cranberries and sage, another slightly incongruous touch when heirloom tomato soup and seasonal peach icebox pie are menu companions.
The fork-tender (as opposed to fall-apart tender) smoked pork shoulder resembled a pork loin or steak, what chef de cuisine Zeb Humphrey calls the “coppa cut” — a whole, bone-in pork shoulder with a fat cap that is cooked on a smoker until tender.
The Cleaver & Cork pork shoulder was served with braised purple cabbage and a nicely seasoned, if somewhat dry, cornmeal muffin. The shoulder proved disappointing, mostly because it was slathered in a bourbon barbecue sauce and lacked smoke flavor, despite a server’s assurance that the meat was smoked with applewood chips. Humphrey says he has moved on to hickory, a more assertive wood that should up the smoke quotient.
“If that butt smelled smoke, it ran the other way,” Kansas City barbecue legend Ardie Davis and author of the upcoming “Barbecue Lover’s Kansas City Style” (Globe Pequot, Oct. 1) remarked after our lunch visit. “If someone from out of town ordered this expecting barbecue, I think they’d be disappointed.”
But in a surprising twist, the smoked vanilla creme brulee served with brandied cherries on top had a smoky-sweet finish that paid unexpected homage to the city’s ever-meaty barbecue roots.
Cleaver & Cork
1333 Walnut St.
Food: ☆☆1/2 A mostly satisfying meat-centric menu designed by Local Pig’s Alex Pope.
Service: ☆☆1/2 Always cordial, although gaps in service appear as the crowd gets larger.
Atmosphere: ☆☆1/2 Enjoy a modern saloon atmosphere with a long and impressive bar, although the restaurant space can seem too large when there is no concert or event traffic.
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 4-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Late-night happy hour with food options, 10 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$$
Vegetarian options: The most popular vegetarian dish is the zucchini and oyster mushroom lasagna. Also try the smoked beet sandwich with roasted mushrooms and butter cheese, zucchini fritters, roasted tomato soup, heirloom tomato salad and oyster mushroom salad. The pastas can be prepared without meat.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Validation available for underground garage.
Kids: Servers are happy to detail the upscale kids menu (all items are $7), but after dark the venue is designed more for date night or hanging with friends.
Noise level: Flat surfaces can amp up the volume when there’s a full house or activity in the courtyard.
Reservations: Always recommended by phone or Open Table; required for parties of 15 or more.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
The sheer drink footage of Clever & Cork’s bar top is impressive, spanning some 30 feet. The craft cocktail menu includes the classic, whiskey-based Horsefeather ($9) and the more contemporary Latin Preserve (single estate tequila, Amontillado sherry, marmalade and lemon juice, $12).
As you might expect with a meat-centric menu, there are also plenty of bourbons, single malts and ryes to choose from, as well as a tightly curated list of wines.
For nonalcoholic tastes, the bar offers Little Freshie natural sodas in flavors such as habanero-pineapple, prickly pear, blueberry-green tea.
Pickled fried green beans, $8
Cheese and charcuterie, $22
Green tomato BLT, $12
Beef tartar, $11.25
Pork osso bucco, $24
KC strip, $35