Last spring I got an email slugged: “Dinner at Bluestem next Friday?”
As a food editor and restaurant critic, I’m used to taking the lead on dinner dates. But this time Bill Addison, fellow food journalist and Eater.com’s national restaurant critic, was asking me to join him.
It was Addison’s first trip to Kansas City. He, of course, expected “burly cuts of meat,” bierocks and barbecue. As he ordered from the prix-fixe chef’s tasting menu, we discussed his surprise at finding such a vibrant dining scene with sometimes subtle and at other times luxurious surprises at every turn.
That road trip — including stops at Bluestem, Rye, Happy Gillis, Port Fonda, Joe’s Kansas City, LC’s and Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor — resulted in the terrific “Uncovering the Secret Southern Soul of Kansas City’s Food Scene.”
Earlier this week Addison drew from that Kansas City trip once more for Eater’s The National 38: America’s Essential Restaurants 2016. Bluestem made the cut, rubbing elbows with 37 other restaurants that helped answer the question: “What is essential dining?”
In a time when listicles often mean less than the proverbial paper they are not printed on, I respect Addison’s choices, ones he made after eating 450 meals on the road in 2015. Addison compiled his first-ever national list last year. The restaurants are listed alphabetically rather than numerically, placing Bluestem between the legendary Blue Hill Stone Barn and the Cafe at Chez Panisse.
So what “essential” qualities landed Bluestem in the company of the nation’s blue-chip restaurants?
Start with a “customizable, modern American tasting menu … that would resonate in any city in the country,” Addison writes.
That spring night we sampled the signature spring pea soup, bay scallops in watercress nage and gnudi with a slab of strip loin. Looking back, Addison describes the Westport restaurant as “a fully realized vision of Midwestern tasting-menu dining” that is “informed by the couple’s close relationships with nearby farms.”
Megan Garrelts’ “spot-on pastry sensibility” provides “a wonderful contrast to the food sent out by chef de cuisine Andrew Longres, who plates ingredients with the precision of a jeweler setting gemstones.”
“I’m pretty shocked,” said James Beard award-winning chef Colby Garrelts, who owns the restaurant with wife Megan. “It’s awesome.”
Bluestem got a renovation at its decade mark in 2014, just about the same time Rye, their wildly popular casual, chef-inpired mom-and-pop concept in Leawood, started to take off.
So were they surprised Bluestem made the list when Rye seems to be getting the lion’s share of publicity these days?
“It’s a reminder that Bluestem is still a wonderful spot,” Megan said. “Bluestem is still our baby. It’s the voice of who we are.”
The couple are particularly proud to be listed in the same company as Chicago’s Alinea, Grant Achatz’s dinner theater laboratory, which Addison tapped as the country’s “foremost modernist restaurant,” and Manresa, the “current pinnacle of California cuisine” by David Kinch.
They are also bursting with pride that the young and talented Longres got a nod: “I’m OK with that,” Colby said. “I’ve had my time in the spotlight. It’s the next generation’s turn.”
Longres figured his dishes were under a microscope when he saw me in the dining room (as if I never dine out for fun), but reservations were made under an assumed name. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. Sure a camera (we all take our own photos these days) is a red flag but, Longres says, no worries: “We go for the gold every time.”
Think you’ll check out Bluestem during Restaurant Week? Sorry, reservations in the dining room have been sold out since October. Try for open seating at the bar instead.