Kansas City’s Bluestem restaurant renovates with eye toward the future

06/21/2014 7:00 AM

06/21/2014 6:38 PM

Walk into Bluestem — one of Kansas City’s premier dining destinations — and this is what you’ll see: a neutral gray color palette, walnut-stained millwork, suede banquettes and Edison bulbs that offer a streamlined and sophisticated tableau.

But it is the dramatic, cloud-like, curvilinear 3-D ceiling and a clever wine rack constructed of mailing tubes to resemble crop circles that provide the electric jolt of anticipation that the best restaurants feed on.

It’s a dramatic transformation for the charming yet slightly cockeyed 1,100-square-foot dining room that sported shabby chic decor just three months ago. Chef/owners/husband and wife Colby and Megan Garrelts hired David Herron of Herron + Partners in Olathe, a longtime Bluestem fan and customer, to rebuild and rebrand.

On the second night of service, Colby stands at the helm of the open kitchen with gleaming, stainless steel counters. He positions himself with his back to diners at “the pass,” kitchen lingo for the last inspection by the head chef before the plate is picked up by the server and whisked to the expectant diner. “Now we’re basically onstage, which adds drama to the dining experience,” he says.

The menu is as refined as ever, but a la carte is gone. Instead, the three ($65), five ($75) or 10 course ($110) tasting meals are designed as carefully as the room. The season offers such gems as the restaurant’s signature spring pea soup with edible flowers, and torchon de foie gras to swipe on buttery brioche toast. There is a lemony garden asparagus salad, an olive-oil poached halibut and fresh strawberries with a delicate scoop of chamomile ice cream and straws of white chocolate.

For an additional cost, well-considered wine pairings are recommended.

Before the remodel, the progressive American fare coming out of the Bluestem kitchen seemed to magically burst forth through a swinging door that concealed the gnarled blueprint of a 102-year-old building that had contorted to the breaking point. The Garreltses and their staff had done “the Bluestem dance,” making do with the cramped workspace while creating and refining the seasonally driven dishes that won them national acclaim.

Back in 2004, the couple chose the space at 900 Westport Road for its affordable rent and its urban vibe. Colby, now 40, started his career a few doors down at the Stolen Grill, a harbinger of the growth of Kansas City’s independent restaurant scene over the next decade. In those days, the funky Westport neighborhood was more comfortable, with bohemian falafel shops, beer kitchens and late-night food trucks.

Like many chefs of his generation who were eager to escape what was considered culinary exile in flyover country, Colby left Kansas to work under celebrity chefs, peppering his resume with stints at Rick Tramonto’s Tru in Chicago, Jean Joho’s Eiffel Tower and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in Las Vegas and Hans Rockenwagner’s Rockenwagner in Santa Monica, Calif.

Friend and fellow chef Patrick Ryan, 39, also headed out of town, eventually landing at Chicago chef Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo.

On a trip home, Ryan sauntered into Bluestem for dinner.

“I wouldn’t be lying to say that I was blown away,” recalls Ryan, who now owns Port Fonda a few blocks away. “I didn’t know a restaurant like that existed in Kansas City. I remember thinking, like, this is a big city restaurant.”

Ryan wasn’t the only one who noticed the level of food swinging through those doors at Bluestem. The first blip on the national radar came when Colby was chosen as one of Food & Wine’s Top 10 Best New Chefs in 2005, barely a year after opening. But the celebrity chef game isn’t always a straight shot to the top, and after skyrocketing to success, he spent seven excruciating years waiting for a nod as James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest, the pinnacle of a culinary career.

Colby brought home the Beard in 2013; by then, he and Megan had authored the “Bluestem Cookbook” and opened Rye, a much larger and more mainstream (and yes, less expensive) restaurant at 10551 Mission Road in Leawood. Rye offers a comfortable, modern, mom-and-pop operation and chef-driven salute to Midwestern comfort food ranging from a more rustic version of pea soup to fried free-range Amish chicken.

Meanwhile, Westport has evolved from a mishmash of quirky eateries into a collection of quintessential dining spots. In recent months, notable openings have included Preservation Market by Local Pig’s Alex Pope; Julep, a whiskey bar by husband and wife team Beau Williams and Keely Edgington; Ça Va, a champagne bar by the Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange’s Howard Hanna; and Ryan’s Port Fonda, whose Mexican street food-inspired menu debuted in an Airstream trailer.

“We want to continue to be that iconic restaurant for a very long time,” Megan says of the neighborhood’s maturing restaurant scene, “and the remodel is basically so that we can.”

Prairie chic

Bluestem’s 10th anniversary party on March 15 — the date the restaurant opened — has the unmistakable air of out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new. Surprisingly, neither Colby nor his dad, a handy guy who had helped him build the original bar, had any qualms about saying goodbye.

“Rye consumed us for two years,” Colby says two days later on a walk through the “before” space with Herron the day before the demolition began. “I was feeling guilty. I lost some of my love for this space because it was just broken.”

The kitchen layout was insanely bottlenecked. The tile floor was collapsing under the sink. The wine storage closet was an odd-shaped space that had once been a hair and nail salon. A utilitarian-looking fire door awkwardly joined the space between the bar/lounge, which was tacked on two years after the original dining room opened. And patrons on the more casual side were always reluctant to traipse through the dining room to get to the bathroom.

“Our goal was to streamline the space,” says Herron, who has designed skyscrapers and was eager to tackle a more intimate project with a sense of brand identity at stake. “Ultimately, I wanted the space to be at the same caliber as the food.”

Herron doesn’t consider himself a foodie, although he and his wife, Mary, have been regular customers at Bluestem almost since the beginning. As a diner, he had watched the food and the chefs mature, and he wanted to help them make the leap to the next level of sophistication — a look that did not include any obvious prairie imagery, despite the restaurant name’s reference to a prairie grass.

“I’ve had a long time to think about ways to make a gesture to the prairie,” he jokes.

While Herron pushed for oblique references, at the beginning of the redesign it wasn’t clear if the dramatic ceiling treatment would make the cut. Priority No. 1: Colby needed a new hood over the stove.

Millwork, lighting and the hood would take the lion’s share of the pie, so Herron helped keep costs down by nixing a $15,000 to $18,000 custom wine cabinet in favor of the ingenious mailing tubes that came in at about $1,000. The swap ultimately freed up enough money for a dramatic yet fairly inexpensive ceiling treatment fashioned from laser-cut primed and painted MDF (medium density fiber) board.

“To me, it’s like plating the food,” Herron says. “A couple of these details makes a big difference.”

Unleashed from the stove

In recent years, both Garreltses have been moving out of the daily grind to focus on expanding their restaurant portfolio.

“The bottom line is when you chain yourself to that stove, you just don’t grow,” Colby says as he sits at a window seat at Rye one afternoon as a robust weekday lunch crowd swirls around him. “I see a lot of chefs in this town and other towns that feel like they can’t step away from that thing, and they never go anywhere because they can’t let go. It’s not about me anymore, and it’s not about her (he nods to Megan). It’s about all my guys (on the line). I have to give them their opportunity.”

Despite all the critical accolades, the 28 seats at Bluestem will never produce the kind of cash flow needed to expand. Rye, on a busy Friday night, can mean 1,000 plates sent out of the kitchen to between 220 and 240 diners spread through the dining room, patio and private dining room.

Oklahoma Joe barbecue founder Jeff Stehney and his wife, Joy, are partners in Rye. He says Rye’s volume will take the Garreltses into the next stratosphere of dining. “I know (Colby) would never turn away from his vision for fine dining,” he says, “but Rye is a better financial model.”

On a recent Friday night, Rye had 200 reservations on the book. During the lull between lunch and happy hour, Megan surveys the sprawling 7,000-square-foot space looking for its imperfections. An accomplished pastry chef with an eye for delicate details, she can’t walk past a stand displaying their blue-linen covered Bluestem cookbook without straightening it. A few minutes later she climbs a ladder and reshelves her favorite cookbooks on a high shelf that is built into the custom wine rack. Someone has replaced the books after use, but she doesn’t like the order.

“Colby is the dreamer,” she says. “I’m the one who actually makes sure the lights stay on, so we’re a good team.”

And teamwork (plus three sets of grandparents and a nanny) has helped them raise two young children, Madi, who just finished first grade, and 3-year-old Colin, while they devote time to building their brand. Both take off Sunday and Monday for family time, and they alternate who works Tuesday and Thursday night. They usually both work Friday night.

At 5 p.m., Rye’s general manager, Jeremy Lamb, runs through the specials and takes a few moments to remind servers to engage with their customers. Over a dozen years, he has worked in 26 restaurants in cities across the country. But he has been at Bluestem and now Rye for eight years, a long time in an industry known for turnover.

“They are just awesome to work for,” Lamb says of the Garreltses. “Megan is efficient, open-minded and willing to take ideas. Colby is incredibly creative and passionate. We hit it off as partners and friends from Day 1.”

With Rye chugging along and providing capital to grow, the Garreltses hint at more concepts — maybe with the Stehneys. During the remodel the couple were also working on their second cookbook, on comfort food based on many of the dishes served at Rye, due out next year.

About the only thing they insist they won’t add to their plate: a TV show.

“The people I look up to the industry, you don’t see them on television,” Colby says. “They write books. They run their businesses well. It’s not about us anymore. It’s about the brand and the company. It’s way bigger than we are: We’re just the face of it.”

Bittersweet brainstorming

In mid-April, Colby and Bluestem chef de cuisine Andrew Longres hunker down in the basement test kitchen of the Garreltses’ Leawood home for a menu brainstorming session.

The butcher block table is stacked with luxuriously photographed coffee table cookbooks. A dry-erase board on an easel is nearby. But there’s also a collection of skateboards in one corner (“I grew up skating. I obviously don’t anymore!”), a guitar in another (“I’m a failed musician!”) and a very fat cat fully stretched out on the carpet.

Colby turns on tunes (mostly rock, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles) while Longres kicks off his flip-flops, grabs a red marker and starts things off by making a list of all the spring vegetables he wants to use on the new Bluestem menu. It is a long list that includes obvious choices, such as asparagus, rhubarb and peas, and not-so-pedestrian choices, like favas, nettles, chanterelles, chickpeas and fiddle-head ferns.

Longres, 27, grew up in Liberty, and he has spent three years busting it at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley ode to American cuisine that is considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world. Longres’ enthusiasm, talent and dedication aren’t even a question, but as chef de cuisine, he’s also stuck in the unenviable position of trying to divine what “Chef” — with a capital “C” — wants and executing it brilliantly.

“What do you want to do with the asparagus?” Colby asks.

“Asparagus, lemon, ricotta and ham … or do we want to go off the wall with a bottarga vinaigrette?” Longres responds. “Wait! Should we do ricotta or Parmesan?”

The discussion is rapid-fire: Ribbons or buds? Poaching, steaming, blanching in a court-bouillon or sous vide? Parmesan or preserved lemons? Or a Parmesan square on top or even better, a Parmesan tuile?

“This is hard. You have something up there, but I don’t know what it is,” Colby says. “Draw it.”

They both take turns drawing badly, but well enough to get on the same page. Chef nixes a Parmesan tuile, which resembles a delicate cookie, because the dish is beginning to “look like dessert.”

“I want something natural. That’s almost too contrived,” Colby says. “A Parmesan tuile looks produced, and it doesn’t look super natural, and the rest of the dish does. That’s the stuff we need to work out. … That’s when we get frustrated, because you want something like this, and I want something like that.”

The final squiggles are recorded with iPhones. Weeks later the finished dish — an artful melange of asparagus pieces with wafer-thin circles of radish and preserved lemon in a Parmesan vinaigrette and garnished with sorrel — is served.

“Andrew … that kid is amazing!” Colby says. “I’m going to get him trained and then,” he sighs and his voice becomes tinged with sadness because he knows how this story ends, “he’s going to move on.”

Rye 2.0

Over the past two years, Colby and Megan have become close friends with the Stehneys.

The guys bonded over barbecue. Colby borrowed an Oklahoma Joe’s smoker while he was working on the first Rye menu and soon started competing at barbecue competitions. To date, Colby has been less than pleased with the judges’ scores. “I know from his barbecue that he is fiercely competitive,” Stehney says.

Colby cops to that competitive streak: “Sometimes it drives Megan crazy.”

Thankfully, the all-consuming pressure of chasing the Beard award is a thing of the past. And it’s no accident that the hefty and hard-won medallion hangs on a wall between the bathroom and the kitchen. In the scheme of the new Bluestem, it’s a fairly unobtrusive piece of real estate lit by a single spotlight.

“Colby didn’t want to flaunt it by putting it at the front door,” architect Herron says. “Hanging it by the finishing table reminds all those people (in the kitchen) what they are there for.”

Kansas City has had other James Beard winners, including Michael Smith, Celina Tio and Debbie Gold. But Colby was the first chef not from the American Restaurant, a corporate dining room owned by Hallmark with established Beard foundation connections and deep pockets.

For seven years, everyone at Bluestem crossed their fingers. Each nomination meant months of roller-coaster public relations campaigns (both on their own and with the help of a Chicago-based firm). So when the Garreltses walked hand-in-hand to the podium at Lincoln Center in New York City to accept his award, it felt like it rightfully belonged to both of them.

“It’s nice not to be chasing that stuff anymore,” Colby says. “I feel like we can settle down and mature. And now it’s about John (Brogan, Rye’s chef de cuisine). And now it’s about Andrew. And now it’s about Jeremy.

“I feel like we still have to keep working our asses off and always will,” he pauses, “but I feel like we have the foundation down, and now it’s time to start building their foundations and make sure they succeed.”


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