After Aaron Wells-Morgan was hired as Grand Street Cafe’s corporate executive chef in 2013, he set out to update the menu.
He divided the single menu into lunch and dinner versions and sprinkled in lots of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Then the chef added a few of his own specialties, including a gourmet pastrami sandwich topped with Gruyere cheese and horseradish aioli (for more about the sandwich, check out the Dish with Gish column in the Chow Town section of today’s newspaper).
But Wells-Morgan says he knew it was best not to mess with Bill’s Chicken Salad. The $13 salad is named after Bill Crooks of PB&J Restaurants, the company that opened Grand Street Cafe’s original location near the Country Club Plaza in 1991. It comes with what Wells-Morgan describes as a “hodge podge” of ingredients: Mixed greens, fried coconut chicken, avocado, egg, tomato, cheese, artichoke hearts, hot mustard and balsamic vinaigrette. And customers can’t get enough of it.
Grand Street Cafe’s two-year-old Lenexa location also serves other dishes that the Plaza location is famous for, including the Grand Street Stack, a $15 steak sandwich served on a grilled baguette with caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms and mozzarella cheese. But current owners Rick and Kristi Ghilardi have given Wells-Morgan room for experimentation.
“Fresh pastas are near and dear to my heart,” Wells-Morgan says.
If you like seafood, try the pappardelle ($16 at lunch or $19 at dinner). The dish consists of thick ribbons of house-made pasta tangled with zucchini in a citrus-laced tomato sauce. The pasta is topped with dollops of lemony ricotta, fresh basil and sauteed shrimp.
In the mood for vegetarian fare? Try the baked potato gnocchi ($15 at dinner). The dumplings are served in a rustic tomato sauce with charred cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella pearls.
Wells-Morgan’s menu also features prime rib tacos ($12), pistachio-crusted ruby red trout ($23) and a roasted pork chop ($25) served with whipped potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts.
The chef’s ingredient-focused food philosophy has roots in his hometown of Columbia, Mo.
“It’s a super hippie town,” Wells-Morgan says. “Very rural, very agriculture-heavy.”
Wells-Morgan is at home in the fine dining world, but he also has down-to-earth cravings. While attending culinary school in New York, he developed a passion for pastrami, a sandwich staple in East Coast delis. His favorite pastrami sandwiches are in Philadelphia, but I think Wells-Morgan’s version could give the City of Brotherly Love a run for its money.
Grand Street Cafe’s house-made pastrami sandwich ($13 at lunch) starts with lean Black Angus brisket flats. Wells-Morgan brines the meat for seven days, then coats it with a coarse spice rub heavy on peppercorns and coriander. After 12 hours in the smoker and another 12 hours of steam, the pastrami is soft enough to slice and flakes easily. The chef serves the smoky, spicy meat — which reminds me of burnt ends — on toasted marble rye bread with Gruyere cheese, horseradish aioli, Worcestershire steak sauce and giardiniera, a hot and colorful condiment made in-house with carrots, celery, red onions, garlic, jalapenos, fresno chiles and rice wine vinegar. The sandwich is served with spicy house-made potato chips.
On a recent Monday afternoon, I devoured the satisfying sandwich while sitting in a round booth at the Lenexa Grand Street Cafe’s sun-filled bar. The restaurant’s interior is chic, with sparkly chandeliers and a cool gray and blue color scheme, but it’s also comfortable. Large windows overlook the still-developing Lenexa City Center neighborhood, which will soon be home to a Hyatt Place hotel with 125 rooms.
Grand Street Cafe was one of the first restaurants to open in Lenexa City Center, which is also home to office buildings for B.E. Smith and Perceptive Software. An apartment complex and the Lenexa Civic Center are also in the works — which means more potential customers for Grand Street Cafe.
I’m already planning a return trip for brunch (10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday). The menu boasts Nutella cream cheese-stuffed French toast, bacon-infused Bloody Marys and, of course, a pastrami skillet with home fries, poached eggs, caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms and Gruyere cheese.
Grand Street Cafe
Location: 8815 Renner Blvd. in Lenexa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Credit Cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t Miss: The pappardelle pasta ($19 at dinner or $16 at lunch), house-made noodles mixed with zucchini ribbons in a citrus tomato sauce with fresh basil, lemon ricotta and sauteed shrimp. At lunch, try the house-made pastrami sandwich ($13), served on marble rye with Gruyere cheese, giardiniera, horseradish aioli and worcestershire steak sauce.
Vegetarian: Try the made-from-scratch baked potato gnocchi ($15 at dinner) or the roasted beet panzanella salad ($13), which consists of candied walnuts, cider-braised apples, goat cheese, toasted walnut raisin bread and arugula tossed together in an apple cider vinaigrette.