These days any scenic stroll in the city brings a welcome mix of old and new, as in the stretch of Southwest Boulevard that feeds into the booming Crossroads district. There you’ll find a unique mix of boutiques, stores, coffee shops and restaurants, including the 3-month-old Blvd Tavern.
The Blvd Tavern occupies the space formerly home to Nica’s 320 and Shiraz, but a full renovation and fresh concept make this familiar storefront a new experience. Chef Derek Nacey and his wife, Meghan, who serves as general manager, have brought a good deal of experience working in Kansas City eateries to their first restaurant.
While I’m not a huge fan of the trendy term “gastropub” — a concept that comes from British pubs serving a selection of good bites alongside their pints and drams — I am definitely a fan of any establishment where a fine meal and drink can be found in a casual but chic atmosphere.
“Tavern” is an appropriate term to describe the vibe. The long, narrow space features a partly open kitchen near the entrance and a corrugated metal-faced, wood-topped bar that stretches nearly the entire room, with tables running along the opposite wall.
The design aesthetic is similar to many modern American restaurants: a palette made up of reclaimed wood, exposed brick walls, concrete floors and cooling colors lit by Edison bulbs hanging above. The space evokes the right blend of contemporary cool in an older building without being overly pretentious.
That vibe extends to the food in a welcome way, with a handful of dishes that balance the comforts of bar food with slightly more high-minded fare.
My first visit was on a busy weekend evening. Dishes were flying out of the kitchen to the packed tables and bar. We were seated near the entrance, which allowed a sneak peek of the food as waiters gathered plates from the pass.
I noticed two dishes went by repeatedly: rather large fried chicken wings and poutine. The KFC wings — twice-fried Korean fried chicken rather than any original recipe of a particular Colonel — came piled high on the plate with a dab of kimchi on the side.
The wings came with a glaze of gochujang (Korean chili paste) that gave the chicken a vivid ruby red hue and pleasantly spicy tang to cut through the fairly substantial, crispy coating. The fermented funk of the kimchi balanced the richness of the dish.
Wet towels were provided in a pint glass alongside to clean sticky sauce from your fingers, a nice and necessary attention to detail.
Poutine, a popular Canadian dish made by topping French fries with cheese curds and a meat-based gravy, has become a de rigueur dish in hip American restaurants, and Blvd Tavern’s was a nice version that didn’t go over the top.
The fries were cut to the right size and fried to a crisp texture, key steps to create a base that can stand up to the melted cheese curds and wet gravy. Our table’s order was good, if light on beef gravy.
Both items are on the small plates menu and could make up a sharable meal or bites over drinks. Other fried dishes, such as pretzel-crusted cheese curds, are listed next to lighter bites, such as steamed mussels, grilled asparagus with Gorgonzola and a solid take on steak tartare.
The tempura fried shishito peppers in particular made a satisfying snack, served with a mildly spicy sesame mayo and shaved bonito, smoked, dried Japanese fish flakes. The airy crunch of the tempura batter encased mild peppers and made a nice pairing with the Boulevard Brewing Co. Saison-Brett.
The entrée menu is a diverse mix of meat, fish and seafood that trends more upscale but never quite crosses into the realm of fine dining. As is the custom in a meat mecca like Kansas City, they offer a fine steak dish in the form of a grilled flat-iron served with pureed potatoes, green beans and roasted mushrooms.
The flavors and ingredients were all familiar and executed well, allowing the steak to shine on its own with an understated assist from a shallot and herb compound butter. I ordered and received mine medium rare, with the steak retaining a bit of the bounce and chew that makes flat-iron such a delicious cut.
One of my dining companions ordered the dry-aged Duroc pork chop, which jumped off the page with ingredients like cornbread pudding, spiced pecan green beans and bourbon syrup with raisins. The bone-in pork chop was cooked to medium, yielding tender and moist meat with a faint peppery kick from the lightly seasoned surface.
The very good and sizable cornbread pudding was rich enough to pass for a sweet and savory cake, but coupled with the bourbon syrup, raisins and spiced pecans made for a dish bordering on too many sweet notes. I could have ordered that cornbread pudding after a meal and been content. However, I was told the apple croustade is a current dessert menu favorite.
Most of the entrees I tried ranged from solid to great, with the shrimp and grits a standout. Blvd Tavern’s version is a definite notch or two above many other versions I have had locally.
Shrimp and grits is a classic comfort food, and these did not want for comfort. Obviously the shrimp was the main focus, and they were nicely seasoned, cooked properly with a succulent bite that paired well with the dark, bacon-flecked sauce and tomatoes. But the grits stole the show.
Forget the smooth, bland type you often find with substandard instant grits. Think instead of a coarse, thick, toothsome texture that comes from long cooking and proper seasoning of quality corn grits. Made with Anson Mills Antebellum grits and enriched with cheddar cheese, these oozed with an opulent richness that lingered on the palate after each bite.
Ultimately, the dish was a fine example of the chef’s elevated take on comfort food, with slight touches and smart tweaks that yield a contemporary twist on a classic.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef and freelance restaurant critic who lives in Kansas City. To reach him, email email@example.com.
320 Southwest Blvd.
Food: ☆☆☆ An approach that blends savory bar fare and smart takes on classic comfort food makes for an interesting, accessible menu with something to suit most tastes.
Service: ☆☆1/2 Waiters and bartenders are friendly, attentive and generally knowledgeable about the food and drink menus, giving personal recommendations when needed.
Atmosphere: ☆☆1/2 A contemporary mix of stripped down style and a casual, urban cool makes it an equally nice place to enjoy dinner, have drinks with friends or take a date.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday
Entrée average: $$$
Vegetarian options: Small plates like grilled asparagus, cauliflower, tempura shishito peppers and cheese curds.
Kids: No separate kids menu.
Parking: Street and lots to the side
Handicap accessible: Yes
Noise level: Medium. Concrete floors and brick walls mix with music for a louder, lively dining room atmosphere when crowded.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ 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 long bar at Blvd Tavern is a comfortable, chic spot for enjoying drinks that are every bit as thoughtful and well-executed as the food. Headed by gifted local bartender Valdez Campos, the bar features an extensive menu of craft cocktails, beers and a three-page-long wine list to pair with dishes or to enjoy on their own. Try the popular Old Thymer or Picador or peruse the menu with helpful descriptions.
KFC, Korean-fried chicken wings, $11
Tempura fried shishito peppers, $7
Shrimp and grits, $17
Dry-aged Duroc pork chop, $25
Grilled prime flat-iron steak, $24