I’ve been called a food snob a time or two.
It comes with the territory, I guess, when you produce and host a television show called Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert and you’ve interviewed and dined with some of the greatest chefs at some of the greatest restaurants on the planet.
Truth is I’m not one — at least if you think food snobs only care about Champagne, caviar and black truffles unearthed by dogs in the backwoods of Piedmont, Italy.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those things and more. I would never turn down a meal overseen by Grant Achatz, Eric Ripert, Joel Robuchon, Thomas Keller or any of the other Michelin-starred chefs in this or any other country.
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The fact is I’m just as happy having a combo beef and pork sandwich prepared by the pit master at L.C.’s, a Roman-style pizza cooked by David DiGregorio at Pizzeria Via Stato in Chicago, or a back bacon sandwich at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.
My point is that I value real food prepared with passion and skill. It doesn’t have to qualify as gourmet, just not fast food, processed or frozen. I’m not saying I haven’t had my share of all three categories of food through the years. It’s just if given the choice, I will do my best to find the freshest food I can prepared by people who know how to cook and care about what they’re cooking.
I want to tell you about two places where the food rises above the expectations pretty much across the board.
My first stop is The Well in Waldo. Until recently, I’d only had drinks at this popular watering hole. The upstairs deck with its fire pits is the perfect place to gather in the spring and fall. But, food? Well, I figured it was just going to be the usual collection of wings, spinach artichoke dip and sliders. I was wrong.
First of all, The Well has chef Eric Quinsenberry, a graduate of the excellent culinary program at Johnson County Community College. Second, Quisenberry and general manager Raymond Reyes care about the food offerings, the quality of service and the overall dining experience. And it shows. My wife and I had the chance to experience a full dinner, and we were both impressed.
We came in right after 14 new items were added to The Well’s menu. So many of the dishes sounded good, it was tough to decide. We decided to order a bunch of different things, realizing we would likely have leftovers for at least another meal or two. I can’t detail everything we tasted, but let me hit on a few of the standouts.
I’m not a big salad guy, but the Caribbean Jerk Chicken Salad was an eye-opener. Nicely balanced between spice and sweetness, creamy and crunchy, this salad is a winner. It’s also plenty big enough for an entrée, especially at lunch. Quisenberry has a nice touch across a broad range of cuisines. I thought his Carne Asada Street Tacos were really tasty. Homemade pico de gallo and jalapeno lime slaw really made the tacos pop.
I thought Quisenberry also did a great job with the Kansas City Smoked Brisket Sandwich. As a smoker myself, I always enjoy sampling the efforts of other pit masters. This was a well-smoked, well-seasoned, tasty brisket sandwich with a nice not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy sauce. I love finding good barbecue at a non-barbecue restaurant. It’s like getting a great grilled salmon at Jack Stack or terrific pork chop at JAX Fish House and Oyster Bar.
It’s been awhile since we’ve been to The Well. Writing this makes me realize how much I’d like to go back.
The second eatery that completely shattered the ceiling of my culinary expectations was Barley’s Brewhaus. I went to the original location on West 119th Street in Overland Park for lunch, and it was really tasty.
I knew Barley’s had a huge selection of craft beer, but I had no idea the menu was as extensive and across-the-board delicious as it was. It was only lunch, and there were only two of us, so I couldn't sample everything I wanted, but I did ask for recommendations and the picks were spot on.
Barley’s menu is divided among several categories: micro plates, apps, small plates, salads, sandwiches, entrees, flat bread and the lighter side of Barley’s.
I tried several micro plates. First up, haus-made meatballs which were served over polenta and topped with Parmesan fondue. They were every bit as good as their description sounds.
I also had the salt-roasted poached beets, a recommendation and a dish I would not have picked. The beets, served with goat cheese, had a lovely salty, briny quality to them and the goat cheese was the perfect accompaniment. I also had the smoked trout and pears and a fungus and fromage flatbread.
I’m told the white bean and sausage penne pasta and the ancho-honey glazed salmon are extremely popular items off the dinner menu, but those will have to wait for another time and another visit. Until then, I will continue looking for real food made by real people with real passion. If that makes me a food snob, so be it.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.