What’s Australian slang for “Good evening?”
That’s a question that may need to be answered this spring when downtown’s Banksia expands to the South Plaza and resumes dinner service.
Since opening in late 2017, the Australian bakehouse and café owned by Aussies Rob and Kate Joseph has become the go-to place for meat pies, sausage rolls and Australian sweets such as caramel shortbread and lamington cake.
The Josephs, along with co-founder Erika Vikor, have enlisted executive chef Adam Wood to help with Banksia’s expansion to the South Plaza. Late last year, the team started testing dinner service at the downtown location. In mid-January, Banksia’s owners announced they were pausing dinner service downtown and resuming it at the new location in March.
It would be easy to assume that the dinner menu at a bakery would feature sandwiches and salads, much like lunch, but that won’t be the case at Banksia. Instead, the menu will focus on shared plates and tapas-style dining, such as one would find in Sydney. Rob says he was inspired by the European-style cafés and bistros in Australia, and wanted to provide a place where you could pop in for a quick bite and a drink or spend more time socializing with friends over multiple courses.
Banksia’s menu features more than just Australian cuisine. There are no gimmick dishes. They are doing well-curated plates that would be at home on a dozen different fine dining establishment menus — but in a casual setting.
Rob is smart to aim for the neighborhood vibe. While the menu is definitely next-level, the atmosphere at the downtown location is still that of a local bakery — bright, cheerful and dotted with the work of local art and photography from Australia. Dark and sexy it is not. But the cozy, laid-back vibe seems more indicative of its geographical inspiration anyway.
The first time I tried dinner at the downtown location in December, I started with the basics — sausage rolls and charcuterie. For those who are unfamiliar with the sausage roll, Banksia’s mini sausage roll flight is a great way to experience three flavor profiles. As the name implies, these feature savory fillings wrapped in a blanket of phyllo dough. Of the three varieties — lamb and harissa, pork and fennel, and spinach, feta and pine nuts — the lamb and harissa stands out. The minced leg of lamb is cooked with almonds, couscous, and currants and finished with a Moroccan harissa paste. It’s a sweet and savory combo that hits the spot and highlights the varied influences that define Australian cuisine.
The charcuterie board is generous — by far the largest menu item available, so if you have a crowd, start here. The plate features three types of salumi, and several types of cheese, as well as marinated beets, caper berries and olives. While large, the board could benefit from more diversity in textures. All of the cheeses fell into the semi-soft range. Adding a harder, aged cheese and a soft cheese would enliven the plate a bit.
Moving on to dinner, I found my favorite item on the menu, and it was a surprising one. The starter menu features all vegetable dishes, and the cauliflower plate was divine. Whipped goat cheese pooled underneath caramelized cauliflower florets. Fresh, peppery arugula filled out the dish a bit, but the most vibrant flavor came from the one-two punch of sliced Fresno chiles and thin wedges of preserved lemons. Alone, all of these components are great. Together, they just sing.
Comparatively, the protein almost seemed like an afterthought, although it was delightful in its own right. The twice-cooked pork belly is an example of how the Josephs and Wood are repurposing items from the lunch menu in new ways. In this case, the confit pork belly from the fabulous lentil salad is seared off and presented on a mound of spiced chutney with pickled fennel and peaches.
On another visit, I enjoyed an amuse-bouche of grilled Turkish bread with two dips — anchovy-infused butter and a salsa verde that was dangerously close to being a chimichurri. The flatbread was a great vehicle for the pungent dip offerings and wasn’t bulky enough to overwhelm the appetite for dinner like a traditional bread basket.
I went full Australian on this visit, ordering both the grilled Australian lamb cutlets and the Australian prawns. A side of gnocchi with roasted butternut squash and brown butter sauce finished the meal.
Lamb appears frequently on the menu at Banksia, both in pie form and sausage rolls, but the cutlets might be the best. They’re left on the bone for maximum flavor and marinated in Greek herbs. The pool of tzatziki underneath finishes the theme but the lamb doesn’t really need it. The cutlets are moist and perfectly rare.
Imagine the scene from “Crocodile Dundee” where Paul Hogan whips out a large blade to compare to a street thug’s switchblade. Now replace that switchblade with Gulf Coast shrimp and Dundee’s knife with Australian prawns. These are closer to langostino in size and flavor, served with the heads on and gentle advice that sucking on them is completely acceptable. Served on a bed of polenta and flavored with sage and bacon, the prawns are Rob’s ode to Southern shrimp and grits.
While the presentation of the two proteins was satisfying, both would have benefitted from just a touch more salt. Luckily, the seasoning on the house-made gnocchi was perfect, as was the texture.
Of course, what’s dinner in a bakery without pastry to cap off the meal? We had to try a caramel shortbread slice (imagine a Twix bar on steroids) and a lamington cake, a cube of cake layered with raspberry jam and coated with chocolate and coconut. For those who love color, there’s a full rainbow of French macarons available as well, although they are not made in-house, but rather by a local baker.
The cocktail list mixes some classics with a few original recipes, but the focus of the drink menu is definitely wine. With more than 30 wines by the glass from Australia, Europe, California, and Oregon, there’s something for everyone.
I tried a glass of Australian Paringa Sparkling Shiraz, which was a surprise. Sparkling reds don’t often appear on Kansas City wine lists but this one was delightful — fruity without being sweet, with soft effervescence.
Banskia’s dinner service is a great surprise — inventive without being esoteric.
The Josephs and their team plan to expand and refresh the menu seasonally as they find their audience. Until we all get direct flights to Australia, we will have to be content with a hearty “G’day,” a flat white coffee, and a caramel shortbread slice — all of which Banksia is happy to provide.