The area surrounding West 39th Street has always been a diverse neighborhood: edgy, comfortable, experimental, ethnic, recycled and artsy. Kansas Town, a newly opened restaurant at the southwest corner of 39th Street and Terrace, is no exception. In fact it seems to have most of these things all under one roof.
I first visited the oddly named establishment shortly after opening. Not to be put off by a beer banner sign, I entered early on a spring evening to find myself the only guest. I was greeted and seated—my choice of table. The space is a bit austere, a little like a contemporary art gallery, perhaps explained by the fact that the owner, Mike Bechtel, is a recovering artist turned restaurateur. He’s using the space to display a few of his own works, as well as promote other area artists in a constantly changing display. But the wall art isn’t the only thing that changes here. Chef Garrett Kasper has a taste for change as well.
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Kasper is young, passionate and excited about what he does—and with good reason. The concise menu changes daily, sometimes even during the service. During my visits over a period of five weeks, I’ve observed a few constants on the menu, but I also experienced many interesting changes that speak to chef Kasper’s own influences and culinary language. The first thing you notice about Kasper’s food is his visual sensitivity. His food looks good enough to eat—if you’re not afraid to mess it up a little in the process.
One interesting comment consistent with my various dining companions is that the food coming out of the kitchen doesn’t seem to match the dining room. It’s like that disconcerting discovery that “the drapes don’t match the rug” but in a good way. In fact, the surprise factor may actually make the food taste even better.
Each of my visits began with an amuse-bouche, a course I occasionally enjoy and a course that can tell you a lot about the chef. An amuse should always serve as an amusing bite to heighten the anticipation of the meal. It also keeps you from starving before you finally get something substantial to eat. In an ideal world, the chef dreams up a little amuse each day that makes its way, one bite at a time, to each customer. In reality, an amuse is a way for a chef to give value to a product that might otherwise be wasted or thrown away. It’s actually quite generous of a chef considering that they put quite a bit of work into something that they are essentially giving away. It shows a reverence for the food and for the customers. Most of the amuse-bouche I sampled at Kansas Town involved seafood, such as a refreshing bite of tuna tartare with herbal and vegetable garnishes, and it tells me that chef Kasper is conscientious and generous, moving seafood (one of the most expensive and perishable products in the kitchen) to keep it fresh, and it gives the customers a little surprise, possibly widening their own culinary horizons.
Kansas Town describes itself as a contemporary neighborhood bistro, an apt descriptor. The focus is on smaller plates allowing you to sample more things, and the prices match accordingly. If your idea of dinner is a baked potato and a 22-plus-ounce rib-eye steak, Kansas Town may be a bit of a challenge for you, but I guarantee you won’t leave hungry—and if you do it’s your own damn fault. Many of the dishes are presented on non-traditional “plates” like wood planks or slate. The slate tile was a beautiful backdrop for the beet tart tatin. The beets were thinly sliced, layered and cut into a brick form, artfully garnished with a smear of sour cream, and the carrots and kale were presented in the dish many ways—dots of raw carrot and carrot sauce, and the kale appearing as both an intensely savory sauce and crunchy pickled kale stems. City Bitty Farm (Lawrence, Kansas) microgreens graced the plate as well as a fennel-flavored crumble. I was glad I didn’t have to share that one. On another visit, a creamy and grassy/mineral-y kale panna cotta played a similar role to that of the beet brick, also plated on slate with the familiar dots and flourishes, this time with crunchy ribbons of carrot, red and white target-like slices of Chioggia beet and pea sprouts providing new interest.
An excellent and generous starter plate for sharing is the Kansas Town take on banh mi, a crusty flatbread topped with a cleanly flavored chicken-liver pâté (meaning not too liver-y) and luscious braised pork, with refreshing strips of raw carrot, paper-thin radish slices and cilantro sprouts. Another dish to share could be the risotto with red wine and mushroom textures although I had no trouble eating the entire portion on my first visit. I loved the risotto despite my inability to locate red wine and that I found the risotto cooked a bit past a good Italian al dente. The redeeming flavors and accompanying textures so far outweighed the faults that I have to praise it. The perfectly seasoned white risotto came in the shape of a rectangle, topped with an assortment of wild mushrooms, each with a different consistency—dried and crispy, some chewy, some almost fried, all of them savory, with shavings of grana cheese and microgreens providing an infusion of freshness.
The day I spoke with the chef he had two current favorites, one of them the Barham Farm (Kearney) beef short ribs with creamy grits, radish and a musky sweet papaya barbecue sauce which I too enjoyed. But I was much more excited about the precisely executed Barham Farm lengua, a sturdy composition of earthy beef tongue (cooked either sous vide or with extremely gentle reverence), a few darkly crisped yet elegant onion rings, a bit of caviar-like quinoa, crunchy fried kale and marvelous little pearlescent droplets of smoked onion puree. I’m always excited when chefs tackle less familiar cuts of meat, and chef Kasper certainly hit this one out of the barnyard.
When asked what plans he has for future dishes, Kasper said he really wouldn’t know until he sees his ingredients. He’s looking forward to the arrival of new spring flavors to add to his palette. He would like to add more local farmers and food sources to his suppliers, and asked if you, dear reader, might know of any, please share them with him. One thing that he did foresee was the addition of various forms of barbecue, especially using the suckling pig from Barham Farm. He’s envisioning platters of succulent pork, new sauces and good cornbread.
His other favorite (that day) was the more traditional chocolate torte, rich and dense
chocolate with hints of orange atop a pâté sucre crust. This was my favorite dessert as well. The fun part, aside from the chocolate, was that each bite was enlivened by whatever combination of garnishes gathered on the fork, such as the Meyer lemon marmalade, smoked Nutella or star anise. The cheesecake, which appeared for all purposes to be a crème caramel, was silken enough to not be cake, but the creamy textures and hints of cayenne and maple rendered semantics rather unimportant.
In addition to Tuesday through Saturday dinner service, Kansas Town features a happy hour and Saturday and Sunday brunch. Happy hour is built around the succinct bar menu and half-price drinks. We sampled owner Bechtel’s favorite, the Korean street taco, a fresh corn tortilla topped with tongue, rice and kimchi. (The kimchi is what makes it Korean.) A sweet plantain and jalapeño-filled empanada was finished with a drizzle of honey and lime. My dining companion and I politely fought over the half chicken, a mahogany-crusted bird both smoked and fried, mildly spicy and very crispy. It was one of those crusts that make you pick up the crumbs off the plate so nothing goes to waste. The chicken was served over a tasty potato salad (nice with the crust crumbles) and a biscuit that wasn’t necessarily a biscuit to my Southern sensibilities.
If you’re accustomed to a refined, white-gloved service experience, think of this as a night on the other side of the tracks. You are on 39th Street. But our servers were always genuinely friendly and ready to help with any request. They were perhaps overwhelmed by the frequently changing, complex menu items, some that would challenge even the most savvy and experienced of servers. As is true with most restaurants in their infancy, those kinks are sure to work themselves out. Parking, with the exception of a few spaces, is essentially on the street, but this was never an issue during our visits.
Online customer reviews reveal that brunch is rapidly attracting a strong following. Available à la carte or as a $24 three course prix fixe, the Kansas Town brunch menu has a homey look, with comfort foods like a cinnamon roll (purportedly over a pound), pancakes with papaya, coconut and pecan, or chocolate-covered peanut-butter banana scone. It looks like a morning-after-carb-lovers delight. The toast with bacon, jalapeño pesto, beet greens, fried egg and hollandaise seems a perfect combination to me. With spring in full swing and summer on the way, I can’t wait to see what new and beautiful combinations come from the mind and hands of this creative young chef.