review: great potential in the making…

bluestem
(two visits may, 2005)

Colby and Megan Gerrelts came to Kansas City with outstanding training and credentials. The dynamic duo met in the kitchen of TRU in Chicago. Returning to Colby’s hometown, Kansas City, the Gerrelts garnered more top-notch training in the kitchen of the famed American Restaurant, under Michael Smith and Debbie Gold, the city’s only James Beard Award winners. (Smith and Gold have since moved on to open their own highly acclaimed restaurant, 40 Sardines).bluestem is tucked away in the rough, but up-and-coming Westport district. One of the oldest parts of Kansas City, the area is part-Bohemian, part college-like bar scene, and part gay community. The small restaurant seats no more than forty people. The décor is simple, yet not quite “minimalist.” Vases of “bluestem” wheat sit on small ledges around the dark blue-walled interior. Mirrors help enlarge the narrow space.On my first visit, I had the chef’s tasting menu of six courses. ($70)


Amuse Bouche Flight Posted by Picasa

My flight of amuses bouche was stunning. An elongated glass plate (a la TRU). On the left was a demi-spoon of crème fraiche and Osetra caviar garnished with sumac sprouts which was accompanied by a sliver of quail egg.


Osetra caviar, creme fraiche, quail egg. Posted by Picasa

In the middle was a shot of white grape juice with lavender froth. The picture (above) actually looks like there are two liquids… but the reddish one on top is actually the lavender froth “melting.” This was fabulous!


Lump crab, cucumber and lemon zest. Posted by Picasa

The real winner, however, was on the right: Lump crab with shaved cucumber, orange zest and avocado. Wow. This was the king of seafood salads. Real crab loosely incorporated in a light emulsified fat, buttery avocado and crisp-fresh cucumbers. The orange zest added a welcomed floral accent… it’s what fresh seafood should always taste like.First up was a Crudo of yellowtail with pear in lemon balm froth. I have to admit, I wasn’t a big fan of this one. While I’m sure it’s a pleaser for some, the flavors were just a bit off for me, or, rather overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the extremely fresh fish. It was very “sagey,” which is perhaps my least favorite herb, with a hint of thyme (which I normally love). The chunks of fish swam in thick briny caper and olive oil marinade that, with the acidic citrus, left an odd bitter after taste. It reminded me of the peculiar taste that sardines and anchovies packed in oil have – although I don’t mind the taste with these “fishier” fish.


Crudo of yellowtail. Posted by Picasa

Second was a La Belle Farms foie gras with apple, pistachio, and eucalyptus ice cream. I know I’ve said time and again that I don’t care for seared or cooked foie. In fact, I had asked my server if I could replace this course with foie au torchon, or the pate version, but they had 86’ed it earlier that night. I was pleasantly surprised by this dish. It was wonderful. I’m still not a fan of seared foie, but I am a fan of seared foie when it is served with apple, pistachio and eucalyptus ice cream. What an amazing combination – the perfect marriage of the savory, the tender, the crunchy, and the soothing all tied together with a deep tangy-sweet balsamic reduction.


Seared foie gras and eucalyptus ice cream. Posted by Picasa

I had also underestimated my third course – “Sweet Pea Soup with Ricotta ravioli and truffle.” It didn’t sound that exciting to me on the menu, but it turned out to be a winner. The server brought a bowl in which sat three ricotta-filled ravioli garnished with whole red peppercorns and truffle oil. After presenting the contents of the bowl, the server poured in the hot sweet pea soup – a luscious and frothy ode to summer. This was consistently a pleaser on my two visits.


Ricotta ravioli in sweet pea soup. Posted by Picasa

Next, the server brought a satellite-sized and shaped bowl that held a jewel of a halibut filet nestled atop a gathering of white carrot, fingerling potatoe, black olives, and artichoke hearts. It was garnished with microgreens and lemon froth. The fish had a thin, almost-cripsy, pan-sealed crust and was infused throughout with the wonderful smoky flavor of lardons. The flesh was tender and moist on the inside.


Halibut, fingerling, olives, artichoke and white carrot. Posted by Picasa

Colorado rack of lamb with merguezpiquillo peppers, grilled scallions and smoked paprika sauce was out-of-this-world. Two generous cuts of tender and rare lamb rib chops leaned triumphantly against each other, propped-up by the true gem of this course – a smoked piquillo stuffed with a moist veal and rice mixture. Underneath it all was a bed of wonderful grilled scallions which helped mop up the veal demi-glace and

balsamic reduction.


Colorado rack of lamb with merguez piquillo-stuffed pepper. Posted by Picasa

My meal was coming to an end – thankfully, for I hardly had the stomach to eat much more. Megan, the pastry chef of the husband-wife team (she trained under Gail Gand at TRU) was in the kitchen that night (Colby was out of town). She sent out a dessert duo of Chocolate Pudding and Beignet.The “pudding” was a warm chocolate cake-like pudding served with caramel ice cream, caramelized bananas, a chocolate tuile, cacao nibs and caramel sauce. The pudding was semi-warm. I wish it had been hotter. While I enjoyed chasing the bitter-crunchy cacoa nibs around the caramel ice cream, I left half of the pudding and most of the bananas untouched. It was good, but not great.


Chocolate pudding, beignet and carmelized bananas. Posted by Picasa

Never a big fan of beignets, I took just a small bite of the sugar-coated fried dough. Using the small piece, I managed to soak up the large majority of the passion fruit syrup.


Champagne float with Grand Marnier truffle. Posted by Picasa

After clearing my plates and making sure I didn’t need more coffee, my server brought out the check. At bluestem, instead of the traditional petite fours (which I usually find cute, but boring), they send the diner off with a little something special. This night, I was the happy recipient of a Champagne “float” and a Grand Marnier truffle. Bubbly Champagne fizzed with a small dollop of vanilla ice cream, sending me to sweet-tooth heaven. The rich and decadently dark chocolate Grand Marnier brought me back down to earth… with a nice bittersweet end.While not perfect, my first visit to bluestem was satisfying enough to convince me to return the next week. This time, I was with a larger party ordering a la carte.

On my second visit, I was able to sample a couple of the salads. While neither was worth $8, of the two, the frisee with “crispy Camembert” was far superior. The cheese had been breaded and deep fried and served with a generous bed of curly frisee and wonderful bits of smoky guanciale. The arugula with a Parmesan crisp was simple and rather lackluster.


Arugula with parmesan crisp. Posted by Picasa

A number of our party tried the sweet pea soup and were as pleased as I had been on my first visit. ($8)Entrees included Sea Scallops and Kobe beef. A quadruplet of large sea scallops lined neatly in a row stood atop a mélange of wide noodles, white asparagus and spinach in garlic milk. The translucent-tender scallops were wonderfully caramelized, the dark crust enhancing the meat’s inherent sweetness. ($24)


Sea scallops and garlic milk Kobe beef with soft shell crab. Posted by Picasa
A cut of grilled Kobe beef, crowned with a soft-shell crab, perched atop a stack of grilled vegetables and “Forbidden rice.” The Kobe was chewy and unappetizing, definitely taking second seat to the ethereally light and crisp beer battered crab. The dark risotto-like “Forbidden rice” was way salty, even for a saline fiend like me. This entrée was a disaster, compounded by the $38 price tag.As well, the Colorado lamb was ordered I was shocked to see that the full entree portion was smaller than my tasting the week before! ($34) Disheartened by our meal (and I personally embarrassed for having recommended it with such high praise), we skipped dessert.
In sum, there was no doubt that the quality of the food was top notch. Unfortunately, some of the flavors, combination and portion sizes were disappointing.Service at bluestem is consistent, but “aloof.” The staff isn’t exactly “friendly.” They service you, impeccably and seamlessly, but robotically without chit-chat, a smile or any sign of life behind sober faces. I wondered whether the rather disappointing second visit was due to the fact that half of the staff (and no doubt the kitchen) was focused on serving the Gerraltses, who were dining with family at the table to our left.
Does Gerralts deserve the title as one of the “Best New Chefs” of 2005? Probably. He’s not yet the “Best Chef of…,” but certainly one of the best new chefs in America. He and his wife doubtlessly have command of their kitchen and food, but perhaps need to work on finding the right combinations and pricing. I look forward to better things from them in the future.

bluestem ***
900 Westport Road
Kansas City, Missouri 64111
816.561.1101

Rating Scale
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?

* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.

~ by ulterior epicure on July 6, 2005.

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