I’m filing a complaint. Chef Colby Garrelts of bluestem is abusing his diners.
Witness: I was enjoying a magnificent spring pea soup (a little too much), poured around an airy quenelle of crème fraîche tableside at bluestem recently when my spoon hit bottom. I reached for the straw…. THERE’S NO STRAW!!
What did the chef expect me to do? Pick up the bowl and start licking?
Of course I didn’t lick the bowl.
There were too many people in the dining room.
I just had to find new and creative ways of using a spoon, like as a pavement stripper, scraping the enamel off of the china in order to get every little drop of that velvety, naturally-sweet soup. The truly wonderful thing about that soup: it was simply green peas pureed with stock with some salt and pepper. No butter. No cream (except for the crème fraîche added at the last minute). I also found myself bobbing for those crunchy crumbles of garlicky croutons.
You can’t hide Spring from Chef Garrelts. His menu offers exciting glimpses into the harvest season of 2008. The menu is new, Chef Garrelts insisted that it was a work in progress. But, with him, it always is. Nothing is ever perfect. But he’s wrong. That pea soup is a good example. And, besides a few nits, which only I would have the gall to notice, I had a wonderful meal.
My latest dinner, a 7-course tasting, included a stunningly-plated salad of fava beans encircling a saba-bottomed pool of Armando Mani “per me” olive oil embanked in a creamy bed of ricotta cheese. The presentation reminded me of the Lynnhaven “Chevre Fraiche” dish I had at Eleven Madison Park last year.
The beans (I shan’t ask what poor soul in the bluestem kitchen has been put on shelling duty) were perfectly cooked and dressed in a bright Champagne vinaigrette. By themselves, they were lovely.
Although I loved the intense *greeness* of the olive oil, I found that the peppery bitterness of the Armando Mani tended to accentuate the after-taste bitterness in the fava. I also wished that the ricotta had been whipped to a smoother consistency; perhaps with a touch of acid or tang added for contrast. But, that’s being a tad picky. All in all, this was a wonderful composition that I look forward to seeing improve over time. And, if this salad is still on the menu next time I’m in, I’m going to ask Mr. Lamb, the sommelier, to pair a nice white wine with it; it seems like the ideal combination of flavors for a wine pairing.
As good as that sweet pea soup was, the headliner of my meal was, surprisingly, the Strozzapreti with Duck Confit. I say that it was surprising only because the pasta courses at bluestem have never been my favorite (although I do remember a rather spectacular Gnocchi dish, with bay scallops and Sur-du-Lac Grana, that I had last year). bluestem’s pastas have never been bad, per se, I’ve just not enjoyed them as much as all the other amazing dishes Chef Garrelts produces. This dish changed all that.
The strozzapreti, or “priest chokers” (there are a number of explanations for the origin of the name), were nestled in a little bowl and served with a generous helping of duck confit – meat only – in a rich orange-infused sauce. It was topped with panko and dehydrated orange zest powder.
It was like duck à l’orange, but better. The dark confit meat, which was impossibly moist, stood up nicely against the full-bodied sauce, which struck a wonderful balance between sweet and savory, with just a hint of tartness from the citrus. Also, the slight (I do mean slight) bitterness in the dehydrated orange zest worked a nice edge into the otherwise rounded flavor. This pasta composition achieved a level of complexity that I have rarely encountered in past bluestem pasta dishes.
I won’t bore you with a perfectly-caramelized sea scallop that came with even more perfectly-cooked (if that’s possible) shrimp (they had *bounce*) hiding beneath an cloud of Champagne broth. Other than being a tad salty, this dish was, of course, perfect.
There was also a brand new hamachi crudo presentation, which the chef says is still in development. I got the first sneak eat. All I can say is that it boasts all of the sunny Mediterranean flavors that I love.
I also won’t go into much detail about a new Asian-inspired seared tuna dish, which featured slices of seared tuna on buckwheat soba noodles, enoki and shiitake mushrooms, and bok choy. I will also avoid belaboring the fact that a server pours hot “egg drop soup” (think hot and sweet (not so much sour) meets egg drop soup; it’s served in the restaurant before as a soup course) around the fish, bathing the noodles, mushrooms and vegetables in warmth. I’ll let you imagine the flavors: sweet, soy, and heat. Personally, I thought the dish needed a touch of vinegar and some ginger. But, not much else. That the fish was brilliantly fresh and appropriately cut goes without saying.
The much-anticipated aged Piedmontese striploin was fantastic. As a composition, the dish did not present the most convincing assembly of flavors. There was a smoked (San Marzano) tomato that, although good on its own, distracted me from the wonderful black truffle-flecked veal demi glace poured over the beef. Given a different sauce (tomato-based – or even cream-based), that tomato might have work much better.
But, the beef. It was so good it could shut Clara Peller up for good. It was heavily marbled, but not so much that it tasted flabby or fatty. The quality of this beef was so high that I couldn’t quite differentiate where the natural goodness of the beef flavor ended, and where the enhanced aged flavor began. It came out a gorgeously ruby medium-rare.
The whipped potatoes were also very good; light and fluffy. The truffle oil drizzled over the potatoes didn’t hurt either. I also adored the crunchy brioche square that sat by its lonesome to the side; it added a wonderful crunch. I love that texture thing.
Seeing how it was Joe West’s last weekend as sous chef pastry at bluestem, I couldn’t walk out without ordering a (sweet) dessert (cheese is my default unless there’s an irresistible ice cream or sorbet on offer). I asked the server to let West choose my dessert.
The “Textures of Carrot” presented a plate of colourful swatches of carrot gels, purees and cinnamon foam. There were three composed “vignettes.” Two were nearly identical: a puck of carrot cake atop a dab of sweet mascarpone and topped with a cinnamon foam. One of these two cakes featured a quenelle of carrot-ginger sorbet. The third composition involved a slice of carrot stewed in honey leaning against a dab of that sweet mascarpone and garnished with crunchy bits of walnut praline.
The carrot-ginger sorbet, which had a tartness to it (perhaps citrus) helped to cut through some of the sweetness of this composition; it played the roll of the missing tanginess from cream cheese. The cinnamon emulsion was very strong. It overpowered the carrot to some degree. But, I’m a sucker for cinnamon, so I didn’t mind. Those who love carrots might.
The little vignette with the honey-stewed carrot was lovely; especially with the crunchy walnut praline. It’s those *textures.*
The evening ended with a trio of petits fours and that awesome Champagne float, a treat that Megan Garrelts, the pastry chef, sends out every now and then as a decadent lagniappe. As silly as it may sound (to her), it’s probably the fondest memory that I have of my first visit to bluestem, twenty-eight meals and nearly four years ago (although that pea soup at my inaugural dinner at bluestem was just as memorable). Time flies.
bluestem is not exactly my “neighborhood restaurant” (I’m not that jaded). But, it is a hometown favorite. It’s not pretentious or fussy; I think this is one of the biggest misconceptions about the place. In fact, bluestem has a very casual atmosphere, despite the linens, china and hush-toned service. And, the prices are moderately reasonable, given the ingredients, attention to quality and preparation. The 3-course prix fixe is $60, 5-courses is $70 and the 7-course is $80. The wine lounge, is more of a testament to the value the restaurant imparts – the happy hour menu is a steal of a deal; every food item is half price.
bluestem is my kind of place: where a higher level of cooking can be the focus, if you want it to be, or the accessory to a special night out. For me, it’s almost never just the latter.
I look forward to another 28 solid meals at bluestem. I wish Joe West the best of luck as he moves on to the run the kitchen at Delaware Cafe. I’m anxious to see what wonderful dishes he’ll be cooking up over there.
[Updated 07.09.2010: Joe West opened Delaware to some critical applause, but left about a half-year later for Las Vegas, where he has been working since, to date, at Alex at the Wynn. Delaware Cafe closed shortly after West’s departure. It has since reopened as The Farmhouse.]
900 Westport Road
Kansas City, Missouri 64111