Anna’s Oven: 1809 W. 39th St

 Posted by at 6:26 am
Jan 192012
 

Anna’s Oven, a strange combo of tasteful cafe, comfort food emporium and charitable endeavor may have good food but I’ll probably never find out. It’s not the menu or the concept that rubs me the wrong way, but the execution is simply substandard due to an apparent lack of good management and oversight.

Rear exterior

The space has been attractively renovated and is barely recognizable from its days as Matchstick BBQ, a short-lived but fairly solid breakfast and smoked meat joint on 39th Street West. Given the name and the interior vibe, I would assume that Anna’s Oven specialized in fancy salads, vegetarian fare and overpriced soups, but the menu trends toward updated versions of American classics: meatloaf, roasted chicken, macaroni and cheese and desserts like cobbler and bownies.

Interior

Menu Board

They open up at 11am and I strolled in about 11:40, eager to try the meatloaf, which Mr. Ferruzza enjoyed on one of his visits. Alas, they were out of meatloaf, which I assume meant that it hadn’t been made yet, given that they had recently opened and there was only one table occupied. The woman at the counter also warned me that they did not have chicken pot pie, which had been prominently advertised on the sandwich board out on the sidewalk. So I opted for chicken and noodles ($7) since it is a relative rarity on local menus and they advertise that the noodles are house-made.

The woman from the counter ran the front of the house by herself on my visit and spent a lot of time talking up the charitable aspect of Anna’s Oven with the few customers that strolled in. The business apparently gives a percentage of sales to the Friends of St. Anne, an organization that supports the work of a girls school in Kenya. Being a curmudgeonly old cynic I don’t pay much mind to this sort of thing. After all, what an odd choice of charity. It may have personal importance to the investors of Anna’s Oven, but I have no assurance that a religious school in Africa is more worthy of funds than Harvester’s, Big Brothers/Sisters, Amnesty International or the Heifer Project. Let’s be clear: I think charitable business ventures are an excellent idea, but this one seems too specific. I don’t want to research the charity before spending my money there. And it certainly doesn’t give them a pass to be a crappy restaurant.

Anyhow all this chatting about St. Anne’s really cut into the time the server was spending with other customers as more people slowly drifted in. She was supposed to bring out a bottled beverage to my table that took longer than the 25 seconds it should have taken. When she wasn’t with customers she was mincing garlic on a cutting board behind the counter and ignoring everyone. Basically you can forget about getting any attention once you leave the counter.

We must have waited 30 minutes for our food, so long that it almost became funny. While we waited I witnessed the wrong order being delivered to another table in the joint, and the wrong order given to a person waiting for takeout. Food was returned to the kitchen and fixed or remade apparently. This didn’t bode well. At least I had a bottle of Boulevard Wheat to keep me company.

Imagine my lack of surprise when the chicken and noodles arrived and the waitress explained that these were “not the usual noodles” because “they didn’t leave us any from last night.” What I received was a bowl of store-bought rotini with bits of chicken distributed throughout and maybe a 1/4 cup of watery broth hiding underneath. It was certainly not “yummy thick broth.” There was not even any garnish. Wanna see it?

Chicken and Noodles

This should really be obvious, but if you advertise house-made noodles in your dish and intend to substitute dried pasta, you should inform the diner first.

Where's the broth?

The dish was completely substandard and highly disappointing. It reminded me of something you make at home when you’re drunk and only have pasta and a leftover chicken carcass. I was annoyed, which you can probably discern from the general tone of this post. But there was no manager to speak to, just an unavailable server and a guy in the kitchen.

Menu | Anna's Oven 2012-01-17 22-37-27

But hey the salad was good.

Chef Salad

That little bowl in the background is the standard order of regular mac and cheese. Yep, the same store-bought noodles with a thin, slightly sour cheese sauce, and no garnish. This food is literally beige, would it kill them to put a parsley sprig somewhere? The mac didn’t taste all that bad, but was severely underseasoned and didn’t exhibit the best qualities of homestyle mac and cheese: cheesiness, salt. And where was the buttered bread crumb topping as promised on the menu? It certainly didn’t make me want to order the $68 party portion.

What am I getting at other than to complain? For starters, it’s clear that Anna’s Oven suffers from a lack of proper oversight and training. Why were there no processes in place to ensure that meatloaf, pot pie and homemade noodles are available every day when they open? Why did the cook and/or server not feel obliged to inform me that they were serving me something different than was advertised? Why was this place so goddamn slow? Other than providing a forum to feel good about charitable endeavors, are the owners invested in the success of Anna’s Oven? Does this place have a manager? After being there so long, my lunch felt like an obligation, like being at a timeshare presentation or worse, a bad community theater production against my will.

Not long ago, I found a hair in a dish that I ordered from a local restaurant. For many people such an occurrence is a dealbreaker, but after noticing it, I simply removed the hair and proceeded to eat my lunch. The restaurant is a place that I have enjoyed multiple times without incident and I trust them and know that they take pride in their food. But when that trust has yet to be developed, when owners’ work ethic is undetermined and their purpose unclear, missteps turn into grave errors.

Almost certainly, I caught Anna’s Oven on an especially bad day. I’m reasonable, I normally would go back to try more dishes and give them a chance to shine before writing this up. After all plenty of people in town seem to like it. But given this one experience I just can’t justify returning. It may not be fair, but there are too many other deserving lunch spots to try. That being said, I would love to hear others’ experiences at Anna’s Oven, mostly to see if I’m insane for being so turned off.

Anna's Oven on Urbanspoon

Oct 062011
 

Not too long ago, Blue Nile in the City Market was the only game in town in terms of Ethiopian food and I do like the place. Recent years have seen a welcome expansion of Ethiopian restaurants: Marathon (now Mesob Pikliz), a second Blue Nile in Johnson County and midtown’s, Duo. Add Elsa’s, a small somewhat tucked away new Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Overland Park, to the mix and Kansas City has a nice, geographically distributed availability of Ethiopian restaurants. In general I like Elsa’s and the people are just preposterously friendly but I worry that they may have turned some people off early in the game due to disorganized service.

You see, after my first Visit to Elsa’s, I was prepared to never return. Elsa’s offers pretty good food, but absolutely clueless service. My workday lunch took over an hour and a half, most of it spent waiting for food, bread, the bill, the corrected bill, the change, and at the end of it all they reported to us that they “couldn’t find” any change.

Elsa's

I wasn’t angry, just dumbfounded and almost amused by what a mess the management of this place appeared to be. I’m not someone who demands that servers at international restaurants have a firm grasp of English, but they should be able to communicate in some manner by pointing, gesticulating or something. The young woman who waited on me had a pleasant demeanor but just looked lost and was generally unresponsive. She clearly understood so little of what I said that she didn’t know how to react. I felt terrible for her; it must be incredibly difficult to interact with people all day and not know the language.

There are at least two other women and one man involved in the operation of Elsa’s, all of whom speak excellent English. I found it odd that they wouldn’t make themselves more available in the dining room to make sure service was going smoothly. Our server made herself rather scarce when not taking orders or delivering food. I wonder if she was simply avoiding the discomfort of communicating with English speakers.

Well my second visit found the whole operation noticeably improved, though not without notable kinks. I’m happy to report that the menu is well-constructed and the prices are affordable. Meat and vegetarian specials allow for one primary dish and two side-dishes for eight or nine bucks. Accompanied by an overflowing plate of injera, the spongy bread that doubles as utensil, these specials offer more than enough food for a midday meal.

I have eaten plenty of Ethiopian food over the years but have remained pretty ignorant of variances in spicing and preparation. My second time at Elsa’s I ordered the shiro wat, a dish of stewed chick peas but instead received the miser wat, a creamy red lentil item with a very nice spiciness. Despite the mix-up, I willingly ate it and found it delicious and surprisingly rich, no doubt due to the finish of a berbere- based sauce. My favorite item is the kik alicha, a basic but deeply satisfying yellow lentil assemblage. The gomen (chopped collard greens) is not as soft as I typically see it, but has a nice, fresh quality that is missing from most Ethiopian cuisine.

Veggie combo

Gomen and Kik Alicha

Elsa's

Basically the only thing I’ve had that I didn’t care for was a meat dish, the name of which escapes me due to bad notetaking and worse short-term memory. Basically it involved tough chunks of beef that were cooked to death but not enough to soften the flesh into anything pleasantly chewable.

Elsa's

The service on the second visit, while problematic, did not get in the way of me enjoying the experience. This was a different server and she also struggled mightily with English. But her consistent smile and pleasant demeanor put me somewhat at ease. Of course I did receive the wrong entree and waited a long time for my check but this meal was enough to keep me from writing off Elsa’s entirely.

I can only assume that my first, disappointing visit went south because the restaurant was fairly busy. I saw many problems that first time: wrong orders, errors in timing, MIA waitstaff but the second visit had me eating with only one other table in the place and my food came out quickly. I appreciate that the owner came around to check on me a couple of times; she is a very friendly person and I hope that her restaurant succeeds. At this point in time however, I’ll only visit Elsa’s when I have a lot of time to kill and am dining with patient people.

Elsa's Ethiopian on Urbanspoon