Jan 052011
 

Exterior

Todd Schulte, proprietor of the esteemed Columbus Park cafe, Happy Gillis, has opened a special little spot in the West Bottoms that may just surpass his first venture in terms of style, menu and flavors. Housed in an extensively rehabbed gas station painted a jaunty shade of red, this place was put together carefully and tastefully. While not my personal aesthetic, I love the way this place looks on the inside; it’s perfect for the neighborhood. The interior contains a wonderful mix of vintage and modern items. Beautiful old cafe tables, chairs, light fixtures, salt shakers and bud vases complement clean, white china, a sleek bar and the cotton towels that serve as napkins. Design-wise it lies somewhere between Victorian splendor and old West tavern.

A banquette along the back wall provides a space seemingly well suited to sipping drinks and nibbling on a little something. Interestingly, the menu is not well-suited to this use but I imagine that may change when the weather warms up and word gets out about this place.

Interior

The West Bottoms is truly one of Kansas City’s most unique environs, and I think Schulte and company were smart for snapping up one of the few remaining commercial spaces on Genessee street. Anchored by the R Bar a few doors down, the block offers the old school charm of the Golden Ox and the somewhat more lowbrow offerings of Grandma’s Bar & Grill which has apparently filled a the void left by Connie’s Genessee Inn. Apart from a few businesses and the Livestock exchange, most of the street has been subsumed by Kemper Arena in one way or another. Despite the weirdness of the area, I think it has a real shot at becoming a distinct dining and nightlife destination.

Out the window

Only time will tell who precisely flocks to Genessee Royale, but right now it appears the be a prime spot for casual business lunches. During my visit, more than a couple tables had folks holding court over notebooks, papers and laptops while digesting their food. The crowd tended toward the middle aged and well-heeled, but frankly, who else would be eating lunch at 2 p.m. on a weekday? Who else, except me that is (I’m not quite middle aged yet!)

The menu itself is quite simple and relatively affordable despite the smallish portions. Lunch entrees aren’t loaded up with filling side dishes like french fries but rather accompanied by a handful of subtly dressed greens or a tablespooon or two of homemade potato salad. Lunch items run between $6 and $9. To my mind they are perfectly sized portions but some hungry diners may want to consider one of Genessee Royale’s excellent soups to start. Oddly the menu offers no appetizers or a la cart side dishes at all. I think they would benefit from a few small plates, particularly if they want to be any kind of hangout. Right now, the hours are not conducive for such use, as they only stay open until 4 p.m. Nonetheless, you can order a small selection of alcoholic beverages here: champagne cocktails, bloody marys, a few wines and (if memory serves) a couple of Boulevard products.

The food is clearly put together with a lot of care. The burger is excellent: freshly prepared, very well seasoned and juicy, with nice Bibb lettuce, compound butter and an English muffin bun. While the muffin was a tad dense and chewy as a hamburger bun, it was still a great English muffin.

Burger

I also tried their version of biscuits and gravy which comes with a deliciously tender, fried chicken breast and a fried egg. While more cooked than the sunnyside up that was advertised, I loved the whole combo, almost enough to make me appreciate brunch. This is a perfect brunch dish.

Fried Chicken and Egg biscuit

Their take on French Onion Soup ($7) was likewise inspired. The broth was rich without the characteristic dark, saltiness that plagues steakhouse versions of the stuff. Instead the soup played up the sweetness of the sauteed onion, offsetting it with a shelf of melted Gruyere and a homemade crouton.

Onion Soup

While the place is pretty lean and mean, I personally like that they are not biting off more than they can chew from the get-go. Rather the Royale serves as a more refined version of a luncheonette, a place where one wouldn’t expect a wide-ranging menu but can still get a unique meal at a good price. Genessee Royale wouldn’t be out of place in Brookside or Prairie Village in some ways, but the interesting context of the West Bottoms makes it a very appealing alternative for those living and working in the center city.

Genessee Royale Bistro on Urbanspoon

Apr 092010
 

Cafe Augusta closed in late 2011

I have been to Cafe Augusta probably half an dozen times since it opened last summer. Why haven’t I posted about it? Well, there isn’t a ton to say really. The JoCo populace seems genuinely happy with this moderately classy little cafe and its selection of sandwiches, soup, salads and European-inspired entrees. When it opened it was often crowded at noon, but I’ve noticed lately that business has dropped off a tad. Let’s just call that the Ferruzza bubble. The Pitch’s reputable critic gave it a somewhat positive review that had me there for lunch the same week. Perhaps some of the luster has worn off.

I was moderately pleased with my Cobb Salad on that first visit, though surprised to see that the $8.95 dish did not come with chicken, as most Cobbs do. While the typical bacon, blue cheese, tomato, avocado, etc. came standard, chicken would have been a $3 upcharge, bringing the total to a fairly hefty $11.95, not including beverage or tip. If I’m ordering from a counter, I expect a little more for my money, or just slightly lower prices. Also the avocado was underripe.

While I had become accustomed to ordering at the counter and having my food delivered, my most recent visit saw the unexpected development of table service. This was a nice touch and I found the server to be quite friendly and well-trained. I tried the half sandwich and soup combo ($8.50) with a currry squash soup that was attractively presented.

Cafe Augusta

The server had described the soup as “not spicy” but it was actually fairly hot. This was a-ok by me, but other may have been miffed at the false advertising. The smoked turkey and brie sandwich was tasty, though I grow very tired of the ubiquity of ciabatta bread. A crusty baguette would have been perfect. The combo is a decent value for the money, though I find it does not hold up favorably portion or taste-wise against the similar offering at 75 Cafe.

Folks rave about the unconventional take on the tuna melt at Cafe Augusta. It arrives open faced on four smallish slices of multigrain bread.

Tuna Melt

The flavor of fresh ginger is prevalent in the tuna mixture, which also contained grapes and nuts. Overall I liked the sandwich but the sweetness and overabundance of grapes kind of overwhelmed the inherent flavor of the tuna fish. The unusual presentation made it easy to eat though the bread was a little soggy on the bottom. This leads me to believe that the tuna melt is broiled in the oven rather than grilled.

The house dressing on their salads is superb, though the lettuce looked a little past its prime on one of my visits.

The atmosphere is somewhat nicer than 75 and many other local joints. While the European landscape prints did little for my aesthetic sensibilities, I appreciated nice touches like the oversized, interestingly shaped white china and sprigs of fresh herbs in small vases on the tables. The music is tasteful and runs toward classical (far superior to the “smooth jazz” blaring at 75 Cafe).

Cafe Augusta

There is certainly more to the menu than I have discussed. For instance Augusta offers German food on Mondays and a series of dinner specials throughout the week. In the end, Cafe Augusta is not bad, but certainly not my first choice for lunch in an area that actually features some very good lunch spots. The decor and menu seem perfect for business lunches or any other sort of semi-upscale meal in which you don’t want to fret about the personal tastes of the attendees.

Cafe Augusta on Urbanspoon

Dec 042009
 

Red Bench has closed and is now Great Day Cafe.

This pleasant little lunch spot occupies the space that recently housed the popular Farm to Market Cafe in downtown Overland Park which I reviewed two years ago ago on this blog. Earlier this summer, signs at the Cafe indicated that the owners were retiring and selling the business. Before long, the place had received a slight makeover and reopened with a very similar menu and new ownership.

Red Bench Cafe

It kept the name “Farm to Market” all summer and the menu was more or less intact but differences were immediately apparent. For starters, the produce in the garden salads was superb: homegrown lettuces, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers created a simple yet superb example of how fresh ingredients can transform mundane items into things of beauty.

Farm to Market Cafe

The sandwiches remained serviceable, with notable improvement in the quality of deli meat used. They continued to use Farm to Market Bread which makes no small amount of difference compared to mass produced product available other places.

Red Bench Cafe

Several weeks ago, the restaurant changed again, dubbing itself “Red Bench Cafe.” I’m not sure, but the staff seems to have changed somewhat as well. What was previously seemingly an entirely woman-run operation seems to have a gentleman at the helm now who hovers behind the counter and out in the dining room crunching numbers on a laptop. A few of the decorative changes have been scaled back, such as the flimsy cheesecloth that lined the walls after its first change.

Currently Red Bench is a fairly good quality lunch spot offering a small breakfast menu in addition to a selection of sandwiches, soups and salads. They have a decent lentil soup every day in addition to a rotating soup. I had the lentil soup and was surprised to see that it contained whole lentils in a gentle, slightly sweet broth. I am used to lentil soups being blended to created a thicker texture. It was good, but I eventually tired of the mouthfuls of whole lentils.

Red Bench Cafe

The minestrone soup was a considerably greater success with hearty, rich tomato broth, pasta and kidney beans. Unfortunately both soups were not hot enough when delivered to me. To me, this is a relatively serious infraction. Yes, soup can be heated up with little adverse effect, but holding foodstuffs at a lukewarm temperature is conducive to bacterial growth which can cause foodborne illness. I’m not a crackpot, I just take food safety very seriously. Let’s hope these folks start getting their soups nice and hot before serving them to people in the future.

Red Bench Cafe

You can get a whole sandwich or a soup/salad and half sandwich combo which is much the same as what Farm to Market offered. There is a Black Forest Ham, Turkey Havarti and an interesting chicken breast with artichoke sauce sandwich. All are passably good but won’t blow your mind. They are sandwiches after all. I have some slight concerns about the prices here. For almost $10 I got half a grilled ham sandwich and a cup of soup.

Red Bench Cafe

I’m not convinced that this is a good deal, considering that even my relatively modest appetite was barely sated after eating it.

Nonetheless I am firmly convinced that Red Bench Cafe is an improvement over its previous incarnation as Farm to Market Cafe which I had become increasingly disappointed in up until its sale. I believe that the ingredients are now of higher quality and that there is more thought put into preparation. I am honestly not sure what has happened to this place in the last 6 months in terms of ownership, but these folks are making a strong effort to surpass the effort made by Farm to Market. Downtown OP needs a decent sandwich/soup spot and right now they have it.

Red Bench Cafe on Urbanspoon

Jul 272008
 


I first heard about this place over at the fine local food blog Noodletown back in March. Columbus park is an interesting neighborhood, and I wish I spent more time there. It has characteristics of the River Market and Northeast/Independence Ave. areas that surround it, but physically it feels different–smaller, older, quieter.

Historically Italian and increasingly populated by Vietnamese, Columbus Park is delineated by highways on three sides and the river on the fourth. This makes for some interesting navigation for those unfamiliar with the streets. Like the River Market, the streets are laid out according to the position of the river and not true north/south like downtown proper. That means it’s old, people. It’s home to several good restaurants as well, notably Vietnam Cafe, La Salla’s and Garozzo’s.

As Charles Ferruzza pointed out in his excellent piece about Happy Gillis, this building has a long history of being a comfortable neighborhood meeting and gathering place. The best part about Happy Gillis is that it maintains its connection to the neighborhood. The owners did not swoop in, totally revamp the place and produce food in an environment that appealed to people who don’t live there. That’s also why it’s called a “hangout.”

They left the sign from the original Gillis Sundries market out front, something a lot of restaurant owners wouldn’t do. To boot, the menu has a few homages to the ethnic character of Columbus Park–notably a Bánh mì and a few classic Italian sandwiches.

The food is very good, not spectacular. Sandwiches and salads are freshly prepared with high quality ingredients. I feel fairly confident that all varieties are tasty, probably some a little more than others. It’s a good sign that I have confidence in this place only having visited once. You can just tell they know what they are doing. My Italian sandwich floored me with the pure power of a good salami and some killer homemade giardiniera but I didn’t care for the ciabatta-type bread it came on. An Italian sandwich craves Italian bread, people.

Soups are the bread and butter here. The owners have operated a home soup delivery service for a few years and apparently have done well enough to open the storefront to complement their trade. Personally I can’t get excited about soup, particularly on a 95 degree day which have been all too common lately. My lovely lunching companion did however offer me a taste of a cold corn vichyssoise (wow, did I spell that right on first try?), served with a dollop of fresh pesto. Sounds great, but I found it underwhelming. As my companion pointed out, there’s no reason to puree corn in the middle of summer. Plus, I don’t want to drink my lunch anyway (unless we’re talking alcohol).

The atmosphere here is charming and the service is friendly and attentive. I don’t have anything bad to say about the decor or the vibe or the staff. Really laid-back.

I’m not sure this is a destination-spot, but it’s a really good option for those who live or work nearby. Or stop by after the oppressive crush of the City Market on a Saturday, it’s a good place to decompress.

More about Happy Gillis:

Happy Gillis Café & Hangout on Urbanspoon

Check out photos of this charming space on flickr.

Goofy Girl gives her take and gets the Bánh mì.

Everything else you need to know is on Yelp

Jun 182007
 

Alas, this great little lunch place turned semi-swanky dinner place has gone under. Let’s hope these guys make another go at it.

I didn’t know this place existed for a long time, probably because it is a block or two away from the city market proper. However this is exactly the kind of restaurant that the neighborhood needs: table service, good food, decent prices, and great service. Located at the intersection of 3rd and Delaware just up the road a piece from the market, this is great alternative to the glorified fast food available down there.

The menu is a nice mix of high brow and low brow food. There are a few great salads, including my personal favorite, the Cobb. Whoever invented the glorious combination (Mr. Cobb?) of avocado, blue cheese and bacon is a culinary God. That’s like something I would invent if I came home drunk and hungry and happened to have such delicacies readily available. Anyhow, the Cobb is good at Delaware, with the notable exception of the vinaigrette — it was disturbingly thick and may have come from a gallon-sized plastic container. This makes me reluctant to try another kind. They need a simple but delicious homemade dressing, especially if you are paying ten bucks for a freaking salad.

The Fries are surprisingly good here–very lightly battered potato wedges. I know what you are thinking and let me assure you that these fries bear no similarity to battered fries you may have experienced elsewhere, delicious though they may be. Arby’s curly fries they are not. (remember that stupid idiotic oven mitt character?). Anyhow they have good soup as well and the sandwiches I’ve had were well above average. Speaking of which, this is not fast food and you will likely end up paying $15 bucks for lunch if you get a drink and leave a tip like the goodhearted person you are.

The Delaware takes up two storefronts, so they have plenty of space, even when it is hopping in the throes of lunch hour. There is also a nice patio on the north side of the building, but there was way too much sun out there last time I went. Like Harry’s, they need an umbrella at nearly every table.

In general, the Delaware is a good lunch spot, but you can’t get there late, since I think they close at 2pm. That’s actually a shame because they really should serve cocktails and stay open for dinner. They have a perfect set up for lounge-on-one side, dining-on-the other-side thing. Anyway, the real reason I like this place is because real cities have restaurants like this. It’s a locally owned, professionally run establishment that manages to avoid completely screwing things up and has a little bit of neighborhood character. That puts them pretty well ahead of the pack.

Read more:

Delaware Market Cafe on Urbanspoon