Two summers ago, the New York Times wrote an article about how smaller cities in the Midwest are starting to sustain not just good individual restaurants but whole groups of them, a sign of a foodie culture that is not just centered on the large coastal cities. Two of the chefs profiled were husband-wife team Colby and Megan Garrelts (below), whose restaurant bluestem opened five years ago.
Bluestem is self-described as “progressive American cuisine” and based on the Times’ article, I decided it was worth a visit. My friend Jack agreed to join me for this exploratory quest into the heart of Kansas City fooddom, which has long been perceived as beginning at steak and ending at potatoes.
Bluestem is a cozy, masculine, and somewhat under-lit place on Westport Road, on the edge of the local midtown entertainment district. Next door is a Sonic hamburger drive-in, which seems about right for what you would expect.
The bar area is loungey, with leather chairs and comfortable places to sit. The dining area is in the adjacent storefront, three floors down. There are only about a dozen tables so it doesn’t feel too loud, although I wouldn’t describe the volume as “hushed”.
Bluestem’s menu is divided into two pages. The left page has appetizers, starters, salads and soups. The right page has proteins. While you can order alacarte, fixed-price tasting menus are their specialty, with 3, 5, 7 and 12-course menus including dessert.
Jack opted for the 3-course menu and I, unable to decide on only one item from each side of the menu, went for the 5-course tasting menu. Here’s a look at what we are – sorry for the poor picture quality as I had to use a flash.
The amuse-bouche. A sweet corn panna cotta with a rock shrimp and sliver of frisee.
My first appetizer: Wagyu tartare, giardiniera (an Italian-American relish of pickled peppers and other vegetables in oils), black olive caramel and potato crisps.
My second appetizer: Orchiette pasta, bacon, peas, spinach, Parmigiano Reggiano, lemon.
Jack’s appetizer: Bay scallops, summer beets, wild arugula, corriander-champagne vinaigrette.
My first main: Seared scallop, braised bacon, bok choy, soy caramel, red miso emulsion (the foam).
My second main: Piedmontese strip steak, horseradish potato, asparagus, rapini, la quercia coppa (ham).
Jack’s main: Berkshire porkloin, smoked tomato, sweet and sour peach, vanilla jus.
My dessert: cheese plate featuring local cheeses.
Jack’s dessert: two types of chocolate mousse with spearmint ice cream.
We also enjoyed petit fours – graham cracker pound cake with toasted marshmallow and passion fruit gelee.
The food was well-prepared, quality ingredients and all. Service was attentive and the servers knowledgable. Truly, this restaurant could be located in New York, San Francisco or another major city. But my problem is with the price. While the food is very good, the price is just too high. $50 for the 3-course meal, $70 for the 5-course meal.
One thing that occurred to me is that many of the ingredients seem to be brought in from far away. On the way out, the manager asked us how things were and I asked him about this. He assured me that most of their ingredients come from five farmers within about 100 miles, but I’m skeptical. The seafood items were all from the coasts. The beef was from Texas. The passion fruit was from somewhere far away. My point is, being in the heart of the nation’s breadbasket in the midst of the summer, I’m sorry to see that there isn’t more emphasis on locality. Perhaps that would help drive the price down a bit.
Still, it was an interesting culinary adventure.