This Kitchen issue of Spaces is perfectly timed for one of Kansas City’s most refined kitchens to showcase its own remodel. Bluestem, the first restaurant of Kansas City’s Megan and Colby Garrelts, winner of the 2013 James Beard Best Chef Midwest, has just reopened after a two month overhaul. Now the sleek yet earthy heartland-inspired interior finally reflects the complexity, finesse and care that go into every plate that leaves the kitchen.
a friend and restaurant regular, Colby and Megan applied all of their working experiences to improving the space. Both the front and back of house were revamped and finally blended together
into a fluid whole. Walls were removed, creating an open pastry kitchen (formerly the wine room) facing the bar, and a fully open kitchen facing the dining room. Now the only thing hidden at Bluestem is the dish room, and trust me, no one wants to watch or listen to the dish room anyway.
There are two ways to dine at Bluestem. The first, sit in the expanded lounge/bar, and order from the bar menu. If you’re an early diner, happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. is one of the best values in the city. Dishes are ordered à la carte and are great for sharing and for a more casual dining experience. The food is more predictable, and pleasantly so, but without the flair of the gorgeous dishes served in the adjacent room. The service is still excellent, but like the food, it is not as detailed either, like a four-star local pub that uses insanely high-quality ingredients and serves it with the utmost care and knowledge. The bar menu features items that stand alone, many of them adaptations of dishes from the original lounge menu. At the time of my visits, only the daily soup, Garrelt’s signature fresh and velvety English pea soup, was identical to that in the dining room. The bar dishes range from a deliciously flavorful and moist cold smoked salmon (with the addition of a little salmon tartare—thus the luscious mouth feel), with the standard accompaniments of caper, egg, crème fraîche, chive, red onion and crostini, to the most popular dish in the lounge—Colby’s 8-ounce burger with Colby cheese, bacon and fries. Wishing to save Colby’s burger experience for a later date, I tried the seared shrimp with creamy Anson Mills grits (a custom blend) with tasty bits of a smoky Longaniza/linguina-style sausage and the refreshing spike of scallion and lemon. I imagine this dish was inspired by its success at their second, more casual restaurant, Rye, in Mission Farms. Regardless, anyone with a need for Southern shrimp and grits would be delighted with it. Other dishes have made slight transitions, and I would expect nothing less from a team with this much culinary prowess. The crowd-pleasing beef tartare has changed a little, crostini taking place of the house-fried potato chips. The Trofie pasta has evolved from the rich mac and cheese, a little cast-iron skillet full of hug-you-from-the-inside squiggly little noodles with bubbly cheese, bacon crumbles and crunchy herb-seasoned breadcrumbs, to a lighter, more seasonally refined Ligurian-style basil pesto with almonds and spring peas. The hanger steak with fries is still on the menu, but I would hold out for the mixed greens. Thanks to Alice Waters and 40-plus years of mesclun salad, mixed greens have become something like wallpaper. Every restaurant has them, and they almost always come from a generic bag, completely devoid of Waters’ intent of freshness, flavor and provenance. At Bluestem, the salad of mixed greens with sherry, nuggets of creamy (not chalky) goat cheese, crispy fresh radish and shallots is exactly what she intended. This is a salad loaded with flavor and greens that could never, ever come from a bag, that speaks to our Midwestern farmers’ legacy. Absolutely the best salad flavors I’ve had outside of my garden or Water’s restaurant. If you’re going for happy hour, I should warn you to go early. The secret is out on this place. Come too late and it’s standing room only.
Bluestem, however, is not just a place to eat because one is physically hungry. I mentioned that there are two ways to eat here. The second way, is to Dine, with a capital D. Not just replacing lost calories, but feeding hungers of a more subtle nature. When one needs something beautiful, or to be taken care of, or to be entertained—by things that one can’t or wouldn’t go to the trouble to do oneself, that is the reason to go to Bluestem. Service is an important part of that experience, and Eric Willey, general manager and wine director, along with occasional assistance from Jeremy Lamb (now managing Rye), has seen to it that we all get what we are in need of.
For the full Bluestem experience, I recommend a table in the beautiful new dining room. FYI, the DIY shabby chic is gone. A pristine new open kitchen with white subway tiles, gleaming stainless steel and quietly focused cooks preparing perfectly turned plates provides the backdrop for your evening’s entertainment. In fact, it even competes with the elegant and austere dining room. The sculpted white ceiling, reminiscent of an inverted topographical map, the clean and reserved modern surfaces, and the warmly composed service staff help place the food here in its proper perspective—as the star. And that’s just where the fun begins.
The menu is prix fixe, that is, a fixed price menu where the meal can be ordered in either three ($65), five ($75) or 10 courses ($110), with optional wine pairings available for each dish. The show begins with an introduction to the menu, followed by drinks, ordering, and a beautiful bread service. The breads, made in-house, are a good old Midwestern white roll, a hearty semolina roll (our favorite), a French-inspired country roll, and a crispy Sardinian Carta di Musica cracker, each delicious enough to distract us from the important things, like the rest of our meal. But the kitchen’s flawless execution and the direction of chef de cuisine Andrew Longres kept us on the edge of our seats—in a good way—for the entire evening.
The June menu features some of the best local flavors to be had. Period. Chef Andrew said that bringing menu production in-house would bring more and frequent changes to the menu, but I would be happy if everyone could sample the dishes we savored. Two people, each selecting a five-course tasting, could, in June, taste the entire menu—if you don’t mind swapping plates midcourse. (It is strongly suggested that all the diners at a table order the same number of courses to prevent uncomfortable vacancies on the table and mutterings of “I wish I had ordered that, too.”)
We began with one of my favorite dishes, Garrelt’s now signature English pea soup, a warm and velvety puree of fresh peas, poured tableside over fresh peas—just warmed from the puree!—with garnishes of crème fraiche and pink peppercorn. It’s the spirit of spring in a bowl. The spring garden asparagus with Parmesan, lemon, radish, and nasturtium was pretty and spoke to the freshness, lightness, and herbaceous quality of the season. A brothy dish of braised rabbit, with perfectly formed and cooked ricotta tortellini, with bits of garlic, almonds, and peppery watercress would make any Nonna proud—and not too many Nonni would go to the trouble of putting all of those elements together. Another staple from the previous Bluestem menu is the meltingly rich torchon of foie gras (an ingredient practically required when you pay this much for a meal), with translucent slices of plum, crunchy bites of celery and pecan, and grilled brioche. Although it needed nothing else, it had a few of the most photogenic leaves of red-veined blood sorrel providing the final visual touches and a bit of acidity.
The seafood courses come next. The delicate and succulent olive-oil poached halibut, accompanied by bright green fava beans, the most baby of baby carrots, salsa verde, and crunchy toasted bread crumbs, was intelligently composed. The beautifully sautéed bay scallops and the umami-rich flavors contributed by the crawfish, chorizo, earthy pole beans and patty-pan squash provided an excitingly different flavor combination with every bite.
In a meal of this length, meaty entrées often—well, you just don’t care. At this point you just eat because they put it in front of you. Don’t fall into that mindset at Bluestem. The dry-aged pork loin was intensely flavored with a very pleasant porkiness, a flavor only reinforced by the accompanying glistening braised bacon. There was some type of cheesy foam (mascarpone?) dressing the plate. In general, I am averse to foams—all of them. They often add little to a dish and now tend to seem dated, sort of like eating food served on a mirror which allows you to admire your dental work. This foam, however, provided a necessary fatty richness to a generally lean cut of pork, and the silky Bloomsdale spinach was an appropriate foil. The herb-roasted ribeye—how refreshing, in Kansas City, to see roasted, not grilled beef—was a delight to the eye as well as the palate, although not particularly surprising, as many of the other courses are. Sanguine roasted beet, a vibrant puree of broccoli, delicate new potatoes and a simple veal jus complete the plate.
Megan Garrelt’s reputation as a pastry chef precedes her, and not without reason. The desserts at Bluestem are well worth waiting for. No matter how full you think you are, when they are placed before you, I have no doubt you’ll find room. Kelly Conwell, pastry sous chef, must be a thrill to work with, because the desserts that came to our table were delicious, flawlessly executed, and a feast for the eyes. Overwhelmed at this point, I asked one of our servers what the most popular desserts were and ordered those. The first, described on the menu as “cherry, buttermilk, key lime, buttercream, vanilla” was indeed all of those things. What the menu fails to mention is how abstracted and how beautifully these flavors and textures would be when assembled and served on a wooden panel. The flavor of the fresh cherries (not particularly special) was amplified by the creative use of elements of sweet and sour, crispy and smooth. Very smartly done. The “mint, dark chocolate, caramel, cocoa nib, mousse,” equally understated, was a perfect fit for a chocolate craving at the end of the meal. Mint ice cream, a few fresh raspberries, chocolate, crispy bits of meringue, all of it tantalizing. And just when you thought you were done, a tray of beautiful hand-made chocolates, caramels, and other sweet delights is presented, just in case you need one more flavor sensation to get you home. Don’t be shy. Try one of each. You’ll be glad you did.
So if you’re looking for some ideas for your own kitchen remodel, or if you want to be pampered and plied with some of the best ingredients and flavors of the season, visit Bluestem. The new look and the new cuisine will be more than inspiring.