Trends come and go, but the important bits tend to stick around. The gastropub concept is one. Now we don’t even have to call it a gastropub. It’s just a good place to restore oneself, a casual neighborhood eatery with interesting and tasty food, not to mention great beer, wine and cocktails. One fine example is Blvd Tavern, a place where you don’t have to get dressed up or spend a fortune to have a thoughtful, relaxed and satisfying meal.
A few months ago, well-traveled restaurateurs Derek and Meghan Nacey took over the space formerly occupied by Nica’s (and before that, Shiraz) at 320 Southwest Boulevard. The space was slightly updated, giving it the feel more of a place to eat than just drink, but it kept its casual rustic-urban ambiance. The menu, a melange of American classics, each with an international spin, is informed by the Naceys’ wanderlust.
Although I’m not a huge fan of “world cuisine”—menus that feature a little from here and a little from there—I think the menu here works, perhaps because of the Naceys’ skillful assemblage of items, all falling under the category of classic American bar food. I also enjoy experiencing new dishes and techniques, and because I had to research a number of them when reviewing the menu, this restaurant provided plenty of fodder for my own personal enrichment.
The Small Plates portion of the menu consists of a number of items one would expect to see on a gastropub menu: pickles, steamed mussels, the ubiquitous poutine (fried potatoes, cheese curd and gravy), roasted pork belly, roasted cauliflower and a version of chicken wings. The difference here is in the details. For example, the pickles and pimento plate might not be understood by anyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line, because it is truly a little excursion down South, but surely anyone will take to the flavors.
The lightly pickled egg and okra, a bite or two of savory spicy sausage and small jar of house-made pimento cheese (basically piquant red pepper, mayonnaise and cheese) to spread on some grilled bread is a great little conversation starter, as well as a fine accompaniment to cocktails.
Among the appetizers, there were a few absolute standouts. The first was the tempura-fried blistered Shishito peppers. For the uninitiated, Shishito peppers are bright green, thin-skinned Japanese peppers that, in addition to frying well, have one especially interesting quality: about one pepper out of every 10 or so is brilliantly spicy. Eating a plate of them with friends is like playing pepper roulette. You never know who’s going to get the fiery surprise. I’ve been growing them in my own garden for several years and still love the flavor and surprise factor.
At Blvd the peppers are coated in a crispy and delicate tempura batter, topped with bonito flakes, and served with a creamy sesame Kewpie mayonnaise. I love bonito flakes (Japanese dried, smoked, fermented skipjack tuna) for one simple reason: In addition to the savory umami quality they lend to foods, if you look carefully when your plate of warm food arrives, the bonito flakes wave at you, in a fashion reminiscent of seaweed waving under the ocean. The effect is beautiful, hypnotic and slightly disturbing. The flavors and aromas of this dish remind me of a great miso soup, but with lots of spice and crunch and the bizarre waving bonito.
The second and perhaps most remarkable of small plates is the KFC—Korean, not Kentucky—fried chicken wings. I’ve written about wings countless times and admit they are a guilty pleasure of mine. There is a reason wings in general are so popular. Because of their size and shape, they have more surface area, therefore more skin and fat, than any other part of the chicken. The extra surface area allows for more seasoning, and in the case of crispy preparations, allows proportionally more crunch and texture.
In addition, many flavor molecules (flavonoids) travel on fat molecules, so wings can carry a lot of flavor and give us a sensation of more taste per bite. I was unaware of the Korean technique of frying chicken, and it was a revelation to me. I didn’t try to pry any secrets out of the chef, but a little research revealed that Korean-style chicken is frequently fried twice to give it an extremely crunchy exterior, and the batter uses starches, such as rice flour, corn starch or potato starch, (unlike the all-purpose flour used in Southern-fried chicken) to contribute even more to the crunch. Immediately before serving, the wings are dressed with a final seasoning.
At Blvd Tavern they use gochujang, a spicy, pungent staple of Korean cooking with just a hint of sweetness. A bit of Napa cabbage kimchi and scallions provide freshness and acid to offset the richness of the wings. This is definitely my favorite wing dish in K.C. now. Those who like wings to sear their taste buds and clear their sinuses might be disappointed, but the flavor and texture are in such great balance that I wouldn’t want to change anything.
Also interesting was the representation of rabbit on the menu. Rabbit, a protein long utilized in European kitchens and in parts of rural America, has never been extremely successful on the American menu, although it is quite flavorful and one of the most environmentally sound proteins available. (It doesn’t take much time or feed, especially mass-produced grains transported for great distances, to bring it to its finished weight for slaughter.)
I blame its unpopularity on Bugs Bunny and the general cuteness of rabbits, although as a gardener, I wish they were on every plate in every household at least once a week. And did I mention that it tastes great?
At Blvd Tavern they utilize the entire animal. The loin (and belly flap) is treated as a cutlet for breaded and fried schnitzel, a great way to utilize a very lean cut of meat. It is served with a delicious housemade pork sausage, caviar-like Beluga lentils, and Brussels sprouts flaked into individual leaves.
The leg meat (my favorite and also the most flavorful part of the rabbit) is utilized in flavorful enchiladas, braised in a complex mole sauce, dressed with Mexican crema. The portion is much more than one would imagine from the “small” plates section. And kudos to Blvd Tavern for sourcing locally produced rabbit from R&K Rabbitry in Plattsburg, Missouri. I dare you to try to find a rabbit in a grocery store in Kansas City that didn’t travel here all the way from China.
The menu is relatively consistent from lunch to dinner, but there are a few items like the Reuben, a fabulously rich sandwich of house-made corned beef, Swiss cheese and lightly pickled red cabbage on toasted marble rye, that are available only at lunch. After appetizers, we were unable to finish the filling sandwich, but the unfinished half reheated beautifully (thanks, no doubt, to its richness) for an impromptu happy hour at home.
One of the items we sampled, available at both lunch and dinner, was the daily grind burger, a 100 percent beef chuck patty topped with melted Swiss cheese, savory-sweet red wine shallot jam, and peppercorn mayo. Served with a side of unadorned fries, it was a respectable burger, meeting all of my requirements for a member of the species. “Sometimes,” a famous chef friend once told me, “you don’t need to be blown away—it just needs to be good.”
Another good but not-mind-blowing-dish is the farmed Idaho trout, sautéed and served with pecan-studded wild rice, a veritable mountain of braised greens, and a mustard seed and bacon vinaigrette. All in all, a good dish, something you might make at home if you actually cook—which chances are, you never will do. If the execution of these dishes was any indicator, I can’t wait to go back to try the beer-battered cod, the garlic-herb rubbed brick chicken and the Gulf shrimp and Anson Mills cheddar grits.
For dessert, we shared a lemon curd tartelette, more or less textbook in execution, but with lots of tart, citrusy curd and berries piled inside a crunchy pastry shell, topped with orange-infused whipped cream. Nothing wrong with that. If you’re looking for a really simple conclusion to the meal, Blvd Tavern also features a daily selection of ice creams and sorbets. If they have the coconut-lime sorbet, go with that one. It was delicious.
Last but not least, the service staff could not have been any more pleasant. They were always friendly and courteous, even the trainee on one of our visits. Although the drinks took a while—but it is a craft bar, so what else should one expect—they were well worth the wait. Besides, if you’re feeling casual and hungry, and want something with a little bit more than you would make at home or a little bit more interesting than what you would find at your neighborhood bar and grill, I can think of few better ways to pass some time than at Blvd Tavern.