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Food writer Jonathan Bender explores the menus, cuisine and folks behind the restaurants and food specialty stores in Park Place.  Enjoy new insights or discover a future favorite each month as Jonathan provides you with a unique insider's access on his culinary journey. 


“Find Your Flavor” is written by food blogger Jonathan Bender, founder of Recommended Daily. Recommended Daily provides our hometown with a destination for well reported food news. Jonathan Bender is the author of LEGO: A Love Story and the upcoming Cookies & Beer. His writing has appeared in The Pitch and The Kansas City Star, among other publications.


Below is a complete list of Park Place restaurants and food specialty stores:

801 Chophouse
(913) 322-1801

(913) 499-6294

California Pizza Kitchen
(913) 327-5290

(913) 327-7115

Gordon Biersch
(913) 451-2739

The Grille at Park Place
(913) 766-0920

Paciugo Gelato
(913) 602-8767

Parisi Café
(913) 696-9999

Pickleman’s Gourmet Cafe
(913) 451-3100

Pig and Finch
(913) 322-7444

RA Sushi
(913) 850-6260

t. Loft
(913) 912-7211
Pig & Finch

Pumpkin gets all the glory, but when a chef needs to dig for warm, comforting flavors they turn to a different fruit: butternut squash.

The versatility of the sweet, bowling pin-shaped fruit is on full display at Pig & Finch thanks to a trio of dishes from executive chef Raquel Kramer. The squash adds a slightly nutty component as a side accompanying an espresso-rubbed pork shoulder, takes center stage in a warm butternut squash salad and balances out a rich brown butter gnocchi dish.

“It’s sweet and comforting,” Kramer says. “Butternut squash is great with everything.”

On a recent Friday, she sits down in the dining room of the Park Place restaurant and starts talking about the gnocchi – one of the most labor-intensive dishes on Pig & Finch’s menu. The hand-rolled pasta, a recipe that is three steps removed from a grandma in France, takes two-and-a-half hours to make.

“Our gnocchi is a little different than most people do it. It’s softer and more pillow-like,” Kramer says.

The recipe isn’t written down; instead Kramer prepares it by feel just like former Pig & Finch executive chef John Smith. To make the dough, she combines russet potatoes, egg yolks, flour, salt and pepper. The remaining ingredients in the dish change with the season. Currently, Kramer is featuring butternut squash, candied bacon, goat cheese and brown butter cream.

“It’s a take on a dish that my family does every holiday. It’s a casserole from my grandma. I’m taking the same flavor profile, but reinterpreting it.” Kramer says. “It’s food that hits you on every note, salty, sweet and savory.”

Kramer looks to her family for inspiration and they, in turn, have always known that she would be in the kitchen.

“My mom built all the houses that we lived in and she said she made the kitchens extra big with an island in the center because I always wanted to sit on the counter,” Kramer says of growing up in Springfield, Missouri.

She made the decision to move to Kansas City to attend Johnson County Community College’s culinary program three years ago. She competed on the school’s culinary team, which won the national championship, and began as an apprentice for chef Smith at The Jacobson.

When Smith moved to Pig & Finch, he asked Kramer to come with him and she rose to the position of sous chef in 2014. This July, she was named the executive chef at Pig & Finch – the youngest and only female executive chef at the 11 eateries owned and operated by the 801 Restaurant Group.

“What I enjoy most is pleasing people and seeing the experiences they get through food,” Kramer says. “The style of food we serve here is very comforting.”

One of the most comforting (and popular) plates at Pig & Fig is the espresso-rubbed pork shoulder. The pork shoulder is brined for 12 hours in a combination of Louisburg apple cider, rosemary and brown sugar.

“We take steps to infuse all that awesome flavor into pork,” Kramer says.

Kramer then applies a dry espresso rub and roasts the pork for an additional 12 hours.

“It turns mahogany reddish brown and you get this nice, almost caramelized glaze from the brown sugar,” Kramer says. “It’s one of those dishes in the window that people see and say, ‘what’s that?’”

The pork shoulder is plated with butternut squash (roasted with fresh sage, fennel, salt and pepper) and sautéed kale with an apple cider maple glaze. Butternut squash moves from back-up dancer to star attraction with the warm butternut squash kale salad.

The kale is served raw for crunch and as a contrast to the red-wine poached cranberries in the salad that is served with a creamy apple cider vinaigrette and shaved parmesan cheese.

“You’ve got this creamy cool dressing with a hint of sweetness,” Kramer says. “Then you’ve got the crunch of the walnuts and warm roasted squash that just melds together beautifully.”

Kramer is thinking a lot about how everything works together these days. After recently participating in Socks & Hops, a fundraiser for Swope Health Services that paired local breweries and chefs, she’s been motivated to bring back monthly beer dinners to Pig & Finch in 2016. Five months into her new role, she’s also excited about the opportunities for ambitious chefs in her kitchen.

“It’s all what you put into it,” Kramer says. “I have students from JCCC right now and I tell them that nobody is going to push you to where you want to be. You have to want it. We feed people here and you have to be willing to put in the long hours to do that.”

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It would be easy to dismiss The Grille at Park Place as a chain. The sleek, booth-lined dining room and streamlined American contemporary fare menu feel familiar. Tie-clad servers work together to expedite food and check in on tables.

That feeling is the result of five months of planning by co-owners Mitch Kerns and Kevin Clayton. They want you to feel like you know The Grille, which opened this June. And then they want to show how contemporary American fare can be done better with fresh ingredients.

“We’re an independently owned restaurant,” co-owner Mitch Kern says. “It may be a menu you’ve seen before, but our food is prepared fresh every day.”

Kerns will tell you that he’s been in the restaurant business for 50 years. He started at the Glenwood Manor and Convention Center. His father was the general manager, in charge of food and beverage, and Kerns was a 13-year-old kid delivering room service to the Kansas City Chiefs’ players that used to stay in the hotel on the nights before a game at Arrowhead Stadium.

The food and beverage world suited him. He owned and operated nightclubs and was the third franchisee in the nation for TGI Fridays. By his count, The Grille marks his 25th restaurant, but this is the concept he’s been thinking about for the past decade.

“I’ve had it in mind to do American fare of this type since Houston’s at 95th and Metcalf closed,” Kerns says. “It’s classic, contemporary American fare with some twists on it. We don’t want to be a trendy restaurant.”

All Kerns needed to execute the idea was the right location and the right chef. The former Mestizo space in Park Place became available and shortly thereafter Kerns was introduced to his future co-owner and executive chef Kevin Clayton through a mutual friend.

“We’re about 30 years apart, but we saw the restaurant in the same way,” Kerns says.

Clayton grew up in Overland Park and graduated from the culinary program at Johnson County Community College. He spent four years at Lidia’s Kansas City before taking a job with J. Alexander’s. Over the next decade, he served as executive chef helping to open restaurants on the East Coast. But Clayton was eager to return to his hometown and the idea of building out a contemporary American menu was appealing to him.

“It was a concept that I wanted to do and was familiar with executing,” Clayton says.

The partners made a few small, but key changes to the space. They removed the tortilla station and took out the freezer. [The only freezer in The Grille is a small icebox for holding ice cream.]

“For us, it’s about everything being fresh,” Clayton says.

Earlier this year, the two men laid out the menu on notecards that stretched 30-feet long. They drew inspiration from across the country. Their hot dog special – they offer chili dogs on Saturdays – was inspired by a Palm Beach restaurant that offers Kosher hot dogs on the menu.

“We sell a ton of them,” Kerns says.

Their seafood offerings from market fish to Oysters Rockefeller stems from Clayton’s time in Florida. The Grille’s fish is flown in over night, often after Clayton has consulted with the captain of a boat about the catch of the day.

They also rooted their menu in the Midwest. The restaurant features Kerns’ espresso-rubbed ribeye, duroc pork chops from Iowa topped with an apple chutney sauce and served over a bed of mashed potatoes, and their bread is delivered six days a week by Bagel Works Bread Company in Kansas City, Kansas.

Over the first five months, The Grille has begun to develop a regular clientele that come on Monday nights for the white bean and ham soup (there’s a daily chef’s special and soup special) and the deviled eggs with sugar-crusted bacon and a sweet pickle relish.

In the coming months, The Grille will likely introduce a rooftop menu of hot drinks and snacks for when the ice rink opens. They’re also adding Spanish wines and shifting the cocktail specials toward fall warmers. They’re currently playing around with rye whiskey cocktails and infused spirits that will be on the bar top.

The heart of The Grille is a massive 800-pound, white marble-topped table that sits just in the front of the open kitchen. It’s there that you’ll find Kerns or Clayton every day and night of service. Each plate is presented to the dining room on that table before the servers swoop in to carry it to its destination.

“We have a show kitchen,” Clayton says. “You can see me working. You can see the cooks working. My hand touches every plate before it goes out to the dining room.”

“We do everything,” Kerns adds. “We’re the handymen and the HR department. But the thing that sets us apart is that you’ll always see us serving real, fresh food.” Read More
Parisi Cafe

Pumpkin season has arrived Kansas City. So it’s time you embraced the orange fruit that has a lot more to offer than just roasted seeds. Exhibits A & B – the pumpkin mascarpone croissant and pumpkin caramel latte at Parisi Café in Park Place.

The croissant is a rosette shape with a pumpkin pie-esque filling in the middle – a savory/sweet combination of pumpkin, mascarpone cheese, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and clove.

“The center bite is like the nucleus and it’s the best part,” Nicolette Foster, Parisi’s executive pastry chef, says. “But you want to taste the croissant.”

Kate Blackman, Parisi’s director of quality control and education, recommends cutting the croissant in quarters.

“You get the crust and the middle in every bite. It’s the best of both worlds like a little croissant pizza,” Blackman says.

“I’d say it’s like a slice of pumpkin pie,” Foster adds.

Foster has worked to perfect her croissant dough – searching for a light, buttery flakiness – since she began working for Parisi last September and she’s started to use it in different applications on the pastry menu.

“People are doing interesting things with croissants. You’ve got cronuts and cruffins,” Foster says. “But the croissant cinnamon roll isn’t a gimmick. The sugar is baked in so you get that caramelization. You get that flakiness and it’s a little bit crispy.”

Parisi’s cinnamon roll is made with croissant dough rolled in brown sugar and cinnamon before it’s topped with a vanilla bean glaze that has a hint of cinnamon. Foster strives to balance different textures and flavors while still producing scratch pastries out of the central commissary at Parisi’s roasting facility. In April, the coffee shop began selling French macarons (Foster recommends the mint chocolate) and they currently have a salted pecan toffee brownie.

“I think we give unique spins on classic things, but it’s still about having the balance,” Foster says.

That balance extends to how the food and drink menu are designed at Parisi.

“We work together, but we don’t necessarily pair things exactly,” Foster says.

“We’re not trying to make it matchy-matchy,” Blackman says. “But with the holidays, you have some mirroring of flavors and people go crazy for pumpkin, so we’re both going to use pumpkin.”

The drink at the top of the new fall menu – and the one that folks order hot and iced (it’s available, just off menu) in fall – is the pumpkin caramel latte. Blackman sources pie pumpkins out of Cortland, Kansas.

Blackman quarters the pumpkins and sprinkles them with butter, cinnamon and nutmeg before roasting them for about 45 minutes. The pumpkins are done when they’re “bendy.” She then scoops out the roasted pumpkin and simmers the flesh with heavy whipping cream to bring out the flavor of the fruit. She then purees the pumpkin with an immersion blender before straining out the solids and adding freshly grated nutmeg and cinnamon. That’s the pumpkin cream. Then, Blackman adds the house caramel.

“Fat is the secret ingredient,” Blackman says and laughs. “Fat ties everything together. The cream brings together the vegetal quality of roasted pumpkin and then you have that sugar and spice. It’s takes the savoriness of pumpkin and makes it more mild and buttery. It tones down the spices, so it’s not a nutmeg bomb.”

The pumpkin caramel cream sits atop the house espresso blend, which is currently a blend of Ethiopian, Colombian and Sumatra coffee.

“We want a consistent profile, something that’s citrusy up front and has a pinch of sweetness, dates or figs in the middle, and then the finish of bittersweet chocolate.”

“You have all those spices that go into pumpkin pie and it’s comforting. You get that cozy feeling like Ugg boots and leggings or down blankets,” Blackman says. “It’s a nice mahogany, it shouldn’t be fluorescent orange. The pumpkin gives it this savory, earthy quality.”

The drink menu rotates seasonal drinks through every six weeks – a system that Blackman has developed since helping to open the first Parisi café at Union Station in 2010. The flavored drinks begin with house syrups, which become flavored lattes in the colder months and sodas in the summer.

“I have to do flavored lattes, but I want to use real food ingredients. I don’t want to put corn syrup in stuff,” Blackman says.

The current soda is a Cascara Cola made with the dried skin and pulp of coffee cherries. The syrup is cascara that has been cooked down with nutmeg, dried orange peel and fresh orange zest. The solids are then strained out and the syrup is sweetened with raw sugar and honey.

“It reminds me of hibiscus tea and dried apples. It’s tart and tropical,” Blackman says. “It’s like the weird colas my dad would seek out whenever we were traveling.”

Once you’ve delved into the new pumpkin options, there are a few other additions on the horizon at Parisi in Park Place. On the food side, they plan to add grab and go salads and sandwiches this month, while Blackman is looking at a whole host of new coffees that could be represented in the café. The success of Parisi’s Mother Earth brand has allowed Blackman, who oversees the green coffee program, to buy coffee in greater bulk. And that buying power will translate into more direct source coffee.

“You can see great coffees on a pour over list, but you don’t always get the opportunity to know where it comes from,” Blackman says. “We’re able to work more directly with producers, so we’ll have opportunities to purchase more exclusive coffee and tell those stories.” Read More
RA Sushi

The best way to survive the dog days of summer is to find something a little bit sweet with a little bit of heat. RA Sushi in Leawood’s Park Place has got you covered with a new seasonal menu that debuts today.

“This is really great summer fare,” Eric Abney, RA Sushi’s general manager, says. “We’re not going to sit you down and feed you mashed potatoes until you bust. These are perfect for hot weather, refreshing and light.”

RA’s Happy Hour is a big part of the success of the Leawood location, one of 27 RA Sushi restaurants. Happy Hour at Park Place runs Monday through Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m. (and 10 p.m. to midnight), as well as 3 p.m. to close on Sundays. It’s then that you’ll often see the Viva Las Vegas Roll – a wild roll that marries cream cheese, crab sticks inside of a rice roll on a sweet eel soy sauce – leave the kitchen. The whole thing is lightly tempura battered and fried, and then topped with crab, spicy tuna mix and sliced lotus root. The long white plates with the colorful rounds can often be found next to the Blushing Geisha – a pink cocktail made with Skyy raspberry vodka, Chambord liqueur and lemonade.

“We call ourselves a rock and roll sushi bar because we’re not that quiet, uptight place,” Abney says. “We’re always looking for innovative and seasonal cocktails.”

But the Viva Las Vegas Roll and Blushing Geisha are about to get some new competition for the long black bar that runs down the side of the front dining room at RA Sushi. The Recommended Daily sat down with Abney to get a sneak peek at the new menu that incorporates plenty of fresh fruit and well-placed spicy accents to play off that sweetness, which will run through the end of October.

“Everybody wants watermelon in August,” Abney says. “It’s very refreshing.”

The Watermelon Blueberry Martini is his pick for what will be the breakout cocktail this month. It’s got Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and muddled fresh mint and watermelon. The drink comes standard with a sugared rim, but Abney recommends you swap in salt.

“There’s a really good contrast between the melon and salt,” Abney says.

The light pink cocktail, garnished with a pair of fresh watermelon cubes, is just part of the rainbow that’s now available. Abney points to RA’s twist on a mojito. The foundation is standard -- Bacardi rum, mint, soda water and sugar – but then RA offers mango and strawberry versions with fruit purees. And there’s the Grape Crush – a drink that will pique the interest of wine lovers. It’s a combination of Skyy Infusions Moscato Grape Vodka, sour mix, muddled seedless grapes and a merlot float. Abney likens the drink to a “citrusy Sangria.”

The new cocktail menu also incorporates some tropical elements with a Coconut Saketini.

“It’s a margarita that starts with Sauza silver, lime and house made lemon sour,” Abney says. “Then we add in coconut Nigori sake. The coconut is not too strong, but it’s definitely there. It’s really nice.”

The drink blends an ounce and a half of sake with an ounce of tequila and arrives with a garnish of lime and coconut.

“This is the kind of drink that we like to do, a neo-Japanese twist to classic things,” Abney says. “We add a bit of Japanese flair to drinks you’re comfortable with.”

That bit of flair extends to two dishes on the seasonal menu: a Tuna Guacamole Roll and a Strawberry Lobster Roll.

The Tuna Guacamole Roll starts with a piece of slightly seared tuna (think pink) that is served chilled with guacamole that has been blended with an edamame cream cheese (a blend of shelled edamame peas, mushrooms, scallions and cream cheese). The two (along with a jalapeno ring) rest on a little fried rice ball and a splash of black pepper soy sauce.

“It’s rich and that black pepper soy sauce on bottom is lovely,” Abney says.

He could see diners pairing the tuna guacamole roll with the coconut saketini, while the strawberry lobster roll is the kind of dish that will have the dining room saying, “what’s that?”

The eye-popping strawberry lobster roll is made with a pastel pink soy paper that’s filled with sushi rice, cucumber and lobster. It’s topped with spicy mayo (Sriracha and mayo) and a slice of strawberry. There’s a kiwi wasabi sauce on the plate for those that want a touch more heat.

“You get this balance, where you have the sweet strawberry and a little bit of spicy mayo,” Abney says. “It’s a light summery roll that’s actually pretty mild – it would make a great snack during happy hour.” Read More

A slight breeze blows in through the open garage doors at BurgerFi in Leawood’s Park Place. A mom balances a tray with burgers and tries to steer two kids toward a table. The lunch rush is over and proprietor Joshua Kurzban has just finished ringing her up.

He pokes his head into a rectangular cut-out in the wall behind him to see how a Breakfast All Day Burger -- a potato bun with a hashbrown disc (made with BurgerFi fries), a single cheeseburger with American cheese, an overeasy egg, two strips of bacon and a drizzle of maple syrup – is coming along.

BurgerFi’s burger, which Kurzban first encountered at the original location in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is why he’s wearing a black shirt emblazoned with the shop’s logo and decided to open a franchise in Leawood and another in Lawrence, Kansas.

“My kids don’t eat fast food. But they wanted to eat there every day that we were on vacation,” Kurzban says. “That’s when my wife Michelle and I knew we had to bring that concept home with us.”

How do you build a better burger? It’s a question as American as baseball and one that BurgerFi set out to answer five years ago.

“Chipotle was going to change the way people thought about fast food, the burrito-ification of a nation,” Global brand ambassador Steve Lieber says. “We saw this as a tribute. It’s the burgerfication of the nation.”

Lieber had an idea for a burger franchise that would serve all natural hamburgers, hand-cut fries, hand-breaded onion rings, and custard. But first he had to define what ‘all natural’ meant.

For him, it started with the meat. He chose Meyer Natural Angus because no hormones or antibiotics are given to the cattle, which are also fed a vegetarian diet. The hamburger patties, just under a quarter-pound, are never frozen and are cooked to order. They’re sprinkled with salt and pepper and then placed on a clamshell grill.

“When we need salt. We use Kosher salt with a coarse grind. When we need pepper, we put it in a coarse grinder. That’s our secret weapon,” Lieber says.

That grill, which BurgerFi is the process of patenting, has been dramatically reengineered. They stripped the Teflon coating off the grill and replaced it with stainless steel because Lieber wanted to keep the burgers free of nitrates. They also added 50 pounds of pressure to the top arm, in order to get a proper sear on the patty. The underside of that arm is lined with parchment paper to keep the burger from sticking. The result is a 4-inch patty that can be cooked medium well in 51 seconds.

“Think of it as a $20,000 George Foreman grill,” jokes Kurzban.

The burgers are just under a quarter-pound when cooked. They fit snuggly in the 3½-inch Martin’s potato rolls and keep what Lieber sees as the ideal ratio of two-to-one between the bun and burger.

“We didn’t want it to be a food coma burger where all you want to do is a take a nap after you eat,” Lieber says. “But we wanted it to have a good feel in your hand and not feel like a slider.”

The VegeFi Burger underwent the same exhaustive process to find the right equation.

“We only have two recipes in the entire store with more than five ingredients. One is our secret sauce – a classic French remoulade sauce – and the other is our VegeFi Burger,” Lieber says.

The VegeFi burger is a mix of cooked quinoa and lentils, carrots and zucchini, parmesan and fontina cheese, panko bread crumbs, and mushrooms and onions that have been sautéed in a merlot reduction. One of every eight diners at BurgerFi opts for the vegetarian option.

“I challenge every customer. If it’s not the best veggie burger they’ve had, then it’s on me,” Kurzban says. “No one has taken me up on the offer.”

Both the VegeFi burger and standard beef burger (there’s also a 28-day aged brisket option) are available on a potato bun, multigrain bun or green style (wedged between two cups of iceberg lettuce). For those who can’t pick, Kurzban steers them toward the Conflicted Burger, which has a VegeFi patty and a burger patty.

“If it’s your first time in and you don’t know what to order, that’s the best of both worlds,” Kurzban says.
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Paciugo Gelato

It’s all about that case at Paciugo -- the case with a rainbow of gelato flavors that changes daily and sits like an edible Pantone display luring in young and old alike.

“Let’s try it. Make sure you love it,” owner Melinda Wiggins tells a pair of grade schoolers who are drawn to the purple sheen of lavender vanilla.

Paciugo opened six-and-a-half years ago in Park Place. The first Paciugo (there are now several dozen across the country) opened in Dallas, only a block from Wiggins’ home at the time.

“It was the gelato that I fell in love with when I went to Italy. It tasted exactly like what I had there,” Wiggins says.

When she moved to Kansas, she decided to open a Paciugo of her own. In the spring, the Leawood gelato shop features more fruit and citrus flavors that often find their way into frizzantes – sorbet blended in San Pellegrino sparkling water. Gelato is made with whole milk, which makes it denser than traditional ice cream.

The name Paciugo roughly translates from Italian to English as ‘messy concoction.’ As a result, we decided to make a few messy concoctions of our own. Here’s eight pairings that we recommend you attempt.

A Cup of Dessert. Tiramisu + Cinnamon. The cinnamon finds the same accent flavor in the tiramisu and the two together are like a great end to dinner.

I Do. Lavender Vanilla + Wedding Cake. The cake gelato is rich enough to match the floral notes, which are an edible take on the fondant flowers that typically adorn wedding cakes.

Go Nuts. Pistachio Almond + Coconut Crème Pie. The coconut, which includes freshly grated coconut, lends sweetness that balances the nuttiness of the pistachio.

Very Cherry. Amerena Black Cherry Swirl + Amaretto Chocolate Chip. This is like a chocolate-covered cherry in a cup. The cherries are candied cherries that take three days to make.

A Cup of Coffee. Mediterranean Sea Salt Caramel + Coffee Mocha Swirl. A mochaccino by the spoonful -- the salt in the caramel (the most popular flavor in the case) plays off the coffee well.

All the Berries. Frutti Di Bosco and Bacio Chocolate Hazelnut. You get sweet and salty in one cup. The Frutti Di Bisco is strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Mexican Hot Chocolate. Cinnamon + Chocolate Jalapeno. This is the frozen cousin of Mexican hot chocolate with heat from the jalapeno and spice from the cinnamon. This has a kick at the end that keeps building.

A Spoonful of Cake. Strawberry Balsamic Vinegar + Tre Vaniglie (three vanillas). A grown up version of strawberry shortcake that will also call to mind berries and cream.

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t. loft

When we’re busy and stressed, we tend to think less about what we eat and more about how quickly we can eat it in order to get back to what we need to accomplish. Eating healthy can feel hard or a stress in its own right. 

That’s what led Jill Minton and her husband Brandon to open t.Loft. They realized that people needed a place where they could eat well and find a way to work healthy eating habits into their daily routine.

“We’re here to offer what we feel will make you feel good and healthy in a fun and convenient way,” Jill Minton says. “We’re trying to help people realize that healthy can be delicious.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Minton sits in a chair across from the hanging swing benches that Brandon has built for the t.Loft in Park Place. She’s thinking about the health café’s latest chapter – a new location on the Country Club Plaza is in the works -- and new menu.

T.Loft’s original location opened in April 2013 at 8025 State Line Road in Kansas City, Missouri. The initial menu focused on juices and teas and grab-and-go items (protein balls, lettuce wraps). These were foods that helped Minton’s own family. She, along with her father, sister [who owns and operates a t.Loft in Lawrence with their mother] and daughter, have celiac disease. What she and her husband didn’t account for was how t.Loft would change his life.

“I played college sports and then I went into the work world and got out of my work out routine,” Brandon Minton says. “But when we opened t.Loft I had all this healthy stuff in front of me. I made a routine of eating right. I got the energy to start working back out and I lost 75 pounds in six months.”

It’s two years later and Brandon Minton has kept his weight stable. His own experience and a loyal customer following has led to the evolution of t.Loft’s menu concept. While the opening focus was on portability, Minton made the decision to shift to hot and cold bowls that have eggs, legumes or grains.

“You can’t compete with fresh food and this allowed us to adjust good food to whatever someone’s goals or dietary needs are,” Minton says.

T. Loft doesn’t advocate a single health concept or trend, but instead tries to be as transparent as possible about what’s in a given dish in order to allow customers to make informed choices. The menu breaks out the calories, carbohydrates and protein numbers for each item.

“We want you to know what you’re getting and make a conscious decision,” Minton says.

A pair of quinoa bowls have been popular since appearing on the menu – the Spicy Buffalo Quinoa Bowl (made with chicken, avocado, celery, carrots, blue cheese and hot sauce on a bed of quinoa) and the Grecian Lentil Bowl (chicken, cucumbers, tomatoes, red peppers, goat cheese and a lemon balsamic over lentils). 

“We believe whole food is the best food,” Director of Operations Meghan Doherty says.

Tea and juice still form the backbone of t.Loft. Minton steers new customers toward the Mean & Clean – what she calls “adult orange juice.” It’s a zesty blend of orange, ginger, carrot, apple and lemon juice. For those looking to get more green leafy vegetables in their diet – kale and spinach are staples at t.Loft – Alive and Alert (a blend of kale, spinach, grape, peach, apple and ginger) is a standard order. 

“The Alive and Alert is good for you, but you don’t know it,” Doherty says. “It’s green and it’s got this nice mix of fruits and veggies.”

In an effort to help people remain mindful, even when they’re busy, t.Loft also has protein balls made with dates, peanut butter and sunflower butter.

“It’s a healthy treat or a snack. You can have those instead of a breakfast bar,” Doherty says.

As t.Loft moves toward the direction of a café, Minton knows that her customers will continue to have a variety of dietary needs and ideas they’re exploring. And she also understands that the best way to help them meet their needs is to make it easy.

“We know that people are coming in for fuel, whether they have a fitness goal or simply want somebody else to make lunch,” Minton says. “We take what we know and try to help people be where they want to be.” 

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The future look and feel of sandwich shops could very well be traced to the opening of Pickleman’s in Park Place last September.

“Park Place was a pivot point for us,” Pickleman’s Creative Director Kendall Pearl says. “We were trying to be ahead of trends coming to Kansas City. People want high protein diets and a lot of vegetables.”

In 2014, Pickleman’s debuted three new salads, a trio of dressings and a vegetarian chili – all designed to meet customer demand for higher protein, lower calorie options. It was a big addition for the nine-year-old chain, which launched with only 19 menu items (soup, sandwiches and pizza) at its original location in Columbia, Missouri.

Pickleman’s has been subtly changing its menu over the past few years to adapt to the way its customers are eating. In 2012, they introduced the ‘Pick 2’ concept, where diners could match a half-sandwich with a soup or half-salad.

“A lot of what we do is based on feedback from our customers,” Pearl says. “We used Kansas City as a sounding board. We asked what people thought of our salads and a lot of women said they thought our salad lineup was a little bit like guys made all our salads.”

The changes started with Pickleman’s base salad. They swapped in spinach for iceberg lettuce. You can now pick spinach or romaine -- heads of lettuce are brought in each morning and chopped onsite.

“We don’t pre make any of our salads,” Pearl says. “Our veggies are prepped to order, so we can customize everything.”

The three new salads are the Avo-Cabb, Southwest and Walnut Cran. The Avo-Cobb has sliced Haas avocados, a hard-boiled egg, crumbled bacon, tomato, cheddar cheese and croutons. The Southwest swaps in corn, beans, and red onions for the bacon and eggs in the Avo-Cobb. The Walnut Cran has walnuts, cranberries, blue cheese and a hardboiled egg. While they were tweaking the salads, Pickleman’s also looked at its dressing lineup. 

“Ranch is great on everything, but it’s got a lot of fat in it,” Pearl says. “We needed something that fit in with our salads well.”

The yogurt ranch swaps in plain yogurt for the mayonnaise used with the traditional Ranch dressing. Pickleman’s added a lemon balsamic and balsamic vinaigrette dressing at the same time. All the dressings are made in house. 

In addition to the new salads and dressings, Pickleman’s also created a vegetarian lentil chili. It’s made with brown lentils, chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers and chiles.

“It’s really hearty,” area manager Keith Royer says. “It’s good. It’s got a little big of kick, a little bit of tang.”

Beyond looking at their menu, the sandwich shop is also trying to take a mindful approach to its packaging. They recently switched to a biodegradable bowl for salads.

“If you look at the number of salads that one location makes, that’s a hefty carbon footprint,” Royer says. “This is one way for us to cut down on that.”

“We knew that as a group buying for 19 restaurants, we have some buying power,” Pearl adds. “As we try to consolidate our packaging, there will be some additional costs. But we look at what Chipotle has done with so many of its products and we think we can be a company doing it the right way.”

Pickleman’s is in the midst of adding two stores. The first will likely open in Omaha, Nebraska, while another is underway in the Westport area. The menu will feature more vegetarian items with a veggie pizza likely in the works.

“Kansas city is full of great and inspiration. It’s unique in that it has respect for food, family and culture,” Pearl says. “We just want to keep listening to what people have to say.”

Pearl is also helping to overhaul online ordering and the eatery’s app with Facebook integration, larger photos and a loyalty program. The new services will likely roll out this summer.

“We fall in a unique position in the quick service space in that we can order delivery of customized salads,” Pearl says. “ We see more and more customers leaning toward that set-up.” Read More
Gordon Biersch

The craft beer revolution in the United States has had a great impact on an unexpected group: foodies. Beer pairings have gone from an occasional dinner menu to a finely honed art. At Gordon Biersch in Park Place, the brewhouse and kitchen are working in harmony to develop seasonal menus that strive to bring the best out of the beer and what’s on your plate. And that’s critical for Michael Maher because the executive chef of Gordon Biersch in Leawood is not, in fact, a beer drinker.

“I’m not a beer drinker at all. I never really was,” Maher, 52, says. “I like working with the beer though because I have no preconceived knowledge. I just go on what I feel and what the guests are telling me.”

Maher’s three-decade long career began at the now-closed Stephenson’s Old Apple Farm Restaurant in his hometown of Independence, Missouri. He was working as a dishwasher when a cook in the kitchen told him he had a new assignment for the night.

“A guy grabbed and me and said, ‘we need help on the line.’” Maher remembers. “That was when I knew that I wanted to cook and now it’s 36 years later.”

The ability to be steady under pressure landed him in high volume kitchens – Cheesecake Factory, Macaroni Grill and the Adams Mark Hotel. After a year at Gordon Biersch in the Power & Light, he became the head of the kitchen in Park Place. And since then, he’s been able to use his knowledge from cooking on the line to develop specials that focus on how Gordon Biersch’s brews will work with a given dish.

“You know certain foods have certain flavors. Arugula is a little peppery and halibut is not a very strong flavored fish,” Maher says. “Then I just take it to my team and we start to work with everything.” 

One of those team members is Micah Weichert – the brewmaster who works out of the brewhouse in the Power & Light District (where the beer is made for the two area locations). Weichert, formerly the brewmaster at 75th Street, will have been at Gordon Biersch for two years this coming July.

On a recent Tuesday, Maher and Weichert start talking about the menu and some of the most popular pairings. They immediately single out the brick oven halibut.

“The lemon caper sauce has this little tang to go with the fish, which is lightly battered in seasoned rice flour before we sauté it and then cook it in the brick oven,” Maher says. 

Weichert thinks the Hefeweizen – a German-style wheat – is the perfect brew for the light fish.

“It’s one of our most popular beers. It’s got this nice banana and clove flavor,” Weichert says. “It’s light and refreshing. The orange and citrus in the halibut dish goes really nicely with the Hefeweizen.”

On the starter and happy hour menu, it’s the pecan-crusted chicken and pear sliders that are regularly heading out of the kitchen. Think bite-sized pan-fried chicken on a grilled and buttered roll. 

For the sliders, Maher coats medallions of chicken with panko bread crumbs, pecans, lemon zest, flour and herbs. It’s then pan-fried and topped with pear chutney (made with pears, onions, thyme, honey and a little white wine). The chicken is served on house-made white slider buns.

“The Czech pilsner has this nice crispness and a balance that makes it go with everything,” Weichert says. “It cuts through the hearty texture of the pecan-crusted chicken.”

Gordon Biersch is set to unveil a series of new pasta dishes, including a cioppino made with mussels and clams. Over at the brewhouse, Weichert has been busy brewing a Belgian Tripel. It’s a big beer at 8 percent alcohol by volume, but smooth with “vanilla, pear and almost wine notes.” He’s also working on the Rauchbier – a smoked brew made with beachwood smoked pilsner malt.

“The smoke flavor isn’t too intense. The smokiness gives it an almost bacon-y quality. I think it would go well in Bloody Mary’s,” Weichert says. “It goes really well with chicken wings, steaks and the brie plate.”

While primarily known for its German-style beer, Gordon Biersch is in the midst of rolling out some brews inspired by the craft beer scene in America. There’s an American-style IPA and brown ale now on the menu.

“People in Kansas City love brown ale and ours will have more of a malt body, “Weichert says. “It will be a little more robust with a bit more hop character and a little more crispness.”

And with each new beer on tap, that’s just another flavor for Maher and his team to pair.
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If you really want to show a person you love them, it’s time you went beyond chocolate. Love, it turns out, can be sweet, spicy or even deep-fried. 

801 Chophouse’s executive chef Jeremy Kalcic, 35, has known since high school that food lets people instantly make connections.

“I was dishwashing at a retirement home at the time,” Kalcic says. “And my dad looked over at me and said, ‘you’re at work so much, why don’t you become a chef.’ That made sense. I thought everybody’s got to eat and you can affect somebody’s emotions with food.”

Kalcic graduated from the culinary apprenticeship program at Johnson County Community College in 2002 before working at a series of beloved restaurants in his native Kansas City, including the Bristol Seafood Grill and Gaslight Grill. In October of 2013, he became the executive chef at the 801 Chophouse in Leawood. 

“This is the place to fall in love with food,” Kalcic says while sitting in a deep-backed booth in the dark wood dining room. “It’s the ambience and service and simple food done perfectly.”

Kalcic loves layering in deep, comforting flavors – something he takes from a pair of childhood inspirations. Growing up in the Northland, his best friend was Korean. For a decade, he was exposed to spicy, sour and pickled notes through the ramen noodles he regularly ate at the house across the street. In his own home, his grandfather would make kielbasa, cabbage rolls and sour cream sweet noodles – Croatian dishes from his own childhood on Strawberry Hill.

Today, Kalcic still is a global traveler in his own kitchen.

“I ask my wife what country she feels like and that’s what we have for dinner,” Kalcic says.

You may not have a command of international cuisine, but this is why we have restaurants, people. And since food is love, here’s three ways you can say, ‘I Love You.’ 

SHOW YOUR COMMITMENT: 801 Chophouse is heaven for carnivores courtesy of a robust steak list, but there are still surprises for meat lovers. The roasted marrow bones are a clear sign that you’re head-over-heels for the carnivore in your life.

“It’s so rich, it makes your heart hurt. I like dishes that have a full texture, flavor, and mouthfeel,” Kalcic says.

The marrow bones, purchased locally at Bichelmeyer Meats, are roasted and served with grilled baguette crostini, a parsley caper salad dressed with salt, pepper, lemon and a little olive oil, and a tomato chutney. The chutney has onions, tomatoes, raisins, balsamic vinegar and sugar that’s cooked down and then finished with a little sugar. The chutney and a grilled lemon provide a sour and sweet component to cut through the fattiness of the marrow.

“I was born and bred in the Midwest. It’s the simple food done perfectly that gets me going,” Kalcic says. “I might go outside the box a little bit, but I’m not going to make a new box.” 

TIMELESS LOVE: Forget silver or paper or whatever material is ascribed to a given anniversary. The key to celebrating your relationship is a classic dish like Oysters Rockefeller.

“You can’t go wrong with bacon and onion,” Kalcic says, as a sauté pan sizzles with chopped bacon and onion in the kitchen. “Oysters Rockefeller is just a classic dish done well.”

Once the bacon and onion are cooked, Kalcic deglazes the pan with a bit of Pernod in order to make a cream sauce. He then adds the oysters and generously sprinkles parmesan cheese on top. The pan is popped in the oven to allow the cheese to brown slightly. The oysters aren’t cooked all the way through, just warmed before they’re plated and served with a Hollandaise sauce.

All you have to do is clink half shells and give yourself over to the bubbly cheese. 

A BIT OF WHIMSY: For the person that brings lightness or laughter to your life, there’s a little State Fair at the 801 Chophouse with lobster corn dogs (a pork belly version is on the Happy Hour menu right now).

“It’s gourmet comfort food, a high-end twist to comfort food,” Kalcic says. “The lobster corn dogs are a real fun thing.”

Kalcic starts with a seafood mousse made with creamed shrimp, chopped lobster and salt and pepper. The mousse mix is pureed and then piped, dipped into the corn dog batter and sticked.

“They’ve got this crispy outside and juicy center just like a corn dog,” Kalcic says.

Find Your Flavor is a series of sponsored posts on The Recommended Daily. Over the course of the next year, we’ll explore the menus, cuisine and folks behind dishes at the restaurants in Leawood’s Park Place. 

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