After 8 p.m. on those Fridays, Shirazi offers a handful of dinners for $8 at Shiraz, his combination restaurant and art gallery on Southwest Boulevard. It's a clever marketing technique, because the room fills up quickly and most of the patrons wind up ordering more expensive dinners from the regular menu. And the 51-year-old Shirazi (who, as a fiftieth birthday present to himself last year, finally took off his chef's toque and turned over the kitchen to his assistant chefs) gets to hang out with friends and regular customers. Many of them still remember him from as far back as the 1970s, when he was a photography student at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Shirazi has no regrets about not choosing photography as a career. "I came to food instead," he says, shrugging. "It's a different kind of creative life."
Now the Tehran-born Shirazi designs the menu for his nine-year-old restaurant, chooses the art exhibitions that hang around its dining room (they change monthly) and artfully arranges masses of fresh flowers overflowing from oversized vases on the bar. The inexpensive Eight After Eight menu is, he says, his way of "giving back something to the artistic community." But some might say Shirazi's contribution to the gallery scene started much earlier.
Long before the Crossroads District was even an idea, Shirazi was luring hipsters over to the stretch of Southwest Boulevard that was, in the 1980s, known primarily for its unassuming Mexican eateries. Shirazi and partner Noori Jones opened the West Side Café in a former gas station in 1983. A few years later, Jones; her husband, Adam; and Mahar Chebaro would open the popular Boulevard Café in an old meat-packing building adjacent to the West Side Café, suddenly making a once-forlorn neighborhood chic.
The West Side Café was tiny -- at first just a counter and five stools. Later it expanded to seat 25 before closing in the mid-'90s. But they served the kind of eclectic fare that Shirazi still offers at Shiraz, a combination of Middle Eastern, Indian and European dishes. Shirazi learned to cook, he says, by helping his mother shop at the markets in Tehran and prepare the family's dinners. But he serves only one distinctly Persian dish at Shiraz: Gormeh Sabzi, a shank of lamb slowly simmered in garlic, turmeric, dried lemons (instead of the traditional limes) and black pepper until the tender meat slides off the bone and onto a mound of steaming basmati rice. After nearly a decade, it's still my favorite dish on the menu.
With its crazy quilt of cultural references, the newest Shiraz menu evokes the forward-thinking style of the old Prospect Restaurant in Westport, where Shirazi was working as a waiter in the early 1980s (and where he met his future wife, Stephanie, who was also slinging plates there). Shirazi took some of the best ideas from the Prospect -- including Bonnie Winston's recipe for its famous carrot cake -- and installed them at Shiraz when he adapted the nineteenth-century brick building as a European-style bistro. Like the Prospect, Shirazi's restaurant was designed as a cool, uncluttered gathering space. He left the original brick walls unplastered and painted the interior walls a warm persimmon and the beamed ceiling a vibrant green.
Shirazi hired artist Allan Winkler, who lives in the neighborhood, to create cut out vignettes from galvanized steel to screen the plate-glass windows, and he commissioned his father-in-law, artist Mark English, to paint the panels on the bar. The tables are cloaked in white linen, then sheathed in white butcher paper. And it speaks volumes about the consistency of this restaurant that most of the staff -- including waiters Jorge and Tony -- have been working here since the place opened. That stability and loyalty offer customers a sense of comfort that's just as valuable as the artwork on the walls. Although several Kansas City restaurants make the oxymoronic claim of being "casually elegant," Shiraz is one of the few that actually pulls it off.
I had a sensationally stylish supper there one night with sultry but silent Jennifer, who got chatty only after a glass of Rhine River Riesling; the handsome Adam, who loosened up with a Spanish Verdejo; and Bob, who probably had glasses of both and never stopped talking. I was much more into eating than blabbing, and I wished that the garlicky Gambas al Ajillo -- shrimp and mushrooms sautéed in white wine and olive oil -- had been prepared with fiery peppers rather than with herbs. But that didn't stop me from soaking up all of the oily sauce with a square of the spongy focaccia baked in the restaurant's oak-burning pizza oven.
Another Spanish-influenced appetizer -- a layered wedge of thinly sliced potatoes, red peppers, onion and shrimp baked with a peppery aioli -- was a hearty little number. Easier to share were slightly chewy, thin little "steaks" of Asian-spiced fried calamari. But even though they were certainly fragrant, they were disappointingly dull to the taste. A better choice: the light and fluffy crab cakes, more crab than cake.
Shirazi's wine-poached pear salad was a visually stunning swirl of pale-pink pear slices accompanied by pungent bits of blue cheese, crunchy cashews and almonds. The spinach salad was tossed with salty feta and sugary "croutons" of jumbled chopped almonds ("It tastes like granola," Bob said, adding, "I'm not sure I like it, but I can't stop eating it") in an equally sweet sherry vinaigrette. The Mediterranean salad, though, was a ho-hum concoction of chopped cucumber, onion, tomatoes and artichoke hearts in an excessively oily (and stingy on the garlic) dressing.
The real masterpieces were the dinners, like Bob's superbly grilled chunk of beef splashed with a wine reduction and perched atop a generous mound of mashed potatoes whipped with bits of sweet lobster meat. Jennifer's lobster ravioli -- a dish that tastes like crab rangoon at most restaurants -- was perfect here: amber-colored pillows of al dente pasta that were actually filled with lobster!
Shirazi still has a tandoori oven in the kitchen, but he prefers using the pizza oven for roasting tandoori chicken, marinated in traditional yogurt and Indian spices. It isn't that sickly shade of red -- "Indian restaurants use food coloring," Shirazi says -- but a burnished mahogany, delectably moist under a crust flavored with turmeric, cayenne, ginger, curry and masala spices.
On another night, my pork tenderloin came Catalan-style, rolled around sweet figs, slices of salty pancetta and creamy blue cheese and drizzled in a rich sauce of champagne and walnuts, sided by ribbons of squash, carrots and purple cabbage. I also sampled a few bites of what turned out to be an unexpected treasure: Too few vegetarian dishes are quite so lovely -- and tasty -- as Shiraz's roasted eggplant half served a la Marrakech, stuffed with basmati rice, tomatoes and herbs, and sprinkled with feta cheese.
I can imagine Wayne Thiebaud using the jewel-like desserts served here for his still lifes. The prettiest ones are the quartet of exquisite little pastries, including a Grand Marnier budino made by a professional bakery, although some look better than they taste. The silken, house-made lavender crème brûlée was covered by a disappointingly chewy sugar glaze. I preferred a dense wedge of chocolate truffle torte, also made in the Shiraz kitchen, though it still tasted mostly like a chilled candy bar.
But it doesn't matter if some of these sweets look better than they taste. At Shiraz, the artistry is everywhere.