In a perfect world, every neighborhood in Kansas City's metropolitan area would boast at least a couple of the independently owned restaurants and cafes that are found on or near the Massachusetts Street corridor in Lawrence. I can't imagine anything more comforting than the thought of rolling out of bed on a frosty December morning, tossing on just enough clothing to be presentable, and walking down the block to a version of WheatFields Bakery Cafe.
The 15-year-old restaurant has long been one of my favorite places in this college town because it reminds me so much of a cozy neighborhood patisserie in Paris. The first time I walked into WheatFields, in fact, I was so dazzled by all of the flaky croissants, cookies and sweets in the pastry cases, I was tempted to order one of everything. It's still one of my fantasies.
Every so often, when I wake up early enough, I'm inspired to impulsively call up a friend (or two) and goad them to get up and out of bed before dawn in order to drive to Lawrence for breakfast at WheatFields. Lawrence is sort of a long trek for a morning meal, but this Kansas hamlet has such a charming vitality — and, no, I didn't go to college there — that I sometimes convince friends to stick around for lunch and dinner, too. After all, we're already there. Why not make it a full day of eating?
That doesn't happen nearly often enough, I'm sorry to say. But I did lure my friend Carol Ann one recent morning with the promise of a cappuccino and a feather-light waffle drenched in maple syrup at WheatFields.
Carol Ann was fighting a severe head cold and was sniffling and grouchy when I picked her up, but she was still game for the expedition. When we arrived at the bakery, which is sunny and congenial (with a staff so unexpectedly cheery, even at 7 a.m., that even Ebenezer Scrooge wouldn't stay grumpy for long), the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and yeasty pastries was an intoxicating jolt after a 45-minute drive and a couple of depressing news reports on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
Carol Ann changed her mind about a waffle once we stepped inside and smelled the baked goods. But after looking at a precooked omelet du jour, perched haphazardly in the display case (not really the best visual sales tool for this dish), she decided that a turkey-and-Swiss omelet wasn't alluring to her, either.
"I want the pumpkin creme caramel," she announced, "and an almond croissant." After noisily blowing her nose into a handkerchief, she told the woman at the counter, "I want the frittata sandwich, too. And hot tea."
You order at the counter at WheatFields, and a staff member brings the hot dishes to the table. In this case, Carol Ann's breakfast sandwich was served on thick French bread spread thickly with scallion cream cheese and piled with eggs fried with potatoes, mushrooms, green olives and spinach. After devouring most of the crème caramel, all of the superb croissant and a hunk of my fat cinnamon roll, Carol Ann was too full to eat all of the sandwich and took most of it home. Too bad, because this is a sandwich best served hot, when the yeasty bread soaks up the flavorful grease from the fried eggs and spuds, and the creamy scallion cheese is just nearly molten.
I didn't have the same problem with my ciabattina sandwich, a deliciously chewy ciabatta roll split and stuffed with two scrambled eggs, Swiss cheese and bacon. And as much as I admired the size of the robust, square cinnamon roll, with its delicate icing and hint of sugary glaze, I would have loved it had it been served warm. (Microwaving doesn't count. Even a short spin turns pastry dense and leathery once it begins to cool again.)