The Westside Local opened in July amid lots of buzz. Managing partner Troy McEvers had worked at the popular Free State Brewery in Lawrence, and he introduced Rick Martin, another Free State Brewery veteran, as Westside's consulting chef.
McEvers took over an empty storefront space near the corner of 17th Street and Summit, adding another locally focused restaurant to the hilltop that's already home to the Blue Bird Bistro, Fervere Bakery and the Los Alamos Market y Cocina (where, last time we checked, patrons were going through more than 500 pounds of homemade menudo every weekend; The Pitch named Los Alamos "Best Mom and Pop" in 2007). The Westside Local space was beautifully designed, with shiny hardwood floors, exposed brick walls and an interesting selection of works by local artists. And it was the perfect time of year to debut an outdoor beer "garden" (actually an enclosed beer patio, but no less charming).
I heard gushing from some diners who paid early visits, but I also heard reports of a few faults that have continued to haunt the place. And now that the restaurant has been open for two months, those faults are the kinds of problems that need to be corrected now.
There are so many reasons to like the Westside Local, I feel guilty about pointing out the little problems — well, a couple of them aren't so little — that have yet to be fixed. It's a restaurant with a lot of potential and just a handful of annoyances. But as a friend of mine, a restaurant-industry veteran, pointed out after dining there once: "First impressions are everything, especially in a bad economy. And Westside Local's staff just doesn't give a shit."
There is some question as to who is actually running the kitchen at this point. Martin designed the current menu and has received a good deal of positive publicity for it. McEvers has told me that Martin, who is still employed at the Free State Brewery, has not "made the transition" to full-time executive chef at the Westside Local.
It seems obvious to me that the rangy, bearded McEvers — artist, designer, beer enthusiast — clearly wants to put his own imprint on the restaurant, and maybe that extends to the culinary side of the venue, too.
In designing his menu — an array of bistro-meets-brewhouse dishes — Martin may have been inspired by traditional saloon fare from the 19th century. Back when neighborhood taverns competed for business by offering snacks or free lunch spreads — cured meats, salty cheeses, hard-boiled eggs — the food was a loss leader, but it encouraged patrons to drink more.
The Westside Local's snacks — or starters, if they're preludes to bigger meals — include versions of those saloon standards: really excellent deviled eggs drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, sardines and pickles, and a charcuterie plate (not elaborate, but it does include a dollop of Braunschweiger, that delectable, soft smoked pork-liver sausage, and paper-thin slices of pink La Quercia ham, "the American prosciutto"). If there were a heavily mustachioed bartender in a starched white shirt manning the ridiculously tiny bar, the Westside Local would have the whole retro thing down.
"They just need a good bartender," my friend Truman complained after he requested a very dry martini and was served a cocktail with so much sweet vermouth, he said, "I could marinate a turkey in it."
Truman and I were dining with Sharon, Ross and Carol Ann; Truman and Ross both sent their martinis back. I'm not convinced that it was the bartender's fault, however, because the waitress seemed clueless about the nuances of a dry martini.
"Maybe most people who come here just drink beer," Ross said as he looked over the lengthy list of ales and beers. "Most of the dishes here can be paired with beer. The food menu doesn't even mention wines."
None of us drank wine that night, although it might have tempered Truman's big fat mouth as he complained, loudly, that his dinner of braised rabbit was overcooked and not hot. I took a taste and agreed that the lukewarm lapin was a little stringy, although the sauce, an autumn-inspired creation of apples, onions and leeks, was extraordinary.
Ross had ordered that night's special, which turned out to be another splendid fall dish: a hash of chopped vegetables (mostly potatoes) with bacon, topped with a fried egg and a generous spoonful of satiny hollandaise sauce. "If it were hot," Ross said, "it would be outstanding. And I wish it had been served with some kind of bread."
His dish needed the grilled baguette slices that came, inexplicably, with Carol Ann's pasta: two oversized, plump, round ravioli stuffed with sheep's-milk cheese and blanketed with an exceptional roasted onion cream.
Sharon nibbled on a salad of sliced beets, arugula, fennel and fresh grapefruit, while I enjoyed every luscious bite of a seared salmon burger made with wild-caught coho and roasted onions. I ordered the dish in spite of our server's incompetent description, which made it sound like a low-rent crab cake.
That night's desserts, created by young pastry chef Jessica Rector, were excellent: a slightly tart but intensely delicious deep-red sorbet made with raspberries and blackberries, and a contrived layered confection, heavily dusted with cinnamon and called tiramisu. Tiramisu it wasn't, but as an ersatz Napoleon, it was very tasty.
I sampled two of Rector's finer creations on another visit after an excellent lunch — a flawless meal, actually — that included what might be the city's best BLT, on grilled Farm to Market sourdough. That afternoon's sweets included a silky cantaloupe mousse in a tuile cookie cornucopia and a tiny chocolate cake — smaller than a cupcake, even, heavily frosted with a fresh blackberry icing.
That day I dined with Bob, who proclaimed the Summit burger — made with ground rib-eye — the finest hamburger he had ever tasted. And the garlic fries? Fantastic! The service was perfect, the energy of the pretty dining room was soothing and comfortable (unlike the wooden church pew I was sitting on, which was torture). That day, the Westside Local felt like the year's most promising new restaurant.
It's just up to McEvers and his staff to live up to that promise.
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