The Country Club Plaza and the neighborhood immediately to its south are now officially saturated with pizza. Spin, Minsky's and California Pizza Kitchen do strong business, and five of this small area's non-pizzeria restaurants — Brio Tuscan Grille, Buca di Beppo, Figlio, Accurso's Italian Restaurant, and Osteria Il Centro — serve pizza. Still, Highwoods Properties, having given Re:Verse the heave-ho, replaced that former hot spot with a Dallas concept that's extending its tentacles outside Texas for the first time: Coal Vines Pizza & Wine Bar. Brush Creek runneth over with pepperoni.
Around here, the thinking goes, more must be better. After all, the Plaza has three upscale steakhouses as well as representatives from seemingly every corporate culinary chain. Some Highwoods executive probably read the same little factoid that I recently stumbled upon: Americans eat 350 slices of pizza every second. Sure, the historic shopping center would be enhanced with the addition of an intimate French bistro or a raucous German beer garden, but pizza is a $30 billion-a-year industry. Who wouldn't want a piece of that pie?
Judging by Coal Vines' immediate popularity, the suits were right. But I don't get it.
The sultry dining room is as theatrical as a stage set and populated with a particularly good-looking staff (there's even a Brad Pitt knockoff in the kitchen); handsome owners (Bret Springs and Zach Marten might have been ordered out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog); and a clientele that gets younger and prettier as the clock ticks into the evening. A friend of mine felt the chill one night of all that cool when just walking by the open corner windows that front Brush Creek. "I suddenly felt like the ugly girl in a Janis Ian song," she told me.
Hey, gorgeous people have to eat, too. The physically beautiful, however, work their magic here only after dusk. Coal Vines' weekend brunch diners tend to look a little more ordinary, and the restaurant matches them by becoming fairly run-of-the-mill.
The limited number of breakfast dishes sounded much more interesting than they tasted. The Captain Crunch french toast was as tough as a buccaneer's boot — even after being doused with maple syrup — and the breakfast calzone was bigger than a Prada bag and not nearly as tasteful.
One recent Sunday, my earthy friend Truman loved the décor, loved his frittata ("It's gorgeously moist, totally satisfying"), even loved the 1980s music playing at a ridiculous volume. My friend Bob, sitting on the other side of the table, cringed at hearing the greatest hits of Madonna, A-ha, and Rick Astley before 1 p.m., hated his eggs Benedict — a visual bust — and endured a plate of fried potatoes cold enough to ice a martini.
Not that you can get a martini at Coal Vines — or any other cocktail, for that matter. The Kansas City outpost of Dallas-based Coal Vines (this is the chain's third restaurant) serves only wine and beer.
The terrific service made up for several other minor irritations. And the regular dinner menu offered relief from the underwhelming morning dishes: a smoked-salmon tartare was gorgeous and delicious, a tower of ruby salmon cubes layered with herbed goat cheese and fresh avocado and splashed with a brassy pomegranate vinaigrette. And this restaurant's fried calamari was light and crispy, though I would have preferred to taste it hot. That day, the cook wasn't in the kitchen but standing in the dining room, watching the KU game on TV.
Coal Vines is much more seductive at night. Votive candles twinkle, and the dining room's dark, warm colors — heavy burgundy drapes, black chairs with crimson cushions, endless bottles of deep-red wine — swallow up the shiny, happy people who come to dine. It's a place to pose while you eat. I had to affect the posture of a person with more acute hearing, though; the noise level in this high-ceilinged, hard-surfaced room made having a conversation nearly impossible.
It's almost a shame to exert all that allure in the service of common pizza. Coal Vines limits its menu to six traditional pies on a single laminated page. They're simple creations: four are vegetarian-friendly, and the meaty remainder — a Bolognese version with a thick blanket of meat sauce, and a very tasty sausage with roasted red peppers — aren't fussy or inventive. Even the daily "special" pizza might not satisfy those who crave flamboyance on a crust. True, a "Chicken Cordon Bleu" pizza is theatrical, but I couldn't bring myself to order it. It sounded too clever for its own good.
Sometimes the night's whole-wheat pasta special turns out better than those listed on the menu (a bowl of rigatoni with sausage and rapini, or penne in a vodka cream sauce). I've tasted better versions of eggplant parmesan than the baked (not fried) Coal Vines version, even if the char-grilled tomatoes and the creamy buffalo mozzarella made up for the dryness of the crusty aubergine. But I loved the old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs available as a special on the night I dined with Scott, William and Beatrice. It was as good as what my late Sicilian grandmother used to make, with light, fresh marinara and meatballs big enough to roll down a bocce court.
The prices here are reasonable by Plaza standards. I didn't mind ordering a few starters that I wouldn't have bothered with if they'd been more costly. I got what I paid for, though. The prosciutto-stuffed mozzarella sticks looked pretty, but I couldn't see or taste a hint of that salty, dry-cured ham in the cheesy rods. The salads were equally pretty — like miniature still lifes — and more rewarding. The mesclun salad with green apples, Montrachet cheese and cranberries, swathed in a bacon-dijon vinaigrette, was delightful. (The Caesar suffered by comparison.)
We shared a pizza that night: a half-and-half custom job with mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan on one side of the 18-inch coal-fired crust, and plum tomatoes and roasted garlic on the other. The pie was terrific but too big for our small table. It was like having an edible lazy Susan in the center that made anything else on the table (including a caddy of spoonable bowls holding red-pepper flakes, grated parmesan and dried oregano) almost inaccessible.
Our server insisted that the tiramisu was made in-house. It's not really tiramisu but a confectionary conceit of fluffy mascarpone and cream whipped together into a souffle, with barely an evanescent hint of coffee. It didn't pick me up, like the dessert's name promises, but it would have made a lovely photograph.
The desserts at Coal Vines, like most of the other dishes, the staff and the customers, are more pleasing to the eyes than to the other senses. The name of the Plaza's newest pizzeria might as well have come from the Old Testament's Song of Solomon: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes." If you like foxy, Coal Vines has your tender.