Page 2 of 2
Alas, the niche holds a painted plaque dating back to Louis VIII. Along with the tall mirrors tucked into French doorway moldings and tiny arrangements of fresh flowers, it's one of the many tasteful touches provided by Bistro 303's owners, antiques guru Gene Switzer and his partner, Jeff Schmitz. They also kept a few significant assets from Metropolis, the jewel-box boîte that previously occupied this site: the black china, the square glassware, the heavy flatware and, most significant, chef Paul Mullins. Out went the red walls, the black carpet, the haughty attitude. Oh, there's still a distinctive attitude here, but it's less about snobbery and more about joie de vivre. Schmitz is as comfortable talking about KU basketball as he is the latest squabbles among A-list gays, who so pack the place on weekends that he's stopped serving food on Friday and Saturday nights -- it was impossible to carry plates across the room.
At lunch, though, the place attracts a mixed crowd to its handful of tables. In fact, it appears as if most of the diners are straight and not quite sure if this so-called bistro is really a restaurant or some highfalutin martini bar. The irony is that despite the posh décor, one can eat pretty royally for about the same as it costs in the diner across the street.
Particularly notable are Mullins' two signature sandwiches. On the 303 Club, he piles slices of turkey, bacon, soft brie and lettuce on slabs of toasted sourdough bread. Even better is a pillowy focaccia slathered with a briny olive tapenade and heaped with smoked chicken breast, chevre and pesto aioli. The day I shared those sandwiches with my friend Oliver, we also split an order of rich mushroom risotto, which was so creamy that I didn't have room for dessert. Oliver, however, polished off a ramekin of satiny crème brûlée.
On another lunch visit, Lou Jane, Jamie and I shared a small pizza blanketed in bubbling white cheeses (provolone, mozzarella, and just enough salty feta to give it a nice kick). Our house salads came liberally laden with slices of ripe pears and crunchy hazelnuts, but the croque monsieur sandwich needed better bread and more Dijon on top of all that ham and cheese. We all tasted that day's desserts -- warm peach-and-pecan strudel and a silken pot de crème made with the darkest of chocolate custard. (The latter reminded me of the Marquis de Sade in his Bastille prison cell, demanding "chocolate ... black as the devil's ass.")
The following week, I returned at night for appetizers, drinks and cigarettes with David and Jennifer, who liked the sensual combination of sweet Manhattan cocktails followed by salty "cigars" made of deep-red prosciutto wrapped around Gorgonzola cheese. I thought Mullins' fried potato gnocchi looked more like Parmesan-dusted pellets than like the traditional dumplings -- I swallowed a whole handful as if I were Neely O'Hara gulping down a fistful of dolls.
We watched as the bar came to life over two hours, though not many patrons were eating as much as we were. David had been extolling the virtues of a "fried platter" (fried pickles, fried cauliflower and waffle fries) at a certain trashy bar downtown, but he had to backpedal when the artfully composed plates of chicken-liver pâté and butternut-squash tartlets arrived. "Well, this place is much classier," he said. "You wouldn't expect to find fried pickles here."
But Schmitz confessed to us that he likes fried pickles, so who knows what could happen as the appetizer menu evolves (or devolves). He's brimming with ideas, such as a Sunday breakfast fundraiser with local performers serving the pancakes -- possibly in drag. At the rate it's going, Bistro 303 could wind up with more personalities than Sybil. But as long as they're as fun and interesting as the current two, I say the more the merrier.