"The unmistakable aroma of Segafredo Zanetti espresso is rapidly filling the air, diffusing itself across the hundreds of beautiful fountains characterizing the city," gushes the online description of Kansas City's new outlet for the European coffee-shop chain. "Moreover, as for the other Segafredo Zanetti branded outlets, this new coffee shop has already become one of the trendiest meeting points of the largest city of Kansas."
Huh? Since when did that red building at 919 West 47th Street, the site of the ill-fated Trattoria Luigi, sneak over to the west side of State Line, let alone all the way to Wichita? As for that hyperbole about the aroma of espresso "diffusing itself across the hundreds of beautiful fountains" in Kansas City, it's a lovely thought, but as they say it Italy, in pieno di merda.
The one honest statement in that silly online promo is the part about the new Segafredo Zanetti becoming a trendy meeting point. Since opening in July, the place has lured the see-and-be-seen crowd of all ages, particularly well-styled middle-agers like the ones who postured in the tiled bar at Fedora Café & Bar back when it was the Plaza's glamour venue nearly twenty years ago.
Michael Peterson was a young chef, barely out of his teens, when he worked at Fedora at the height of its salad days. During his tenure as the chef at Grand Street, on the east side of the Plaza, that restaurant was equally popular. Now he's the executive chef and one of the owners of the third Bologna, Italy-based Segafredo Zanetti Espresso location in the United States. (The other two are in Miami and San Francisco; the corporation signed a lease for a New York location in September.) Just before the restaurant opened, an Italian representative of the Segafredo Zanetti Group walked around the two-story building (the exterior looks like the New Orleans set of A Streetcar Named Desire) with a video camera, eagerly shooting everything. Why? By the international corporation's standards, the Kansas City outlet is unique among the 350 locations that bear the company name -- which include espresso bars tucked into gas stations in Israel -- and that typically serve coffee and snacks.
But it would be unfair to call the Kansas City venue a "coffee shop." It opens at 4 p.m. and serves a sophisticated and expensive menu -- not muffins and sandwiches but elegant appetizers and six dinner entrées.
You could, I suppose, make a late-night snack out of a couple of Peterson's dishes, if you don't mind forking over the dough. I didn't on the evening I sat at the bar and polished off a plate of calamari fries and seared duck breast. Those two dishes and a single espresso set me back $26, which might have had me screaming if I hadn't enjoyed it all so much. These days, calamari is as ubiquitous as french fries in Kansas City, and much of it tastes like deep-fried rubber bands. It may seem audacious, charging ten smackers for a jumble of thick squid fries, but Peterson's are sensational -- lusciously soft, dusted with Asiago cheese, breadcrumbs and red chilies, then fried until crispy.
Also superb is the seared Muskovy duck, which Peterson brines, air-dries and slow-renders for three hours until it's lean and tender . The moist, burgundy-colored slices fan out around a saffron-shaded mound of basmati rice fried with bits of egg, foie gras and a dash of chili paste, making for a perfect little dinner.
Obviously, lots of people are having the same idea. One Friday night, I drove around for ten minutes trying to get a parking place somewhere near the building. No luck. The following day, I made an early dinner reservation for me and my friends Bob and Marie. I had requested a nonsmoking table, but I quickly realized I'd made an error when we were escorted back to a boxy, claustrophobic room with a handful of tables, one of which was occupied by a loudmouthed man and two women who giggled incessantly. To hell with these freaks, I thought, begging to be moved to the much more attractive smoker's dining room at the front of the building, which has better lighting, a glassed-in fireplace and a much better-behaved crowd.
The pretty waitresses are outfitted like 1950s debutantes in strapless, black cocktail dresses with oversized faux pearls (a look some prudes find offensive but we adored). "They're sort of impractical," our server, the breathtakingly beautiful Andrea, confessed. "The zippers are always breaking."
Andrea was so lovely that I worried about her waitressing skills, especially because Peterson's menu is a complicated affair. But she was articulate and well-informed about the dishes and their ingredients. And she was unfazed when Bob, who can be any server's nightmare when he insists on switching side dishes, requested the Romano potatoes from another dish instead of the ones that were supposed to accompany his fillet. We were all impressed.
We shared several of the smaller plates, both cold and hot. A pale-green tower of romaine was lightly brushed with an anchovy-and-olive-oil dressing. A thick slab of butter-colored, brandy-cured foie gras came with bounceberry (a cranberry by any other name) chutney and a shot glass of very sweet Sauternes. Thick pillows of sourdough ravioli enveloped salty prosciutto and fresh peas in a thick Reggiano cream sauce. And Marie and I nearly fought over a savory pancake rolled, like a blini, around grilled lobster and crab, served on a jade-colored heap of champagne-braised greens and drizzled with caviar cream and spoonfuls of red and black caviar.
For his supper, Bob chose one of the appetizer plates -- a 6-ounce, center-cut fillet beautifully grilled -- with cheesy slices of potatoes, grilled mushrooms and burgundy onions. Marie and I shared Peterson's excellent grilled veal chop, tender and smoky and blanketed with bacon and caramelized onions.
After eating so much, we were hesitant to indulge in dessert, but Andrea wisely brought out a tray for us to examine, and we nearly swooned over pastry chef Justin Acker's visually stunning creations. We thought about ordering the square of fluffy-looking tiramisu enclosed by chocolate filigree, but Bob wanted the chocolate-espresso crème brûlée; it was absolutely silken under its crisp, burnt-sugar crust. Marie and I shared a chocolate sampler: two pistachio-coated truffles, a delicate cup of chocolate and espresso pot au crème, and squares of chewy, ice-cold baklava sheathed in dark chocolate.
While we nibbled on the sweets, we watched the place fill up with a number of stuffy, Mission Hills types, a gorgeous young couple in matching black-leather coats, and a few twentysomethings who immediately pulled out their cigarettes and posed like Paris Hilton at the bar.
The people-watching was nearly as good as the food, though we didn't notice any aroma of espresso wafting around the place when we walked out the front door. My wallet was considerably lighter, but we were all giddy over Segafredo Zanetti thanks to the combination of the caffeine, the wine and the closeness of all those "trendy" people. We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore.