Stretch, who is Kansas City's most entrepreneurial artist, didn't ask my opinion on the name of his new restaurant in the Crossroads. But what the hell: I think calling it Grinders West is all wrong. It makes the new place — in a storefront to the immediate west of the more raucous, testosterone-heavy Grinders — sound like a holding tank or an overflow valve or even an ugly stepsister to the better-known pizza-and-sandwich joint.
Grinders and Grinders West couldn't be more different, although there is, come to think of it, a slight overflow-valve quality to the food service at the western venue: Customers can order off the Grinders menu if they don't find anything they like on chef Steve Brucker's menu at Grinders West (and vice versa). That's why, during a couple of my visits to Grinders West, I witnessed a big ol' pizza from the joint next store being delivered to customers on my side of the wall. "We like this side better," one of those customers explained before biting into a wedge of pizza. "It's quieter. You can talk. But we love the Grinders pizza."
My friend Truman calls it "the culinary version of yin and yang, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One side is wild; the other side is kind of refined."
But not too refined. Grinders West is essentially a deli, just not in the classic sense. "It's an upscale delicatessen," says Brucker, who has lots of experience in upscale and casual dining operations. "People can come in here and buy meats and cheese to go or stay here for a meal."
Stretch wanted the place to be completely different from the restaurant next door. And it is, although the name is close enough to confuse people. When Grinders West opened in December, customers didn't know what to think of the place. I sat in the dining room one night and watched the Grinders crowd walk by the plate-glass windows and peer in. You could read the expressions on their faces: What in the hell is this? Then those window shoppers turned away and walked into the more familiar Grinders, which has almost become a clubhouse for artists, loft dwellers, hipster wannabes and sophisticated suburbanites (like local FM radio icon Tanna Guthrie and her musician husband, Jeff, who drive in from Johnson County for a dose of culinary cool).
If the original Grinders is a noisy clubhouse, the other half of this split-personality restaurant complex is a sleek art gallery from floor to ceiling. Stretch laid the terrazzo floor — made of stone and crushed blue Skyy Vodka bottles — and left intact the original pressed-tin ceiling. An installation on the western wall has its own pulsating personality: Stretch arranged 36 sandblasted colored-glass lenses (and four clear ones), made for front-loading washing machines, in lines of four and outfitted each lens with a computer-controlled lighting system that flashes different colors of light in a hypnotic series of patterns.
This light show reminds me of a stage backdrop for some 1960s pop-music show, like Hullabaloo — maybe because on each of my four visits, the musical soundtrack was heavy on hits from the Vietnam War era: the Zombies, the Byrds, even the Archies! "It's happy music," Stretch told me later. True enough, and if my favorite Grinders West waitresses, Jessica and Jacquie, had started doing the Frug to "Sugar, Sugar," the place really would have been a hullabaloo. Maybe that's what Stretch should have called it.
Those flashing lights are so seductive that diners might not pay enough attention to the other important art installations: the flashing-neon assemblage "Buzz Kill" by Nathan Nowak, and tables that are unique shadow boxes, created by local artists (including Holly Swangstu and Bud Erickson), which will be auctioned off next fall with most of the proceeds going to the artists. The room's most controversial table was created by sweet-natured puppeteer Paul Mesner; his "Adam and Eve" features anatomically correct, stuffed dolls under a sheet of glass. Adam proudly holds an erect cotton-stuffed penis that, Stretch told me, has started flagging slightly since the restaurant opened.
The visuals are tough acts to follow, but Brucker holds his own in the kitchen. His menu isn't exactly a culinary kaleidoscope but rather a good assortment of sandwiches and salads and extraordinary soups. I'm a big fan of the creamy, bulky baked-potato potage topped with shredded cheese and crumbled bacon, though the kitchen crew isn't that consistent about serving the soup hot. I'm also a fan of the French onion soup, which isn't always on the menu, and the signature steak soup is outstanding — more like a hearty, comforting stew.
In a few weeks, Brucker plans to expand the menu to include more pasta selections and some dinner entrées — the evening customers have insisted, he said. After all, no matter how much one loves the California BLT (my friend Bob insists it's the best version of the BLT in town) and the messy but terrific spin on a veggie sandwich (with grilled portabello and zucchini and roasted red peppers topped with melted Havarti cheese and garlic herb aïoli), a sandwich doesn't always satisfy after dark.
One night, Truman ordered the Jambalaya pasta, a surprisingly fiery combination of penne, andouille sausage, sautéed onions and peppers, chicken, shrimp and tomatoes in a spicy cream sauce. It was so addictive, I wound up eating most of his dinner myself. And because Brucker had proved himself a pasta pro, on my next visit I chose that day's noodle du jour — a sultry, beefy concoction that was so rich, I took most of it home and, in a half-stupor at 3 a.m., wolfed it all down. It was pretty good cold, I seem to remember.
Truman won't sit at the Paul Mesner table. ("I don't mind eating with an erection staring me in the face," he said, "but the circumstances have to be different, if you know what I mean.") Instead, on my most recent foray, we sat at a table that was a shadow box filled with small vintage photographs: aging sepia snapshots of children, bobbed flappers in Model T's and stern-faced farm couples.
Bob and Truman sipped wine and ate sandwiches, while I watched the other diners. Truman dismissed one gangly trio as "hicks" — until they started talking about their travels, and we realized that they were far more sophisticated and worldly than we were.
"You can't judge a book by its cover," Truman said, looking longingly at my dish of smoked-gouda potato casserole. I was unmoved; it was too wonderful to share.
But in that old cliché, Truman had summed up the essence of Grinders West. Whatever you think it is just looking through the windows, it isn't. And while it does sell slices of Dietz & Watson meats and artisan cheeses — and pickles! — like a traditional neighborhood deli, it's the least traditional restaurant in the Crossroads, if not all of Kansas City.
I still hate the name.
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