I had made the reservation for 6:30 p.m. and planned to leave Kansas City an hour earlier, but Carol had other ideas.
"Pick me up at 3," she ordered. Carol, a professional antique dealer and garage-sale maven, wanted to check out a couple of Lawrence's thrift stores and antique malls before dinner: "I've found some treasures in Lawrence," she said, hopping into my car at the appointed hour. "But you have to look carefully for the good stuff."
I feel the same way about the restaurant scene in this lively college town, where there are a dozen chain restaurants and fast-food joints for every rewarding restaurant experience. I had heard good things about PrairieFire and was stoked to get there.
But as promised, I delivered Carol to a couple of plebian thrift shops, which she searched like an archaeologist investigating a long-plundered Egyptian tomb. At the Antique Mall just a block from the restaurant, my stomach rumbled noisily as I wandered through shelves of china, old toys and bric-a-brac. After haggling over a cracked glazed pot for several minutes, Carol made the deal and was finally ready to eat.
A brisk walk up the street and through a glass door and we were there. PrairieFire is both hip and glamorous, especially by Lawrence standards. A dewy-eyed young woman checked us off her list and whisked us past a cozy downstairs dining room. "That's the bistro," she said, leading us toward a carpeted flight of stairs. "It's more casual dining, but the same menu as we have upstairs. For right now, anyway."
The little first-floor area, with its dark slate floor, uncloaked tables and jazzy piped-in music, looked appealing enough, but I could hardly wait to see what the fancier rooms looked like upstairs. I was still thinking about Carol's mantra, and after two hours of keeping my eyes open for something -- anything -- "good," I was ready to be overwhelmed.
Luckily for me, PrairieFire's elegant upstairs dining rooms -- especially the main vaulted space with two giant windows that look out on the bustle of Massachusetts Street -- is a showplace. Colors throughout the building are warm, earthy tones, but upstairs, the glazed walls are the shade of melted butterscotch, and the large paintings, even those done in a monochromatic palette, seem to hover above the tables. The lighting is so dramatic it's almost theatrical, with powerful spotlights so cleverly pinpointed on the Louis Copt landscapes that they seem to be lit from within. Draped in heavy white linen, the tables are set with shaded little silver candlesticks holding single flickering votives.
A server in a dark blue shirt and starched white apron hurried over with several thick, warm slices of bread gift-wrapped in a cloth napkin and a china ramekin of butter mixed with herbs and a dash of red pepper. Carol slathered a bit across her bread (baked in chef Tom King's kitchen) and asked the waiter what, exactly, was in the butter.
"Ah," he sighed, "the herbs, perhaps, change daily."
Was that an answer or a question? I wondered. But my stomach was growling so loudly that I needed an appetizer immediately, so I had more important questions to ponder. Should I try the huge slab of just-baked flatbread stuffed with goat cheese that the couple next to us was devouring with great gusto? Or the toast made with seared mushroom caps, veal stock, Marsala wine and shallots? I ordered the mushroom toast and a cheesy little concoction called the Phoenix -- it was served flaming at the table. I've always been a sucker for flambé dishes.
We had been the among the first to be seated in the dining room, but within minutes the room was filled with well-dressed, well-behaved adults. Most of the customers were over 30, but a striking college couple was soon seated close to us. These two looked like movie stars but had so little to say to each other that the female eventually pulled out a cell phone and started blabbing while her date gulped down his dinner in silence.
Our appetizers arrived with great panache: the mushrooms bubbling in their luscious sauce, the Phoenix -- a bowl of smoked mozzarella, black beans and chunks of spicy cured tasso pork -- was splashed with Bacardi rum and ignited, bursting into spikes of pungent blue flames. As the cheese melted, we dipped crackly wedges of fried tortillas, as light and puffy as wontons, into the concoction and greedily bit into this blend of smoky, spicy and potent rum flavors that made my head spin. The toast was topped with meaty mushrooms, cheese and a hearty sauce that begged to be sopped up with more bread. (A larger portion would make a terrific dinner.)
After gobbling down every bite, we segued into a cool, colorful salad topped with wiry curls of orange carrot and purple beet, lightly tossed in a tart, fresh garlic vinaigrette.
Though the menu offered six types of pasta and one strictly vegetarian dinner (a savory, thyme-flavored gratin of smoked tofu and cauliflower), the heartier stuff seemed more imaginative: "barbecued" (grilled, really) catfish in a sauce of chipotle peppers and molasses or a grilled beef tenderloin filet on a puree of roasted carrots and coriander.
And no prairie pioneer ever had a chop as extravagant as my double-thick pork chop, doused in a sweet, plummy gravy and served with goat cheese baked in soft cabbage leaves (certainly the best way to eat lowly cabbage). Carol's salmon, poached in a buttery stock flavored with white wine and leeks, was dazzling, although the accompanying flat fritters made with black-eyed peas were surprisingly flavorless.
On a second visit, my friend Bob and I gave the more laid-back, boisterous bistro a try -- and discovered that even in the less-glam dining area, the service is still smooth and professional and the food exquisite. We dove into a giant white bowl of crisp, tender calamari fritti, so lightly breaded and greaseless that each crunchy piece all but floated. A powerfully garlicky Caesar salad was visually stunning, bedecked with big papery slices of Parmigiano cheese and, unfortunately, hard cubes of irrelevant (and inedible) croutons. A few bites went a long way.
Bob's thick, juicy Kansas City strip might have been a shade more tender, but it arrived sizzling, topped with a molten layer of butter and Maytag blue cheese and, at his request, accompanied by a swirl of creamy mashed potatoes instead of french fries. I chose a spicy pasta dish named for the Italian hookers who -- legend has it, anyway -- mixed up the original recipe on hot plates in the bordellos: spaghetti with capers, olives, tomatoes and peppers. At PrairieFire, the olives are wonderfully briny kalamata, chopped up and tossed in a fiery arrabbiata sauce with soft, fat cloves of baked garlic. It's better than sex, actually.
The dessert list is as intoxicating as the accompanying wine suggestions (primarily American vintages). Care for a glass of icy brut with your warm lemon meringue tart on a shortbread crust? We didn't want either one and even rejected the tantalizing ice cream sundae made with three housemade ice creams and hot fudge sauce. We wanted the butterscotch-pecan bread pudding instead, and it came to us like a dainty timbale, rich with warm caramel, on a plate with a lavish dollop of real whipped cream.
It was a light, delicate variation on a traditional country dessert. And like the restaurant itself, it was less about the actual prairie and more about the colors, the textures and the memory of what a Kansas prairie was. Despite a name that suggests homespun cuisine, PrairieFire elegantly puts a fresh, artistic spin on typically all-American dishes.
And you don't have to look especially hard to find something very good.