Even restaurant critics have bad days. Some nights I don't want to go out to eat. Some nights I don't mind going out to eat, but I don't want company — I'm not always in a good mood, you know, and even my favorite people occasionally get on my last nerve. There are nights when I crave a simple grilled-cheese sandwich, not porcini-stuffed ravioli in white truffle sauce. And there are evenings when I crave porcini-stuffed ravioli but I choke down third-rate meatloaf instead.
I'm not asking for sympathy (OK, maybe I am), but I am trying to set the scene for my initial dinner at Taste, chef Jonathon Dallen's saloon and dining room in downtown Overland Park.
The chilly night I drove out there, I was tired and irritable and alone. I had invited a couple of friends to join me, but one had a yoga class. Another had a meeting. Bob, who's usually up for anything, wanted to go to bed early. I considered calling a friend, who lives in Overland Park, to meet me at the restaurant but then decided not to. He talks too much and sometimes he eats and talks at the same time. You have to be in the right mood for that.
Then I passed a bad car accident on Metcalf Avenue and thought it was an omen. I nearly turned the car around, but a restaurant critic has to eat for a living, and I was officially on the clock, so I pressed on. I needed a jolt of positive energy, so I switched on the radio and immediately heard the opening chords to one of my least favorite songs of all time, "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" by Leo Sayer. This evening, I decided, would be a disaster.
But there's something about Taste that's so comforting and friendly that even a single, grumpy diner sitting on a stool and being served by a not-very-attentive bartender can have a satisfying and enjoyable meal. The décor of the former Tonic has changed only slightly with the new ownership, but the food is fantastic. If Dallen weren't the owner-chef, this joint would pass as just another suburban sports bar. But Dallen, who had been Tonic's resident chef, has an extraordinary sense of style and culinary confidence.
His seductive list of small plates was so enticing, I didn't even order an entrée. Why should I? I had eaten versions of peppercorn-crusted Kansas City strips and grilled filet mignon plenty of times already. But the 25 "First Tastes" on the front of the current menu all sounded wonderful. Lobster and crab crepes in a rich bourbon cream sauce? Herb-crusted rack of lamb with roasted-corn polenta and savory thyme sauce?
Suddenly I half-wished I had invited Mr. Talk and Eat, because I could have ordered more small plates and shared them. What the hell, I thought. I swirled a crispy, finger-sized spring roll — pink shrimp in a tightly wrapped, golden-fried wonton — in a punchy wasabi mayonnaise and decided I deserved a luxuriously selfish night. A quiet affair, just me and the food.
The small plates weren't inexpensive but were so worth the price. Short ribs braised in plum wine and dotted with a dark berry sauce were arranged in a sexy tangle on a mound of sweet-potato purée. The dish was so incredibly rich, I couldn't succumb to the lure of the warm apple crumb tart served in a cast-iron skillet. That would have been an embarrassment of riches.
Besides, there would be other opportunities, including the "Choose Three" option on the lunch menu. In a much better mood and happy for the company, I stopped into Taste on a Saturday afternoon with Truman and Bob. The dining room was off-limits ("We're setting up for a private party," the hostess explained as she took us to a table in the bar), but it didn't look that different from the Tonic era.
"Oh, but it is different," our server assured us. "I worked here when it was Tonic, and Jonathon made a lot of cosmetic changes. The upholstery is different, and the VIP area looks very different."
I don't sit in VIP areas so I didn't give a damn, but Truman and Bob peered over the half-wall and decided it didn't look exclusive enough to warrant such a sophisticated name.
Surprisingly, there was little overlap between the "First Taste" menu and the "Choose Three" selections. Burger-loving Bob was thrilled with all the mini-sandwich selections, including a classic mini-cheeseburger with cheddar and a miniature blue-cheese burger topped with caramelized onions. And these minis weren't so tiny. "They're bigger than a White Castle," the waiter told us. They turned out to be quite a bit bigger and a lot tastier.
Our lunch order seemed to take forever to come out of the kitchen, even though we were one of just three occupied tables. "They must be cooking the food with a Bic lighter," Truman groused. I was happy that I had started off with a creamy, beautifully seasoned bowl of tomato soup, while Bob had a nice little salad with a fine cilantro vinaigrette.
And we were all delighted when the lunch plates finally appeared. Bob had ordered those two little burgers and a tiny steak sandwich. I loved every bite of my little cheeseburger, my pint-sized crab-cake burger with an excellent rémoulade sauce, and a cute French Dip sandwich — even though it was missing its au jus.
Truman, who thought the interior of Taste was ugly, did like the snazzy white-porcelain plates and his tiny sandwiches but found fault with the portion of tempura shrimp. "There's so much breading on this poor little crustacean that I had to bite into it twice to find it!"
As usual, though, Truman cheered up with dessert, a "tasting" of freshly baked cookies (gingersnap, pumpkin, chocolate chip and peanut butter) served with a scoop of ice cream. Bob had the chocolate tasting — supposedly for two but small enough that he refused to share. It was a variation of a similar dessert that Dallen offered in the Tonic days. The palette-shaped plate was arrayed with a shooter of Godiva liqueur and Bailey's ("It's like a milkshake," he said, after downing it in one gulp), along with a chocolate-caramel tart and little square dishes (smaller than credit cards) with a white-chocolate crème brûlée and a marble-sized scoop of chocolate ice cream.
"This is one time where I wish I had more than just a taste of these things," Bob lamented. "They're all delicious."
Obviously, Dallen has figured out how to keep us coming back.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.