It's fair to say that Mission isn't exactly a restaurant mecca and that the word "brewgrille" evokes greasy burgers and steak and beer. But the Lucky Brewgrille, I had to keep explaining to my skeptical friends, is a tiled dining room where they could order certified Angus steaks and sophisticated wines. Not everyone believed me, so I had to use Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa as an example.
"It's just like Rashomon! No one seems to see this place in exactly the same way," I blurted out at dinner there one Sunday evening. At the exact same moment, a plate shattered at a table on the other side of the restaurant and a baby started screaming. It was a perfect link to the late Kurosawa's Rashomon, which told the story of one event through four different viewpoints. Granted, Rashomon is a tragedy in which a samurai kills a man and rapes a woman -- but afterward, the samurai, the woman, the dead man and a witness each relate different versions of what happened. And most people I talk to have dramatically different perceptions about what Lucky Brewgrille really is.
A young and attractive coworker of mine has never eaten at Lucky Brewgrille, though in the wee hours she's imbibed a few cocktails in its lower-level dance bar. That's where she heard the strangest pick-up line ever: "Feel this wallet!" said a pushy young man. "Do you know why it's so heavy? It's because it's my friend's -- he's a cop, and his badge is in it!"
Does that mean the joint is like a disco? "It's frat-tastic!" she said, giggling. "Filled with frat boys. And that's not a good thing."
I saw none of that on my first two visits, but I was there to eat in the pale orange dining room, not to sip martinis in the smoky, raucous bar area, where big shiny steel letters on the wall spell "Get Lucky." The perception that Lucky Brewgrille is a fraternity hangout may be a reality, or perhaps just a legacy from a sports bar of the same name formerly located in Manhattan -- Kansas, not New York -- that served booze and wood-fired pizzas to a rowdy college crowd. The owner of the current Lucky, Greg Fuciu, attended Kansas State University but didn't own that Lucky Brewgrille; he merely bought the name and used it for the "upscale casual" restaurant and nightspot he opened in Mission. "We're a lot more interested in food at my place than at the Manhattan Lucky's," Fuciu says.
Fuciu serves that food until 10 p.m. -- after which the dining room becomes a lounge -- but it's far from stereotypical bar food. I had three dinners there with an assortment of friends, and only one dish was a flop: the pasta with sausage and sweet onion, which had too little sausage and was doused in a sweet, bright red marinara sauce that brought back childhood memories of Spaghetti-Os.
But as a kid, I would have loved any restaurant that listed the desserts first. (All of them are actually made in the restaurant's kitchen.) That's even before the eighteen appetizers and a range of dinner choices that runs the ethnic gamut from Chinese chicken salad to vegetable lasagna. Given all that information, it was difficult to concentrate on the list of traditional starters, like the Riata Ranch Cowboy Quesadilla, which had the same name as the Texas spread in the movie Giant (this seemed to be news to Fuciu) and was nearly as thick as Rock Hudson's accent, generously stuffed with spicy grilled steak and chicken breast, chopped jalapeno and onion and a chewy layer of melted cheddar and jack cheeses.
We also tried the baked stuffed mushrooms, which didn't have a fancy name and didn't deserve one. They're tasty enough, but fresh mushroom caps filled with cream cheese and dusted with breadcrumbs are the kind of things even a frat boy can easily make at home. In fact, simplicity rules this menu. For example, crab cakes (available as an appetizer or as an accompaniment to the beef tenderloin dinner) are little more than crunchy balls of mildly seasoned crabmeat, first fried, then baked. Chicken strips get dipped in an airy beer batter and fried; they come to the table with ketchup and salad dressing.
When it comes to the predictable steak offerings, the usual strips, porterhouses and filets arrive tender and beautifully grilled. But Fuciu's kitchen crew also tries its hand at a couple of artistic turns: a chile-crusted rib eye seared until it smokes and a fine center-cut tenderloin rubbed with a zesty mustard sauce. Both steaks are more stylish than you'd expect in this kind of pub, although the accompanying garlic mashed potatoes could use a lot more garlic -- and some heat. Why serve mashed potatoes at all when they consistently arrive at the table lukewarm?
I had the same gripe when a hunk of salmon, glistening with a lemony vinaigrette, arrived resting against a pile of tepid potatoes. Still, I preferred that dish to the restaurant's more popular fish offering, a fleshy catfish fillet under a crust of greasy cornmeal breading brought out with a heap of fried potatoes. The white fish under that cornmeal armor was flaky, but it needed a kick from something a lot stiffer than the misleadingly titled "spicy tartar sauce."
Hot is another word that's all about perceptions. What I consider fiery and what comes out of Lucky Brewgrille's kitchen are two different things. On the menu, the Ragin' Cajun Pasta comes with a warning -- "Hot and spicy, addicts only!" -- but the onion-pepper-and-tomato sauce was just a mild-mannered covering for the shrimp, chicken and linguini in this hyperbolic creation.
"Johnson Countians don't like things to be too spicy," said my friend David, who had gotten lucky with his oversized hamburger but wished the pile of chewy sweet-potato fries had a snappier dipping sauce than bland ranch dressing. The fries needed "something hot to counter the sweetness," he said. "Like a Thai peanut sauce."
Like my friend John, David was making assumptions about Lucky Brewgrille's customers. I wish I would have seen for myself all the singles who supposedly haunt this dining room long after other patrons have finished rich wedges of Reese's Cup Cheesecake or slices of chocolate layer cake iced with gooey cappuccino cream. I've only heard about the frat boys, Mission macho men and martini-swigging chicklets who take over the room. So far, no one has offered to feel up my wallet at the Lucky Brewgrille. But the prices are reasonable, so it's still heavy, even without a badge.