In a different time, when someone famous lent his or her name to a restaurant, the celebrity was almost always a TV or movie star or a big sports figure. It's a tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when cinema beauty (and future murder victim) Thelma Todd opened Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café in Pacific Palisades.
Later examples include Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips, Roy Rogers' restaurants, and Thunder Roadhouse (owned by Peter Fonda). There also are the Eccentric (Oprah Winfrey), Schatzi on Main (Arnold Swarzenegger), and Nobu (co-owned by Robert De Niro). Former Royals star George Brett had a namesake restaurant on the Plaza for a couple of innings, and a former Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith owned the short-lived Copeland's Famous New Orleans Restaurant in Overland Park.
Thanks to reality TV, chefs are now just as famous as sitcom stars — and only slightly less recognizable than the Kardashians. A few have parlayed their name recognition into new restaurants. That's the story behind Mestizo, the Mexican bistro that recently opened in Leawood. It's a slickly mounted property created by Food Network star Aarón Sánchez (Chopped, Heat Seekers) in collaboration with California-based Trifecta Management Group.
Every menu is like a little press release for Sánchez, whose name is in prominent type under the Mestizo logo. The famous chef may make only occasional cameo appearances in the kitchen of his signature restaurant, but that's still often enough to give Mestizo a cachet far beyond that of Kenny Rogers Roasters. (Did anyone ever really expect to walk into one of those fast-food operations and see the bearded crooner of "Coward of the County" filling a paper sack with a Round-up Platter and a muffin?)
The Leawood Mestizo is the first of what is presumably a franchise operation ("Casual, hip, upbeat ... with deliciously affordable fare," chants the promotional materials), one that offers exactly zero cheesy Tex-Mex dishes. Want a burrito spread? Go to Don Chilito's. Mestizo offers four taco options: skirt steak, braised beef tongue, crisp pork belly and grilled mahi-mahi. An early press release explains: "The focus is on authentic Mexican classics that have been re-invented and re-imagined by Sánchez."
That's a pretty accurate description of the food served at Mestizo, which is solid and satisfying. And for diners eager to experience a more exciting array of flavors than the goo typically served up as "Mexican" in this town, it's almost revolutionary. The word mestizo, the servers happily explain, means mixed. (A more accurate translation is a person of mixed ancestry, particularly Native American and European.) So Sánchez follows through with something like a pre-Colonial New World menu, as prepared for 21st-century suburbanites.
Which makes Mestizo perhaps the most interesting destination in the Park Place complex. The restaurant does, however, have some issues to iron out. The noise level is deafening. The upstairs dining area, a plastic-tented patio (open only on weekends), turns into such a cacophony of tequila-lubricated caterwauling that you may have to read your server's lips.
And even though the servers are as perky as Disney World tour guides, the service isn't exactly snappy. Several dishes I ordered on my second visit to the restaurant came out of the kitchen barely lukewarm. The pork-belly tacos (with a fine pineapple-mint salsa) that I tried were very good. They might have been extraordinary if the pork had been served hot.
Hot is relative at Mestizo, in terms of both temperature and ingredients. The house salsa, a thick, velvety creation with a smoky undertone, is mellow, not fiery.
"Aarón Sánchez really doesn't care for spicy, spicy foods," our server announced to our table after we asked for something a little punchier for our chips. "Why is he on Heat Seekers?" I wondered aloud (too quietly to be heard above the rest of the room). Another staffer later brought over a little dish of a condiment known at the restaurant as tomalata: a maize-colored sauce made from charred habanero peppers, Dijon mustard, Spanish onions and lime juice. The grainy mustard dominates the first taste, but what follows is a jolting burn. It would have gone well with the remarkably light vegetable quesadilla that my table sampled as a starter.
There are other sauces here, but none as ass-kicking as the tomalata. The slightly greasy, delicately thin bacaladitos — fried pancakes made with salt cod — come with a pretty pink (and, again, mild) habanero mayonnaise. The puffy platanos rellenos, made of sweet fried plantains stuffed with black beans, are meant to be dipped in crema fresca. It's all very nice and very safe. The most satisfying surprise among these often superb small plates is a dish of "pepita-crusted scallops," which dresses two plump scallops, coated in crushed pumpkin seeds, in a creamy corn picadillo that's sweet and searing at once.
The rest of Sánchez's botanas arrange the familiar (sautéed shrimp) with the offbeat (soft veal sweetbreads encased in a crunchy fried crust but left to languish in a tamarind sauce dappled with smoked bacon). I fell in love with a bowl of full-bodied pozole soup, generously laden with big chunks of tender braised pork and airy little hominy balls. It's served with accessories — lime, cilantro, slivers of radish and dried oregano — but requires none of them.
The six entrées now on the menu include outstanding braised short ribs — some of the best I've tasted — in an ancho chile broth. I liked the grilled sirloin (a little chewy but, you know, it's sirloin) smothered in a brassy adobe sauce with peppers, onion and ribbons of soggy cactus. Carnivores really score here. The beef-tongue tacos are extremely tender — and really rich.
There's very little for vegetarians to get hot and bothered about at Mestizo, unless one cobbles together a reluctant meal from the veggie quesadilla and the wax bean salad. I wave two thumbs down on the gloppy "Mexican-style pasta," a side dish of tepid orzo in a glum roasted-tomato sauce. I pushed my bowl away after a couple of bites. (The combination of shaved Brussels sprouts, cranberries and manchego cheese might work, if it weren't dotted with meaty chicharrones.)
The savory side of the menu offers nothing with mole, but a neat cacao fix awaits in the pretty little "molten chocolate cake." It isn't novel — every restaurant except Denny's seems to offer it these days — but the eggy coconut flan, topped with a spoonful of mango-and-mint relish, is delicious.
You can build a flight of good tequilas, if you're so inclined (a friend scoffed at some of the offerings on the "super premium" and "ultra premium" lists), and one of my tablemates was all but knocked off her feet by the unexpected potency of the strawberry caipirinha cocktail. It's the same shade of red as the walls at Mestizo and it has the same effect as the restaurant as a whole: If you take it in too quickly, you'll miss the nuances. Mestizo, with or without chef Sánchez in the house, has star quality.