In the traditional fairy tale, Cinderella is a pretty but ragged scullery maid who turns into a sumptuously clad princess. In the fractured -- but true -- story, the elegantly designed restaurant called the Mosaic Bistro, which certainly had aspirations toward grandeur ("Arts and Drafts," January 18, 2001), is stripped of its stylish menu and artistic interior and becomes a sports bar. And because every fairy tale needs a touch of irony, the Blue Moose is vastly more popular than the prettier but snootier Mosaic.
I might not be able to write a TV script about the charms of the Blue Moose, but I could certainly write a better phony legend than the nonsense on the restaurant's menu. There, a mysterious "7-foot-tall darkish blue beast with huge antlers" has supposedly been "wandering the streets and parks" of suburban Prairie Village since the hamlet was "first settled." Diners aren't sure whether the blueberry-colored beast was a deadly Sasquatch or a shy recluse like Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. But judging from the blue-eyed moose (which boasts six interchangeable sets of googly eyes, including a bloodshot pair for Sunday mornings) mounted above the dining room's brick fireplace, Prairie Village's fictitious moose is bull, not Bullwinkle. Besides, Prairie Village was "settled" by returning GIs building their little ranch houses on farmland fifty years ago. The only real mystery is how the town, which is only 6.1 square miles, has survived so long with so few good restaurants.
Things have taken a turn for the better since Patrick Quillec opened Café Provence in the Prairie Village Shopping Center last year. If the Blue Moose doesn't have the continental savoir faire of Quillec's establishment, it has enough savvy to understand its community: young families and well-off retirees, predominantly white and middle-class, with a fondness for unfussy food. One night's dinner special included the simmered eggplant side dish known as ratatouille. The harried waiter seemed shocked when our group didn't need him to tell us what it was. "You're the first table I've had tonight that's even heard of it," he said.
I wonder how many regular members of the Moose mob have heard of fried pickles, the restaurant's signature appetizer. This offbeat dish was invented either in 1960 in an Arkansas drive-in or in 1969 at a Mississippi diner, depending on which story you believe. The kind served in Kansas in 2002 are papery slices coated with a thick, pillowy fried batter made from unfiltered wheat beer -- and their popularity proves my point: Kansans will eat anything if it's deep-fried. There's so little pickle in these crunchy batter puffs that I'll bet even kids will favor them over the menu's less exotic options.
In fact, despite its sports-bar motif, the Blue Moose practically kowtows to the toddler set. While waiting for dinner one night, I watched two frazzled mothers and half a dozen high-strung brats take over a nearby table. I cringed at the same moment the elderly gentleman in the booth directly across from me cringed -- but he was sipping a Manhattan, which takes the sting off of any nuisance. Fortunately for us, a quick-thinking young server hit the kiddie table with the speed and agility of a marathon runner. He took a dinner order before the tots could crank up their whining and arrived back at the table loaded down with pizza, corn dogs and creamy-looking macaroni and cheese. Hoorah!
That lucky night, I had arrived before 6 p.m. for an early dinner. On my next Moose call, however, I learned the hard way that the place becomes a madhouse after 6 and that it's common to wait an hour before snagging a table. And that's if the perky hostess doesn't accidentally scratch your name from the waiting list before your pager goes off.
It was a rainy night, and rather than spend a grueling hour in the loud and smoky bar, we begged to sit on the damp, cool patio (from which a number of patrons had fled during an earlier downpour). We were advised we would be sitting there at our own risk, but a typhoon seemed preferable to the pounding beat playing over the sound system.
My friends Robert and Donna had already eaten at the restaurant once and had been wholly unimpressed. But they were game to give it another try. "The spinach artichoke dip is good," Donna advised when we finally sat down. It turned out to be an average version of the ubiquitous concoction, heavy on both cheese and spinach. At least it was far superior to the horrifying vegetarian egg rolls, whose fried won ton wrappers enclosed unidentifiable, curry-flavored vegetables that had been boiled down to a waterlogged clay.
I was equally unswayed by a milky artichoke bisque and a Caesar salad liberally laden with diced hothouse tomatoes. (I suggest that chef Andy Sloan -- who served as sous chef at the old Mosaic -- look up Caesar Cardini's original tomato-free recipe.)
Given those starters, I was surprised by Sloan's tasty, if unsophisticated, dinner entrées. Another signature dish here, the curry chicken salad, was a neon-yellow concoction of chopped chicken, purple grapes, nuts and celery; it came served in a tidy mound alongside a toasted but dry croissant. Even though a 12-ounce Kansas City strip was fatty, it had been expertly grilled and came with a side of crisp, lightly sautéed fresh green beans (as well as a puddle of soggy whipped potatoes). Much more tender and flavorful was a smoky, garlic-marinated pork T-bone with a slightly sweet shallot glaze.
Sloan's kitchen appears to be versatile in using similar ingredients. The Mediterranean pasta gets heaped with several of the same chopped vegetables I found on the roasted-garlic vegetable pizza: red onions and diced tomatoes. (Roasted garlic, however, seemed to be missing in action in both dishes.) That flexibility stretched the boundaries of the kitchen's creative capacities, though -- the oily pasta tasted fine but suffered from dull presentation.
At both meals, our server assured us that the restaurant's limited dessert selection, a chocolate-truffle layer cake and two cheesecakes, were baked in the restaurant's kitchen. But one look at the silky cheesecake and the lusciously sweet chocolate cake made it obvious they weren't homemade -- a fact confirmed by restaurant manger Chris Throckmorton, who told me they're prepared by a local baker.
If the place is going to cling to its nitwit "legend" of Prairie Village's indigo-colored answer to Bigfoot, shouldn't someone have thought of an appropriately absurd dessert in honor of the tale? Where the hell was the Blue Mousse?