It's hard for me to walk into the brick building at 320 Southwest Boulevard without remembering at least one of its former lives. Of course, there was Shiraz and, before that, a short-lived theater company. The latter had a little stage in the back room and a very big saloon out front. The idea was that the sale of liquor in the bar would somehow pay for the theater productions in the back room.
But this was long before the neighborhood north of Union Station was called the Crossroads District and became populated with art galleries, restaurants and loft apartments. Back then, a stage such as the one at 320 Southwest Boulevard could have a play set in a steam room with the entire cast dressed in nothing but towels.
So it was pure déjà vu, seeing members of a local burlesque troupe looking over this space, which now has an expensive sound system and a projection screen. The technology was installed to lure business meetings and conferences. But what the hell, bring on the strippers.
The restaurant that now operates here, Nica's 320, has a theatrical connection of its own. Chef and co-owner Bryan Merker has given the place his wife's stage name. As a young actress in Los Angeles, Monica Merker went by Nica.
Bryan Merker first tried out the act — I mean the name — at his first location, Nica's Café in Overland Park. Merker and business partner Phil Dunn ran a small café and coffeehouse for a year before their dream location became available. Two months ago, they opened at 320 Southwest Boulevard, and it's a very ambitious concept: a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner — and beignets.
Merker's career has taken him to several impressive culinary locations, including San Francisco and New Orleans, where he mastered the art of the fried fritter known as a beignet (offered here as both a breakfast pastry and a dessert). Everyone I know raves about Merker's squares of fried yeasty dough, but I've only ever tasted one beignet I liked. I was in New Orleans and seriously hung over, and those remain the ideal conditions for consuming one.
While cooking with New Orleans chef Juanita Dilbert, however, Merker did learn to make the best bread pudding I've ever tasted in Kansas City. It's a moist and buttery creation swimming in a bourbon-caramel sauce. I'd rather have that for breakfast than any beignet. Besides, the ones here are rolled in so much powdered sugar that after one bite, I looked like Al Pacino at the end of Scarface.
What I was jonesing for at that same breakfast wasn't coke but coffee. After a couple of sips from the mug set in front of me, I was jolted, but I wasn't happy about it. What in God's name was in this brew? It had a distinct flavor, and it wasn't the taste of coffee.
"We infuse our coffee with a peppercorn blend that has some cinnamon," Merker later explained. "It's a little aggressive."
A little aggressive? What I tried was the Nancy Grace of morning blends. At 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, I want my coffee to taste like coffee. In fact, any hour, any day, I want my coffee to taste nothing like peppercorn and cinnamon. I pushed my cup away — aggressively.
That wasn't the only time that Nica's had erred in the "first taste of the day" department. A co-worker I went to breakfast with here one morning cringed after trying his orange juice. "There's an odd taste to this," he said. "I can't quite place it." After a server brought out a different glass of juice, I asked co-owner Dunn to taste the first glass. He took a sip and announced, "Green onions."
Well, you know how green onions just sort of sneak into things. They're a welcome asset to Merker's fabulous huevos rancheros, a delectably spicy and cheesy egg dish served open-faced on Roma focaccia bread. I'd happily return for that dish or Merker's "Uptown Benny," which tops flaky biscuits with fine andouille sausage, fried eggs and a red-chili cheese sauce.