Park Place, the retail-and-restaurant development in Leawood, shares its name with one of Monopoly's most expensive properties. It's not hard to picture the high-toned restaurant Pig & Finch as an addition you might build on the game board's version of Park Place, but it's a real business at the real (local) Park Place.
With the restaurant game in south Johnson County increasingly competitive, the big bet is whether owner Jimmy Lynch, of the impressive and expensive 801 Chophouse, can win in a location that was a loser for the previous tenant, Trezo Vino. The over-under for this two-month-old restaurant isn't clear yet. For one thing, Pig & Finch is serving a menu that includes several of the same hearty, country-style dishes available at another new restaurant, Rye, in the nearby Mission Farms development. (Rye's owners, Colby and Megan Garrelts, were hired to make a go of the faltering Trezo Vino before folding their cards and focusing on their new business.)
Ultimately, though, the two restaurants are as different from each other as a pig is from a finch. (I asked a bartender at Pig & Finch to explain the name. "The owner is from Iowa," she told me, "where pork is very important. And finch is the Iowa state bird.")
I might have been eating a deep-fried finch the night I indulged in the Sunday "Best Fried Chicken, Ever!" special. The three pieces of fowl had little meat on their bones, and the kitchen crew at P&F appeared a long way from having mastered the fine art of frying. That chicken was seriously overcooked, and the Buffalo frog legs I tasted on a later visit were so greasy that they practically hopped out of my fingers. (The vinegary hot sauce packed an exhilarating fire, and the legs were meaty but also loaded with a surprising number of fragile little bones). Even a side order of home fries, billed as having been cooked in duck fat, had stayed in the oil until they were as tough as cardboard coasters.
But why was I even eating all that deep-fried nonsense? Because — I forgot for a minute! — Pig & Finch is a gastropub. And as the restaurant's website explains, that means merging "the historic themes of British pubs and American restaurant influences." That sounds perilous, but some of the mergers here are pretty good. For one, there's the bruschetta (not called that at Pig & Finch because it's neither British nor American), which amounts to baguette slices dripping with a garlicky broth and heaped with braised snails, Kalamata olives, chopped carrots and mushrooms.
Other ideas seem nationless. I'm recalling a union of fromage and tater tots called "Camembert croquettes," which is just a ritzy name for a fried cheese ball. But I like this one, which puts a crisp, pankolike crust around a hot, milky center. I prefer another melting-pot starter that's a little bit German and a little bit hillbilly: heavily salted pretzel bites, which look like tiny loaves of bread, served with a sharp, flavorful ale-cheese sauce.
It's been a few years since I was in an actual pub in England — where almost no such places today are like the rowdy bars you see in old Hitchcock movies — but the décor of Pig & Finch feels way more Leawood than London. The walls are, depending on the lighting, a sexy aubergine, or the color of a grape Tootsie Pop. There's a lot of dark wood and plenty of comfortable booths, but I didn't see anyone at the long communal table during any of my three visits.
I would choose the dark bar over the dining room — the service is much more attentive there. On my first visit to the restaurant, the waiter was missing in action for so long that I assumed he was in the back, watching Downton Abbey.
That was the same night I had my lone glorious meal at Pig & Finch. The evening's chill was savage, and chef Travis Pyle's duck cassoulet tasted like the perfect remedy: a thick and comforting stew of white beans, chopped chicken, a deliciously salty duck confit and succulent pork belly. I also tasted a slow-braised lamb shank, which had been simmered with carrots, turnips, pearl onions and peas until the tender meat left the bone at the fork's first suggestion. The latter is the costliest entrée here, but even at $30 it's worth every penny.
Besides each night's special, which ranges from that puzzlingly hyped fried chicken to a Thursday-only meatloaf and a Saturday-night porchetta, only seven dishes are featured here. The cassoulet and the lamb shank are the standouts, but I can also praise the sautéed Idaho trout. Mine was flaky and deftly cloaked in brown butter, and it came with doughy pillows of very fine pan-seared gnocchi.
This is a pub, so the menu has the usual saloon sandwiches, including a burger topped with that glossy innovation called American cheese. I recommend one outstanding creation: a "grilled cheese" on fluffy brioche. It does indeed contain cheddar and gruyere, but the sandwich is dominated by a thick, lush ragout of short ribs. It's almost too rich to eat in one sitting. Almost.
The dessert selection veers pointedly away from ye-olde-pub delicacies (no spotted dick or treacle tarts), in favor of traditional American choices: an ice-cream sundae (with a thick chocolate truffle sauce), a fruit crisp, New York cheesecake and paperback-thick chocolate oatmeal cookies. They're grandma-style sweets, in much the same style of the old-fashioned desserts now in favor around town, but the recipes are more comforting than memorable. Pig & Finch has time to step up its game — but maybe not much.