Colby Garrelts describes his new business, Rye, as "a country restaurant in a neighborhood that used to be in the country." That neighborhood, the retail-and-residential development called Mission Farms, was indeed open prairie not so long ago. The land here, at the southern tip of Leawood, once held little more than the Saddle and Sirloin Club, a convivial riding and shooting society dating back to the 1940s.
At age 38, Garrelts is too young to remember those days. He likewise would never have dined at such quintessential Kansas City restaurants as the Wishbone on Main Street or Mrs. Peters Fried Chicken in Kansas City, Kansas. Yet he has somehow tapped into the culinary zeitgeist of those long-razed venues to create Rye, a restaurant that's sleekly current on the surface but centers on a menu that shares its vintage with the first radio.
The dishes that come out of Rye's kitchen — fried chicken, mashed or fried potatoes, corn muffins, homemade pies — are the stuff of traditional home cooking. To dine here is to call to mind the image of apron-clad homemakers working from generations-old recipes in overheated home kitchens. No one cooks this way anymore.
But people eat this way right now. Rye has been wildly successful since its December opening, a fact suggesting that 2013's fashionable cuisine is pretty much the workaday food of 1913. Well, why not? In this age, a restaurant that insists on a pie crust made with lard is almost exotic.
Not that dining at Rye is strictly a nostalgia trip. The space exudes modern style. Garrelts and his wife, Megan Garrelts, and their business partner, Kim Cooley — with help from John O'Brien (of the art gallery Dolphin) and architect George Lafferty — have turned this space, formerly occupied by the dark, ugly Lakeside Tavern, into a stylish, well-lighted dining room. Key to this is an open, exhibition-style kitchen, with white subway tiles and copper-colored drum light fixtures. The tables are bare but for the tidy place mats (and a trio of small bottles: the house-made steak sauce, a fiery hot sauce and a "Deluxe BBQ sauce").
The prices are equally au courant. Rye's signature dish is a deep-fried chicken, and it's somewhat pricey: $34 for a whole bird. Side dishes aren't included, but boasting rights are. The poultry is free-range Amish, hormone- and antibiotic-free. And the process is laborious, with Garrelts brining the meat in sugar, salt and molasses; seasoning it with parsley, bay leaves, lemon and oregano; and then drying the pieces overnight before frying them to order (not in lard). The result speaks for itself. This chicken is moist, lusciously crispy and altogether first-rate. Judging by the number of platters of this dish I've seen rushed out of the kitchen, I think it's fair to say it's the best-selling dish here.
Garrelts serves his deep-fried delicacy with tiny jars of house-made pickles as a palate cleanser ("Something brisk and bright," he says), and they're nearly as wonderful with the battered bird as the satiny sour-cream mashers or the slightly bitter but addictive creamed turnip and mustard greens.
Less successful is the basket of crispy chicken livers and gizzards on the starters list. Served with a tongue-searing hot sauce, the livers are scandalously skimpy and the gizzards so chewy that you might momentarily mistake them for tastefully breaded erasers. A far more pleasurable starter is a quartet of dainty, creamy deviled eggs (leaving room for the big bird).
On a smaller, separate menu (a "reserve program") are Rye's featured steaks (including a 24-ounce Foster Family Farms porterhouse for $46) as well as a rack of lamb and a honey-brined, double-cut Duroc pork chop. By the time you get to that list, though, you'll probably have chosen your meal. Besides, the less costly beef options on the main menu are plenty classy. A plate of fork-tender smoked and braised short ribs, served on a cloud of fluffy grits, is delicious. And the sliced, griddle-seared hanger steak is juicy and tender, a succulent bargain.
The servers here (all young and startlingly beautiful) like to rave about the slow-roasted trout, and the dish really does live up to its sales pitch. The flesh is pale and flaky, and it comes folded into a buttery but not over-rich almond sauce.
So far, there isn't much for vegetarians at Rye, though Garrelts expects that to change when summer rolls around, and he has more fresh vegetables to work with. For now, a meatless meal can be made from combining a few side dishes. I recommend the roasted Wakarusa oyster mushrooms, which Rye tosses in shallots, garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs, and the damn good roasted Brussels sprouts, draped in a lemony garlic butter. I'm also fond of Garrelts' spin on macaroni and cheese. I prefer mine as the menu offers it — heavy on the Burger's country bacon — but this cheddary side can be ordered without the pig, and it's not made with chicken stock.
Vegetarians are out of luck on the pie front, though, and that's a pity because what Megan Garrelts and staff pastry chef Jessica Armstrong make is nothing short of superb. (There's simply no substitute for lard when it comes to a perfectly flaky crust.) There are other options, of course, including a soothing apple-butter crisp, topped with a scoop of Nutmeg Ale ice cream, or a gorgeous almond cake layered with pineapple marmalade. But the delectably tart Meyer-lemon meringue pie — with a chapeau of browned meringue and a swirl of salted caramel sauce — is good enough to make the staunchest vegetarian forswear his or her vows for a night. I have a hard time choosing between it and the haunting, dark, molasses-rich MoKan nut pie. Made with black walnuts and pecans, it's subtle and satisfying, without the jarring sweetness common to traditional pecan pies.
The wine list here is suitably impressive (and more than reasonably priced), and among the cocktails are a few imaginative, country-inspired beverages. I'm thinking of the Sweet Corn Fizz, made with Kansas White Whiskey (brewed in New York), egg whites, house-made corn water, honey syrup and bitter-lemon soda. A friend of mine ordered one and sucked it up through a straw in about three sips.
"I liked it a lot," he said. "But I'd never order it again."
You won't feel that way about Rye, however. This concept restaurant, which Garrelts spent several years planning, is so thoroughly likable that it's impossible not to want to return, if only to have another buttered roll or another hearty bowl of burnt-end chili. Rye serves the kind of savory dishes and comforting desserts that you would make at home, if only someone had taught you. Happiness, though, is paying someone else to make this kind of food, beautifully prepared, for you.