As corporate chain restaurants made their forays into Kansas City, the tradition of giving restaurants offbeat but unforgettable names started to fizzle. By 1962, when the first McDonald's opened here, barely a handful of classics remained: Palma's Pancake Patio, for example, and the Hey Man Restaurant.
Nobody seems interested in reviving the Frog Grillette, but peripatetic chef Ray "Pete" Peterman -- who did cooking stints at the Stolen Grill, the American Restaurant, Le Fou Frog and Hannah Bistro -- has fished the name Sour Octopus from his creative subconscious. "An octopus can change its color, just as we plan to change our menu frequently," he says.
And that's an understatement. Since July, when he opened his 65-seat restaurant in the distinctly unglamorous Split Oak Mall, Peterman has changed the menu more frequently than Christina Aguilera has changed her hair. The miso-coffee-lacquered duck on Thursday might easily be a crackly skinned duck splashed with rosemary-and-honey au jus on Saturday.
But that's part of the charm of the Sour Octopus, which Peterman and his sister, Deborah, put together on a wing and a prayer, plus lots of elbow grease and love. The space had been a pizza joint and a saloon before Deborah, Pete and his wife, Trish, rolled up their sleeves and cleaned up the place, painting the walls white and covering the tables with white linens and sheaths of colorful tie-dyed cotton.
"It's kind of a young hippie restaurant," said my friend Jim, who loves the place so much that he eats there every Saturday for breakfast and at least once a week for dinner. It helps that Jim already lives in Kansas City, North; the restaurant is only ten minutes from his condo. When I took my friend Bob there, he complained that we were "driving to the North Pole" because I'd mistakenly gone the long route from midtown, all the way on North Oak Trafficway to the edge of Nashua rather than hopping on I-169 and zipping over to I-152. From there, it's just a jump on a very short stretch of North Oak Trafficway.
The dining room isn't particularly attractive, though the white walls are now used as an ersatz gallery, featuring works by local artists. ("Ghastly," said one of my snootier dining companions. "It's like the stuff you'd see in a motel lobby.") The lighting is dim and melancholy. The true art is the food that comes from Peterman's kitchen, each plate painstakingly and artistically composed. And everything tastes as wonderful as it looks. But here's the rub: Because Peterman oversees the kitchen by himself (sometimes with assistance from Trish) and each dish is prepared to order, diners should plan on a long, leisurely meal. The unhurried kitchen moves with a distinctly European air (not that anyone in the dining room seems to care). What is time when the most important thing is perfection?
On the night Jim, Bob and I dined there, the appetizers and salads came out in due order, but I could have read the first three chapters of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea between the removal of the salad plates and the appearance of the entrées. Bob, already on his third glass of wine, didn't mind the intermission one bit. "It's great for drinkers," he giggled as he buttered his fifth slice of bread. "More time for stimulating conversation."
With that, he launched into a vulgar anecdote that was overheard, alas, by the round-faced lady with a starched bouffant hairdo at the next table. When her husband (who was wearing burgundy polyester pants -- not that there's anything wrong with that) turned to give our party a nasty look, I deftly changed the subject to something less bawdy, asking him, "Do you think tie-dye is coming back?"
I had already spilled a chunk of my appetizer on the groovy tablecloth, clumsy from my eagerness to dig into the two fat potato cannoli stuffed with goat cheese and perched like tiny sculptures on a thick slice of a red tomato that Peterman had plucked that morning from his mother's garden. Bob and Jim had eaten lovely salads, heaped on square plates and glistening with just a hint of potent sherry vinaigrette. The restaurant wasn't particularly busy that weeknight, but the wait between courses amused Jim, who wondered if the slow kitchen was the reason our server kept bringing so much bread.
"And what happens on the weekend when it's really busy?" he wondered.
Luckily, before Bob launched into another story about being in New York during the 1976 blackout, dinner arrived. Jim had ordered a porterhouse of pork, which chef Pete had brined for four hours that morning in salt, sugar, black pepper, ginger and basil. It was wonderfully tender, as was Bob's juicy Kansas City strip, encrusted with bubbly roasted tomatoes and accompanied with the tiniest twice-baked potato I had ever seen -- the Barbie version.
I devoured my slices of rich, moist duck, its juices flavored with rosemary and honey, and looked around the dining room to see what other patrons were eating. At that point, most were diving deeply into their desserts, including some luscious thing in an oversized martini glass. Like a petulant child, I pointed to the confection across the dining room and told the server, "I want that. Now."
Wait! Did I really want that? Or did I want the artisan apple tart with the bay-leaf ice cream? Somehow both wondrous creations arrived at the table, the "martini" turning out to be creamy Bavarian cheesecake swirled around a layer of Armagnac-infused cherries.
A few weeks later, I returned to have dinner with sophisticates Diane and Doug. Diane confessed that when they drove up to the Split Oak Mall, they took one look at the stubby stucco building and thought, Where has Charles brought us?
But they were captivated by Peterman's cuisine, particularly a salad of sumptuous duck confit in a dressing made with piquant Amish blue cheese, topped with the freshest baby greens. We shared our dinners, though I became very possessive of my fork-tender osso buco, wrapping my arms around the bowl like ... an octopus. The meat, nestled up against a vivid orange purée of potatoes and carrots, tasted better than my grandmother's, which is the highest compliment I can give it. Diane raved about her supple little breast of chicken stuffed with herbs, perfumed with rosemary and accompanied by a creamy purée of potatoes and fresh garlic.
Doug's Atlantic salmon was arranged on an oversized plate like three Isamu Noguchi sculptures -- very simple, very Zen -- each square crusted with lightly browned couscous and drizzled with grapefruit oil. It vanished even more quickly than my veal.
We couldn't depart without sampling just a smidgen of dessert, so we settled on a bowl of vanilla-bean crème brûlée (still warm under the brittle sugar crust) and, even better, a "torte" -- a baked pudding, really -- of warm, flourless chocolate quivering under a scoop of homemade chocolate ice cream. "It's the ice cream that really makes the dessert," Diane said as she reached out and snagged the last dollop for herself.
You have to watch those tentacles at the Sour Octopus. The last bite is never enough.