40 Sardines has everything in the can.

Take the Bait 

40 Sardines has everything in the can.

I've been writing about food for seventeen years now, and I can't think of any local restaurant that has opened with more anticipation than 40 Sardines. The two-month-old hot spot at 119th and Roe is the creation of former American Restaurant chefs Michael Smith and Debbie Gold.

Could any new establishment live up to the hype surrounding 40 Sardines? Smith and Gold had their Chicago-based PR firm send out a press release calling the new business a "showcase for the Midwest's best chefs." That bit of hyperbole might raise hackles not just in Kansas City but in Chicago and Minneapolis, too. Obviously the husband-and-wife team has impressive culinary credentials, including a James Beard award for Best Midwestern Chefs in 1999. And the two brought plenty of national media attention to the American during their eight-year tenure.

Still, within nine days of 40 Sardines' June 3 opening, the restaurant had enjoyed more unabashed ass-kissing from The Kansas City Star (lavish paeans to both food and décor) than any other restaurant -- on either side of State Line -- has seen within two years of opening. That kind of publicity raises expectations even higher, and I started hearing the typical grumbling from naysayers who had made their reservations early and hadn't found nirvana in Overland Park. "It's too loud," they said, or, "The service was snotty," or, my favorite, "There were too many geriatrics in the dining room."

These, however, were also the sort of crabby nitpickers who go to new restaurants mostly to find reasons to complain. I was eager to hook up with a couple of friends and see for myself.

Yes, the dining room is noisy. It bothered my dining companions a great deal more than me. My friend Carmen recalls "screaming across the dinner table" as she told the story of how her boyfriend had humiliated her by taking her to a karaoke bar. I never noticed the din or her screaming, perhaps because I'd heard that story before.

The service was not snotty. It was as knowledgeable and sophisticated as any Midtown boîte (one of our servers was a veteran of Café Allegro) and certainly better than I've found on the Plaza recently. I think we, rather than our waiter, were the snooty ones when he attempted to be charming and said, "You've asked me many questions, but not the most-asked one! Don't you want to know how our restaurant got its name?"

Bob, Carmen and I rolled our eyes and waved him off. The three of us had heard the tale -- Michael and Debbie had dreamed of opening their own restaurant while eating a meal of sardines in France -- so many times already that we would have required a newer, more entertaining version. Preferably one involving an international spy ring, recipes stolen from the Vatican and a cameo by Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Over a plate of thick, meaty, smoky Portuguese sardines -- which bore no resemblance to the oily, silvery glop found in imported tins -- we tried to one-up each other with different variations on the 40 Sardines theme: 40 Carrots ("Better than diamonds and healthier, too!"); 69 Sardines ("Get into the culinary position!"); and 1040 Sardines ("Pay your bill with a tax-refund check!"). Carmen speared a slice of chilled potato and rubbed it in the lemony dressing that accompanied the fish. Then she pronounced the restaurant "a really wonderful place, an unexpected touch of urban hipness in suburbia."

Certainly the décor, done in acid greens, sky blues, turquoise and chartreuse under a ceiling of black floating forms, gives the place an edge, though Bob and Carmen thought the unadorned tabletops looked as though they'd been laminated in 1940s-era shelf paper. But one of the eccentric charms of the restaurant is that, hype or not, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: Michael and Debbie's dining room. And ultimately, the lure of this restaurant isn't the setting; it's the excellent, beautifully presented food.

Even a simple country salad of sliced celery, starchy fava beans and crumbles of salty feta arrives as a palette of jade-and-emerald greens on a heap of curly frisée and summer herbs. A sheath of pale pink prosciutto is curled around a lump of goat cheese and perched coyly on a grilled hunk of crusty bread. But unlike the painterly compositions of chefs who care more about visuals than taste, Smith and Gold don't allow the palette to get ahead of the palate. At 40 Sardines, the stuff on the plates tastes even better than it looks.

An appetizer of miso-marinated tuna is a mustard-colored cube, the moist flesh hidden under a spicy (but not fiery) wasabi glaze. A perfect late-summer salad of orange-and-red heirloom tomatoes is all about the sweetness and freshness of the fruit, discreetly splashed with red-wine-and-lavender vinaigrette for a subtle kick. For its part, the mixed field greens salad has a much more robust mustard vinaigrette.

Carmen was mildly put off when her sautéed halibut arrived in a bowl. The flaky, golden fish swam in a saucy sea surrounded by fresh peas, diced potatoes and yellow peppers. "It's too much like a stew," she sniffed, noting that the floating, cornmeal-crusted oyster fritters "looked like catfish nuggets." Hidden under that corny armor, though, was a plump, salty and slightly flinty-tasting bivalve.

Bob's luscious ribeye steak came with a glossy pile of sautéed onions and a peppery relish of chipoltes and crunchy pistachios. Even better was my thick lamb chop on a Provencal-style stew of tomatoes and onion, sided by a big, shiny dollop of pale-green mashed potatoes flavored with virgin olive oil.

On a different night, I brought along my chic friend Theresa, who noticed right away that the dining room wasn't, as rumor had it, dominated by the Cadillac-driving over-fifty set. Instead, there were plenty of baby boomers like us. The restaurant nearly went silent with the arrival of a voluptuous twentysomething who had poured herself into a knit jersey. With every eye in the room on her assets, she wiggled into a chair and ate dinner with a dignity befitting the Queen of England.

"I love this place," squealed Bob as if he had just witnessed the arrival of a movie star. (For all we knew, he had.)

Theresa, our table's oenophile, turned her attention elsewhere, putting on her spectacles only to examine the wine list. "An excellent number of reasonably priced wines by the glass. Twenty very good wines by the bottle, interesting vintages," she announced. She snapped the menu shut and ordered a glass of Monchhof Estate Reisling.

A confirmed Midtowner, Theresa was only mildly impressed by the restaurant's look and appointments. But she was wowed by the food, particularly the yellowtail snapper baked in a circle of crackly parchment with soft, warm blush tomatoes and fragrant basil. I shared that dinner with her, ordering the grilled asparagus appetizer as a side dish, but I was disappointed with the spindly, flaccid stalks, which came listlessly draped across a chunk of grilled bread.

Still, all was forgiven after dessert. The asparagus vanished from memory when Smith and Gold's innovative adaptation of Southern-style lemon pie made an appearance. In this burlesque version of an old-fashioned Sunday-supper pastry, a neat, square slab of tart lemon curd is brazenly topped with nine erect, lightly browned nipples of airy meringue. A layered parfait of panna cotta custard is more demure but remains a potent combination of sweet chocolate and dark espresso. Gold's latest creation is a warm chocolate almond cake with a bubbling, molten interior of chocolate and port wine, the whole thing laden with port-poached cherries.

Which could have provided even more interesting hype, if you think about what happens after eating forty intoxicating, port-drenched cherries in a single sitting. It just sounds so much sexier than sardines.

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