After I took my friend Liz to dinner at Urban Table in Prairie Village, she told me that she wanted to open her own restaurant. "It's going to be north of Independence Avenue," she said. "I'm going to call it Suburban Table and serve casseroles and Sara Lee desserts with Cool Whip."
I thought it was a great idea, but she was just trying to make an ironic point. "No dining experience can be called urban if it's plunked down in one of the metro's oldest and whitest suburbs," she said.
Alan Gaylin, one of the owners of Urban Table, chuckled when I asked him if any of his patrons had similarly questioned its name and location. "I just tell people that Kansas City is growing so fast," he told me last week. "Prairie Village is practically the inner city."
Go ahead and laugh at that one, but remember that a century ago, 31st Street and Broadway was considered a suburb. Prairie Village may not be an urban environment, but Gaylin's two-month-old restaurant definitely draws an urbane crowd. I've eaten five meals there, and it has been busy every time. Breakfast, lunch and dinner each draw an interesting mix of diners: stockbrokers, housewives, college students, tattooed skateboarders, young couples with fussy toddlers, women lunching in groups.
"This is my book club," a friend of mine announced when I ran into her there one night. She introduced me to five of her dining companions. "We pretend to talk about books and then we all come here for a mimosa."
Like BRGR, the first operation of Gaylin and company's Bread & Butter Concepts, Urban Table is designed to be a casual space for sophisticated tastes. Both of the Prairie Village restaurants were immediate successes, suggesting that the company's formula might work anywhere in the metro — even an actual urban setting.
Not that this prototype bistro doesn't have a few kinks and eccentricities left to resolve. A running joke among three of my friends is the Urban Table cashier who, despite obvious affability, has never once gotten any of their orders right. I haven't had that problem myself, but it's inevitable at restaurants where one must order at a counter. Full table service here has so far been available only during the dinner hours — an unfortunate practice, given that the servers at breakfast and lunch deliver food, refill beverages and attend to guests with as much skill as exhibited during the dinner shift. Why not let them take the orders all day?
Of course, no one else I know seems to mind ordering at a counter, leaving me in the minority on the subject. But listen: There really is something stressful about standing in line, perusing the options on the boards hanging over the cashiers' heads (and there are more than a few options), only to feel rushed when it's your turn. When people are waiting behind you, as they usually are at this busy place, the pressure is high to order something — anything! — and not hold up the line. At a place that offers many fine, grown-up dishes, it's disappointing to have to behave as though you're choosing between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder.
The food makes up for this annoyance and for others more petty. Gaylin made a shrewd move hiring the talented Brad Gilmore to oversee a menu that offers breakfast every day until 4 p.m. and a completely different, but overlapping, lunch selection from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. The dinner menu offers yet a third array, and its food is served late — very late, for the suburbs.
When I first dined at Urban Table, the dinner menu changed every day, an ambition that proved hard to sustain. Two weeks ago, Gilmore and Gaylin decided to offer a more standardized set of choices each night. Now there's always a pork chop on the menu, along with scallops, chicken, steak and a pasta dish. "The presentations might be different," Gilmore says, "but the big changes will now be seasonal."
Though the pasta dish on each of my visits usually included meat, the kitchen crew is happy to prepare a meat-free version. My vegetarian friend Alex prefers the bruschetta, and she's not alone. "It's our best-selling dinner item," Gaylin says. Of the nine toppings available atop the yeasty slice of Kansas City Bread Company ciabatta, six are vegetarian-friendly, including a lovely combination of creamy brie, fresh pear slices and a dash of truffle oil. Equally memorable: a fluffy goat cheese with slices of golden beets and slivered almonds.
No matter how fine the bruschetta, though, man — this man, anyway — does not live by bread alone. Certainly not when there's a grilled pork chop available that's juicy and perfectly cooked. The chop I enjoyed one night came with a bubbling potato gratin, layered with nutty gruyere cheese — the dish was worth raving about. It's hard to say no to that pork, even to order Urban Table's superlative Wagyu sirloin (outrageously inexpensive) with gorgonzola-whipped spuds.
Another night, I was tempted to dine, bistro-style, on nothing more than the charcuterie plate. Among its sliced meats was a delicious La Quercia prosciutto, and the cheeses, bread, olive oil and orange marmalade were perfectly matched. But the temperature outside had made an autumnal dip, and I craved chili. Gilmore's lusty, meaty chili — fragrant with onion, garlic and smoky bacon, with chopped tomatoes, sour cream and jalapeño peppers next to its little cast-iron pot – is a singular version of the dish, something to be dreamed of even in hot weather.
Even the dishes I wasn't especially eager to try were good. The pork-schnitzel sandwich that I tried one night — I'm sorry, I can't bring myself to call a sandwich a "sammie," as this menu does, without taking a Valium — I liked, not least due to the terrific, caraway-braised cabbage that topped it. Ordering it, I passed up the Paris-inspired Croque-Monsieur sam ... sam ... sammie, avoiding in the process the cloying it's-a-small-world sensibility that its presence implies. In all of my visits, I sampled only one dish that failed me: a fish special that was too fishy and not nearly special enough.
My favorite meal served at Urban Table remains breakfast, though. My complaints about how it's ordered notwithstanding, none of the food I tried from the morning menu disappointed me. Not that I've sampled everything. "Have you had the mini waffles yet?" asked one of my co-workers. I told her that I can't order anything "mini" before noon. And why should I when there's a flaky, delicately glazed bear claw to be had? It's big enough to share with a friend, preferably one who has already filled up on the airy and outstanding brioche French toast. But there's no sharing the cheddar-bacon biscuits. There are just two in an order, and though the flaky creations are of ample size and come smothered in creamy, ground-chicken gravy (our server insisted it was pork, but nope), at that early hour, what's mine is mine. Served in a small cast-iron skillet, the dish packs an unexpected punch: Gilmore tosses a pinch of red-pepper flakes into the gravy.
Even plain toast is elevated here: nine-grain bread or ciabatta, served with butter or apricot preserves. If the latter has, to my tongue, the alarming consistency of Gerber's baby food, it can be forgotten with a sip of the smooth and brisk coffee. Urban Table's java comes from Intelligentsia, the Chicago company that has become a mainstay on the lists of coffee elitists around the country. You don't have to be a snob to know how good this brew is, though. Unlike so much of what people have learned to tolerate, this coffee is blessedly far from bitter.
At any hour, even early in the day, the main dining room here is insufferably noisy. The best refuge is the enclosed sidewalk porch around the restaurant's perimeter. One can actually have a quiet, intimate conversation that way. And on a sunny Sunday morning, that's a joy, no matter what part of town you're dining in.