My friend Kelly, who lives in Johnson County, says most of his fellow suburban Kansans don't drive downtown for dinner because the parking situation is too confusing. The suburbs might not have the best restaurants, you see, but parking is abundant — and free.
Kelly told me this before we decided to have lunch with another friend, Richard, at the new Vinino Bistro in the still-uncompleted Power & Light District. Before climbing into Kelly's shiny SUV, I had called Vinino to find out where diners park during daylight hours (at night, Vinino offers valet parking for $6), and a charming young woman gave me these instructions: "You drive around the corner, heading west on 13th Street, and you'll see the entrance to our underground garage. It will have a sign that says, 'H&R Block employees,' but it will have a Power & Light District sign, too. You can park there, and we'll validate the ticket."
Simple enough, right? OK, there was no Power & Light District sign at the entrance to the garage, but we drove down the ramp, took a white paper ticket and parked. After lunch, we were assured by Jim Watry, Vinino's general manager, that all we had to do was hand our validated ticket to someone in the garage and pay $2. But after driving around the structure for a good 10 minutes, we could find only one exit, which led back up to 13th Street. There was no attendant, only one of those automated machines that enables some patrons to swipe a card and others to insert their paper ticket into a slot. The machine wouldn't accept our ticket, so Kelly punched the green "Help" button, and a disembodied female voice asked us what we needed. When we told her that we were trapped in the garage, she asked "Are you an H&R Block employee?" When we tried to explain that we had eaten at Vinino, she asked if we worked for some other company. Negative. Finally, the mechanical arm flew up, and we were out of there.
I'm sure that Kelly drove back to Prairie Village remembering very little about his excellent lunch. But the Power & Light District isn't finished yet, and when a project this big takes off, there are always little kinks. And bigger ones.
Less than a month after the restaurant's November 16 opening, Vinino's crew discovered that sharing prep-kitchen space with the restaurant next door, McFadden's, wasn't such a good idea. Vinino now has its own prep area and has built an exhibition kitchen.
The menu has been seriously tweaked, too. Initially, the restaurant's focus was on bocconcini — small plates. The first menu listed 11 of them, including fried zucchini, skillet-roasted mussels and garlic bread brushed with Chianti; those were among the five little plates that got nixed. The six bocconcini that remain, however, are excellent. And after Vinino's owners discovered that Kansas Citians prefer dinners to little snack plates, they started listing three standard choices along with the daily pasta specials printed in chalk on the big blackboard hanging near the gas-fired pizza oven.
The learning curve has been intense, and the restaurant's management is still re-evaluating some decisions that are a flop in my book — such as offering the more costly dinner menu on Saturday afternoons, when the place opens at 1 p.m. "We've had some comments about that," Watry admits. "The plan is to offer a Saturday brunch menu instead.And then there's the noise level — all those hard surfaces and high ceilings can turn the big dining room into a cacophony on weekend nights. There's an odd sensation that if this vast space hadn't been turned into a restaurant, it would have made a nice Amtrak station.
That said, I like Vinino. The place has a lively energy and a top-notch serving staff. During my lunch visit, that included the cheery Bruno, who patiently put up with Kelly's numerous food issues (he hates garlic, onions and God only knows what else) and directed him to the dishes that wouldn't offend his sensibilities. Kelly's superb tomato-and-fennel soup and grilled panini sandwich were part of a $9 "lunch flight" that combined a cup of soup, a Caesar salad, and the choice of a half-panini or a half-pizza.
Richard opted for the giardino sandwich stuffed with olives, goat cheese, peppers and mushrooms, and a cup of that day's soup, a soothing beef-and-barley brew.
Because I don't believe in half of anything, I went for a full panini — the Margherita version, with tomato, mozzarella and an oregano-tomato jam. "It's kind of sweet," Bruno warned.
"I like sweet," I told him. And I liked the pesto aïoli sauce, for dipping the crispy pommes frites even better.
Though the food isn't as rewarding as at Lidia's, just nine blocks south, or as lustily hearty as at Mike Garozzo's place, eight blocks to the north, three of my fussiest friends agreed that executive chef Jeff Heyde and consulting chef Marshall Roth have created an appealing assortment of bocconcini, salads, soups and pizza. When Ned, Carmen, Sarah and I went to Vinino for dinner (we paid for valet parking, and it was worth it), we didn't order any of the baked pastas because the less-traditional choices sounded a lot more enticing.
Ned worried that the place had delusions of Lidia's when our server brought out a glass tray containing a mound of hummus, a puddle of olive oil and an olive tapenade and another waiter plunked down a tiny wooden box packed with slices of "artisanal bread." It's a variation on the opening act at Lidia's, but the tapenade was addictive, and imitation is the best kind of flattery, right?
We were impressed with the grilled calamari, served cold and tossed in an arugula pesto that needed a little more kick — something like the punch delivered by "angry" prawns chilled in a fiery peppery oil, mint and dill.
"The herbs are really, really fresh," said Carmen, who nearly fought with me over the last slice of excellent tuna crudo — raw fish seasoned with sea salt, shaved fennel and grilled orange.
We'd also composed a bruschetta, which is a build-your-own affair here. Ours worked well: focaccia crisps slathered with goat cheese, artichoke, chopped tomatoes and basil. And I loved the Vinino take on a Caprese salad: a hollowed-out fresh tomato stuffed with milky mozzarella.
We shared a few other salads. The pickled-beet number with pine nuts, warm goat cheese and spicy arugula, splashed with a sassy shallot vinaigrette, was the most elegant use of the lowly beet I'd ever seen. I wasn't so crazy for the hunk of romaine presented "Caesar style," which was too clever for its own good.
The pizza, however, was lovely, with papery crusts and imaginative toppings. I fell in love with the one scattered with tissue-thin slices of salty pink prosciutto, amber-roasted pears and goat cheese — it was a truly sensual spin on a traditional dish.
For dessert, we shared a satiny panna cotta, served in a martini glass with a squiggle of golden spun sugar, and a very stylish tiramisu.
Looking around the room, Carmen sniffed that the place was "very corporate."
"I love it," Ned announced after finishing his espresso. "The food is very good, and the waitstaff look like they came from the cast of Rent — young and slightly depraved."
That's a compliment, even though the idea might worry a Johnson Countian or two. But not as much as the prospect of parking downtown.