The Westside Deli & Bistro is a long way from Kansas City but worth the haul.

Way Out West 

The Westside Deli & Bistro is a long way from Kansas City but worth the haul.

I wish I were the kind of person who just hopped in his car and drove to Lawrence for dinner. Lawrence isn't so far away and it's a pleasant drive. But the fact is, I'm not one of those spontaneous "let's drive to Lawrence for dinner" people. I start developing a migraine at the idea of driving to Olathe, and if I've had a bad day, I flatly refuse to motor more than 10 miles from my house.

There's a payoff, however, for making the long drive (I clocked it at an hour) to the far west side of Lawrence for a meal at the Westside Deli & Bistro.

"How in the hell do you even know about this place?" asked my friend Ned on the afternoon that he joined me for a planned day trip. I told him that a couple of friends had raved about the place — but I left out another, more interesting detail. A year ago, the restaurant's chef-owner, Michael Levy, sent me an e-mail that was both self-serving ("The food here is delicious, well-presented and unpretentious") and accusatory ("We've worked too hard for too long to be ignored by editors who think Ponderosa, Chili's and Denny's are more worthy of comment").

I don't know what editors he's talking about who think those three restaurants are "worthy of comment," but I have written short pieces about them in a distinctly negative tone, particularly the appalling Ponderosa ("Steak and Wail," January 13, 2005). It took more than 12 months of procrastination on my part and at least one more e-mail from Levy until I was finally goaded into investigating his joint. The Westside Deli & Bistro, which opened five years ago as a combination gourmet market and delicatessen, has slowly evolved into a full-service restaurant with less emphasis on retail products and more attention to the breakfasts, lunches and dinners served seven days a week.

Meanwhile, the decade-long building boom on Lawrence's west side has continued, with new shopping centers — including "Wakarusa Crossing," where Levy's place occupies a storefront — popping up in what once were farm fields. The Westside Deli & Bistro is just far enough from the University of Kansas campus to make it less attractive to the undergraduate set and more of a neighborhood hangout. On both of my visits, the diners were primarily middle-class suburbanites. The menu's selection of multinational dishes, created by Levy and executive chef Francis Sheil, was a lot more diverse than the restaurant's patrons.

Who cares if his tiny boîte is on the less hip side of town? The good news is that Levy's customers like him — and his silken soups, hefty sandwiches and surprisingly sophisticated dinner dishes.

Never having seen the operation in its previous incarnation, I can't imagine how much has changed in the dining room, with its concrete floors and toffee-colored walls. But it's a nice-looking space; even hypercritical Ned admired the stark, uncloaked tables and the comfortable, Eames-style wooden chairs with red leatherette seats. "They're from the 1940s or early 1950s," Ned said. "I wouldn't mind owning a couple of them."

The quality of the food persuaded me to overlook most of the irritating glitches at that first lunch: The soup arrived at the table after the lunch plates, and the dizzy waitress (who turned refilling a water glass into a performance) dropped the check before we had finished eating, never asking if we wanted dessert.

My soup du jour was a robustly flavored cream of asparagus, but Ned's French onion was disappointingly pallid. Still, he loved his big, fat double-decker club sandwich. We agreed, though, that I got the bargain du jour with Levy's inexpensive yet excellent veal au poivre luncheon plate. The tender slices of veal were artfully arranged on a moist potato cake, splashed with a superb green-peppercorn-and-cognac sauce and sided by a heap of freshly cooked haricot verts.

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