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.
And I didn't really mind when the waitress failed to ask us about dessert, because I'd seen the refrigerated case stocked with bakery-made "French" lemon cake, an industrial-looking cheesecake and a couple of other undistinguished pastries. I didn't bother with it. (Instead, we stopped at Wheatfields Bakery on our way out of town and got some sweets for the road.)
When I returned for dinner the following night, I was pleased to see that the Westside Deli gets glammed up after sunset. For the dinner crowd, tables are draped in white linens, and paper napkins are replaced with cloth. Candles flicker and light jazz plays over the sound system. Even more promising, our suave and elegant waiter, Guiseppe from Corsica, had the elegant manners and posture of a nobleman.
This time, I'd brought Bob, who fell in love with the restaurant at precisely the moment that Guiseppe delivered a charcuterie platter as fine as any I've seen in Paris. It was generously laden with slices of homemade sausage, satiny pâté, a jumble of red onion, curls of anchovies, sweet cornichons and thin pieces of crusty baguette. We should have stopped right there, but, in a case of wanting what I want when I want it, I requested the succulent saumon fume maison: thick slabs of ruby-colored house-smoked salmon topped with crème fraiche, scattered with vinegary capers and perched on a crispy potato blini.
I grudgingly stopped nibbling on the salmon only when the salads arrived. Bob adored Levy's Kansas salad, with its piquant sunflower vinaigrette. I would have been happier if my lightly dressed Caesar had ditched those jarringly hard, prefab "croutons" that make for better mulch than meals.
The best-selling dishes here are Levy's meatloaf and a roasted chicken in a mushroom-Dijon cream. (They're also the cheapest dinners, which reveals something about the clientele.) Bob waffled between the two but finally decided, after all that meat on the charcuterie plate, that he wanted something lighter. He dined happily on the fluffy crab cakes from the appetizer list.
The four vegetarian meals on the menu also sounded fantastic, including potato gnocchi in truffle crème. But Guiseppe confided that the gnocchi dough wasn't made in Levy's kitchen, so I opted for the escalopes de porc, described as "tender pork scaloppini with gnocchi in black truffle butter sauce." That wasn't exactly the dish I received. The pork wasn't prepared scaloppini-style (pounded flat, seasoned, delicately battered and lightly fried) at all. It was a thick, moist and juicy pork chop, beautifully browned, resting on a bed of sautéed spinach and surrounded by flattened balls of slightly gummy gnocchi. I should have asked for more potato blini.
After recovering from my disappointment when you think you're getting scaloppini, you crave it, damn it I started eating the chop, which was tender and satisfying enough to brighten my mood. "You like the scaloppini, yes?" Guiseppe asked. I told him it was the best pork chop I ever had.
Guiseppe didn't forget to mention dessert and coffee, but I had reached the point of no return, gastronomically speaking, and didn't want to get sleepy on the drive home.
"But I'll come back here," Bob said brightly. "I'd like to try the seafood cannelloni and the potato blini Napoleon ... and the meatloaf."
Me, too if I can find someone else to drive.