I don't pretend to be a linguistics expert, so I'm confused about an accent over the letter t in the logo of Zest, the lively Leawood bistro created by Joe DiGiovanni and Mike Schreiber. Is it just an affectation or does it have a deeper meaning?
"I think it's just a way to be cool," one of the waitresses guessed when I asked her. "Joe told us that when they were thinking of names for the restaurant, they realized that a lot of things can be zesty. Like women. Or food."
Or soap. But the name does capture the upbeat ambience of the restaurant, which seems three times the size of DiGiovanni's former boîte, Joe D's Wine Bar-Café and Patio in Brookside. DiGiovanni, who has a distinctly vivacious personality, has considerable celebrity status in this city's restaurant community. That's why I wasn't a bit surprised to hear that his namesake restaurant in Brookside had closed last month. He sold it three years ago, so what was Joe D's without ... Joe D?
By local standards, Joe D's had, at 22 years, an amazing run. I wasn't a huge fan of the place: Its cozy dining room was a little claustrophobic for me, and it was too easy to eavesdrop on entire conversations at adjoining tables. That was sort of fun the first time, but excruciating when I was seated next to a table of drunken bores.
I'm happy to say that the spacious dining rooms at Zest don't require that tables be shoved so close together. Still, during my first dinner there, my friends and I were seated next to a party of two attractive, young computer nerds who were having a passionate discussion about passwords.
"Don't you miss the good old days," whispered my friend Truman, "when you could eavesdrop on a cute young couple, and they'd be talking about sex? Computers have ruined everything."
Well, they've certainly changed everything: Our waitress that evening was a moonlighting real-estate agent who patiently showed Truman, Jeanne, Alexandra and me how the Zest servers use a Palm Pilot as a digital guest check, credit-card machine and God only knows what else. Instead of writing down our orders, she just pressed different bits of text on a tiny computer screen. I'm a relic of those paper-check days, so this technology weirded me out for some reason. I didn't appreciate it until my next visit — when the server didn't use one and created havoc.
But everything operated smoothly during that first zesty dinner, when our quartet arrived at 6 p.m. because we'd been told — accurately, as it turned out — that every table could fill up by 7 p.m., even on weeknights. Truman admired the décor, which was stylish but understated: no tablecloths but cloth napkins and pretty votive candles. I didn't see DiGiovanni anywhere. "It's early," explained our waitress.
Zest's owners were savvy enough to hire a chef with sterling credentials. Eric Eckard, formerly of the Capital Grille, has created a menu that's heavy on comfort food. He puts creative twists on old standbys, like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf (maybe too creative in some instances), and serves steaks, of course, along with baked salmon and a chubby little Cornish hen, as well as a half-pound burger and a slightly smaller hot dog. And a bowl of chili named for the tall, perpetually chic Carnie Kline, director of marketing for the Hall's stores. Chili con Carnie Kline, get it?
I didn't try it. Instead, I went for an onion soup that is, as yet, unnamed for a local personality but has definite star qualities. The robust beef-based broth, loaded with soothing caramelized onions and blanketed with a crust of Vermont white Cheddar, was a welcome relief on a bitterly cold night. Truman and Jeanne split the romaine heart salad (all the salads here are large enough for two), a tidy arrangement of crisp greens sprinkled with Gorgonzola, bits of pancetta and a startlingly sweet vinaigrette.
Jeanne's daughter, the teenage Alexandra, is currently a vegetarian. Our server suggested a couple of meat-free options, including this restaurant's most-discussed dish — a truffle Gouda mac and cheese that can be prepared without the ham. Alexandra was game, but the dish surprised her: a big crock of bubbling and insanely creamy sauce that was a little stingy on the pasta. "It looks like baby food," Truman sniffed. Alex had to dig around a bit before she found that first noodle. I took a taste and liked it, but I was glad I hadn't ordered it because I would have been comatose after three bites.
Besides, I'd ordered my own pasta dish, a bowl of fettuccine tossed in a truffle sauce with braised leeks, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and a sumptuously tender and succulent duck leg — à la confit — falling off the bone.
Truman, who has been on a hunt for the perfect plate of liver and onions for years, was hoping that chef Eckard's version would be it. "It's light and tender and not very livery," he announced after tasting slices of pale, pink veal liver with a horseradish au jus. "But bland — it needs something."
Jeanne made the same comment about her visually beautiful hunk of meatloaf served with wild-mushroom gravy and topped with a golden mound of fried onion strings. "It needs more seasoning," she said, reaching for the salt shaker. I was scandalized.
Despite their complaints, they both took home their unfinished portions — the dinners were quite generous — and Truman took the rest of Alex's pasta, too. "I bet it will be great cold," he said. (It was, he told me later, despite being "excessively rich.") And all three still insisted on dessert: an excellent house-made cheesecake and a fudgy but not-so-memorable chocolate layer cake from a commercial bakery.
It was an even colder night when I dined with Peter and Keith, and we gratefully took a table in the bar so that we could sit next to a fireplace with burning gas logs. I didn't realize that Peter had become a vegetarian since meeting Keith, and they looked over the Zest menu with some concern. "We don't eat fish, either," Peter said.
Our beautiful server, Rachel, suggested the grilled-onion and Gorgonzola pizza and the linguine primavera.
Since the two vegetarians were sharing house-made potato chips as a starter, I chose a meatier option: a soft baguette split and scattered (not "stuffed," as the menu states) with a modest amount of garlic butter, prosciutto and Romano cheese. It's a great idea for an appetizer but needs some serious rethinking.
I noticed that Rachel didn't wield her Palm Pilot like the other servers but seemed to be using her God-given memory instead. Bad move. She brought Peter and Keith the vegetarian linguine (bland, boring) but a bowl of onion soup instead of the pizza. She was mortified at her mistake: "I thought you ordered the three-onion soup," she said, even though the soup isn't called that. The grilled-onion pizza came out in short order, though, and it was superb. "The winner of the night," Peter proclaimed it.
Alas, my burger wasn't the best I've eaten, and even though the crispy shoestring fries were fabulous, I'm not sure it all justified its hefty price tag and the additional $1 charge for a slice of cheese.
As we shared a dessert — a really excellent slab of delicately spiced bread pudding doused in a woozy vanilla-bourbon sauce — Keith made an observation. "It's a beautiful place," he said, "but isn't it really just a dressed-up diner?"
At that moment, a tall and striking blonde strutted through the dining room in an eye-popping floor-length lynx coat.
Yes, I agreed, a very dressed-up diner.
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