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.