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OCTOBER 26, 2011 4:48PM

Things To Do In Kansas City When You're Hungry

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Jenny Vergara is, for Kansas City, a culinary John the Baptist. No, she’s not some wild-eyed hermit, living in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey. She won’t scream at you or tell you you’re doing it wrong. But she will evangelize. She will tell you all that is right and good about the Kansas City dining scene. She will preach to you about Kansas City chefs and Kansas City ingredients. She will make you see the light.

Jenny Vergara is the driving force behind Test Kitchen Kansas City (www.testkitchenkc.com), what she describes as “Kansas City’s most unique underground supper club.” She works tirelessly to promote her supper club and when I think of the logistical nightmare it must be, I am grateful she is there to do it and that all I have to do is pay money for the privilege of sitting at her table. It's not really "underground" anymore and even though they make you take an oath of secrecy (Seriously. They do.) I have permission to write about it here.

It’s easy enough to join Test Kitchen. Go to the website. They make it easy. But, near as I can tell, the fun isn’t being a member (or, as she refers to the members, “disciples”). While I think there probably is a sense of community, the fun s in the dinners. If you consider yourself a “foodie” (and I don’t know why I still balk at that term. It seems that I fit by any reasonable definition.), then these are dinners you want to attend.

Here’s how it works: You join Test Kitchen and then, periodically (it seems about once a month or so, but I’m new here) you will get an email invitation advising you that you can enter the lottery to dine at Test Kitchen. My email came less than a week before the dinner date, so you need to be flexible. If you are interested in entering the lottery, you reply back and advise how many people you want to enter. Then, if you win, a day or two later you will get another email saying that you won the lottery and you have another day to make payment. Only after you make your payment will you get ANOTEHR email advising you where to go for dinner. You show up, have cocktails and are seated. Dinner is brought to you course by course with a wine pairing.

Jenny (is it okay if I call you Jenny?) works hard to get some of the best chefs in Kansas City to cook for her one-night-only pop-up restaurant. Some of KC’s brightest culinary lights have shown on her table. There are James Beard Award winners and chefs who have appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Masters” series. They work hard to prepare you a memorable menu that won’t be repeated tomorrow night at their restaurant because they aren’t actually working *IN* their restaurant. You can see the upside to this arrangement. You have a famous chef working hard to make a special meal for a group of about twenty fellow foodies. It’s a bit like being there when one of those rare Asian flowers blossoms once every twenty years. As much as anything, you get to be there for a very unique experience and it’s not one anyone else you know has had.

Such an arrangement does have its downside. These chefs all have restaurants of their own and, as a result, they are disinclined to be a part of Test Kitchen on the weekends.  They need to do these dinners, typically, on a Monday or Tuesday. Again, you need to be flexible and make allowances if you want to dine with Jenny.

I had no idea how rare a Saturday meal was for Test Kitchen. In fact, I had pretty much assumed that Friday or Saturday was the norm. Only after I won the lottery and showed up at the secret location (a VERY high end kitchen appliance/remodeling shop in a mixed-industrial use park in Lenexa, a suburb of Kansas City) was it made clear to me just how lucky I was to have been selected for a Saturday meal.

Our chef, Dan Trefz, is/was a hell of a cook. And when I found out why he was available on a Saturday night, I was even more impressed with his skills. I hesitate to tell this story because it’s not really mine to tell, but Jenny told me that I could blog about the evening so I’m gonna go ahead and blog about the evening. Dan Trefz was available on a Saturday because he is NOT currently working in a restaurant. At least not full time. Years ago he suffered a serious head injury in what must have been a pretty horrific skiing accident. I know I’m missing some of the details and will get others wrong, but the basics are that after nearly dying and them going through grueling rehab, he finally, with the assistance of some pretty good sous chefs, worked himself back into the kitchen. We’ve all heard stories about how people who lose their sight develop a keener sense of hearing and the like. It seems pretty clear that Chef Trefz has found ways to compensate for some loss of physical abilities, because his palate is really, REALLY good. I don’t know enough about his injuries to know if he can ever work in a professional kitchen again (and it’s none of my business), but I hope he can and I hope he does because I will go there.

But how was the food?

Well, the flavors were excellent. As I mentioned, Chef Trefz has a fantastic palate and he put it to good use. The wines that were paired were also excellent and provided great foils for the dish. I did notice one problem with the dinner and it was not an insignificant one. The food almost never arrived at temperature. I have no idea if Jenny is going to be furious with me for writing this and I do not want anything I am writing here to in any way detract from what she is trying to accomplish. I can’t wait until I win my next lottery and get to have dinner at her table again, so I really hope she isn’t angry, but food arriving off-temperature is kind of a big thing with me. I don’t get the feeling Chef Trefz would want me grading on a curve and I am not going to, but having the plates arrive at the correct temperature would have taken this experience from excellent to sublime.

Our first course was duck leg ravioli with roasted fennel. I love duck. I love confited duck legs. Why has it never occurred to me to take some of the duck confit I made and am currently storing and to put it between sheets of fresh pasta? I don’t know why, but this dish made me question my own judgment for not having done so. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the roasted fennel was lovely. And, as I am not a huge fan of the flavors associated with black licorice, that is saying something. Still, the lovely pillows of tender duck were lukewarm when they arrived. As I mentioned, this was my experience for most of the courses served that evening. I’m not sure why this was such a problem or if I am the only one (aside from my wife) who had this happen so frequently.  Given the number of staff working in the kitchen and the front of the house and the relatively small number of diners (twenty), it seems like getting hot food to us before it cooled shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was.

Second course was a mache salad, dressed in nutmeg. This was served at temperature and the sweet mache was served with a silky dressing but I couldn’t really taste the flavors of the nutmeg that were promised. The chef told us that he had learned this dish in Switzerland (where I believe he studied and also had his skiing accident) and I think he was doing his best to honor the person who taught him how to make it by being faithful to the recipe, but it could have used just a little more nutmeg. Still, I don’t want to make a big deal out of this because I ate every bite and was glad he reminded us that we can buy mache at Trader Joe’s.

Third course was a corn and jalapeno chowder. Again, the flavors were perfect. This dish tasted like late summer or early autumn in a bowl. Interestingly, the wine pairing was a syrah rosé from Sonoma. I can’t explain exactly why this pairing worked, but I can tell you that it did. The soup probably could have been served either chilled or hot. Unfortunately, it was neither. I really don’t understand lukewarm soup when it can be made in advance and kept at temperature so easily. Had this been chilled but thinned out with some cream to loosen the starch from the corn, it would have been a great and refreshing summer soup. Had it been hot, or even warm, it would have been a hearty and warming soup fit for a cold night. As it was, the flavors were what made this dish but it could have been so much more.

Our fourth course was a seared scallop over celery root puree. I LOVED THIS DISH. I’ve found a culinary soulmate in Chef Trefz who told us that it was criminal how underused celery root is in the US. And he’s correct. The puree was soft and smooth but flavored so well that the silky texture actually allowed you to get even more flavors from the dish. I know I’m repeating myself here, but this dish would have been so much better had the puree and the scallop been hot.  Still, I ate every bite and give extra credit to the chef who cheerily answered me when I asked how I should cook celery root of I want it to taste like his.

Next we had herbed lamb loin with a root vegetable hash. The hash was an interesting mix of vegetables and I’m not sure what all of them were. But it was a tasty accompaniment to the lamb which was perfectly cooked but, I think, left to rest too long and, therefore had (yes, again) cooled down too much. I hate it when chefs don’t rest their meat. It’s a crime and should be punished to the full extent of the law. But over-resting it is bad too. This lamb was delicately-flavored, tender, juicy and just the right shade of rosy pink. If only it had been hot.

After the lamb we had coriander-brined pork loin with risotto and broccoli. Pork loin, Michael Ruhlman will tell you, is one of the most boring cuts of meat. It’s lean but that means it dries out too much. It’s not particularly flavorful and doesn’t taste as if you are getting the essence of the pig you’re eating. But when you brine it, something magical happens. Something magical and delicious. Which is why I brine almost any pork I cook. Thank god chef Trefz knows this trick and that he applied it to good effect. As much as I loved the pork (and, yes, it had also been over-rested), I can’t say the same thing about the risotto. Again, the flavors were good, but they say that a risotto should never stand up. It should always softly and unctuously ooze (not a very pretty word for something you want to eat, but there you go) all over the plate in a delicious puddle. This risotto had sat too long before plating and it had firmed up considerably and by the time it hit my tongue, it was a bit too close to a solid state of matter. Still, the flavors, the seasoning were fantastic.

For dessert we had almond mousse with pralines and cherry brandy syrup. My god this was tasty.  Normally I can take or leave desserts (although, given my girth I should probably leave them a bit more often) but not this one. I love almonds and I love how he worked with them in such a way that their texture didn’t interfere with the silky softness of the mousse itself. Had there not been people around, it’s safe to say I might have licked the plate.

That was our evening. The cost? $100 per diner. That may seem a bit high, but that included the wine pairings and I thought it was a steal. The only real downside to the whole evening (I know I kept mentioning food temps, but the flavors were so solid that temps were easy to overlook in the moment) was the blowhard from New York who really enjoyed bragging about having eaten at Daniel and other places most people only read about. I could put up with it because I’ve eaten at Daniel too and it is a very special experience, but I got my dander up just a bit when he said that no purveyor on Kansas City could come up with the same quality of raw ingredients that purveyors in New York could bring. He actually said that no steak in Kansas City could be as good as the steaks in New York because the suppliers in New York are just better. You know what? Fuck you. I’ve eaten at some of the best places in New York and while the quality of restaurants in Kansas City is not near the same level as they are in New York, all those steaks in New York probably come from Kansas anyway. Thank god Jenny Vergara is there to preach about the culinary side of Kansas City.

 

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Comments

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Congrats on the EP! Since I have the palette of a 5 year old (maybe not your 5 year old), there are only two thing I know I would eat, the lamb (love lamb) and the almond mousse. It sounds divine. However, what is "mache"? I could look it up, but where is the fun in that?
Mache (pronounced "mosh") is a very tender and mild salad green. Apparently it's often considered a weed.
I should have guessed it would be something resembling lawn clippings. :)
Hey there, Liberal in a Red State. Well done. I'm also with you in appreciating our recently opened Trader Joe's. It's the place for figs, Newton's Folly hard cider, and so many other affordable wonders. Everyone's palate gets an upgrade. I'll look for the mache next time. Sounds good.
I enjoyed this ... just wish I was actually in Kansas City eating it with you! Now ... what am I going to have for dinner? Oh. That's right ...I've already had it ... a toasted cheese sandwich!!! Yikes!
Fun post...enjoyed every bite. Now about those temperatures...could you reheat and serve? :)
Fun post...enjoyed every bite. Now about those temperatures...could you reheat and serve? :)
Very neat. I feel as though I was almost there.