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Saturday, May 31, 2014

715 ... Overrated, Underwhelming, Quasi Italian Fare

715
715 Massachusetts Street
Lawrence, Kansas 66044
Menu: LINK

Prices: $$$$$


I first heard about 715 from one of their former employees and chef, Jake Dodds Sloan, a friend of my son I met at a high-end resort deep in Denali National Park a couple years back. Since then, we moved to Lawrence and I have read numerous glowing reviews on Yelp and elsewhere about this Massachusetts Street institution, so we had to give it a try.

One of the reasons I avoided 715 this long was the decor, modern with sharp edges, steel, rock, and dark wood, uninviting in my eyes as I tend to gravitate toward a more traditional, classic look based on the cuisine being experienced.


The waiter never told us his name or at least I did not hear it over the noisy patrons, another American tradition I do not cherish. The service was attentive and our food arrived in a timely manner, allowing us to savor our antipasti before the primi arrived.

We ordered the "heritage pork" meatballs (5 for $8) and half a Wheatfield's baguette as it was apparent that no bread would be accompanying our appetizers or meal, a definite fopaux in my eyes. The meatballs were tasty, medium in size and smothered in what they call "marinara", seemingly canned tomatoes with alarmingly little seasoning and another disappointment I would experience again when my bucatini arrived shortly thereafter.


The Bucatini all' Amatriciana ($17) was described as "rich pork guanciale [cured pork cheeks], caramelized red onion, spicy chiles, san marzano sauce, and parmigiano reggiano". Traditionally, amatriciana is made with pancetta (Italian bacon) and sautéed white onion, lightly basting the pasta with definite evidence of both ingredients on the palate. My bucatini, thick tubes of pasta resembling oversized spaghetti, was more than al dente, it was undercooked, chewy, and lukewarm. The pasta was smothered, not lightly tossed, with what appeared to be the same tomatoes we had on the meatballs, again overly acidic with little seasoning (garlic, olive oil, salt), chunks of tomato pulp, and no sign of either the cured pork or onions that make the dish one of my favorites. I had to ask for more cheese, but by the time the paltry little dish with a smattering of shaved parmigiano arrived the pasta was cold and even harder than when it arrived, so I decided to finish my wife's Asian spaghetti and take the bucatini home where I could season it properly.


Shiltake Spaghetti
My wife was going to order the spinach and ricotta ravioli, but at $15 for just five (5) and $23 for ten (10), it didn't seem like a very good value. Instead she ordered the Shiltake Spaghetti, a blend of Shitake mushrooms, spinach, carrots, olive oil, and garlic with chunks of mozzarella tossed in. Untraditional in every sense of the word, the dish actually had much more flavor than my Bucatini all' Amatriciana, a favorite when I lived in Italy and ate real pasta. Italians love their pasta and she enjoyed hers, noting just a bit too much olive oil.

Half Baguette - $5
My ratings are based on "value", taking into account the entire experience including the quality of the food, ambiance, service, and price ... the entire culinary experience. I have had far better meals for much less (in Italy) and more (see my review of Nonna in Puerto Rico), so price is but one factor. Based on my experience at 715, prices in the range of $10 to $13 would be more appropriate for the pasta dishes, $5 to $6 for the meatballs, and NO CHARGE for the bread would earn an extra bomb or two, but for an 8 to 10 bomb experience they would need to train their chefs in proper Italian culinary techniques, including how to cook pasta, season the sauces, and NOT drown the pasta in excess sauce. I was going to give them 5 bombs, but decided to add one additional for "effort" as they apparently make the pasta in-house, a rarity these days and something which should be rewarded.

CombatCritic Gives 715 6 Bombs Out of 10 ... LE BOMBE SONO BUONE!




715 on Urbanspoon



Kitchen
Key Words: 715, restaurant, Lawrence, KS, 66044, Kansas, Massachusetts Street, Massachusetts, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, Italian, food, pasta, menu

Balmy Nights, Harbor Lights

On my first visit, the place was quiet being a Thursday night before 8 pm. A few folks on the back patio, a group of noisy guys at a table, and a few "locals" bellied up to the bar, including me I guess.

I ordered an O'Dells IPA, not inexpensive at $5 for an  "American" pint (16 ounces versus 19.2 in an "Imperial", British, pint), but not outrageous, with a head so big that a Brit would seethe. It was cold and wet, not room temperature like a traditional English IPA would be, but hey ... THIS IS LAWRENCE ... WE ARE IN KANSAS DOROTHY ... Heeee heeee heeee heeee, I'll get you my pretty AND YOUR LITTLE DOG TOO!

The bartender, a 30-something woman in jeans and t-shirt named Heather, was quiet yet nice and the only person to actually acknowledge my existence.  A few neon signs, a dirty floor, a couple of pool tables and dart boards, the place is a bit divey, but isn't that the way bars should be?

I'll be updating this review as the summer languishes and I become more familiar with Lawrence's public houses.

CombatCritic Gives Harbor Lights 6 Out Of 10 Bombs ... BOMBS ARE GOOD!






Key Words: Harbor Lights, harbor, lights, pub, bar, beer, drink, Massachusetts Street, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044, Massachusetts, Mass, street, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, combat, critic, menu

Saturday, May 24, 2014

CombatCritic's TravelValue eZine - Averaging Over 145 Hits A Day!

CombatCritic's TravelValue eZine has recently been averaging over 145 hits a day. Not bad for a small, unassuming food and travel blog from America's Heartland:


Thanks to all of our followers, visitors, and fans for your loyalty and trust ... 

FOLLOW ME TO TRAVELVALUE!

CombatCritic Is Neither Laughing Nor Amused After A Visit ToThe "Mirth" Café


Mirth Cafe
947 New Hampshire Street
Lawrence, KS 
Living just 3 blocks from the Mirth Cafe, yet never realized it was there! The windows are dark in this ground floor space of what looks like an office building and their sign is barely visible through the tinted windows. Once inside, a modern decor of wood, tile, and dark steel has none of the hominess I enjoy in a good breakfast spot (e.g. The Roost).

Mirth's "Big" Breakfast
We were quickly met at the door and seated, but it took 10 minutes for our server, Brittney, to arrive. A young man dropped off some water, but was off before I had a chance to ask for some much needed coffee. Once Brittney arrived, we found out that it was a "self-service" coffee bar, so we wasted 10 minutes for nothing. I scurried to the bar only to find a dirty mug on my first attempt. There was neither half-and-half in the creamer nor coffee descriptions (dark roast, etc.) on the 5-6 available carafe options, only "Columbian" or "Ramona's", whatever that is, “DeCaf” … blah, blah, blah. Splenda was available only in shaker form and I had difficulty locating it because packets were provided for all other sweeteners (sugar, SugarInTheRaw, Sweet&Low). Brittney appeared a bit dismayed by my request to show me where the Splenda was and even more miffed when I asked her to please fill the half-and-half carafe so I could enjoy my mystery coffee. There was no Stevia, a disappointment as I avoid sugar and recently stopped using artificial sweeteners.

The coffee was good and warm, but the coffee bar was splotched with spilled coffee, sugar wrapper ends, and sweetener granules. To my dismay, the first upside-down mug I chose from the batch sitting on counter was filthy, containing adhering coffee granules from the previous customer. I was fortunate that I noticed them just as I started to pour my coffee as I normally assume that the dinnerware in restaurants are clean, a bold assumption I know.

I had Mirth’s Big Breakfast ($8.25) with a side of country gravy ($1.75) for a total of $10, a bit pricey for not-so-big breakfast in my opinion. The “BIG” breakfast was not as big as advertised. The two “over-medium” eggs I ordered looked “large” at best, not “extra large”, and were closer to over-easy than what I ordered. The bacon was crisp, yet chewy just like I like it, but it was lukewarm and came in a clump of two or three pieces as it was difficult to tell how many ends I saw on the intertwined pieces which had obviously been sitting in a pan waiting to be dispensed to a plate. Which brings me to the potatoes. They were “home-style”, which apparently means burnt, cold chunks with little if any seasoning. The accompanying biscuit was very small and the gravy minimal for the price ($1.75), coming in a “side” size cup, maybe 3 ounces at best, and barely covering the two small biscuit halves. It was “OK, but nothing special and not nearly as tasty or abundant as The Roost’s and there was no sign, either visible or tastable, of either bacon or sausage.

My wife had the Vegetarian Biscuits and Gravy, which had much more flavor than the sausage variety and chunks of something … possibly the sausage missing from my gravy! It was much spicier than mine and I would have actually preferred it to the non-vegetarian version, a sad statement from a longtime carnivore. $5.25 seems a little high for two small biscuits and a bit of gravy, but it beats paying ten bucks for a mediocre egg dish.

Brittney was very nice for the most part and very attentive after she finally arrived, so no gripes there. We were mildly disappointed by the experience and Mirth Café will likely not become a household staple, unfortunate in that it is the closest café to our home. The décor and service was somewhat cold and impersonal, leaving me unimpressed overall.

CombatCritic Gives Mirth Café 6 Bombs Out Of 10 … MORE BOMBS ARE GOOD!










Mirth Cafe on Urbanspoon



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Key Words: Mirth Café, mirth, café, cafe, Mirth Cafe, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044, Massachusetts Street, Massachusetts, street, yelp, tripavisor, urbanspoon, CombatCritic, TravelValue, breakfast, lunch, eggs, bacon

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Chez Yasu (Topeka, Kansas): Good, Overpriced French Cuisine With A Japanese Flare

Chez Yasu (Topeka, Kansas): Good, Overpriced French Cuisine With A Japanese Flare

Chez Yasu
2701 SW 17th St
Topeka, KS 66604
785-357-1003

Prices: $$$$$

A French restaurant in Topeka, Kansas with a Japanese chef? Seems a bit odd, but hey, it works!

We arrived exactly on time for our 7:30pm reservation, but had to wait 15 minutes for our table ... STRIKE 1! While we waited, we had a view of the prep area where a server was taking cherry tarts out of a box that looked like something from Sam's Club ... STRIKE 2! The prices on the menu were significantly higher than the menu on their website ... STRIKE 3! Normally an "out", I have to admit that we enjoyed our dinner and may very well return to try Chez Yasu again ... MAYBE.

Escargots
I love escargots (snails - $7.95 online, $8.95 in reality) and their buttery, garlicly goodness, rarely having the opportunity to order them in culturally challenged eastern Kansas, so I did (as an antipasto). Sans shells, they came six on a plate accompanied by a couple sliced mushrooms and doused with a savory garlic, parsley, and butter sauce. They were good, but nowhere near the best I have had and definitely some of the priciest at $1.50 a pop.

My wife had the potato and leek soup (potage - $3.95/$4.95) which apparently comes either hot or cold because when it arrived, it was ice-cold! We asked the server to please bring her the warm version. The soup was decent, moderately flavorful, but a little too watery for my taste. It could have been thicker with a bit more seasoning, but the bread made up for it. The server brought more freshly baked bread as needed and was actually one of the highlights of the night 

Poulet Saute
The Poulet Sauté, thinly sliced chicken breast served with a light teriyaki sauce ($16.95/$19.95 - also available with an herb or peppercorn sauce), was moist, light, and succulent with just enough teriyaki to flavor the dish without overpowering the poultry. I would have preferred the herb or peppercorn sauce in a French restaurant, but my wife does not appreciate pepper as much as I do and because she was eating it, I happily succumbed to her decision. The potatoes, not plentiful enough to last as long as the chicken, were light, good, and creamy and the green beans crisp with just enough butter and seasoning. In my opinion, $16.95 for a basic chicken dish is probably at the top of the scale, but $20 is excessive. Not a great value.

Boeuf Borguignon
Boeuf Borguignon ($21.95/$24.95), braised boneless beef short ribs, onions, and mushrooms in a red (burgundy, hence the name) wine reduction. Accompanied by the same mashed potatoes and fresh green beans, the plate was pleasing to the eye and very good. The burgundy sauce was perfect, but for such a small and inexpensive cut of meat, a couple mushrooms, potatoes, and beans, the price we paid was easily six times the food cost and again not a great value in my eyes. I believe the advertised $21.95 would be more appropriate and $19.95 would be a much better value, earning an extra bomb, maybe two in my book (or blog in this case).

The house wine (Root: 1), a deep red, full bodies Chilean cabernet with intense fruity tones was the perfect accompaniment to the boeuf borguignon, but at $28 it was the least expensive option on a small wine menu with most bottles coming in at $40 or more.


House Wine - Root 1 (Chile - $28)
Now do not get me wrong, I have no trouble paying top dollar (or Euro) for a top-shelf meal worthy of a Michelin Star or two, but Chez Yasu will not be getting that star any time soon. I have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world ... Brussels, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Tokyo, Seoul, Budapest, you name it ... and although decent, this small French restaurant in Topeka, Kansas is overpriced in my opinion. By comparison, one of my favorite French restaurants, Le Central in Denver (Colorado) has a much more extensive and affordable wine list, a menu offering a comparable number of options (plus an elaborate offering of mussel dishes, with unlimited French fries by the way, for under $10) all under or close to $20, and superb cuisine prepared by real French chefs. In that comparison, Chez Yasu does not even come close, hence my rating of "value" ....


CombatCritic Gives Chez Yasu 6 Bombs Out of 10 ... Les Bombes Sont Bon!


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Chez Yasu on Urbanspoon

Potato-Leek Soup

Fresh, French Bread Baguette
Copyright 2011-2014 - CombatCritic and 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC - All Rights Reserved

Key Words: 66604, beef, burgundy, chez, Chez Yasu, CombatCritic, eat, food, France, French, Kansas, restaurant, Topeka, travel, TravelValue, value, yasu

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Basil Leaf Cafe ... Still LEAFs Me Unimpressed

Basil Leaf Cafe

616 W 9th St
Lawrence, KS 66044

Phone number(785) 856-0459

Website

When I was told by a Lawrence Bohemian acquaintance of mine that "the Basil Leaf Cafe has the best Italian food in Lawrence", I was intrigued because we have yet to find a great restaurant of ANY kind since moving here in August. Paisano's (reviewed in August 2013) is "OK", but nothing to write home about, so our quest to add a new Italian restaurant to our arsenal continues.

Enter ... The Basil Leaf Cafe. Yelp reviews are mostly positive with people raving about the food, but slamming the "gas station" decor of the previous location (it really was in a gas station). The new building sits in a row of shops on 9th Street not far from downtown and the University of Kansas campus. The decor is modern with a smattering of tables (about 8) in a room that could easily handle 12 or more. The arrangement of tables, bar, kitchen window and cash register is inefficient, appearing as though there really was not a plan in the first place.

Tortellini Cordon Bleu, Side of Meatballs
On our first visit, we sat at a table uncomfortably close to the front door and were quickly greeted and given menus. I ordered a glass of the house wine, a "primativo" that was aptly named being primitive and obviously cheap. At $6.00 a glass, I would not be surprised if the mark-up was in the 600% to 700% range. The glass was small and filled a little more than halfway, leaving four, maybe five, ounces ...

I ordered the New England (the white variety) clam chowder, the tortellini cordon bleu, and a side of meatballs. After asking for water three times, my wife finally received hers, but I had to ask yet again to get mine, coming in a mason jar for some odd reason. This restaurant is apparently trying to find an identity with its' eclectic menu, modern decor, and new location, but they obviously have not figured it out yet. The soup finally arrived just seconds before our

Having lived in Italy for three years and traveling there extensively over the years, I found that Italians would NEVER think of eating meat and pasta together. Basil Leaf's menu is not even close to authentic Italian. Meat loaf? Yes, Italians actually eat meat loaf, calling it "polpetone", literally "big meatball" (meatballs are called polpette in Italy). They eat meatballs too, but NEVER WITH SPAGHETTI!  Spaghetti and other pasta dishes are called "primo piatto" or "first plate" and are also referred to as "primi" for short. Meat dishes fall into the "secondo piatto" or "second plate", aka "secondi" and are not brought to the table until the antipasto (appetizer) and primo have been consumed.

Anyway, the New England clam chowder came in the smallest soup cup I had ever seen and was filled a little more than halfway. I asked the server if I could get some bread with my soup, but she said "the bread sticks come with your entree". Translation: "No, you cannot". Fortunately, the entrees arrived just seconds after I got my soup, so it did not take long to consume it and prepare for my oversize entree.

I had heard good things about Basil Leaf's tortellini cordon bleu on Yelp, so I had to try it. The presentation was well done, being served in an oversize bowl (see photo). I love veal and schnitzel (pork cutlet) cordon bleu and this dish actually came close in terms of taste. Nontraditionally covered with a chicken cutlet (something you would never see in a classic Italian restaurant), the dish reminds me of a carbonara with ham and cheese added. It was delicious, but would have been better had it been served fresh from the pan and hot (warm). I finished half of the pasta, the lone bread stick (cut loose folks), and one of the three meatballs, leaving me a hearty dinner for the following night. The meatballs were excellent, having the correct consistency and seasoning and obviously homemade. Kudos to the chef!

Mac and Cheese
My wife ordered the "mac and cheese", another heaping helping of handmade pasta reminiscent of my Aunt Gina's chicatielli from Ariano, Irpino (Italy). The sauce was creamy and rich, but not overwhelmingly so. Being a native Italian born in Sicily, her palate is well honed when it comes to pasta, an Italian staple. She liked the mac and cheese even though there is no such recipe in her homeland.

Basil Leaf Cafe left us unimpressed on our first visit. Maybe it was because of the hype, maybe a bad night, so we decided to return.

On our second visit, seven months later, we skipped the appetizers, soup, and salad as they are overpriced and unnecessary based on the size of the entrees. A Thursday night, we were surprised to see only one free table and were quickly seated although the hostess seemed confused after I asked for a table for two as my wife had not yet entered the building. Before she had the menus, my wife had arrived and we were seated.

Our server was very nice, but a bit pushy when it came time to order as she seemed in a hurry to get things rolling and ensure our tab was of sufficient size. When we were finally ready to order, I decided on the Penne Abruzzi and my wife, not a pioneer by any stretch, went with the Mac and Cheese ... again.

The Penne Abruzzi has penne, obviously, with onion, bell peppers, sun dried tomato, and bacon in a three cheese sauce. I have no idea which three cheeses they use in the sauce, but it was tasty enough although a bit too salty for my taste, possibly a result of the sun dried tomatoes as they are normally sprinkled with salt prior to being dried. There was too much sauce for the amount of pasta, giving it the consistency of a thick soup, appropriate for pasta fagioli, but not a standard pasta dish where a light coating would suffice. The bacon added just enough flavor to the dish and the three large meatballs sitting atop the penne, something you WOULD NEVER SEE in Italy, were decent.

I asked a server if I could have a menu as we left, but was told "we only have them available online". That was fine with me as I am not interested in killing trees, but when I went "online" to check the menu to complete this review, I had great difficulty finding a current menu and never did find a website. How a business can succeed without a website these days is beyond me, but Basil Leaf apparently believes they only need a Facebook page. I never did find a current menu after an exhaustive search (MenuPix had a menu with prices several dollars less than we paid) and the Facebook menu never did load. That is what you get when you trust your "free" business webpage to Mark Zuckerberg!

The pasta dishes, "starters", and salads are overpriced ($9 for a house salad? - up from $8 last October) as was the wine ($7 for 4 ounces of cheap wine - up from $6). The decor still needs some warming up, and the tables could be rearranged to seat more customers or create a much needed waiting area (waiting customers now hover over tables of seated customers). The service was sketchy on our first visit and a bit too intense this time. The menu and food remain underwhelming. I spotted only two or three dishes on the limited menu that I would bother ordering, so our options for return visits are already limited. 

There are enough "classic" Italian pasta sauce recipes to fill the menu twice over (carbonara, amatriciana, ragu, bolagnese, boscaiola, marinara, alfredo to name a few) and some classic meat dishes (veal marsala or saltimbocca) would be nice, so embrace something ... anything ... and create an identity of your own in your decor, servers, and menu fit for a town that still does not have an Italian restaurant worthy of our custom.

CombatCritic Gives Basil Leaf Cafe 6 out of 10 Bombs (Previously 5 Bombs) ... Bombs are Good!

The Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon









Review Updated May 12th, 2014

Key Words: Basil Leaf Cafe, basil, leaf, cafe, Italian, restaurant, Lawrence, Kansas, pasta, soup, salad, wine, vino, meatball, marinara, penne, spaghetti, macaroni, cheese, CombatCritic, 66044

Copyright 2011-2014 - CombatCritic and 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC - All Rights Reserved

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