of respect due
by Mike Taylor
address 4124 Pennsylvania Californos isn't
on Pennsylvania. It's sits at the back of a cul-de-sac where
Archibald Street runs into Pennsylvania Avenue, a block south
of Westport Rd.
The unobtrusive awning over the entrance can barely be glimpsed
from the street, especially when the cul-de-sac parking lot
fills with cars. Because of the location, co-owner Terry Burns
makes Californos sound like the Rodney Dangerfield of Westport
"We get overlooked a lot," Burns said in a phone conversation.
"We're not on Westport Road or Broadway so people don't
think about us."
Obviously, he doesn't think his restaurant gets the attention
it deserves considering its longevity. Burns and wife Brenda,
who's the co-owner and chef, shouldn't worry much about respect
though. Their concept of a bistro-style place serving reasonably
priced in a casual, urbane setting has succeeded since St. Patrick's
French doors span the entire front of the restaurant. In the
spring and summer when the doors are open, Californos has the
ambience of a café on a European traffic circle. Glass
provides the primary design element inside the restaurant with
wood and brick accents. The glass panels break up an otherwise
open room. Soft lighting and votive candles on the white-clothed
tables provide intimacy to the space. A pianist offers jazz
tunes to further enhance the cosmopolitan atmosphere.
In addition to providing an attractive setting, the Burns know
how to hire and train servers. Not only do the servers act like
they're happy to be at Californos, they seemed genuinely happy
we were there, too.
My other half, who's sometimes skeptical of the places we go
and amused by the labors I go through trying to write about
them, offered her approval of Californos as we waited for the
check after our first visit. Emily looked at me across the table
and said, "You shouldn't have any trouble with this one."
Prospect Salad" baby greens tossed with hearts
of palm, walnuts and blue cheese, and hazelnut vinaigrette.
(photo by Justin McBee)
The main difficulty has been trying to characterize the cuisine.
Egg rolls with peanut and Vietnamese green sauces share the
same menu with Baked Brie with Apricot Glaze. Chateaubriand
and Curry Coconut Rice Bowl also appear on the same page. I
guess that shouldn't be a surprise in a place called Californos.
Regardless of how it's characterized, Brenda Burns' menu contains
an interesting array of grilled or stir-fried dishes, combining
a variety of interesting flavors. And what's on one day's menu
doesn't begin to cover the recipes they can use. Burns told
me, "Since we can print the menus in the office, we can
change daily based on what we can get. We've got a wide repertoire."
At the first of our two meals there, we tried Artichoke Chili
Cheese Spread ($6) and Mushroom Ravioli with Asparagus Cream
Sauce ($7) for first courses. The former was definitely a spread,
not a "dip". Served with lavosh, the Armenian cracker-like
bread, the warm spread had the tangy taste of artichoke, the
bite of the cheese and the heat from the chili perfectly balanced.
The ravioli also did what appetizers should wake up the
taste buds for things to come. The luscious sauce accented the
rich earthy flavor of the mushrooms.
I asked Terry Burns about their most popular dish. Quick as
a heartbeat, he said, "The Prospect Salad" ($4-dinner,
$6.50-entrée, $8.50 with grilled chicken, $9.50 with
Alaskan Salmon). Lightly dressed with walnuts, blue cheese and
hazelnut vinaigrette, the combination of baby greens and hearts
of palm provided delicate flavors and a variety of textures.
Emily and I tussled to claim the bigger half, and that's high
praise for a salad.
We also agreed that of the four entrees we tried, the Mixed
Grill ($15) stood out from the others. Californos tosses shrimp
with chunks of beef and chicken in Hoisin-based sauce
a Chinese version of Worcestershire sauce. Served with grilled
vegetables in the same sauce over Jasmine rice, the dish tasted
familiar and exotic at the same time.
We also tried a Kansas City Strip ($21) (that's since been taken
replaced by other steaks on the menu), Grilled Salmon Filet
($16) and Pistachio-Nut Encrusted Ahi Tuna ($18). An out-of-towner
looking for a Kansas City steak would be satisfied
at Californos. The Burns know the importance of serving a good
steak in this city.
The salmon was flaky, juicy and tasty, perked up by roasted
red pepper butter. Although a little undercooked for Emily's
taste, she didn't leave enough to bring home. The sushi quality
tuna came seared outside while still cool inside, complemented
by a mild ginger mango sauce and Asian rice that had a hint
of wassabi in it. As I said, we'd order any of the dishes we
had again as well as others we'd like to try, but the Mixed
Grill would be the first on the list.
Terry Burns might be right about getting overlooked a lot. I
couldn't find them in a number of the local restaurant guides
I checked, online and print (eKC online had them listed).
But for those who don't overlook Californos, the Burns offer
interesting, well-prepared food at reasonable prices delivered
by superb servers pleasant surroundings.
Even Rodney Dangerfield could respect that.