edible words
Oct. 29, 2004

Plenty of spice but one ingredient is missing
by Mike Taylor

The Red Vine Cajun Restaurant and Jazz House, 1700 E. 18th St., opened six months ago with a lot of hoopla. With the backing of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp and the Greater Kansas City Local Initiative Support Corp., the owner got the financing to start a second locally owned restaurant in the still-struggling 18th & Vine District. Both the spicy Cajun food and the Red Vine's live music were supposed to help liven up the neighborhood.

A waterfall and vine-covered lattices greet diners in the lobby. The New Orleans ambience evokes the Garden District more than the French Quarter with high, narrow windows, brick walls and burgundy colored arches separating the main dining room from the bar. High ceilings and widely spaced tables make the 280-seat room more intimate. Black marblesque tabletops flecked with gold give the rich and spicy dishes an even more dramatic and decadent appearance.

The Red Vine Cajun Restaurant's signature dessert, Sweet Potato Cheesecake. (photos by Jessica Chapman)

I'd have thought Dixieland or swing tunes would add to the atmosphere but I heard "cool jazz" on one visit and no music at all on another. The live entertainment starts after 9 p.m.

The appetizers ($5.95 to $10.95) are mostly seafood dishes along with chicken tenders and Mac’s Fire Wings. Emily and I tried Blackened Bayou Alligator ($7.95) and Shrimp & Crab Au Gratin ($9.95). Emily didn't care much for the chunks of firm and chewy alligator. I liked it but not the sweet, thick barbecue sauce served with it. The shrimp and crab casserole disproved the taboo of combining seafood and cheese. This satiny textured concoction combined them perfectly with a spicy bite that followed the other flavors.

The thick gumbo over rice also inspired sinus-clearing sniffles. Thick enough to be more stew than soup, the gumbo had pieces of chicken, shrimp and sausage in just about every bite.

I'm mystified by my attraction to hot, spicy food. Rationally, I shouldn't put something that burns in my mouth intentionally. But somehow the burn intensifies accompanying flavors and makes the foods taste better. As long as it doesn't bother my stomach, I'll enjoy the spicy heat

That proved the case on both my visits to the Red Vine. I had the Blackened Redfish ($15.95) and Crawfish Etoufee ($14.75). The light, delicate fish came flaky and moist, appearing "harmless" initially. By the time I finished the first bite, the "blackening" spices had lit up my mouth — but I kept going back for more of the perfectly cooked fish. The thick "mud puppy" stew served over rice provided a more complex taste experience. The spiciness joined an earthy roux made from bacon fat along with celery, green peppers and onions. I was surprised by the generous amount of crawfish in the dish.

The same proved true of the Jambalaya ($14.25), which Emily had. It came studded with hunks of white chicken meat and Andouille sausage along with celery, onions and peppers in a spicy broth. On our other visit, she was less impressed with the grilled salmon ($17.95). After one bite, she said, "It's no big deal." I had a taste and agreed.

All the entrees come with a mundane house salad but any kind of bread costs extra. A basket of "knotted" rolls costs $3.25. The cup of Gumbo instead of a salad costs an additional $1.50. Considering the price of the entrees, I also found it tacky that they served packets of non-dairy powder instead of real cream to further enhance their distinctive chicory flavored coffee.

We visited the restaurant on two Saturday nights, arriving between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. both nights. They supposedly start serving dinner at 5. On one visit well after six, we walked into an empty place. The other time, a smattering of the tables had diners. Neither time did the Red Vine staff act ready to serve customers. Incompetent service dampens the whole experience.

Emily constantly chides me for my quick harsh judgment about waiters, waitresses and bartenders when we go out. She thinks I should be more sympathetic and give them more of a chance. But on our first visit, she wouldn't let me stay to have coffee and try the desserts. After mixing up our entree order with someone else's, the waitress didn't return with my Redfish for more than twenty minutes. She left the Jambalaya while going to get the salads, then going back to get the right dressing and so on and so on. We went to the bar to refill our water glasses. She more than used up the sympathy Emily said I should have by the time she finally brought my dinner.

On our other visit, the server provided adequate service but not a presentation appropriate to the food's quality or price. A simple thing like serving and removing dishes adjacent to diners rather than across the table would add a lot of class. When I'm spending more than $50 for a dinner for two, I don't expect to hand someone plates I want removed. And with Cajun foods, water glasses have to stay filled.

No doubt18th and Vine needs places that attract people. A Cajun restaurant fits into neighborhood. But the Red Vine will have to kick up its service a whole lot of notches. If a restaurant isn't busy on Saturday night at dinnertime, before long it won't ever be busy again.

The Red Vine Cajun Restaurant and Jazz House

1700 E. 18th St., Kansas City, MO


Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.;
Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m.;
Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Ratings: (out of four stars)

FOOD **1/2

Key: $-under $10 • $$-$10 to $20 • $$$-over $20

fork, knife, spoon


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