edible words
Jan. 05, 2005

Plenty of respect due

by Mike Taylor

Despite its 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 restaurants.

"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 Day 1988.

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."

"The 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.


(photo by Justin McBee)

4124 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, MO


Lunch; 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Mon.-Sat..

Dinner; 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Sat.

Ratings: (out of four stars)

FOOD ***.5

PRICE $$-$$$

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


fork, knife, spoon


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