Taveronna Italian Kitchen, Kansas City

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Just steps from Kansas City’s Power and Light District, a cozy Italian spot is turning heads and intriguing palates at boutique Hotel Phillips.

Newly opened, Tavernonna Italian Kitchen showcases the inspiration of five-time, James Beard-nominated Chef Michael Kornick of Chicago and Executive Chef Bryant Wigger, who has returned to his Midwestern roots from the West Coast. Wigger spent 16 years working at Four Seasons Beverly Hills and other establishments. He’s the linchpin of the stellar menu that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Dinner was an adventurous affair in the sleek dining area surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. Classic Italian dishes delivered traditional comfort with noteworthy embellishments. Ingredients from local purveyors included Farm to Market Bread Company, fresh greens grown hydroponically at Missing Ingredient, an urban farm in the Crossroads, and beef from Hatfield Ranch near Marysville. However, the extensive wine list hails primarily from Italy and California.

“Recipes are traditional but with a twist to surprise our diners,” says Chef Wigger. “Plus, we make our own pastas, sauces and ricotta.”

Mouthwatering starters included bruschetta topped with fresh mozzarella, thyme-roasted mushrooms and drizzled with 12-year aged balsamic. Farm to Market rosemary bread came with lemon ricotta, quince marmalade and a sprinkle of sea salt. Baseball-sized Nonna’s meatballs are 100 percent ground brisket presented on a pool of freshly made Pomodoro sauce.

Pasta spanned the gamut. Baked ziti al forno with house-made spicy lamb sausage, pecorino Romano and arugula pesto quickly became a table favorite. Spaghetti cacao e pepe featured scratch noodles subtly flavored with black pepper, sprinkled with pecorino cheese and served with a poached egg on top. Hearty rigatoni incorporated bite-size chunks of braised beef.

Absolutely outstanding, the grass-fed, Hatfield Ranch 17-ounce ribeye will hold its own with any steak in the city. Grilled to perfection with shaved parmesan and drizzled balsamic, the steak accompanied roasted whole garlic and rosemary fingerling potatoes. Worth every penny of the $49 price tag and generous enough for two. On the opposite end of the food chain, the whole Branzino, Mediterranean sea bass, flown in from Greece, came artfully plated with caramelized fennel and capers in a luscious, brown butter sauce.

To finish we chose, creamy gelato and sorbetto from local Glacé. For summer desserts, Chef is adding a moist olive oil cake filled with a slightly tart rhubarb compote alongside strawberry gelato.

After dinner, stroll through the Art Deco lobby with its green velvet couches, elaborate bronze and nickel metalwork, walnut paneling and stylish light fixtures. The grand staircase boasts the eleven-foot Goddess of Dawn, created in 1931 by Kansas City sculptor Jorgen Dreyer. On the National Register of Historic Places, the recent $20 million renovation combines 1930’s elegance and design with modern amenities in the 216 guest rooms and public areas.

Don’t miss the unassuming doorway to the right of the lobby’s registration desk. Tucked away downstairs in a long-forgotten mail sorting room, P.S. Speakeasy is another 1930s incarnation. Plush seating and a cozy ambiance make the perfect spot to linger with a craft cocktail.

Valet hotel parking is complimentary for diners.

Visit HotelPhillips.com/tavernonna for more information.

Dobyns Dining Room, Point Lookout

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Farm-to-table is the gold standard at Dobyns Dining Room.

The stellar Sunday brunch features ice carvings and live music. Lunch and dinner in the 290-seat dining room remain busy year-round. Thanksgiving brunch reservations open August 1; last year, it sold out in three days.

Why all the buzz? Housed in The Keeter Center, reminiscent of the State of Maine lodge at the 1904 World’s Fair, Dobyns serves regional fare on the College of the Ozarks campus, ten minutes south of downtown Branson. Much of the food is grown or raised on property, and the college’s philosophy involves students every step of the way.

Smoked bacon and pork loin come from the campus-run hog farm and processing plant. Pastas, jellies and jams are prepared in-house. Vegetables are picked garden-fresh. Flour, ground by students at the on-site grist mill, is kneaded into fluffy, whole wheat yeast rolls. Products from the campus dairy herd include custom ice cream flavors dreamed up by students.

It all happens under the leadership of Executive Chef Robert Stricklin, who worked in four and five-star restaurants around the world before he helped develop the certified culinary arts program. The college believes in giving young adults who can’t afford a degree the opportunity to graduate debt-free by working 15 hours per week at 100 campus stations. Approximately 110 students work in the kitchen alongside professional chefs. Students also wait tables. More than 90 percent of the menu is created from scratch.

On a Saturday night with live piano music in the background, my husband and I started with appetizers: tasty fried green tomatoes breaded with campus cornmeal and topped with house jalapeno jelly, pan-seared hickory-smoked catfish cakes served with slaw and a delightful tomato tartar sauce and corn fritters. My salad came with creamy house-made Ricotta cheese and pear-honey dressing. The outstanding signature, smoked tomato soup, was served with a dollop of whipped pesto cream and cornbread biscotti, winner of a student competition. Warm cranberry-cinnamon biscuits and yeast rolls accompanied apple butter in a mini iron skillet.

My pork pomodoro entrée featured campus-made products: tender pork medallions basted with pesto, garden tomatoes and roasted garlic over cornmeal polenta. My husband opted for satisfying pot roast served with mashed potatoes, rich brown gravy and vegetables. We sampled the to-die-for barbecue mac, homemade elbow noodles drenched in smoked Gouda cheese sauce with chunks of hickory-smoked pulled pork and caramelized topping.

A cake devotee, I couldn’t resist the massive slice of ten-layer chocolate cake filled with chocolate ganache and garnished with fresh whipped cream and raspberry sauce. It’s enough for four, and its leftovers enticed us to return for lunch before heading home from our Branson weekend.

Visit
KeeterCenter.edu for more information.

Piropos, Kansas City

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For those who appreciate great cuisine, top-notch service and a lovely setting, Piropos delivers—delightfully.

Serving authentic Argentinean fare, it boasts a bird’s-eye view of the Kansas City skyline. Its moniker is a nod to the Latin tradition of a “piropo,” a poetic or flirtatious compliment to a woman. There’s even a monthly piropo contest with dinner for two as the prize.

Strongly influenced by Europe, Argentina’s cuisine merges the flavors of Spain, Italy, France and other ethnicities. The result? Simple and savory, without being overly spicy. Piropos’ menu specializes in excellent cuts of meat, seafood flown in by charter plane, lamb, pork and pasta. From start to finish, items are created in-house: a trio of dips made daily accompany the bread service, empanadas, soups and sauces and luscious desserts. The 300-plus wine list hails primarily from South America. Argentinian cheeses, salt and spices are air-shipped bi-monthly.

As longtime Parkville residents and entrepreneurs, Gary and Cristina Worden had a vision to bring the tastes of Cristina’s homeland to the Midwest. Married nearly 28 years, Cristina remarked that Gary loved the way she cooked and asked if she could design a restaurant menu. A chef-friend and restauranteur in Miami looked it over and gave the thumbs up.

With that confirmation, the original Parkville location opened in 2001 on a hillside where the Wordens had enjoyed impromptu picnics or a bottle of wine. In 2005, Piropos moved to its current location and added event space for up to 140 diners plus a wedding chapel. Throughout the years, traditions of Cristina’s upbringing have inspired the menu.

“Many recipes come from my mother, or I work with our chef to create authentic dishes,” says Cristina.

On a Saturday night, the restaurant buzzed with conversation and the clinking of wine glasses. My husband and I started with bread and dipping sauces: chimichurri, garlic aioli and fresh pepper relish. Empanadas were a must; doughy pockets stuffed with three cheeses, chicken with roasted peppers and seasoned beef tenderloin. The velvety Argentinean-style crab bisque and savory mushroom soup were first-rate. Appetizers included perfectly-seared, jumbo scallops wrapped in Applewood-smoked bacon over corn relish and brie en croute drizzled with apricot aji molido (Argentinean ground red pepper) preserves and honey balsamic reduction.

Entrees came beautifully plated with generous portions and exceptional sauces. The signature peppercorn-encrusted filet in brandy cream sauce was accompanied by au gratin potatoes and sautéed mushrooms. Pan-seared wild Alaskan halibut with julienne vegetables in a roasted red pepper sauce topped oh-so-creamy lobster risotto. Sweet tooths, like me, ogle at the dessert selection, all made in-house. The banana cake layered with whipped cream cheese icing on a pool of crème anglaise and raspberry sauce is so popular that customers order it in sheet cakes for parties and luncheons.

Chandler Hill Vineyards, Defiance

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Chandler Hill Vineyards describes itself as Tuscan-inspired, with a Napa twist and a Missouri soul. As my husband and I stepped into the impressive tasting room and then out onto the expansive deck, it was just that. The vineyards, a spring-fed lake and the Osage Valley fanned out below us. Worlds away from the city, Chandler Hill is a convenient 45 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

The vineyard’s fascinating history dates to the early-1870s. Freed slave Joseph Chandler traveled north on the Mississippi River from the Civil War-torn South and settled near Defiance. Befriended by the Fluesmeier family, who farmed the property, Chandler helped work the land for many years. He died in 1952 at age 98.

The tasting room and winery stand on the site of Joseph Chandler’s modest cabin. Stones from its foundation surround the waterfall at the winery’s entrance. When the tasting room was built in 2007, artifacts were uncovered including a shotgun, rifle, tools and china—now proudly displayed.

Chandler Hill’s wine list features award-winning Missouri labels from its own Chambourcin, Vignoles, Seyval Blanc and Norton grapes. They also produce a Norton port and a refreshing, Vignoles white port. West Coast wines round out the offering. Several labels produced by the vineyard take their names from the property’s heritage. The smoky, “Savage” Norton commemorates a .22 rifle hanging in the tasting room. And smooth, crisp “Gray House” Vignoles refers to a German immigrant who lived on-site.

The vaulted tasting room accommodates diners and large parties. At one end, above the sizeable, U-shaped bar hangs a handcrafted candelabra. A floor-to-ceiling, stone fireplace flanks the opposite end. In warmer months, the deck makes the perfect spot for relaxing or dining.

An excellent menu offers seasonal choices highlighting local bounty, produce from an on-site garden and newly-released wines. We ordered the well-prepared salmon with lemon caper butter, a still-sizzling flat iron steak and the King Buck Burger, a house specialty, topped with caramelized onions, cheddar cheese and house King Buck barbecue sauce. A Vidal Blanc and Norton paired perfectly with our entrees. House-made desserts rotate through the menu, and the blueberry banana crème pie and carrot cake with cinnamon frosting were both delicious.

Chandler Hill hosts a number of events: themed dinners, monthly wine club dinners, live entertainment on weekends and private tours accompanied by tastings and an optional lunch.

For more information visit
ChandlerHillVineyards.com.

Blue Sage Restaurant, Hamilton

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In the quilter’s mecca of Hamilton, Blue Sage Restaurant is worth the trip, whether you quilt or not.

Opened in August 2014 and named after a midwestern wildflower, photos on the walls of the surrounding farmland reflect those roots. Executive chef Chad Rigby delights locals and visitors with his ever-rotating menu of contemporary American fare.

Rigby was lured from his executive sous chef position in Salt Lake City by a co-owner of Missouri Star Quilt Company, who persuaded Rigby and his wife, Taren, to pack up and put their culinary stamp on the tiny town of Hamilton, population 1,809.

“I like to start with classic dishes and add a twist, but still keep them familiar,” says Chef Rigby. “It’s fun to watch people try something new or different than what they imagined and enjoy it.”

After my friend, Diane, and I browsed the quilt shops, we sat down to dine at Blue Sage. According to Rigby, with the exception of a few popular items, the menu changes quarterly. Blue Sage takes pride in serving from-scratch cuisine, cooked-to-order.

For starters, we chose the ever-popular pomme frites—perfectly golden-brown and seasoned lattice-cut fries topped with parmesan cream and chives. The scrumptious artichoke and lobster dip laced with asiago cheese and leeks. Even the bread and butter service was creative, served on a cured tree trunk with house-made blackberry-raspberry and honey butters.

Next we sampled the coconut berry salad drizzled with the restaurant’s signature cinnamon vanilla dressing. According to Rigby, it will probably never leave the menu because of its popularity. It’s often ordered topped with maple glazed Atlantic salmon or chicken.

Much of the summer produce is grown on Trammell Ranch, just south of Hamilton. Entrees reflect that local goodness. The flakey crust of the bestselling pot pie hid a velvety, vegetable cream sauce folded into roasted chicken and topped with garlic mashed potatoes and carrots—a satisfying rendition of this midwest classic. Rigby’s beef stroganoff definitely pleased. Pan-seared beef, topped with cremini mushrooms and a roasted garlic and mushroom demi-glace was generously ladled over egg pappardelle pasta. And grilled salmon, drizzled with the fruity infusion of melted raspberry-blackberry butter, costarred with a side of fried fingerling potatoes topped with savory arugula tossed with sweet raspberry vinaigrette, diced apples, cranraisins and goat cheese.

To finish, the baked banana brulée and ice cream was simple, yet elegant—a banana sliced lengthwise and warmed in the oven, then sprinkled with sugar before a chef’s torch caramelized the sugar.

And for those who want to take a taste of Blue Sage home, the restaurant is bottling its lauded cinnamon-vanilla dressing and raspberry balsamic reduction.

For more information visit Facebook.com/bluesagedining.