Brookside’s Plate came back from a devastating fire — there’s still a lot of work to do

In April 2017, an early morning fire destroyed Plate, a popular Brookside Italian spot. The cozy, 1,400-square-foot restaurant was just a side project for owners Christian and Andrea Joseph, and they weren’t sure they’d ever want to reopen. Christian Joseph has spent the last two decades doing sales in the healthcare industry, but his resume includes management stints at chef Valter Nassi’s Salt Lake City Italian restaurant and at one of the toniest resorts in Arizona. He recently decided to return to the Plate project, making it the crown jewel of what he hopes will become an “emerging hospitality company” that will eventually bring Kansas City a high-end fine dining restaurant “a step above Plate,” something he says will be “new to Kansas City.”

Plate is back in a big way, taking up the ground floor of a mixed-use building on 63rd Street, just east of Holmes. There is complimentary valet parking, and the floor managers have been known to wear Secret Service-style earpieces. When you call to make a reservation, you are greeted by a pre-recorded female British voice. The dramatic menu aims to match Plate’s “Italiano Moderno” slogan and is brimming with imported ingredients and Italian verbiage, from “IPA brodo” and “cauliflower tuffo” to “olive wood-smoked olive oil.”

The Josephs spent two years carefully and purposefully considering every decision regarding the new Plate, which opened in June. That makes the outcome all the more disappointing: Plate is fraught with missteps, inconsistencies and, at times, painfully bad cooking.

Where did it go wrong? I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about that following three visits totaling about $600.

While the old location was in the heart of Brookside, the new address is questionable for a restaurant where dinner can easily cost $100 per person after tax and tip. Plate is intended to be a lively restaurant with a late-night clubby bar area called Fiamma (“fire” in Italian). But that vision is at odds with a space across from an animal clinic and a windowless building that housed infrastructure for landline telephones. From the outside, you won’t spot a sign announcing the existence of Plate.

The interior offers more puzzling moments. It’s huge, a whopping 7,500 square feet with massive floor-to-ceiling windows lined with cream-colored leather booths, from which patrons may enjoy the view of passing traffic. The tables — all lacquered with such a high-gloss sheen that even the shadow of a fingerprint could leave a smudge — are spread out across the floor. A cluster of high-tops hang out by the handsome black marble bar in the center of the restaurant. A giant plate hangs on the wall with “Plate” printed on it. The dining room comfortably seats 150, but the Josephs could have easily accommodated 50 more chairs. This was intentional: They didn’t want anyone to feel crowded in their new dining room since, at the old place, you might elbow someone at the table next to you as you reach for your wine glass.

The decor is sternly modern. The concrete floor is cracked and pockmarked, the raw ceiling is washed in a matte charcoal, and the walls are a doleful gray and absent of art save for two abstract panels near the host stand. Facing down from the ceiling are four massive TV monitors displaying amorphous graphics of rippling water reminiscent of a Windows ’98 screensaver. They are supposed to be a point of interest for guests, and they are, but perhaps not as was intended.

Though the vibe recalls an industrial storage facility dressed up for a black-tie fundraiser, I’d happily look past it if the food was good. Alas, Plate’s ambitions often get the better of it.

Executive chef Brian Mehl was at the Classic Cup on the Country Club Plaza for 17 years before he joined the Josephs at the original Plate. He was inspired by Chicago fine dining restaurants like RPM Italian (known for its handmade pastas) and Nico Osteria, and when the new Plate opened, he was set on having a diverse, creative menu. By that definition, Plate succeeds: Mehl’s dishes are elaborate and good-looking, often highlighting atypical cooking techniques. But there’s a fine line between haute cuisine and hot mess, and Mehl frequently blurs it.

The menu tries to be playful, which is odd for a restaurant that takes itself so seriously (and with such serious price points — mains run $24 to $38). Instead of ordering hamachi crudo, you will ask for the Mellow Yellow, and if you would like the striped bass entree, you’ll request the All About That Bass. If you would like the house bread, you will call for the Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast — which is four slices of grilled house-made ciabatta (sometimes fresh and sometimes, by Mehl’s admission, day-old). This is served with a heaping pile of Grana Padano and a pool of superb cold-pressed olive oil. For $8, it’s a good cheese plate, but the bread is an afterthought.

The Burrata per Il Capo! ($16) is a gorgeous dish and one of Plate’s most popular, featuring creamy cow’s milk cheese surrounded by an orchestra of sweet grappa-soaked figs and spiced hazelnuts, with a bold halo of pesto spread around the edge of the plate. On the other hand, the bone marrow (called Bury Your Bones, $15) was served with crostini but with no marrow spoon, leaving my dining companions and me to hack into it with our salad forks, vainly attempting to scrape out the undercooked, sinewy tissue.

The enormous grilled sardines (Hey Deano!, $15) came three to a plate, each coated in fragrant breadcrumbs and preserved fennel — and with the bones in. These sardines are imported from Italy through Seattle Fish Co., and while this is a common and popular preparation in the Mediterranean, I would perhaps recommend including a disclaimer for guests upon ordering. I’m not squeamish about getting intimate with a fish skeleton (especially for a tasty payoff, which I found here) —but the presentation was something of a surprise for my male dining companions, one of whom was confused by the “baby trout” that needed to be deconstructed bone-by-tiny-bone at the table.

Mehl has brought back a few dishes from Plate’s first iteration, among them the arancini (Little Oranges, $12). I felt no strong attachment to these deep-fried balls of under-seasoned risotto, but the sofrito paste was excellent — rich and rustic.

There are three salads at Plate, each $13. The Piccolo Bambino is a conventional beet salad featuring a reliable combination of gorgonzola, walnuts and a rhubarb vinaigrette. The Italiano Moderno, with pine nuts roasted in baking spices, bresaola and mixed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, was pleasant, if a little sweet. The Caesar Cardini was disappointing: The combination of grilled romaine and the smoked anchovy buttermilk dressing made for a flavor that was overall bitter and sour, and the croutons — modeled after the crescentina bread found throughout Emilia-Romagna but more closely imitating wonton chips — made no sense.

When it comes to pasta, Plate serves the most expensive noodles in town, though not the best. Servers will tell you that the pasta portions are “appropriate,” which is code for “not a meal,” because refined Italians do not sit down to a heaping bowl of starch like pigs at a feeding trough, and Plate is determined to be as refined as possible. But with pastas running $23 to $27 apiece — as much as an entree here — it starts to feel a little rude. (Mehl defended the price points in our fact-check call, arguing they’re comparable to similar dishes at Farina, where pastas average $14, and Lazia, where they average $21.)

I could not find a pasta dish on Plate’s menu that justified those price points. The Perfect Pillows ($23) were nice — I appreciated the chervil folded into the dough — but any chevre-stuffed ravioli will be nice. The combination of nori-pressed noodles, dried mullet roe and fermented snap peas in the Spaghetti alla Bottarga ($23) is a creative combination, but the execution was a miss: The spaghetti, though perfectly al dente, was lukewarm and dry, and all that flavorful saffron oil and bottarga sank to the bottom of the bowl. The Bone & The Hare ($26) featured a grainy mixture of pureed braised rabbit and oyster mushrooms crammed into four rubbery cappellacci dumplings. It’s $7.50 per bite, a price Christian explains by pointing out that each piece of this “very sophisticated dish” includes a sliver of black truffle, which costs $180 an ounce. I found it inedible.

Every server pushes the Pappardelle Incredible ($21), the most uncomplicated pasta dish on the menu. It had a lot of excellent qualities, and I was prepared to think highly of it, but when I asked the server what the pork was flavored with, she declined to answer. “Chef doesn’t share his secrets,” she said with a shrug, but then volunteered to ask him for us, just in case tonight he might make an exception. (He did not.) This was perplexing: At a restaurant like Plate, which has such a high regard for its commitment to hospitality (full-time staff are offered benefits), surely the servers must be extensively trained on the menu? Surely there must be some transparency regarding recipes? Our server then suggested that we call the next day and say we had a food sensitivity so we could learn the ingredients: “Legally, we’re required to tell you,” she said.

When I asked Mehl over the phone what was in the ragout, he happily recounted the ingredients (pork shoulder braised in onions, garlic, white wine, sherry and pork stock). On a separate occasion, when I dined at the bar, our bartender John had no problem authoritatively breaking down the components of each dish I ordered. I remain baffled by this inconsistency.

Entrees were problematic. Portions matched prices and the plates looked pretty, but it came down, again, to execution. We ordered the Mallard? Duck? Anatra? (that’s its full name) ($30) rare, which the kitchen interpreted as raw. The Scottish salmon (Up a Creek, $28) comes with “fennel sott’olio, olive gremolata and red pepper pistou.” We requested the filet medium, but it came out so rare that one quick splash of water might have brought it back to life.

Shout out again to bartender John, who recommended the pork tenderloin (The Other White Meat, $27) and suggested it medium-well. A generous portion of perfectly seared pork came atop a bed of balsamic-dressed black barley and scraggly romanesco trees. A garnish of tasso pork chips were charred beyond recognition, and I moved them to the edge of my plate so that they would not detract from this one good thing in my life.

Mehl leaves temping entrees up to the guests but says he prefers the duck medium-rare and the salmon medium. No such guidance was offered when we ordered the duck or the salmon, which might have saved one of those dishes. At a restaurant that strives to offer the best guest experience possible, why put diners in position to ruin a $30 entree?

Drinks are a mixed bag. The small cocktail list centers on “tisane” cocktails, where botanical ingredients are steeped like tea and added to the spirit. Points for creativity but not for taste; the few drinks I sampled were bland. The wine list does better, with a surprisingly affordable mix of mostly Italian and Californian drops. Plate also offers a special by-the-glass program designed to let guests sample a fine Barolo without shelling out for a full bottle, but on the three occasions I dined at Plate, not one server told me about it.

The one thing Plate has going for it is dessert. Pastry chef Nicole Vavra is an alumnus of Stock Hill and Gram & Dun, and this is the first time she has been allowed to run free with her own ideas. And what strokes of genius they are: The show-stopping Cioccolato ($10) is encased milk chocolate and raspberry mousse in a shiny, dark chocolate globe, and cracking this chocolate bomb open was almost as satisfying as eating it. The salted caramel budino (Tokens of My Confections, $10) is a heavenly pudding cup layered with espresso toffee crumble, whipped cream and bourbon-infused sea salt. The Roseanne Pannadanna ($10) is structurally stunning, with a layer of vibrant mango gelatin resting perfectly atop a square of coconut panna cotta (which was not as creamy as it should have been, but I ate the whole thing anyway).

Plate is charging forward from here. In the fall, it will debut “Il Terrazzo,” a 50-seat outdoor patio with heat lamps and a lounge area, along with bar area Fiamma, which will be open on Fridays and Saturdays. The website describes Fiamma as a place for “well-dressed discerning patrons” to enjoy “tasteful lounge music” and “expertly curated cocktails.” There is no additional build-out for Fiamma: It’s that cluster of high-tops at the front of the dining room near the bar, plus the first four booths. The music might be live or might come from a DJ — Plate is still feeling that out — and it will buck Kansas City jazz in favor of “down-tempo progressive house music,” Christian says. Reservations for Fiamma will be accepted if a guest is looking for bottle service, and although there are no hours set in stone for the lounge, Plate’s liquor license goes until 1:30 am. After the terrace expansion, Plate will seat 200 people, with room for 25 more in a private dining room.

Then, Christian says he will turn his attention to growing the company. “Our plan is to grow pretty rapidly,” he told me over the phone. “We’ve got our sights set on some other concepts for Kansas City that we think we can do really well in, restaurants in our pipeline that we think are lacking in Kansas City.” I’m not sure what to make of all that, but if Plate is to anchor an “emerging hospitality company,” it’s going to need to smooth out its jagged edges.

GO: Plate, 701 E. 63rd St., Suite 100, Kansas City, Mo. (816) 775-0098, Open 4-10 pm Monday through Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday through Saturday and 11 am-10 pm Sunday.

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