Today’s restaurant scene is more niche than ever. You won’t find chips and salsa on the table at the Mexican restaurant Barbacoa, chef Keeyoung Kim of Chingu refuses to serve pan-Asian on his Korean menu, and it would be practically sacrilege to ask for “something fruity” at the James Beard finalist cocktail bar Drastic Measures.
Chefs are confidently serving their food their way to a generation of customers who are more curious and educated than ever. While this disruption to the formidable Midwestern bar and grill scene is welcomed by many, it simultaneously makes restaurants serving up more familiar and standard fare, like the Mediterranean Enzo Bistro and Wine Bar, a bit more refreshing as well. Enzo may not blow your socks off with epicurean innovation, and it doesn’t need or intend to. It covers the basics very well—vibrant atmosphere, attentive service, can’t-miss happy hour and a safe-bet menu. Enzo opened last December in the River Market’s former Bo Ling restaurant space, and it’s thriving on Fifth Street.
There is no such thing as bad seating at Enzo. Every table is ideal, with large windows and patios flanking either side of the restaurant. A large wood-paneled wine bar lit by coastal blue and green glass lamps is planted in the middle. Each time I dined there, Enzo was packed. The interior feels modern yet effortless—lots of deep wood textures with pops of color here and there. With its prime downtown location, it’s the crowd that creates the vibrant atmosphere.
Enzo is the sister business to KC’s decade-old Italian restaurant Ragazza Food and Wine owned by brother and sister duo Laura and Grant Norris. Ragazza’s famed lasagna and meatballs do grace Enzo’s menu, but chef Aaron Cattey, a KC native who has worked in several restaurants around the metro, is using his years of kitchen experience to add his own twist to other southern European dishes.
There’s something for everyone. Have an unadventurous eater in the group who rarely strays from pasta and could care less about a grape’s origin story? Enzo’s happy hour is calling. Need a coursed meal that’s flexible enough to satisfy a large group in a setting that’s not too fancy but more upscale than your neighborhood sports bar? Maybe your mother-in-law is the type that appreciates hearing about the aromatic nodes of citrus in the Louis Jadot chardonnay that would compliment a white fish dish perfectly, while her husband sticks to a strict red wine and steak combo. You’re interested in the fried squid while your partner is eyeing the classic no-frills meatballs. Enzo’s doors are open for you to explore, or not.
“Good pricing, good portions. We don’t need smears and tweezers and things like that,” Cattey says of Enzo’s menu.
The Norris siblings have a handful of family recipes at the menu’s core, including eggplant parmesan, meatballs, chicken piccata, lasagna and a classic red sauce. There’s plain ole’ spaghetti for your friend who is craving some childhood nostalgia, but more adventurous eaters can dabble in the cioppino, a seafood stewed in tomato sauce, or rich moussaka, a Greek casserole with layers of whipped eggplant and gamey lamb.
The portion sizes are impressive. The fried calamari served with a malt vinegar aioli was a substantial starter that was cooked wonderfully—no rubbery texture or greasiness as the deep-fried mollusks can be prone to. The eggplant frites seasoned with parmesan and parsley were a pleasant surprise, especially when dipped into the creamy roasted garlic Lebanese sauce. But it was the spicy feta dip that I couldn’t stop eating. Serrano peppers incorporated into the crumbly, dense feta provided just the right amount of heat without completely overwhelming the senses. I appreciated the variance of vessels—pita, crostinis, raw vegetables–to scoop it with.
When it came to the entrees, the flavor was always there but fell victim to some culinary principles. The simple bucatini with grilled shrimp was overall inoffensive but a little sloppy with its overcooked shrimp all facing different directions on the skewer. The chicken piccata was delicious, but the sauce was broken. You decide how this ranks on your list of dining offenses.
The branzino was the most disappointing entree I had. It was also the most disappointing entree for chef Cattey to hear was poorly received. He was heartbroken when I told him the entire dish was sitting in a pool of blackened butter, the green beans were overcooked and the basmati rice was bland.
“God, I want to cook it for you right now,” Cattey replied upon hearing my description. “It’s so popular.”
After my interview with Cattey, I went back to Enzo to give the branzino another shot. Oddly enough, we were seated at the table nearest to the kitchen. The friend and chef who I brought along noted that the front of the house staff seemed to be communicating with chef Cattey as he expedited dishes out of the kitchen more than one would usually see. We took this to mean that Cattey had taken my critiques seriously and was going the extra mile to hold his staff and himself accountable.
And the proof was in the branzino. My second encounter with the fish was a stark contrast to my initial introduction. Zesty lemon burst from the rice and green beans, giving them a much more pronounced and refreshing quality. The beans were al dente and the bass flaked off in tender pieces. The presentation alone was more appealing than the brown and bland plate I had experienced just a month earlier.
When I told Cattey in our interview that the skin on the branzino, served side up, wasn’t crisp, he explained that the fish is cooked meunière, meaning it is “dredged in flour and sauteed in brown butter and will have a softer skin by comparison to fried fish.” Fair. Upon my second visit, I flipped the bass over and it was golden brown and delectable.
Who knows what happened on my first visit, which was right after Mother’s Day. The kitchen had clearly taken a hit over the busy weekend and offerings were limited. In my interview with Cattey, he made no excuses but was upfront about the struggles of running a kitchen in the current climate, with its insanely high turnover and skyrocketing food costs. He doesn’t have to explain this to me. I still enjoy Enzo for what it is—approachable and solid.
On each visit, our service was warm, friendly and helpful. Our server treated us to some extra fig cookies when they were out of the caramel sauce that is typically drizzled over the panna cotta. They were also instrumental in directing me to a Caposaldo Chianti to accompany a traditional red sauce. With that being said, the limoncello slushie and Spanish spritz should be prioritized before the summer ends. Take advantage of the happy hour, too, which includes thirty percent off select small plates and the entire bar menu. You also can’t go wrong with the brunch menu of flatbreads, eggs benedict and so much more.
Enzo’s ability to cater to a wide variety of palettes is its strong point. On one visit, it occurred to me that my mother-in-law, who, to put her palette in perspective, is hesitant to try French food, would probably appreciate the comfortable but slightly upscale menu. The thought summed up my perspective on the Mediterranean wine bar—a welcoming space that can cater to the palettes of food critics and down-home Midwesterners alike.