Rye opened in early 2013 and is owned by Chefs Megan and Colby Garrelts. The husband-wife team also owns Bluestem, the restaurant for which Colby won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest this year. The projects are quite different: Bluestem serves “Progressive American” cuisine while Rye takes the simpler approach of “showcasing the food and culture of the Midwest and the local flavors of the Missouri-Kansas region.” When I first read about Rye, I immediately thought of Husk—while I have no real proof that Rye was inspired by Brock’s casual venture, the similarities seemed unmistakable, particularly the way that both claim to offer a hyper-authentic regionally-grounded experience. The style certainly has merit, if for no other reason than that it introduces the diner to unfamiliar ingredients, but my experience with Husk’s ultra-regional cuisine didn’t impress me. This is because I found that Husk doesn’t really do anything other than preparing the same cuisine as other local restaurants, but with a more pristine plating technique. In light of my experience with Husk, my expectations weren’t too high for Rye. Still, as I am still new to the region I figured that at the very least Rye could expose me to some new flavors.
Unlike Bluestem, Rye is not actually located in Kansas City but instead in Mission Farms, a strip mall in the upscale suburb of Leawood. Ordinarily, suburbs aren’t very interesting, but Kansas City is the rare city in which the suburban dining scene actually sheds light on the city restaurant landscape. Specifically, a number of Kansas City chefs seem to be opening up restaurants in the suburbs, with Colby and Megan Garrelts one of the latest examples. I suppose the rationale is that towns like Leawood offer a more affluent client base than the city proper, so these chefs can make money at a greater clip than their parent restaurants. The logic makes sense, but it creates a strange dynamic in which the suburban restaurants indirectly subsidize the city ones. I’ve never encountered a metropolitan area in which the city and suburbs have this sort of relationship; one doesn’t see Boston chefs opening up ventures in Wellesley or Chicago chefs expanding to Evanston or Willamette.
Thus, one of the questions posed by Rye is: how interesting can a restaurant be when it’s located in the suburbs? In a vacuum, I don’t really have a problem with suburban restaurants, but I do think that being located in Mission Farms is ideologically problematic for Rye. This is because the setting simply cannot support Rye’s motto of capturing the “culture of the Midwest.” Where the restaurant aspires to a culinary neorealism, I don’t think the setting could seem more artificial if it tried. This is also echoed through the seemingly prefabricated interior, which looks straight out of a catalogue. In sum, the restaurant serves “authentic” Midwestern cuisine in the most inauthentic setting imaginable.
While I’m lukewarm about the location, I found plenty to like in the actual menu. Rye divides the menu into several categories, which enlarges the scope while keeping everything well-organized. There were six categories: snacks; soups and salads, fried chicken, gravy & pickles; bbq; and steaks, fish & burgers. In addition, there was a separate “Rye Reserve Steak Program” that included all of their steaks with the exception of the hanger. Having a steak program makes good sense for a restaurant focusing on the Midwest; what didn’t make sense is that all of the steaks in the “Reserve Steak Program” were sourced from California. When I asked my server about this, he mentioned that Colby and Megan feel as though the beef from the Midwest is too processed. This explanation is fine, but sourcing from the West Coast redirects their mission away from regionally-focused cuisine. I chose grilled asparagus with prosciutto and egg for my starter and smoked rabbit legs for my main; my brother went with chicken wings and hanger steak. We also ordered a side of grilled broccoli.
Rye has gotten some attention for their bread service, consisting of chive-cornbread and parker house rolls. They were tasty but a little surprising since I believe Parker House rolls originate from New England.
The grilled asparagus dish looked pristine and a good example of Rye’s blatant “what you see is what you get” plating style. This was a good value at $12, but I also think it exposed how the restaurant has a bit of a problem with scale: this size was really enough for a couple of people, as I was expecting ~3-4 asparagus and a smaller portion of prosciutto. There’s nothing wrong with sizing appetizers to share, but I don’t think of grilled asparagus as a typical two-person appetizer. Rye is following the lead of many restaurants in this country by sourcing their hams from Iowa (La Quercia), and it tasted as great as the asparagus. The only aspect that was less than satisfactory was the egg—I had been hoping to spread the yolk on the grilled bread, but it was overcooked. Overall, I would love to see this stay on the menu, but I’m curious to see whether the portion size is modified.
My brother’s appetizer was also sized for sharing, but this is to be expected with chicken wings. The wings were served with aerated bleu cheese, a modernist touch that perhaps they borrowed from Bluestem. Unfortunately, the aerated technique basically ramped up the bleu cheese flavor to the point that it overpowered the chicken.
The rabbit legs arrived in another well-composed arrangement. The kitchen first sous-vided the legs and then smoked them; instead of the fluffy texture that I’m used to, this preparation was much smoother. All in all, this was a memorable dish; the smoky taste recalled Kansas barbecque, yet sous-viding the meat allowed the legs to stay delicate.
The hanger steak was well-enjoyed by my brother, and I also thought it was great. Not visible in the picture is a green sauce that was offered as a complement to the ketchup. Our server described it as a chimichurri but he was clearly mistaken, as the texture was much thicker and there wasn’t any discernible olive oil taste. The fries were “cottage fries,” covered in parmesan and garlic butter.
Our grilled broccoli was as tasty as one would expect—perfect for a broccoli lover such as myself.
Rye is well-known for their desserts, particularly their pie. My brother was too full to order any, but I chose their strawberry-rhubarb, which was served with strawberry compote and whipped cream. It was outstanding, with the most notable aspect being the crust; Rye’s poorly-kept secret is that they use lard for it. If a restaurant is going to serve pie that isn’t revisionist, they need to execute it better than everyone else and Rye manages to pull this off.
Going into this meal, the obvious comparison was with Husk, and I actually found Rye to be more satisfying than Sean Brock’s establishment. In my experience Rye’s dominant motif is that they offer Midwestern food that would ordinarily be quite messy, but serve it in a crisp, well-manicured style that makes familiar ingredients look more picturesque than normal. The rabbit was the best example of this—I was expecting a sloppy barbeque preparation but instead received a handsome interpretation of regional flavors.
Anytime a restaurant opens in the suburbs, I think it is to be expected that they make the cuisine simple in order to avoid alienating the conservative clientele. Therefore, it is to their credit that the Garrelts made the simple menu ideologically relevant by tying it to the region. One could poke holes here and there and identify ingredients that are not sourced from the Midwest, but for the most part the menu is very coherent. Still, one of the main differences between Rye and Husk is that where one of the pleasures of dining at Brock’s restaurant is being exposed to unfamiliar ingredients indigenous to the south (benne, etc.), there really aren’t any ingredients that qualify as such at Rye and I wasn’t exposed to anything I hadn’t tried in the past. As such, I’m not sure that exploring the native cuisine of the Midwest is as illuminating as doing the same with the Lowcountry region.
The cuisine at Rye is so delicious that I would have a hard time returning and not having a satisfying meal. Considering the strengths of the kitchen, it’s a shame that the setting feels so manufactured. I’m sure that the Mission Farms location is a real gold mine, but the restaurant would be so much more arresting if the setting was more dramatic. Still, as a Midwestern version of the hyper-regional trend introduced by Husk,” I think Rye overcomes the limitations of the suburban setting and qualifies as an important restaurant for the region.