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Ink

The Ink Dining Guide

These chefs create food that looks almost too good to eat

Beet salad at The American Restaurant.

Michael Corvino, the American Restaurant

Michael Corvino, the new executive chef at the American Restaurant, wants to make fine dining more fun.

One of his latest additions to the menu, pacific black cod, comes to the table looking like something from another planet. The pickled ends of root vegetables stick up like tentacles out of a fragrant broth floating with purple amaranth flowers and foraged matsutake mushrooms.

Next to the delicate, flaky cod fillet is a scallion dumpling made with squid ink dough. With its pointy edges and shiny, jet-black surface, the dumpling resembles something you’d find in the ocean, like a seashell or a shark’s purse.

It’s almost too pretty to eat. But Corvino recommends digging in fork-first and sipping the last drops of broth straight from the bowl.

“I want people to come here, eat and enjoy the food,” Corvino says.

Corvino, a native of Walla Walla, Wash., with a map of the Pacific Northwest tattooed on his forearm, has an impressive resume that includes stints at the Peninsula Chicago and at Departure, a rooftop restaurant in Portland, Ore., that serves pan-Asian cuisine.

Corvino’s dishes at the American are unlike any you’ll eat in Kansas City. Take his beet salad.

The salad starts with a thick stripe of fuchsia beet juice on a round plate. Sliced red and yellow beets from local farms mingle with spicy greens and orange segments atop the stripe. A fat squiggle of curry-infused Greek yogurt snakes its way through the Technicolor salad, which is dotted with blood orange jelly and topped with finely grated Marcona almond brittle.

Corvino says the salad’s presentation was inspired by the American’s pastry chef, Nick Wesemann, who’s known for his deconstructed desserts.

“I think he’s brilliant,” Corvino says of Wesemann. “We get along really well.”

Wesemann’s Nickers Bar — his take on a Snickers bar, with cashew caramel, bacon candy and sea salt ice cream — is a top seller. But his current favorite dessert is called Bananalicious.

That sweet and sort of scientific dessert incorporates bubblegum ice cream, vanilla bean cake, white chocolate powder, freeze-dried banana and edible bubblegum “microsponges” Wesemann cooked in a microwave.

The bubblegum and banana flavors work amazingly well together, and the varying textures make every bite surprising, memorable and, of course, fun.

Sample all three works of culinary art with a $59 three-course meal at the American Restaurant, 200 E. 25th St., Suite 400.

Melinda Roeder, Cafe Beautiful

It happens all the time: Cafe Beautiful owner Melinda Roeder serves her fruit salad — a mosaic of thinly sliced berries, apples and plums studded with gem-like pomegranate seeds — and customers just stare at the plate.

“It’s so pretty,” they say. “I don’t want to eat it.”

But “they get over that pretty fast,” Roeder says.

That dazzling fruit salad is just one of the stunningly gorgeous dishes on Cafe Beautiful’s menu. The butternut squash coconut curry soup is a sunset-colored bowl of Thai-inspired flavors topped with crumbled candied cashews and bright green cilantro leaves.

The sockeye salmon is a bright pink tasting-sized fillet in a nest of flash-fried sweet potato springs. Even the Red King Crab Cake, served on a rectangular plate with a loop of roasted red pepper aioli and charred corn kernels, is an Instagram-worthy dish.

Cafe Beautiful, upstairs at 730 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence, is located in a former apartment that was occupied by KU basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain in the 1950s, Roeder says.

With its wood floors and big windows overlooking downtown Lawrence, Cafe Beautiful still has the feel of a cozy apartment. The intimate dining room can host up to fourteen people and is decorated with succulent plants and flickering candles.

Roeder, who bought Cafe Beautiful two years ago, is the restaurant’s only employee, so she prepares and serves every dish. Cafe Beautiful is open by reservation only and serves one table at a time. Roeder’s nine-course meals at the BYOB restaurant cost $70 per person.

The chef doesn’t advertise, so she relies on social media and customers to spread the word. So far, it’s working: Cafe Beautiful is usually booked six nights a week.

Roeder says many of her customers book reservations after seeing their friends’ photos of her food online. That’s one of the reasons the chef doesn’t ban food photography in her restaurant: It’s good for business.

And if a customer likes taking photos, why stop them?

“It’s their moment,” the chef says. “It’s their temporary art.”

Johnny Li, Mint Asian Cafe

Since opening in a Lee’s Summit shopping center last year, Mint Asian Cafe has quietly built a reputation for making some of the most creative and satisfying sushi in the metro area.

Owner Johnny Li says most new customers find Mint, 1209 N.E. Rice Road, after seeing photos of his food on sites like Urbanspoon and Yelp.

It’s no wonder that so many customers snap pics before unwrapping their chopsticks. Li arranges his colorful sushi rolls into flowers, trees and pinwheels.

Mint’s Volcano roll ($11.95) is topped with a mound of cooked shrimp and scallops and surrounded with a rainbow swirl of four sauces: orange spicy mayo, red Sriracha, brown eel sauce and green honey-wasabi.

The Playboy roll ($12), made with shrimp tempura and spicy tuna, arrives at the table in a flaming foil wrapper. And the Lover roll ($13.95) resembles a flower, with petals of raw tuna and green avocado.

Just a few years ago, Li was working as a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant in New York City.

“I was working hard,” he says, and the sushi chefs at the restaurant took notice. Li learned to love the art of making sushi, so when he moved here with his wife, Sherry Zheng, he got a job at Kyoto Sushi & Steak in Overland Park.

About 18 months ago, Li and Zheng opened Mint in Lee’s Summit, and Li started putting his own spin on sushi presentation.

Li says his customers love fried sushi rolls, so his best-seller is the Boston Bay ($10.95), which incorporates cooked shrimp, avocado, crab, cucumber and cream cheese. Li arranges the huge slices so they look like leaves on a tree, then draws a trunk with eel sauce.

It takes a couple of extra minutes to plate the Boston Bay and Lover rolls — and on busy Friday and Saturday nights, those are minutes Li could really use.

But customers love eating (and snapping photos of) those rolls. So for Li, the extra hard work is worth it.

Ryan Brazeal, Novel

It’s not easy to make broccoli and beef tongue look beautiful.

But that’s exactly what chef Ryan Brazeal is up to at Novel, the restaurant he opened this summer at 815 W. 17th St. on Kansas City’s west side.

Brazeal’s new broccoli salad ($8) is a pile of steamed and lightly charred broccoli florets looped with orange butternut squash ribbons and pink slices of house-brined and braised beef tongue. Puffed barley and sliced radishes add crunch to the hearty autumn salad, which sits atop a pool of salty anchovy aioli.

Like all of the dishes on Novel’s menu, the salad is a feast for the eyes, but it’s not overly precious.

“Presentation is very important to me,” Brazeal says, “but we don’t use tweezers here.”

Brazeal was known to use tweezers during his stint at the New York City restaurant Nobu, a shrine to Japanese and Peruvian cuisines. Later, the chef got a lesson in rustic presentation from Jonathan Waxman, the “Top Chef” who owns Barbuto in New York’s West Village.

Brazeal says Waxman taught him to “step back and throw the arugula at the table.”

At his own restaurant, Brazeal aims for a style that’s somewhere in between.

Take the $20 lamb entree. Lamb sausage and loin are sliced and served on a bed of charred eggplant puree. Crispy chickpeas, lamb “bacon bits” and grass-green arugula pesto are dotted around the lamb on the rectangular white plate.

The entree bursts with earthy autumn colors and flavors. It looks like art on a plate — but tell that to Brazeal, and he scoffs.

“I’m a craftsman,” the chef says.

Philip Quillec, Cafe Provence

This year, Philip Quillec took over as executive chef at Cafe Provence, 3936 W. 69th Terrace in Prairie Village.

Quillec learned to cook at Cafe Provence — his father, Patrick, owns the restaurant, and his uncle Daniel works there as a chef.

“They’re very French,” Philip says of his teachers. “Since I was born in America, I do Americanized versions of their food.”

Philip Quillec, who has also worked at restaurants in France, comes up with fresh presentations for classics such as beef bourguignon. His version of the traditional French stew uses curly chanterelles instead of button mushrooms, and it’s served with bright orange butternut squash puree, which adds a pop of color.

“It’s all about elevating those classic dishes,” the chef says.

Quillec means that literally: He elevates his charcuterie plate by serving it on a cake pedestal. The plate ($18) is a dazzling array of handcrafted appetizers that includes house-cured duck prosciutto, foie gras topped with butternut squash jam, a hard-boiled quail egg, whole grain mustard and fluffy, delicate chicken liver mousse. The spread is served with a basket of crusty bread.

Quillec and chef de cuisine Dusty Remsing also put a lot of thought into their new vegetarian entree ($15 at lunch, $19 at dinner). The base of the entree is a scalloped ring of roasted acorn squash filled with buttery spinach gnocchi, sauteed chantrelle mushrooms and roasted butternut squash. Little green sunflower shoots add brightness to the autumn-inspired dish.

For dessert, you can’t top the bombe au chocolat ($10), an orb of chocolate mousse, raspberry coulis and flourless chocolate cake coated in a (what else?) hard chocolate shell.

Philip Quillec serves the chocolate bomb with a candied orange slice and meticulously sliced berries. The chef says Cafe Provence used to serve squares of flourless chocolate cake, with few adornments.

“This is a little more refined,” he says.

It’s that quest for perfection that earned Cafe Provence a spot on Zagat’s 2013 “America’s Top Restaurants” list.

Ink

As an art student, Melinda Roeder “could never nail down a niche,” she says.

Until she discovered an art form that appeals to all the senses: food.

At her intimate, one-table restaurant in Lawrence, Cafe Beautiful, Roeder serves a visually stunning tower of flash-fried sticky rice, bright green avocado and raw yellowfin tuna. When the plate arrives at the table, you can still hear the sesame seeds sizzling on the sticky rice.

“We eat with our eyes before our mouths,” Roeder says. Many of us eat with our smartphones first — we snap photos, then edit and post them to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook before taking a single bite.

If you’re one of those food photographers who loves to share, you’ll find no shortage of deliciously photogenic food in Kansas City.

Fine dining restaurants such as Bluestem and the American are established galleries for culinary works of art. And up-and-coming chefs at Novel, Cafe Provence and Mint Asian Cafe — a sushi spot in a Lee’s Summit shopping center — are becoming known for food that looks as incredible as it tastes.

Jessica Armstrong, a pastry chef at Rye in Leawood, is one of the legions of locals documenting Kansas City’s food scene online.

Armstrong’s Instagram profile, fooddrunk, recently made Zagat’s list of “30 Food Accounts to Follow on Instagram.” Also on the list: celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Marcus Samuelsson and Michael Symon. No big deal.

Armstrong’s Instagram photos are utterly mouthwatering. Imagine a salty, golden pretzel next to a cup of melted cheese and 10 glasses of beer. A butternut ice cream sundae studded with mulled cranberries and topped with toasted meringue. And a green tomatillo Bloody Mary garnished with a bacon strip and an obscenely large pork rind.

“I travel a lot,” Armstrong says. “Experiencing things and traveling really inspires me and feeds my creativity.”

The pastry chef also documents the pies, cinnamon rolls and sundaes she makes at Rye and then shares them on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Looking back at the photos helps Armstrong remember how something looked and tasted. More importantly, she says, it helps her recall an experience and “the inspiration I felt at that moment.”

Not everyone shares Armstrong’s passion for impromptu food photography. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that some restaurants were beginning to ban customers from taking photos because it distracted other diners.

Ryan Brazeal, the chef and owner at Novel restaurant in Kansas City, doesn’t ban customers from snapping photos of his food. But Brazeal makes it a point not to post photos of Novel’s food to Facebook or Twitter.

He says he wants customers to experience his food in the restaurant on a warm plate — not through a cold screen.

There’s another drawback to gorgeous food photos, the chef says: All of those cool filters and effects can raise diners’ expectations to “exorbitantly high” levels.

“It’s not some ethereal, otherworldly experience,” Brazeal says. “It’s a restaurant.”

Michael Corvino, the new executive chef at the American Restaurant, makes some pretty ethereal-looking food (check out his pacific black cod dish on page 8).

But taste always comes first, he says.

“If you make pretty food and it’s not delicious,” Corvino says, “what’s the point?”

Here are five chefs who work hard to make some of the prettiest — and the most delicious — food in the Kansas City area.

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