Centuries before it was a place to down lobster shooters or short ribs ringed in heirloom red potato hash, a restaurant was a thing to sip, not a place. A restaurant was a restorative broth, a tiny cup of bouillon or, more likely, a thick meat essence of partially digested flesh that was said to aid health and well-being.
Before servers at Kitchen 1924 dispense the menu shingle--a sheet of thick paper clipped to a plank from a Penfolds or Far Niente wooden wine case--a cup of chicken broth in a tiny white teacup is offered as an aperitif. It's clean and lively, animated by white pepper, ginger and jalapeño that waters the mouth and electrifies the palate.
Kitchen 1924 offers a short history of the restaurant on its Web site (kitchen1924.com). It also offers pithy self-analysis: "This is a generic restaurant concept. It is a throwback. There is no special identity. It is what it is--a place to get well and nourished."
But if a restaurant is throwing itself all the way back to the days of bouillon, how can it be void of a special identity? Owner Shawn Horne goes to great pains to stress that Kitchen 1924 eschews the fissions, fusions and global concussions marking the culinary poses of recent restaurant history.
In truth, Kitchen 1924 sweats special identity, even as it pretends it doesn't. Case in point: foo fighters. Not the troupe of motley crooners belting "Learn to Fly," but flying fireballs. The Kitchen 1924 Web site posts a brief history of foo fighters, the term used by World War II Allied fighter and bomber pilots to describe the mysterious aerial phenomenon they encountered during missions in the European and Pacific theaters. In other words, alien aircraft, UFOs, also known as Kraut fireballs. Horne is an operator with history. He was there with Stephan Pyles when Star Canyon opened. He was at the Green Room during the birth of the "feed me, wine me" menu. He was managing Abacus when the walls started sweating cash. Horne calls himself a foo fighter. It says so on his business card. He insists the designation is less amusement than levelheaded commerce. "It makes me much more approachable," he says. Thus, guests are much more apt to open up and offer honest impressions and feedback once the foo title shatters the ice.
Kitchen 1924 also dispenses free sunglasses during the Sunday "hangover brunch" to avoid sunshine hangover pain. Does this seem like backpedaling from special identity?
Kitchen 1924 has a few contradictions to pique interest as well. The logo is a pair of black-and-white salt and pepper shakers, yet tables are void of these dining instruments, and they must be requested. Horne says he intentionally outfitted the restaurant--in the defunct La Dolce Vita in Lakewood Shopping Center--in monochromatic tones so that color would seep solely from the food and guests. Thus, the walls and tablecloths are white while the floor, napkins and chairs are black. Contrast this to the large, bright murals that Horne commissioned 11 students from Skyline High School to splash over the walls in the community dining hall. Then there are the garish blue and yellow plastic panels hovering under the hall skylights (Horne says he plans to petition the landlord to have them jettisoned).
There's more. French onion soup is a minimalist composition. Punch through the cheese-crouton cap, plumb the broth and you discover a nearly clear fluid with just a few onion shards circulating in the swirl. The broth is only lightly reduced; the onions, lightly caramelized; the slow-cooked richness, largely absent. In other words, this stuff is bland; it unravels in the face of the brawny cheese-and-crouton lid. Horne says this is intentional. He wanted to create a restorative broth rather than a rich soup punched up with butter and sugar. "It's not something that's going to send your cholesterol level through the roof," he says.
Well, then how do you explain the fried pork bellies with apple chutney? These Berkshire pork bellies (uncured ham) are little more than mounds of gelatinous cellulite with slightly crisped patches of sheathing here and there. You can actually feel your cardiologist's net worth bloom with each bite. This is odd, because Berkshire bellies are known for their meaty texture and relative paucity of fat.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the menu. Spearheaded by chef Edward Mendoza, who has done time at Nana and Lola, The Restaurant, the food mostly fulfills Web site promises: unpretentious food that tastes good. Mendoza and his armada of hands work an open kitchen full of flames, steam spits, fume huffs and steel clanks.
One hand works the wood-fired oven, which spits a multitude of marvels. Flat-iron steak, marinated in red wine, garlic, shallot and soy, layers shadowy hints of Asia without resorting to a full-out fusion. The rosy slices are rich and juicy. Cedar-plank salmon slumbers on a chalky charred shingle, its surface dulled in a honey-mustard haze. The edges are crisp, dry and curled; the meat glistens New Mexican sunset as the inner flakes unfurl. As the fish is forked away, the outline of the fillet emerges where the fats drained into the wood.
Shrimp pizza is good, too, with a thin crust, crisp and slightly pillowy and topped with citrus-marinated shrimp flavored with orange honey. There's even a hangover brunch pizza with that same fire-branded crust holding a sprawl of roasted tomato-peach salsa, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon welded together with threads of Swiss and cheddar cheeses.
Pairing wine with eggs has always been a stiff challenge. Yet it is a necessity in a place that positions itself as a hangover restorative. Sparkling wine works, yet we settled on a crisp yet rich (figgish) Van Duzer Pinot Gris from Oregon's Willamette Valley. Our server explains Van Duzer doesn't pick the grapes based on brix (sugar) levels; they pick on gut. Then he offers to decant the wine. On a previous visit, our Bouchaine Pinot Noir was decanted after the bottle was two-thirds empty.
At brunch, servers wear T-shirts with famous quotes like "I'm huge in Germany" (Baywatch star/singer David Hasselhoff) and "Fried baby, the other other white meat" (Fat Bastard from the second Austin Powers). Yet Kitchen 1924 is decidedly PC. The menu is speckled with organic foods. Spent kitchen frying oil is recycled into biodegradable fuel, which produces just enough juice to fuel the trucks that pick up the frying oil--the world's first perpetual motion fryer system. The community table is fashioned from recycled bowling-alley planks.
There are offbeat menu entries, such as she-crab soup. She-crab soup is so named because it's dolled up with crab roe. Yet how do they know the meat comes from female crabs? "The chef assures me that they are," a server says. "But I don't lift the legs of the crabs to check."
There are stumbles too. Though delicious, the warm spinach salad splashed with mustard vinaigrette is cold. And the fried French toast is limp, soggy and slimy.
Yet most of the generic staples are nailed down. Garlic coleslaw is brisk and crisp, while the braised red cabbage in Champagne vinegar and Pinot Noir is refreshingly hearty, leaving a clean, restorative feel. Deep yellow deviled eggs are just slightly chilled--as they should be--with a creamy smooth texture and a sensuous mustard sting. Coconut cream pie is killer.
Kitchen 1924 is a neighborhood room as distinctive as its Lakewood ecosystem--a place you can comfortably visit again and again. And if you're confronted with gassy Kitchen identity philosophy, remember this: Aliens are not generic. 1924 Abrams Road at Gaston Avenue, 214-821-1924. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. Open for Sunday brunch noon-3 p.m. $$-$$$
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