What made me start to fall in love with Kitchen K was not the look of it (though, housed in the high-ceilinged, ground-floor space of the newly opened Merchandise Mart apartments, it looks terrific) or the taste of it (which is plenty good) but the sound of it. A restaurant that plays the Smiths' "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side," Badly Drawn Boy's "Something to Talk About" and "Wig in a Box" from the Hedwig and the Angry Inch soundtrack makes me a little giddy -- the way I'd feel if a first date had one of those songs already cued up in his car stereo after picking me up, making me think from the get-go that there just might be something between us.
We have a lot in common, Kitchen K and I. We both decorate with paper lanterns, we both entertain using handsome, minimalist white china and hefty silverware, we both keep a shelf of well-worn cookbooks close to the stove, we (the cooks and I, anyway) don do-rags when working, and we both proudly serve our guests sloppy joes. We also both enjoy getting just a little kooky when we kitchen-improv -- how else to account for the sweet potato fries served with banana-guava ketchup? -- but at the same time, we stick to our beloved staple ingredients. For Kitchen K the motifs lie in things like portobello mushrooms, shrimp, chicken, chilies and goat cheese. Perhaps the most apt compliment I can pay this restaurant is that when something on the menu makes you think, "That sounds great," it almost always is.
Despite no formal culinary training, Kitchen K chef Joe Papendick knows what he's doing. A New York City transplant who came here about ten years ago for cheaper art space, Papendick washed dishes just for the paycheck but wound up quickly ascending the restaurant ranks anyway when he became friends with Kitchen K partner Pablo Weiss. Weiss is the man behind the erstwhile '90s downtown triumvirate of Hot Locust, the Side Door and Pablo's -- a casual-fare eatery, a club and a bar, respectively. (Pablo's changed hands and is now the Rocket Bar.)
Papendick's approach to food centers on "that sounds great" thinking. "When I create a dish, I always make an effort to choose the words right," he says. "The way I look at it, your tongue is involved in two things: saying the words that describe the food and then tasting the food described. I trust that if people enjoy mouthing the words, if they like the way it sounds, it'll probably taste good. Then I just have to go play around and figure out how to make it."
With most chefs, the specials are where new dishes audition. Such is the case with Papendick -- except his lists of "everyday" and "today" items are equally long and audacious. Many of his selections were resurrected from his Hot Locust days, and a majority of those dishes started off as Hot Locust tryouts. The aforementioned sweet potato fries are oversized (bigger than a Sharpie) and just a bit underdone, such that you get a proper French fry encasement wrapped around a soft spud center that maintains the sweet potato's integrity. The accompanying banana-guava ketchup, sweet and tart, can't help but crowd-please. Another memorable appetizer, tandoori blackened shrimp, is richly combined with grilled pineapple and a cucumber mint sauce, while a lip-smacking grilled portobello mushroom is baked with artichoke hearts and the cheese-of-the-moment, Asiago.
Because Kitchen K's menu is so large and tempting and its soups and salads are listed separately from finger-food appetizers, it's hard to resist ordering three courses. Unfortunately the salads are merely so-so (the Thai salad's uninspired pile of gray soba noodles is one of the menu's few notable disappointments). Soups and stews, however, incorporate rustic textures and robust flavors. Chicken gumbo, beef and beet soup, and chili made with either red or white beans will all prove essential to diners as winter looms.
Kitchen K boasts so many main dishes -- an average of 25 between the everyday and today menus, counting both informal such as burgers and burritos as well as entrée plates -- that it would take a year get to know them in any depth. That said, the coriander-encrusted mahi mahi, which flourishes in a coconut curry sauce and comes with a trio of mussels to boot, is a must. So are pan-seared scallops, plump and perfectly set in a broth made with yellow tomatoes and fennel. For lunch in particular, you can't go wrong with the eggplant and goat cheese melt, structured on a thick wedge of "black" (read: pumpernickel-like) bread; or the baked vegetable tart, akin to a thin gourmet pizza, with roasted red peppers, spinach and goat cheese delicately balanced on an airy pastry crust. Alas, I was underwhelmed by the "real" sloppy joe, which is actually a tasty but not at all complex heap of braised brisket sandwiched in a plain-tasting roll.
Desserts come courtesy of Sugaree Baking in Dogtown, a storefront establishment best known for its wedding cakes. Lots of cheesecake varieties are offered, but the more soaring choices are the flourless chocolate ecstasy cake (so dense it's easily mistaken for a block of fudge), a layered chocolate raspberry cake accented with tea-party pink cream filling and a blueberry crumb that, thanks to its decadently gooey pecan topping, passes dreamily for pecan pie.
While the food is self-assured and sometimes delightful, the ambiance may be even more of a draw. A place so damn huge -- 5,000 square feet, 22-foot-high ceilings -- can feel like a cafeteria, but Kitchen K is inviting, friendly, and somehow even intimate and cozy. There's a calm, organic feel to the space; most of the original structural elements -- exposed brick walls, exposed ductwork -- have been left intact. But as Kitchen K is the first restaurant to occupy this space, the layout's pièce de résistance is the custom-designed open kitchen, a gleaming, chrome-plated mini-metropolis of foodmaking that can be viewed from every seat on the floor -- including a long, diner-inspired lunch counter that literally puts the front of the house face-to-face with the back of the house.
Papendick and Weiss give off the impression that their business plans are often make-it-up-as-you-go-along. The Side Door and Pablo's were both somewhat impromptu spin-offs of Hot Locust, which itself went through a short series of menu-concept changes back in the day. Kitchen K wasn't even originally their idea; the company that owns Merchandise Mart approached them about opening a restaurant on the ground floor. But sometimes true inspiration and artistry comes from unlikely sources -- like a chef who sculpts and who used to drive a New York City cab, a 115-year-old dry-goods warehouse made of stone or a song from a movie hardly anybody saw.