Plate: half neighborhood haunt, half fine dining, full price
Italiano moderno. It’s an ambitious motto, one that evokes both a gleaming sports car and a checkered picnic blanket flapping in some sun-warmed Tuscan breeze. But Plate, the year-old restaurant owned and operated by Christian and Andrea Joseph, has already worn that tagline into a confident groove.
The east Brookside haunt has built a loyal following, thanks to the Josephs and chef Brian Mehl, who marries the flavors of the traditional Italian table with the presentation (and portion sizes) of haute cuisine. Although the 50-seat restaurant is almost always bustling — make reservations, even on a Tuesday — servers swan through the space with a placid ease, recommending wines and directing orders toward the open kitchen in the hushed tones of golf announcers. The resulting vibe is curiously cozy, blurring the restaurant’s vibrant purple LEDs and pulsing Europop like fog on a mirror.
The décor, much like the food, is a polished blend of old-world charm (warm Edison bulbs, a tiered-glass chandelier) and clean-lined modern (a sculptural, silver-tiled wall; dark wood tables glossy enough to skate on). The menu is varied but manageable, built around locally sourced fare. Each dish bears a brusque, one-word name that, in the style of the restaurant’s signage and marketing, is punctuated by a full stop. Ordering strictly as indicated would make a diner sound impolite: “One meat. Please.”
The “meat” in question is a meat-and-cheese board, which on my first visit featured a slight sampling of mild prosciutto, funky soppressata and buttery gorgonzola cheese. Even with the accompanying Ibis Bakery bread, the servings were a bit scant for sharing, and I longed for a sharper or smokier salume to round out the array.
A better value is the roasted-garlic puree, served with the same hearty Ibis bread. The accompanying sauces on my visit nearly outshone the spread; after a bite of mild, nutty garlic, a bright cranberry gremolata and a verdant arugula pesto sparked on the tongue.
But the breads and spreads are the least interesting antipasti on offer. Chef Mehl treats fruits and veggies with the reverence usually reserved for a fine filet. The most elegant starter I sampled, in both taste and presentation, was a plate of poached, warmly spiced Asian pears. Each pear piece (cool and firm) was draped with delicate peels of prosciutto and stippled with spicy sheep’s cheese from Weston’s Green Dirt Farm. This is a dish that rewards completionists: The garnishes of walnuts, springy pea shoots and maple-beet syrup harmonize perfectly on the palate.
For more classic Italian comfort, it’s hard to beat the arancini — here, three meatball-sized croquettes packed with creamy, herby risotto. This is the platonic ideal of bar food, each piece fried to a golden-crisp exterior that maintained its crunch after minutes steaming in the dish. The chunky marinara underneath was half the pleasure; the other half was the comet of fruity taleggio cheese that trailed from my fork with each bite.
The antipasti and pasta courses are where Mehl and the Josephs excel. Each of Plate’s house-made pastas is worth tasting, though they’re somewhat unevenly portioned and priced.
On a recent visit, I was enamored of a dish of plump tortellini and short rib nestled in a savory, parmesan-punched pan sauce. Another evening, I flirted with the agnolotti, which mixed fresh butternut squash with a subtle, spoon-coating cream sauce. And on my first visit, I nearly proposed to a plate of spicy ravioli, each crimped flying saucer lovingly filled with milk-braised pork shoulder and trimmed with a smoky-sweet pepper and apple gremolata. Mehl has an uncanny knack for brightening rich flavors — here, a drizzle of clean, vibrant olive oil was enough to send the heavy dish into a zero-G orbit.
What brought me back to Earth: The filled pastas came four pieces to a $15 plate.
Our server gamely suggested that this was Italian tradition — pasta isn’t the feature presentation so much as a teaser for the meaty main. That’s not untrue, but in the 64113, such a statement feels somewhat disingenuous. I’ve eaten my way through Tuscany like Ms. Pac Man, and none of that journey’s primi piatti (literally, “first plates”) were quite so spectral.
Still, a few of the pastas strike a better balance. One now on the menu — the orecchiette — was more filling but no less finely flavored. The chewy caps arrived with a generous helping of pulled chicken, lent an acidic boost by blistered grape tomatoes and the intermittent pulse of a sunny watercress pesto.
And heartier Midwestern appetites have the main courses for consolation. I was somewhat suspicious of a striped bass that our server had trumpeted as an Iowan freshwater catch. I grew up in Iowa, and I can attest that our waters are not fresh. But the fish arrived stunningly plated and tender-fleshed under a crispy toupée of flavorful skin. The accompaniments were brilliant: nutty cauliflower (indulgently sweet) and knobs of baby beets that added texture, and a relish of sun-dried tomato and cashew that lent color and a flashbulb pop of flavor.
The other proteins I sampled were competent but failed to match the pastas in creativity. An organic chicken breast was tender but underseasoned, making it too easy for the accompanying Brussels sprouts (fork-tender and tantalizingly browned) to steal the show. The osso bucco continued the trend. Plate’s rendition swaps veal shanks for espresso-braised pork, and the version I received was perfectly cooked but not as robustly flavored as I’d hoped. Fair or not, price had inflated my expectations. When an entrée nears the $30 point, I want to be wowed; at Plate, I was merely satisfied.
I have no such reservations about the drinks. Plate offers a small but savvy list of Italian wines, all with an unusually reasonable restaurant markup — around $10 to $20 above retail, less than some restaurants’ corkage fees — and the cocktails are well built and balanced. My pick’s the Paloma Italiano, a crisp blend of tequila, Contratto Aperitif, pink grapefruit and blood-orange frizzante. The drink tilts between pucker-tart and sparkling-sweet, each sip a citrus sunburst. The Contessa, a silky negroni riff, is another standout, its floral orange notes smoothing the spirits’ edge.
Plate’s offerings rotate semi-frequently, and only two desserts are on the menu now: a salted-caramel budino, and a bowl-bound tiramisu. Skip the budino until further notice; the version I tried was not appreciably richer or more complex than a butterscotch pudding pack (though the gingersnap crumble was pleasingly sharp).
Give into your baser (fatter) instincts and order the tiramisu. Plate elevates the Italian-restaurant cliché to the divine, thanks to a remix that will horrify purists and delight everyone else. “It’s more like a giant truffle with cookie crumbs,” my server explained (in a sheepish tone that suggested this would deter me). Plate’s interpretation bucks ladyfingers in favor of parfait layers of tart mascarpone, crisp biscotti with a sweet almond custard, and dense chocolate espresso buttercream. The excavation is half the fun: Each bite requires you to crack through a crumbly cookie layer and consult the fossil record on your spoon. The dessert is large enough to give a table of four a decadent post-dinner bite, but makes a piggy indulgence for two.
The Josephs and Mehl have built a neighborhood paradise for native Brooksiders. For the rest of us, the odd visit is worth some penny-skimping. Plate is exactly the kind of effortlessly cool, upscale casual place to take the in-laws when you want to cultivate the air of having your shit together. Just come prepared — there’s nothing more embarrassing than asking your mother-in-law to pick up the tab.
6201 Oak | 816-333-5551 | platekc.com
5–10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
4–10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Appetizers, pastas: $9–$16