There's a new kid in Grand Center, right across the street from the Fox. Kota Wood Fire Grill, from the same people that operate the Triumph Grill in the neighborhood, has opened and, after giving the restaurant a little time to shake out the kinks, we decided to visit. The corner location facing the theater and Strauss Park has lots of big windows, and there are outside tables and chairs on the north side so diners can look at St. Louis' only mosaic rabbit as well as chat and chew.
No one seems to know the meaning of the name, Kota, though we heard several explanations all using the words, "I think," coming from both the working stiffs and a management type.
But its large windows make for outstanding people-watching on theater nights and afternoons (yes, there's lunch, too), especially for those who arrive early enough for a leisurely meal. The kitchen seems to have its act together in terms of timely service, and with a half-dozen performance spaces within a block or two, that's vital. Still, it's a good idea to tell servers the curtain time if you're going to a play or concert after diner. Desserts are good enough that it's no fun to rush through them, and it's awfully embarrassing to have to skulk down the aisle as the lights are dimming.
We kicked things off with a duck and mushroom quesadilla. The duck is described as barbecued, and there was a nice heat to it. It arrived with a pale green cilantro cream sauce. Gooey and ducky, crisp here and there, it was a nice start. Tuna tostadas, made with seared fresh tuna, chopped and piled on plantain chips, are served with slaw and a mango habanero sauce. That sounds a lot spicier than it was, and beyond that, it was a combination of ingredients whose flavors didn't mesh together as well as one might think. The texture was right, but not the flavors.
We were mostly pleased with the Hangtown Fry salad. A Hangtown fry is a San Francisco Gold Rush-era dish that's an omelet-fritatta filled with bacon and fried oysters. The salad offered the usual greens plus diced tomatoes and black olives, plus chopped hard cooked egg, bacon and a generous serving of tasty fried oysters, certainly an excellent combination. Despite a menu claim of green goddess dressing, it arrived under a creamy vinaigrette with a little citrus note, but way lacking the requisite anchovy and tarragon. It was okay, but the real stuff would have elevated the dish to remarkable.
A poor boy sandwich with oysters was topped with remoulade sauce, not traditional but a fine variation. It's hard for local chefs to find the truly authentic New Orleans-style bread with its shatteringly crisp crust and Wonder Bread-like interior, but the substitute baguette worked well and the result was quite satisfying. Green chile cheeseburgers are pretty much unknown in these parts, so seeing it on a menu caused a little frisson of excitement. A good, juicy hamburger, but alas, the only green chile was minced up in the pepper jack cheese sauce. Again, nicely spicy, just not what we'd expected.
We were also happy with the grilled portobello sandwich topped with roasted sweet red pepper, some caramelized onions, a little spinach and some parmesan mayonnaise, more knife-and-fork-y than double-fisted, but there's nothing wrong with that. Our favorite side was a smoked chile potato salad, more mustard than mayo and with a little pop.
From the entree list, voodoo shrimp pasta brought large, carefully-cooked grilled shrimp in a spicy cream sauce, all tossed with some pasta that delighted because it hadn't been overcooked either. A full portion (half portions of many of the entrees are available at night) was very generous indeed. We also tried the fried chicken, two boneless, skinless breasts, cuts that normally make us wince. But these surely had been brined, because they were juicy in a breading that reminded us of grandma's favorite cracker crumbs, and they arrived hot and fresh. Really nice seasonal asparagus came alongside, and so did some smoked chile gouda grits. Interestingly, the first bite of these was absolutely delicious, but when we came back after a bit of the chicken and asparagus, it had lost its yum. No good explanation for this, but it's difficult to imagine palate fatigue setting in that quickly.
In the dessert column, there really is a cup cake at Kota. An individual devils food cake is baked in a coffee cup and topped with chocolate ganache, plus a drizzle of white icing that may evoke your childhood Hostess. Served warm, it's pleasant, but we couldn't resist the visuals and the verbal word play. A caramel apple pie had a particularly notable crust, and the warm apple-caramel combo danced in the mouth.
In addition, the large specialty milk shakes caught our eye and delivered considerable happiness and good memories of childhood. The berry berry shake, blueberry studded with fresh raspberries and blackberries, was wonderful. And speaking of drinks with fruit, we knocked back a prickly pear caipirinha that was swell.
It appears, in our several visits, that the service has improved. Ours was fine, and we are almost positive we weren't identified, which happens more these days than in times of yore. All in all, a worthwhile spot, with plenty for the non-spicy-food eater. Kota is a restaurant that needs to be considered as more than just a pre-theater convenience, despite Grand Center's new shakedown of motorists with juggled parking meter rules. A few words on that policy will appear in this space soon.
Kota Wood Fire Grill
522 N. Grand Blvd.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes