25 Kitchen + Bar

(Grand Rapids, MI) One of our acquaintances mentioned a restaurant which we hadn't frequented in a while, so it sounded like One Trick Pony would be the perfect choice for this week's He Fed/She Fed. Unfortunately, we weren't aware that this was also graduation weekend for nearby GVSU. We called for reservations and were greeted with a brusque, "We're booked up for Saturday." Well, good for them but bad for us. We had to come up with another choice. As it turned out, the finicky weather cleared up just enough for us to consider eating outside. The recently opened 25 Kitchen + Bar, where Margarita Grill used to be, seemed like a perfect choice. So, we braved the throngs of grads and their families to head downtown...

He Fed:
The first thing I notice is the lack of signage. Like other eateries downtown, 25 Kitchen + Bar seems to rely on window paint and word-of-mouth. I find the proper door and am pleased to see a strategically-placed hostess stand guarding the entrance between the dining room on one side and the bar to the other. This makes sense to keep rowdier drinking clientele from others who might actually want to eat their food in relative peace. Juliet asks for patio seating and despite the crowds outside, the restaurant is virtually empty at lunchtime.

The sun is shining, music is playing, and the downtown view is a nice palette for a summer day. So far the restaurant hasn't done much and we are feeling satisfied! That ends when we realize the hostess left us two cocktail menus but only one food menu. That's a little backward, right? Our waitress, who seems nice, does not notice the oversight, however slight. I ask to see a draught menu (supposedly there are 25 selections) and she has to borrow it from another table, as it is printed on a slip of paper. They are out of this beer and that beer, but they have Iron Horse instead. "What kind is it?" I ask. "Would you like a taste?" she replies. This tells me she does not know the variety of beer (IPA, Pale, Lager, etc) but I never turn down a sample. She breezes away to get me the sample before Juliet can order her drink.

When she returns, we are ready to order a starter (and Juliet's wine). The Iron Horse is of course the IPA and it is very drinkable. For our starter, we decide on the dips x 3 which includes various pita chips and toasted bread with chipotle salsa, buffalo chicken dip, and portabella bruschetta. The salsa is fresh and slightly spicy, but nothing noteworthy. The bruschetta is likewise freshly-prepared and the basil leaves make the otherwise plain tomatoes and mushrooms sing. Boasting shredded white chicken meat and a spicy buffalo sauce that's a step above Frank's Red Hot, the dip is our clear favorite. We scoop it onto pita chips, careful not to miss the shaved parmesan and finely chopped green onions, chewing happily.

Perusing the menu, we notice most of the regular dishes are overpriced as well. $22 for lobster macaroni? $25 for blue cheese crusted tenderloin? I am not convinced these will hold up well under scrutiny, especially not when there are so many other great restaurants nearby with similar fare. The Chop House is nearby and where would you rather eat a steak? Still, it's nice to have options and there are some standout offerings, like weiner schnitzel. Wait...what? Weiner? It should be wiener, not weiner!

Though it's a bit gimmicky, we each decide to order a different flatbread from among their 25 "pizzas from around the world". (See, they have 25 apps, 25 cocktails and 25 pizzas. Because they're located at 25 Ottawa, get it?) Each pizza is named after a region in the world, so you have American, Mexican, Greek and Vegetarian. Because Vegetarian is a country, right? These are the telltale weak links in their thematic, but the sheer variety of toppings is both daunting and exciting. I opt to go with the West African, paired with a sunny Oberon.

Our pizzas arrive on small paddles, looking as if they'd just come out of a brick oven. Who knows, maybe they did! For all our concern over the misprinted menus and the silly theme, the pizzas are amazing. The dough tastes like that "00" (double aught) variety commonly used in other restaurants nearby, and the toppings are just as distinctive and delicious as advertised. Mine boasts red onion, chunks of potato, slice of summer squash, turnip, shreds of carrot, a lumpy tomato marinade and whole chili peppers on top. What makes this pizza special, however, is one signature ingredient: peanut butter. That's right, the crust has been slathered with delicious peanut butter and all the other toppings distributed on top. The chili peppers are deadly because they are whole and contain all the seeds, but otherwise it is a very delectable and unusual pie.

Our server took pretty good care of us and I have no major complaints; Juliet may feel differently. The patio seating is pleasant on nice days, and I can see hitting happy hour with friends. It's a another decent option for downtowners.
She Fed:
I had heard some good buzz about 25 Kitchen + Bar and was eager to check out exactly who was using the old Margarita Grill space. We arrive to discover the entrance has moved (the old Margarita Grill entrance was confusing and convoluted, in my opinion, and this new one is much better). Other than that, most of the major architectural elements are unchanged...doesn't seem like any walls were removed, the bar is in the same location, etc. The floors are new and the paint is fresh, but inside and out it's pretty much the same.

The menu, however, is a welcome change. Loads of small plates; lots of innovative pizzas; sandwiches and salads for those who want something more traditional; and nearly ten entrees (titled "fancy stuff" on the menu).

I order a Danzante pinot grigio and and am told "We're out of that one today" so I go with the only other pinot on the list, Anterra (just so happens it's $2 less a glass). We decide to start with the "Dips x 3" and it arrives just minutes after our drinks. The platter is filled with toasted pita wedges, baguette slices, buffalo chicken dip, chipotle salsa and portabella bruschetta. The buffalo chicken is thicker than a dip—more like a spread. The shredded white meat chicken and Gorgonzola mixed with a spicy buffalo sauce is delicious on the toasted baguette slices. I use the pita wedges to scoop up the chunks of portabella mushrooms, basil and tomatoes. I'm not a big fan of raw tomatoes, but mixed with the meaty mushrooms and the crunchy seasoned pitas, it's pretty good. The odd man out is the salsa...does it go on the pita wedges or the baguette slices? Maybe I just need to think outside the box, but it seems like some tortilla chips would be a good addition to this starter.

There are more than a dozen other appetizers on the menu and I consider just having another app. Crab-stuffed mushroom caps, barbecue bourbon seared scallops or the goat cheese black bean quesadilla are among my consideration set. I take one last look at the pizzas and start counting...25 choices in all and perhaps part of why the restaurant is named 25 Kitchen + Bar, along with their address at 25 Ottawa. There is a pizza from nearly every corner of the world: Mediterranean, Thai, Caribbean, Greek, German, Hawaiian, Provencal and on it goes.

When I see a lengthy menu with far too many choices I automatically assume the chef is overreaching and all of it will be sub-par. Who the hell could possibly make so many things and make them well, right? On a whim I order a glass of a Napa cabernet blend and the Siberian pizza figuring the pizza will be nothing special and my theory will hold once again.

I was so glad to be so wrong! The 9-inch pizza arrives piping hot on a small pizza peel and I can tell immediately I am in for a fabulous treat. The crust has a very thin layer of marinara flecked with fresh thyme and is topped with shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions and blue cheese. The crust itself is thin and the toppings are just right—not skimpy, but not so heavy that I can't pick up a slice with one hand. I normally order extra mushrooms on pizzas, but did not need to with this one; there is a shiitake in every bit. The marinara is slightly tangy, the mushrooms are earthy, the blue cheese has a sharp bite and the onions are extremely sweet. With the lushness of my red wine, it's all just a great combination. (And don't even get me started on Jeremy's pizza—it was a revelation!)

There is however, a hiccup or two along the way. As I switch from the white wine with the app to the red wine with my pizza, the waitress nearly pours my red wine on top of the remnants of my white. I literally have to cover my glass with my hand and ask for a clean glass. She recovers quickly with a "Oh, darn. I don't know what I was thinking!" Also, the menu is full of typos and inconsistent spacing; they obviously printed them in a hurry in time for their opening.

That said, 25 is definitely worth checking out again. With its large patio and great location, this would be a great place to gather a large group of friends for drinks, pizza sharing and people watching.
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