Dining With Denise Neil

Review: Taste and See offers Wichita a global change of pace

The Spiny Lobster arepas at Taste and See are corn cakes stuffed with lobster and corn.
The Spiny Lobster arepas at Taste and See are corn cakes stuffed with lobster and corn. The Wichita Eagle

Jason Febres might be Wichita’s most recognizable chef.

He’s a regular cooking-contest competitor, both locally and on national television.

He’s a man about town, an entrepreneur and a skilled self-promoter. (On the bio of his personal Facebook page, Febres describes himself as a “celebrity chef, entertainer and restaurateur.”)

He also presides over Taste and See, a popular Old Town restaurant, where he creates unique and dramatically presented dishes that include flavors from around the world.

Febres, 34, has made himself a Wichita brand, and it seems that many diners are drawn to the restaurant by his local celebrity, boosted in recent years by appearances on Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Guy’s Grocery Games” as well as Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue.” And he gives his fans what they want, spending as much time working the dining room as he does working in the kitchen.

Taste and See is a high-energy place, and it was designed to allow people to watch Febres and his crew cook. The open kitchen is almost a stage, and a row of bar seats are right up against it, offering diners a front-row view of the culinary action. On weekend nights, Febres’ whole family is performing. His mother, Maria, and father, Hernan, are tasked with preparing and serving a $50-a-person “tasting menu,” which offers off-the-menu specials that often showcase Febres’ love of molecular gastronomy and Nutella. His younger brother, Alexander, also recently moved to Wichita and helps out in the restaurant.

The food is good if a bit inconsistent. For all his showmanship, Febres also is a great cook, and his culinary imagination is matched by his fearlessness.

Taste and See’s menu, which includes flavors from Latin America, the Mediterranean, India, Mexico, Italy, the Caribbean, Spain and Asia as well as some Cajun and Creole, is a refreshing departure from the Wichita norm. The menu lists a burger, but it’s a “Latin Hamburguesa” topped with a fried egg, avocado and cilantro aioli. The steak is topped with a garlicky chimichurri sauce and served with yuca fries. And a section of the menu titled “Wild Side” has unconventional meats including venison, goat and quail.

The restaurant also serves tapas, which are sharable small plates. (Febres recently announced plans to open a tapas bar called Gianni Bacci’s at 301 N. Washington this spring.) Many Wichita restaurants have attempted serving tapas, but few have done so with much success. Taste and See lists nearly 20 different tapas on the dinner menu, ranging from plantain chips and dip to steak bruschetta. The bar also offers unusual originality, mixing up margaritas in flavors from cinnamon pineapple to watermelon, as well as several varieties of sangria and inventive martinis (including one made with Nutella).

My visits to Taste and See have all been good, though some dishes turn out better than others. I’m almost never disappointed with the tapas, most of which emerge from the kitchen looking like something off of “Top Chef.” Febres stacks the plates high, decorates them with colorful dots and smears of sauce and arranges them like artwork. One of the best I’ve tried is the Carpaccio Di Manzo, which featured paper-thin slices of raw beef tenderloin topped with a white truffle foam plus an arugula salad and a savory cracker made of baked Parmesan. If you’ve never tried beef carpaccio, this might be the place to start. The melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin doesn’t have a strong flavor – it’s more of a texture thing. But the white foam, which Febres creates using his molecular gastronomic tools, was a surprise to the tongue with its pungent, earthy truffle oil punch.

Another solid choice off the tapas menu is the dates mignon, which features five sweet dates stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped with pancetta, topped with maple balsamic and broiled until caramelized. The finished product is a chewy, sweet and savory treat. They were better than the Indian samosas recommended by our waiter. The dish was a plate of three fried turnovers filled with chicken, rice and lentils and served with yogurt dip. The pastries, though fried to perfect crispness, overwhelmed the filling.

I was excited to see that Febres had added lobster arepas, which was my favorite dish when Sabor first opened, to the menu. (Febres was a chef there.) Fried cornmeal biscuits are stuffed with lobster and corn. The polenta-like arepas are hearty, with a crispy outside and soft center. The dish was attractively served with a side of cold black bean mousse, which tasted like airy, refried black beans fresh from the refrigerator. I was impressed with the technique but would have preferred a side of warm black beans.

We also ordered the Oceanic Mac & Cheese, which promised blue crab, shrimp and scallops with a creamy cheese sauce. The dish had a pleasing fish flavor, but it was served with what appeared to be linguine or fettuccine, and the sauce was silky but liquid. We were expecting elbows or some other short pasta with a thicker cheese sauce that clung to the pasta. There was nothing wrong with the dish, which featured perfectly cooked pasta and plenty of fresh seafood. It just wasn’t the stick-to-your-teeth macaroni and cheese we were craving.

The biggest disappointment was the chicken saltinbocca, which might have sat too long waiting for the other dishes to be ready. It emerged at room temperature, and the chicken was dry. The chicken also was topped with prosciutto and mozzarella and covered with a rich, red sauce. The apple sage risotto served on the side was divine. The risotto had a nice chew to it, while the apple added an unexpected sweetness.

We took a chance on the chicken and waffles and loved them. Febres’ version features a red velvet waffle cut into quarters and alternated on a skewer with chunks of crispy fried chicken. The server brought the creation to the table holding it upright with his hand, making the presentation even more dramatic. It comes with maple syrup and a black walnut mustard aioli on the side. The waffle had a nice, spicy cinnamon flavor, and when a perfect bite was assembled with the chicken and both sauces, the sweet and salty flavors and textures worked perfectly. This is breakfast for dinner at its best.

Service in the restaurant is good. Febres has hired some quality servers, many of whom have been at the restaurant since it opened. They’re friendly and know the menu.

The dining room is large with high ceilings, exposed duct work and brick and colorful carpet that keeps the room from getting too noisy. The bar is an attractive focal point of the restaurant, with inset shelving showcasing the bottles. Two quibbles: The tables for two are too long, and you’ll feel unnaturally far away from your date. Also, the look of the space would match the upscale feel of the food with the addition of tablecloths covering the gray laminate tabletops.

Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.

Review

1/2 out of four

Where: 255 N. Washington; 316-260-4233

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays

Type of food: Global cuisine. Taste and See has three menus. The largest selection is available at dinnertime. The lunch menu is smaller, has fewer tapas and is sandwich- and salad-focused. Taste and See also has a Sunday brunch menu served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Cost: Tapas are $7-$12. Entrees are $17-$31. Sandwiches are $9-$11.

Alcohol: Full bar

Website: www.tasteandseeict.com

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