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March 8, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The secret to a great restaurant is in the ingredients. Uniqueness is the base; it rarely works if someone in town has the same idea. Mix in a heavy heaping of hard work, a handful of quality and a dash of style, and the result is a top-notch eatery. But with so many restaurants in town, Vox set out to answer the burning question: Which restaurants have this recipe, and who follows it best?
When faced with the daunting task of choosing the winners, we knew we couldn’t hand out awards — it’s doubtful Mario Batali will be asking us on his show anytime soon. So instead, we sought out some area experts in the area of fine cuisine.
Amy Barrett - Co-owner, Sycamore
Paul Blackwell - Executive chef, Classy’s
Jeremy Brown - Co-owner, Addison’s and Sophia’s
Rob Chen - Chef and owner, Sake
Sarah Cyr - Co-owner and sommelier, The Wine Cellar & Bistro
Leslie Jett - Faculty, MU Hotel and Restaurant Management
Mike Odette - Co-owner and chef, Sycamore
Daniel Pliska - Executive chef, MU University Club; current president,
American Culinary Federation, Central Missouri Chapter
Mark Sulltrop - Executive chef, Les Bourgeois Winery and Vineyards; past president, American Culinary Federation, Central Missouri Chapter
Richard Walls - Owner, Boone Tavern & Restaurant
We compiled a group of 10 of the city’s food-savvy elite (see “The Experts”) and asked them two questions: What is your favorite place to eat on a night out, and, most importantly, what goes into your recipe for a great restaurant?
They mentioned about 25 different names, but when we tallied the votes, five of them stood out. Although the food is the biggest factor, it’s not the only reason these restaurants are at the top of the food chain. Whether it’s a large wine list, live music or impressive culinary performance, everything about these restaurants shows quality.
While talking to the experts, we learned that food is a lot like politics — everyone has an opinion. There were five restaurants that just missed the cut (See “The Runners-Up”) and many more that got a nod or two.
So without further adieu, we present to you the cream of the crop, the top of the food chain, Columbia’s finest.
This tiny downtown spot, sandwiched between On the Rocks bar and Personalized Computers on the north side of Broadway, doesn’t look as elegant from the outside as the name might suggest. On the inside, however, the ambience is quite sophisticated with pale pink and yellow walls, blue-gray wainscotting and abstract art to match. Order anything on the menu, and your surroundings will be the last thing on your mind.
Classy’s formula is simple — authenticity in everything it does. There is no theme, only an eclectic mix of dishes and a focus on quality. Classy’s admirer Sarah Cyr, co-owner of The Wine Cellar & Bistro says, “It has a very Old World feel to it; the food is great. The same people that cook bring out the plates to you.”
The restaurant originally opened as a sandwich and burger place in September 2003, but owner Leta Harvey and executive chef Paul Blackwell quickly shifted the focus when they saw the need for a few dishes prepared well. That’s how Classy’s popular corned beef sandwich was born, as well as its spaghetti marinara. “We just try to fill any missing niche we see,” Blackwell says. “If the quality of the item can’t be maintained, it doesn’t go on the menu.”
SPECIALTY: Coconut cod, pictured, ($17.95) or spaghetti carbonara ($12.95)
CHEF PAUL BLACKWELL’S FAVORITE RESTAURANT: “Osaka is the place we go to most frequently because our only day off is on Sunday, but we also like Trattoria, The Wine Cellar & Bistro and Café Berlin.”
In the window a neon clock greets visitors with the words “Murry’s Time.” And our experts insist diners won’t be wasting their time when planning a night here, but they don’t guarantee you won’t have to wait. A five- to 10-minute drive from downtown, this restaurant has been around since 1986 and offers diners a variety of appetizers, salads, entrees and wines along with a steady stream of jazz music. But the real fare at Murry’s is meat, from strips and filets to 18 different types of sandwiches, including the chicken Philly and Philly cheese steak.
Walking past a bulletin board featuring fliers for upcoming jazz performances, diners enter into a foyer adorned with memorabilia. A picture of the great Miles Davis hangs on the wall leading to a bar area curving through the middle of the dining room. A piano sits amid the tables for nights when musicians provide live jazz.
“I go there for the great jazz music, the crowd and the consistency,” says Rob Chen, chef and owner at Sake. “Plus all the appetizers you can think of.” Appetizers include frog legs, Brock’s Green Pepper Rings, pictured, and blue chips cheese bread. “Is there a Murry’s in heaven?” asks Mike Odette, co-owner and chef of Sycamore. “I hope so. And I hope they have blue chips cheese bread there.”
SPECIALTY: 14 oz. strip ($17), 8 oz. filet ($17)
CHEF GIL LABOY’S FAVORITE RESTAURANT: Gaucho’s
The only restaurant on our top-five list open on Sunday, 11-year-old Osaka topped our experts’ list as their favorite place to eat on a night off. Sarah Cyr declares her love of Osaka in one sentence, “Consistently great sushi to enjoy on Sunday, our date night.” The restaurant, simply decorated with Japanese-style artwork, is recognized for the quality and authenticity of its dishes.
Osaka is known for sushi, vegetarian choices and hibachi-style chefs who perform and cook meals of chicken, steak and a wide array of seafood at customers’ tables. A native of Osaka, Japan, owner and chef Zhil Rong has been working in restaurants in Japan and the U.S. since he was 16 years old. When he saw a market in Columbia for a bona fide sushi restaurant, he made the decision to open his own. “It is easy for different kinds of restaurants to do well in Columbia,” he says. “There is an educated population that is not afraid to try new things.”
Fresh ingredients are a signature at Osaka. Rong flies in fish from Los Angeles three to four days a week, five when it’s especially busy. Of the seafood, most people order sushi, and Rong says the most popular style is the California Roll, pictured. However, he boasts about the sashimi, raw fish cut into thin slices.
SPECIALTY: Sushi, especially the California Roll ($5.95)
CHEF ZHIL RONG’S FAVORITE RESTAURANT: Sycamore
At Trattoria Strada Nova, food and wine combinations give customers the complete meal. Diners are able to enjoy this pair in an uncommon atmosphere. The kitchen is partially visible to patrons, who can watch chefs prepare their dishes. Fresh vegetables such as red and brown potatoes, crisp green celery, orange carrots and red tomatoes provide color near the entrance and close to the kitchen.
Executive chef Benjamin Randolph oversees a menu that changes daily, which ensures a carousel of flavorful and unique dishes. Appetizer specialties like the carpaccio of raw beef tenderloin provide a tasty setup to the meal. Mike Odette sums it up when he says, “The carpaccio rocks!” Entree favorites include cioppino, pictured, a stew with an array of seafood in a spicy tomato broth. Randolph says the dishes are made from scratch, and the kitchen frequently uses local products.
But the food is only half of the experience. Trattoria offers nearly 200 bottles of wine from the U.S. and around the world. The selection, which the wine manager boasts is “a well-rounded, developing wine list that is one of the best in the city,” includes chardonnays, cabernets and Italian reds. “My idea here is to get a grasp of the trends that are sweeping the wine world,” he says. “The idea in Italy is wine isn’t just about downing a bottle, it’s about having a good meal and going well with the food.”
SPECIALTY: Flash-fried calamari ($10), beef tenderloin ($25), osso bucco ($20)
EXECUTIVE CHEF BENJAMIN RANDOLPH’S FAVORITE RESTAURANT: The Wine Cellar & Bistro. “I love that the menu changes really often; it’s always new and exciting. The wine list is great. The atmosphere is creative. I can’t say enough about that place.”
Walking along Cherry Street, passersby could easily miss this gem. One of the only clues to its identity is a small wooden sign in the window. Venture inside, however, and find yourself in one of Columbia’s most innovative restaurants. The wine-cork curtains and wine displays among the tables give The Wine Cellar & Bistro an illusion of a wine vault. The husband-and-wife team of Craig and Sarah Cyr (he’s the chef; she’s the sommelier or wine service manager) opened the restaurant in May 2003 because they wanted to bring more adventurous cuisine to town.
And that is exactly what they have been serving up. Daniel Pliska, executive chef at MU’s University Club, praises the Bistro’s seasonally changing menu. “Craig is a great culinarian, and his menu represents excellent American fare made with local products.” The menu features items such as kangaroo strip loin, rattlesnake sausage and ostrich. Craig, who competed on a culinary team that traveled around the U.S. and Scotland, says Columbia is a perfect place to introduce uncommon items.
Food isn’t the only notable part of the menu. The restaurant has won a Wine Spectator award three times, once a year since it opened. This award is given to restaurants that offer a unique and varied wine selection that pairs well with their menu. Their wine list includes up-and-coming wines from South Africa, Chile and Tasmania, as well as more traditional wines from California, France and Italy.
SPECIALTY: Currently on the menu: Braised Oxtail & Saffron Ravioli ($14)
CO-OWNER SARAH CYR’S FAVORITE RESTAURANT: Classy’s
When we tallyed the results, these restaurants came just short of making the top five. If you’re looking for even more superior restaurants in town, we suggest you give these a try.
A Columbia staple for burgers and billiards, Booche’s smaller-than-average sandwiches have a huge reputation. Sarah Cyr says she goes there for the infamous burgers and Bloody Marys. Opened in 1884 by the original “Booche,” Paul Blucher Venable as a billiard hall and eatery, this burger joint hasn’t seen much change since then besides its location. Booche's has occupied its Ninth Street location since the 1930s.
Downtown’s very own brewery is where you can also find great food and a beautiful patio. Go there if you want to step outside of your beer bubble and sip some inventive brews such as Green Chili or Blackberry (hopefully not together). The brewery is Columbia’s first and only, since 1841, but the restaurant has only been around since 1994. The menu holds basic pub fare such as burgers and pizza, as well as some less standard but still beloved items like the Chokes & Cheese.
Located near Columbia Mall, this sit-down restaurant offers a fresh alternative to the abundant Chinese buffets here. Amy Chow has been running the restaurant for nearly 25 years. Mark Sulltrop gives a nod to the different kinds of moo shoos. And if you go, remember to ask for the secret Chinese menu.
This trendy Chinese restaurant is located south of town in the Providence/Nifong area. Many of our experts claim they have never been disappointed with anything they order there. Daniel Pliska loves the roast duck, and Jeremy Brown goes there for the spicy chicken strips.
Most people don’t know Columbia without this pizza classic. As the Web site says, Shakespeare’s has been “serving Boone County, Missouri for over Seven Presidents.” Pizza lovers can enjoy basic toppings or exotic toppings such as jalapeños, anchovies, artichoke hearts and pineapple. Mark Sulltrop says it has the best pizza in the world.
Although it only opened in 2005, many people frequent Sycamore for the lively, elegant atmosphere and good food. Proprietors Amy Barrett and Mike Odette (also the chef with Kurt Kingsley) along with Sanford and Jill Speake have created strong duos both in and out of the restaurant. Barrett loves the seared jumbo sea scallops and don’t forget to try the cheesecake!