There's No Place Like Home
Lynn Smith's to-do list is a little longer than most.
She's a mom; she runs a restaurant; she also goes to graduate school. "Some days I wonder, 'What was I thinking?'" Smith says. "But most days I love it. I'm always being challenged, and so far, everything's working out."
It helps that Smith no longer runs Kate's at 35th Avenue by herself. This place is now two, two, two restaurants in one: Smith is responsible for the cozy Sunday brunch and a Friday-night murder-mystery dinner (the murder mystery is open to the public once a month, and on the rest of the Fridays it's a private-party/charity event). Two friends, Carol Ann West and Vickie Murphy, serve casual, ladies-who-lunch midday meals during the week and a reservations-only gourmet dinner on Saturdays.
This arrangement gave Smith more time to pursue her master's degree in public policy; it also gave West and Murphy a kitchen from which they can run their catering business. (Kate's Back Door offers takeout dinners.) "It is almost like a marriage," Smith says. "Me and Carol and Vickie do things very differently; we have different approaches and different ways of running a kitchen, but I think we'll be okay."
Named for Smith's daughter, now a Metro State music major who helps out whenever she can, Kate's started as Smith's home and then became her full-time occupation. She bought the historic, two-story 1886 Victorian at the corner of 35th Avenue and Albion Street back in 1980, when the northeast Park Hill neighborhood was filled with similar residences. But within two years, most of those houses had been demolished and replaced by gas stations and fast-food joints. In 1982, Smith applied for a zoning change that would allow someone to turn her building into a restaurant. She thought she'd sell the place right away to a restaurateur, but when deal after deal fell through, she moved her family to the second floor and decided to start an eatery herself.
"I didn't have any experience as a chef or anything," Smith admits. "But I knew I wanted it to be like the charming sort of restaurants that I ate at in France, where the owner would come to the table and chat and the food would be homey." And what Smith wanted, she got. Kate's has almost a bed-and-breakfast atmosphere (blessedly free of a quaintly wacky B&B owner who stares at you through breakfast, waiting to impart gen-yoo-ine nuggets of wisdom), complete with mismatched everything, drinks served in mason-jar mugs and a working dumbwaiter that helps the servers get things to the second-floor dining room.
Although Smith no longer lives in the building, it continues to feel like a home. During the week, the lunch crowd was a mix of blue-haired gals looking to get out of their own houses and business types looking to get out of the office; on Sundays, families ruled. The place was never so busy that the servers became overwhelmed, although I could imagine that happening occasionally. Still, the staff is very friendly, and no one should go to a warm, relaxing place like Kate's for a businesslike, hurried meal, anyway.
The lunch menu seems carefully selected to please, just the kind of roster you'd expect from two caterers. There's one pasta dish, one pork, one chicken, one salmon and one vegetarian, all created in homey ways. An herb-roasted chicken breast, for instance, arrived next to a big ball of apple-celery stuffing, all moist and sweet, along with steamed broccoli and carrots. The fettucine with shrimp and sea scallops swam in a gently pesto-pumped cream sauce. The fillet of oven-roasted salmon was on the dry side, but its balsamic glaze added some moisture, and while the roasted-red-pepper sauce on the pan-grilled tofu and portobellos was sadly in need of some herbs for flavor, simply offering a vegan item gets points from me. All of the portions were substantial, and the lunch entrees also came with a teeny little mixed-greens salad awash in a mild balsamic vinaigrette.
The salmon and the fettucine with shrimp and scallops repeat at dinner on Saturday nights, but we went for the well-broiled beef tenderloin in a textbook red-wine reduction. The meat, cooked to our specs of medium-rare, was tender and had nicely charred edges. A little less tender, and a bit dry, were slices of pork loin roast that had been rubbed with cumin and chile powder; it seemed as though the meat had been cooked well ahead of time and then reheated. But the garlic mashed potatoes that sided each dish were delish, with a mellow, well-roasted flavor and a few chunks left in for authenticity.
Despite a different cook in the kitchen for Sunday brunch, the food had a homey, easygoing feel. Smith sticks with a tried-and-true menu, which means that guests usually have their choice of chiles rellenos casserole, quiche stuffed with crab and bacon, two "garden vegetable" casseroles, pancakes, baked French toast, omelettes or eggs Benedict. The latter three are part of Smith's "whatever you want" roster, which has its limits. "The other dishes are things I can make ahead of time," she explains. "These are things I have to make to order, and so I can get in trouble if too many people want them."
It's always hard for me to pass up eggs Benedict. Although the hollandaise had the thicker, grainier texture and saltier taste of a sauce not made from raw eggs, this was a worthy version, with thin slices of Canadian bacon layered with butter-sweet English muffins and perfectly poached eggs -- the egg whites were just set around satiny, runny yolk -- and plenty of that faux sauce. The real winner, though, was the chile relleno casserole: eggs held together with cheese and packed with slippery-soft green chiles, topped by a small, round ball of guacamole that was almost all avocado. Both portions were huge and came with a stack of thinly sliced potatoes that alternated between soft and so crispy they were almost like thick potato chips, along with a large lettuce leaf filled with fresh fruit. Still, we could almost have eaten our weight in Smith's heavenly rhubarb-walnut muffins. They were heavy on brown-sugar-coated walnuts and fruit and light on breading, which made each bite a buttery streusel-topping delight.
Kate herself was our server for brunch, and since she was the only server, she had to move fast to stay on top of things. But like her mom, she apparently knows how to prioritize, and there were no glitches in our meal. She didn't even bat an eye when a grandpa with a large party crawled around on the floor in the middle of the dining room to amuse the kids.
Which made me think that Kate may have an affinity for public policy, too. And that's yet another reason to put Kate's at 35th Avenue on your own to-do list.
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