Monday, March 10, 2008

Review: Stroud's

I went to an institution yesterday. Yes, I'm fine. No, the walls weren't padded. And no, I didn't have to wear a straight jacket. It wasn't that kind of institution.

In Kansas City, Stroud's is an institution people willingly go to. There aren't any barred windows or nurses in white uniforms, but rather pan-fried chicken and whole lot of history. I know for sure that I never want to be in an institution, but because of the underwhelming chicken and mediocre sides, I'm not so sure I'll be running back to this culinary institution.

Ira shows you where you can park.

As of 2005, Stroud's had two locations in Kansas City and one in Wichita. Since then, the original South KC location has closed; a new one is due to open later this month in Fairway. Stroud's at Oak Ridge Manor in North KC is a good 40-minute drive from the Kansas suburbs, but as a fried chicken fanatic, I was hardly put off by the distance.

Set back from the highway off a two-lane road, Stroud's occupies a 179-year-old building which served for years as a home for the Compton family. After changing hands a few times, the building was purchased by the owners of the original Stroud's in South KC, whose restaurant had already been frying up chicken for 50 years. Since 1983, Stroud's at Oak Ridge Manor has carried on the traditions established by the flagship restaurant.

Oak Ridge Manor is more charming than that guy who opens doors and pulls out chairs. Its white siding and green shutters give way inside to rustic oak and walnut logs and beams.

As if still being used as a home, the restaurant is composed of many rooms, all of which are used for dining. The walls are adorned with plaques and awards for the restaurant's famous fried chicken, with a number of newspaper and magazine articles interspersed for good measure. Hidden among the self-appreciation is a worn, ragged document in a black frame. Turns out it's the original deed for the property, signed in 1827 by some guy named John Quincy Adams.

I arrived at Stroud's with my friend Ira at 2:25 on a Saturday afternoon, just short of half an hour after opening. The hostess informed us that the dining room was full, so we had two options: wait 45 minutes for a table or eat the bar. Irked at first, we opted to eat at the five- or six-person bar, which was empty when we arrived, but full five minutes later.

If unable to eat in a dining room, the bar is an acceptable backup. Wrapped in the same warm wood as the dining rooms, the small bar has a warm, homey atmosphere that's not too prim or stuffy for licking grease off your fingers.

The bartender, who tended to us acutely during our entire lunch, took our orders and passed them on to the kitchen. In addition to a side dish and cinnamon rolls, a first course is served with every meal, giving diners a choice between chicken noodle soup and salad. I chose the soup and Ira the salad. Both arrived about five minutes after we placed our order.

The soup was a yellow broth with small globules of golden fat floating on top. In the broth were small, soft pieces of carrot, celery and onion, as well as shredded bits of chicken, evidence that the soup was made down the hall in the kitchen. I could've happily eaten a bowlful of the noodles and nothing more. Thick, hearty and tender, the noodles were among the best I've eaten.

Ira's salad was standard iceberg with one unusual ingredient. Nestled alongside the standard cucumber and croutons was a slice of ruby-red beet. Add a sprinkling of mozzarella and a couple of wedges of lemon for some extra flavor, and you have your Stroud's salad.

Half an hour after Ira and I finished our first courses, our entrees arrived. My wing, thigh, leg and breast were served on the same large platter as Ira's all-dark meal of two thighs and two legs. The chicken had a light brown crust that didn't quite qualify as golden.

Beneath the slight crunch of the underseasoned crust was underseasoned chicken. Nothing about the chicken as a whole was particularly flavorful, leaving my tastebuds disappointed. I applaud the kitchen for keeping the chicken moist, but I want to take the cooks shopping at Penzey's.

Being starch lovers, Ira and I ordered mashed potatoes and cottage fries as our side dishes. The mashed potatoes were starchy, which I like in baked potatoes but not in their mashed counterparts. The consistency was grainy, not creamy like mashed potatoes should be. Like the chicken, the mashers were sorely lacking in flavor. A hearty pinch of salt and some pepper would've made up for the fact that I couldn't taste any butter in the potatoes.

Perhaps the mashed potatoes were underseasoned so gravy could be ladled on top, but the gravy was sort of congealed and not particularly appealing, so I refrained from using it, instead letting it jiggle in its bowl. Please notice, though, the abundance of pepper in the gravy, evidence that someone in the kitchen knows where to find some and how to use it.

I associate cottage fries with Yours Truly, a small chain of restaurants in Northeast Ohio. Their crinkle-cut circular fries were golden and crispy on the outside, but fluffy and tender on the inside. Given the yardstick Stroud's cottage fries had to live up to, it's no surprise that they were a disappointment. They weren't crispy, they weren't golden, they weren't fluffy. I sometimes call myself a "French fry whore" because I enjoy and eat all fries, but I didn't eat more than a dozen of these cottage fries. Even a swim in some Heinz couldn't save these spuds.

For some reason, we were served a bowl of green beans. I don't think we were supposed to get them -- and Ira and I don't like green beans -- so they sat there on the bar, looking like they'd just emerged from an aluminum can. Yummy.

The cinnamon rolls served with the meal seemed better treated as a breakfast or as dessert, which may be why Stroud's doesn't have a dessert menu. With tops crusted in cinnamon sugar...

...the rolls were yeasty and fluffy inside...

...and buttery on the bottom. I'd eat one of these for breakfast, but I kept them far away from my fried chicken. I really would've enjoyed a flaky, buttery biscuit with my chicken, but there was no KFC within walking distance.

After licking my fingers clean, I pulled my credit card out of my wallet and paid for the $34 meal. Considering how much food comes with each meal, the $16-$20 price is a pretty good deal. But if you find that food lacking in flavor, a reasonable deal won't bring you back to any restaurant. So, I basically spent $20 on a really good bowl of chicken noodle soup.

I brought home some leftover chicken, which is now sitting in my fridge, waiting to be consumed. And I know just how to bring some flavor to it: butter, syrup and hot sauce. Chicken and waffles, here I come.

5410 NE Oak Ridge Dr.
Kansas City, MO 64119

P.S. Gratuitous chicken mailbox shot:


Anonymous said...

I was looking for Strouds receipes online when I came across this blog posting.

I couldn't believe your review!

I just came back from KC and I'm looking for a great place with pan fried chicken in the Houston area.

I took the same pictures that you have but I enjoyed some of the best soup, chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans ever to be had in one setting. You really have different taste than the 10 people eating with me at Strouds or you were there on a really bad day.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. I used to live in KC and remember Stroud's fondly. In going back, I ate at the new location and was disappointed also. If it's still there, try Boots and Coats on about 75th and StateLine(?). Back in the 70's, everyone argued about if it or Stroud's was the best. Is the "Street Car Named Desire" still by the Board of Trade? It did have the best burgers on the planet. Try a Big George or the port wine spread burger, my favorite. Take along night vision googles, though. They used to clean the grill by having a fire in the kitchen every 6 months...

Anonymous said...

I could not believe this review, clearly bias and not reflective of the vast majority here in the midwest.