January 26, 2011

715 Restaurant - Lawrence, KS

When people think of "fine dining" in Kansas, I'm sure a lot of people think we are talking about our local Applebee's. But Lawrence, Kansas is a community of foodies. Foodies who have a taste for the European will love 715 Restaurant, a neighborhood European-style eatery that offers the best in Central Italian cuisine.

On an evening out, my friend Mona and I decided to split a meal at 715 Restaurant. While the food is amazing, it is also a little pricey - at least for me as a rather poor law student and blogger. So using our penny-saving ingenuity, we decided to order one appetizer, one salad, one entree, one dessert, and one bottle of wine to split down the middle. We started with the smoked trout crostini. The trout was perfectly smoked so it was flaky and just melted in your mouth. It was served on a crisp, toasted side of bread with arugula and a lemon caper aioli. While the crunch of the bread added that perfect bit of texture to the bite, the bitterness of the arugula along with the citric and vinegary taste of the aioli gave it a complex flavor profile that made me chew very slowly to savor each and every bite.

Next, we moved on to the roasted root vegetable salad. This was a natural choice for me. I genuinely believe vegetables are best when roasted. That is just how they should be cooked. (Just as roasting is best, boiling is worst. Nothing makes me sadder than a carrot or brussel sprout that has been boiled to death. It is a culinary crime.) The roasted root vegetable salad is just proof of my belief in roasting vegetables. Carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables are julienned, roasted to crispy perfection, then served with arugula in a roasted garlic vinaigrette. It has a deep, rich flavor and I would honestly drink roasted garlic vinaigrette if they would serve it to me in a glass.

For our entree, we ordered the tuna spaghetti. Mona had heard great things about it and I was very curious. I don't usually think about tuna as something to serve with pasta, especially when it is also served with cheese. Fish and cheese have always struck me as a big no-no (For some more about the fish and cheese debate, particularly in Italian cuisine, check out this post at The Kitchn). But luckily, the inspired chefs of 715 restaurant don't think like me. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the sweetness of the Italian tuna, along with the capers and mozzarella proved to be a brilliant combination and has officially convinced me that it is possible for fish and cheese to share the same plate.

Finally, we finished our meal with sticky date cake in toffee sauce with sweet cream gelato. I normally don't order dessert, too often I end up with something so cloyingly sweet that it makes my teeth itch. But while this isn't your grandmother's traditional sticky date cake, it has a delicious and natural sweetness that with the toffee sauce offers a wonderful final note to end the meal. 715 Restaurant offers and incredible experience for foodies and fans of Central Italian cuisine. It's also proof that a trip to Kansas can be a fine dining experience!

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!

Total Travel Time: 20 minutes
Total Travel Distance: 6 miles
Soundtrack: "Extraordinary Machine" Fiona Apple


January 25, 2011

Roadside Jayhawk Spotting - Lawrence, KS

You can't travel an inch in Lawrence, Kansas without seeing a Jayhawk celebrating the University of Kansas' prolific mascot. But these birds have a fascinating and colorful history. The term "jayhawk" is believed to have been first coined in 1848, combining the blue jay, a loud and angry bird known to rob other nests and the sparrow hawk, a hunter. You wouldn't want to turn your back on a Jayhawk.

The term was originally used around the country in places like Illinois and Texas, but during the 1850's it found a home in Kansas Territory. As the civil war raged on, factions on both sides fought violently in Kansas Territory to determine whether it would be a Free State or whether slavery would be legal. Fighters on both sides were called Jayhawks as they looted, stole and attacked each other's settlements. Ultimately the free state side prevailed and Lawrence became their stronghold, as well as the future home of the University of Kansas. They earned the right to be called Jayhawks, passionate patriots committed to freedom who were willing to fight and die for their cause.

When the University of Kansas was established, it seemed natural to take the Jayhawk as its mascot and in 1912, the first picture of a Jayhawk appeared (and for some reason, it wore shoes. No really, the original Jayhawk had shoes.) Today, Jayhawk statutes can be found all around the KU Lawrence campus and the town itself.

To see how the image of the Jayhawk has changed throughout history, visit the University of Kansas website.


January 24, 2011

Thanks for Noticing!

Much to my continued surprise, people actually read this blog. Even more surprising, they really like it and put me on travel blog lists. Most recently Zen College Life put me on their list of 50 Best North American Travel Blogs. Then I was truly honored and astounded that OnlineCourses.net named me #3 on their list of 50 Best United States Travel Blogs.

I originally started this blog upon moving to Kansas as a way to get to know all the weird and wonderful things around me and to have an excuse for regular road trips. Now the blog is in its third year and I continue to be astounded that you - my kind readers - actually enjoy reading about my adventures. So thank you for reading and I will keep writing, traveling, and (hopefully) being generally awesome.

Much love,
Kris the Educated Vagabond


January 20, 2011

Liberty Hall - Lawrence, KS

If you want to watch a movie in Kansas, you could go to multiplex. It will have 20 screens, plenty of movies, overpriced tickets and concession stands, and the same experience you could get at home. Where is the fun in that? I've written before about my love of classic movie theaters, like the Rio Theater in Overland Park. I'm lucky to have another classic movie theater not too far from where I live at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.

They have only two screens - a little theater and a big theater. But what they lack in diversity they make up for in the quality of films. Sure, I could go see the latest romantic comedy with insipid dialogue at a corporate multiplex. Or I could go to Liberty Hall and see something good. Recently, I went there to see "Black Swan" in the big theater while "Inside Job" was playing the small theater. And while the concession stands have your typical staples like popcorn, they also serve alcohol. You can get a glass of wine or a draw of Free State beer to sip while you enjoy your film. (The beer doesn't have far to travel because the Free State Brewing Company is located just next door to the theater.)

If you're seeing a film in the big theater, you can go up the stairs to the balcony, which has small and closely packed theater seats. Or you could stay downstairs in the open hall. There, you can sit anywhere you like among the free standing chairs with tables set up (which is good if you need somewhere to rest your beer). The reason there is so much open space in the downstairs of the main theater is that the Liberty Hall is also a venue for concerts and local events.

In addition to being one of the cultural centers of Lawrence, Liberty Hall is also a very historical location. From 1855 to 1856, an abolitionist newspaper called "The Herald of Freedom" was published there. But then something happened that seems to have happened at one time or another to most buildings in Lawrence - it burned down. (Fun Fact: it was actually burned down by the Sheriff of Lawrence.) In 1882, the Bowersock House was built in the same spot. It was intended to be an opera house but also served as the site for public assemblies and city meetings. Until it burned down in 1911. But the Lawrence community has never been discouraged by a little fire and set about rebuilding once again. In 1912, the current Liberty Hall was built. It was renovated in 1980 but continues to serve as a cultural center for Lawrence - the place to go for concerts, movies, plays, operas, and even movie rentals.

For over 100 years, Liberty Hall has been the site for culture in Lawrence. It has survived the times and the flames, continuing to offer the people of Lawrence great films, great concerts, and a great place to go.

Total Time Traveled: 20 minutes
Total Distance Traveled: 6 miles
Soundtrack: "Super Taranta!" Gogol Bordello


January 18, 2011

Town Center Figures - Leawood, Kansas

When passing through Leawood, most people stop in Town Center. It is the center of town for restaurants and shopping. But as you go to browse the shops and grab a wonderful
meal, you will also notice brightly colored metal sculptures. There is nothing on the sculptures to suggest their names, the artist who created them, or even what they are made of. They are just there, brightly colored like Easter eggs,

There is an artist, bright pink standing before an empty easel while holding a pallet and paint brush. Stereotypically, he is of course wearing a painters smock with a beret and a rather absurd mustache. Elsewhere, there is a bright blue sculpture of a figure holding an umbrella. The gender is ambiguous, descending the stairs in a trench coat with an open umbrella. In another part of the parking lot, there is a pink figure again, this one in motion riding a skateboard. His arms are splayed out as he balances, forming odd angles - like squares and rectangles mashed together to convey a shape that we can't really see, it is motions and angles made solid in metal.

I have scoured the internet in search of answers, even going through archives of Leawood press releases trying to find out who designed the figures or even when they were placed in Town Center. I first saw them in 2008 when I moved to the area and ended up working in Town Center in both retail and food service. I wish I could say I enjoyed my time working there - but I didn't. At all. Of course, that's a story for another time. However if you are passing through Leawood and would like some time to wander and shop, then Town Center is definitely a place to do. And the whimsical sculptures, unnamed and undefined, add both color and curiosity to the experience.

Total Travel Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes
Total Travel Distance: 80 miles
Soundtrack: "Dirty King" The Cliks


January 13, 2011

Dealing with the Westboro Baptist Church Cult

Since the tragic shooting in Arizona, more and more people have been hearing about the horrific tendency of the Westboro Baptist Church Cult to protest the funerals of good and decent people, even children, to advance their message of hatred. I have written about them before, only because over the years I have been living in Kansas I have come to see them as a horrible roadside attraction, something I am forced to see and acknowledge. But for many people around the country, including Arizona, this may be their first encounter with Westboro Baptist Church Cult. For that reason, I have decided to share a few tips for encountering this particular group of extremists while on the road.

Tip #1: Do NOT engage them.

Yes, they are holding up signs with offensive messages and shouting enraging statements, all the while claiming they are righteous in the eyes of God. It will get your blood boiling. But don't talk to them, don't even try. It's just not worth the aggravation. They are trying to get under your skin and trying to get a reaction. Don't give them what they want. Engaging them also includes acts of violence. That is the worst possible thing you can do. The Westboro Baptist Church Cult wants you to give in and be violent because it justifies their message of hatred. You will only give them the satisfaction of feeling righteous and get yourself arrested.

Tip #2: Join a counter-protest.

This is usually what I do. When they spread a message of hate, join a counter-protest and spread a message of love. Make a humorous sign and show their hatred can't destroy your ability to smile (my favorite is "God Hates Shellfish" because it is a spin on their "God Hates America" signs, but get creative and make your own). Or join a group of people to block the Westboro Baptist Church Cult's signs from the view of the mourners. In Arizona, 200 people will be gathering - including 30 wearing angel's wings - to be sure no one at the funeral will have to see the horrible signs of hate. This gives you an opportunity to feel like you are doing something constructive to oppose them, while offering some comfort to those Westboro Baptist Church Cult are trying to harm.

Tip #3: Donate to a good cause.

An online group called Hate Busters encourages people to take the lemons of hatred and turn them into the lemonade of charity. Every time Fred Phelps and his despicable band of followers at the Westboro Baptist Church Cult protest near you, make a donation to a charity that they hate - and there are many of them! - then have a thank you letter sent to the Westboro Baptist Church Cult and Fred Phelps stating that they inspired you to give. Many people choose to donate a dollar for every minute they protest, but you can give whatever feels right to you. I have included a short list of national charities Phelps hates here:
Church Address to send thank you note:
Westboro Baptist Church
3701 SW 12th St.
Topeka, KS 66604-1730

I hope these tips will help people who are not familiar with Westboro Baptist Church Cult find a way to cope with this outpouring of hatred, by responding with a message of positivity, hope, and love.

Endnote: Why I Call It Westboro Baptist Church Cult

This is not a political blog so I’m not going to get into the finer points of their anti-Semitic, homophobic propaganda. The only point I will make is that Westboro Baptist Church is not a “church,” it is a cult. To call it a church is an insult to all other religious institutions and houses of prayer. The cult is run by Fred Phelps and consists almost entirely of Phelps family members including his children and grandchildren. (Yes, they bring the little kids to protests.) Two of the Phelps children have escaped his cult and described suffering abuse from their father who created the church to elevate himself as a sort of demigod. In 1995, one of his sons claimed that Phelps was enslaving members of the cult and deluding them into believing he was the only righteous man on earth. That is why I will NOT refer to Westboro as a church.


January 12, 2011

Extra Virgin Restaurant - Kansas City, MO

For those familiar with the culinary scene in Kansas City, this post will not come as a surprise. Extra Virgin, owned by the illustrious James Beard award winning Chef Michael Smith, is one of the greatest restaurants in Kansas City. Hands down, there is no debate. Extra Virgin takes tapas to a new level as Chef Smith draws from cultures around the world to create an assortment of dishes that continue to astound and tantalize even the most critical foodies.

About once a year, my family and I go to the Crossroads in Kansas City to sample Chef Smith's delicacies. We go during happy hour, when most of the dishes are half-priced, and each person picks two items off the menu. We order in two rounds, followed by dessert, and share everything with each other so by the end of the evening we have all sampled about ten different dishes. I truly believe this is the only way to eat at Extra Virgin because to limit yourself to only one or two of Chef Smith's masterpieces would be unconscionable.

But my reasons for loving Extra Virgin focus on a very specific part of the menu, a part that tends to horrify some members of my family. One part of the menu is labeled, "Adventurous." And it is certainly that. With fare including pig's ears, duck's gizzards, snails, and tripe, many diners shy away from his more bizarre concoctions. I, on the other hand, dive right in. I love to try strange new foods as often as possible, for no other reason than they sound weird and I haven't eaten them before. So the adventurous side of the menu offers me a unique opportunity to sample odd delicacies prepared by one of the greatest chefs in the country.

I began with the "Crispy Pig Ear Salad." The salad - arugula and radishes - is light and delicate with a slightly sweet dressing that compliments the bitterness of the arugula. The pig ears are sliced into thin strips then fried. Honestly, they were delicious. They had that slightly sweet taste of pork to them and were a little tough, like biting into a piece of jerky. In the salad, they were a dream opening course but I could see myself snacking on this chewy bits of goodness while watching television on a Sunday afternoon. My father and sister refused to try the pig ear, although they did love the salad. But to me, the dish was proof that Chef Smith can take something many people would throw away and turn it into a fine dining delicacy.

In addition to my pig ear, I also ordered the "Braised Snail Ragout." I had never had snails before but can sincerely promise I will eat them again. The braised snails and mushrooms are served in a rich broth I can only describe as liquid smoke or perhaps the essence of everything barbecue wishes it could be with a side of garlic toast to sop it up. If there was a way I could bathe in that broth I probably would. The snails and mushrooms are so tender, smokey, and rich that you'll swear that they are going to melt in your mouth with a puff of smoke more delicate and delightful than the best braised beef you've ever had. I now genuinely wonder why these little mollusks are not on the menu at every great barbecue joint in the country.

If my praise of Extra Virgin and Chef Michael Smith seems excessive, then you have obviously never eaten there. For someone always looking to try new and bizarre foods, the adventurous tapas at Extra Virgin in Kansas City is the best possible destination.

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!

Total Travel Time: 45 miles
Total Travel Distance: 1 hour
Soundtrack: None


January 11, 2011

Roadside Stagecoach Spotting in Kansas and Missouri

If you're driving through Kansas or Missouri, you will start to notice a similar roadside attraction - stagecoaches. Before highways or even railroads, the only way to really travel across the country was by stagecoach. The earliest stagecoach line to travel through Missouri and Kansas was the Santa Fe Trail, which in 1849 ran a monthly line of stagecoaches from St. Louis to Santa Fe, New Mexico, although the trail was first blazed in 1821. It later moved to Independence, Missouri and those crossing the wide open spaces of the country would travel the 1,200 miles of the Santa Fe Trail for $250 with only 40 pounds of baggage.

The trail was fraught with danger. Even as travelers struggled to survive the arid plains, deserts, and mountains there were more challenges to overcome. Stagecoaches were sometimes attacked by Native Americans. Rattlesnakes, lightening storms, and more all posed deadly threats to lives of those brave souls trying to cross the wild, vast space of the country. This brief history is, of course, only cursory, but if you want to learn more about the Santa Fe Trail, including its economic significance to trade as well as its military history, I encourage you to read more on the Legends of America website.

Many of the sites along the Santa Fe Trail are marked and commemorated as national historic landmarks. But also along the road are stagecoaches that mark intersections and businesses throughout Kansas and Missouri.

In the Westport neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri there is a large stagecoach at a major intersection. I've tried to find out when it was built or why, but can't seem to find an answer. It's simply there. I ran into the same problem when trying to find out about a stagecoach at an intersection in Overland Park, Kansas. As much as stagecoaches and stagecoach trails are commemorated as a significant part of Kansas and Missouri history, it seems these roadside stagecoaches has simply become part of the scenery - erected and forgotten as though it has always been there and always will be there. I now wonder if anyone else notices the stagecoaches, or if they simply drive on by.


January 6, 2011

Road Trip Music - "Light It Up!" Playlist

A new year and time for a new playlist! Many of my playlists tend to center around a theme I accidentally discover in my collection of music. This time, it was fire. As I was listening to Franz Ferdinand's "This Fire" for what must have been the ten millionth time, I realized that many of my songs have a similar focus on flames. So I decided, for my New Year's Eve adventures, to compile a playlist of burning hot music to light my way through my nighttime adventures. And now I'm pleased to share it, for those also inclined towards scorching music.

"Light It Up!" Playlist
  1. "Danger! High Voltage" Electric Six
  2. "Start the Fire" No Doubt
  3. "This Fire" Franz Ferdinand
  4. "We Didn't Start the Fire" Billy Joel
  5. "Pistol of Fire" Kings of Leon
  6. "London Calling" The Clash
  7. "Fire" Jimi Hendrix
  8. "Light My Fire" The Doors
  9. "Ring of Fire" Johnny Cash
  10. "Playing with Fire" Shannon Curfman
  11. "Smoke on the Water" Deep Purple
  12. "Ash" Murder by Death
  13. "Lake of Fire" Nirvana
  14. "The Desert is On Fire" Murder by Death
  15. "Ampersand" Amanda Palmer
  16. "Streets of Fire" The New Pornographers
  17. "Fiery Crash" Andrew Bird
  18. "Run" Snow Patrol


January 4, 2011

Road Trip Philosophy - My Top 5 Movies about Road Trips

It's the first post of the new year (when we can finally drop this "two thousand and..." nonsense and just start saying twenty eleven), so I thought I'd offer some insight into one of my favorite things in the world - movies. Yes, I am absolutely obsessed with movies. My friends and family often marvel at my ability to know random bits of useless film trivia, to quote lines from most of the movies I have seen, and even the sheer number of movies I seem to have found time to watch in my short time on this earth. Everyone has their passions and films just happen to be one of mine. It seems fitting to begin this new year (and the third year of The Yellow Brick Road Trip), with a list of my favorite five movies about road trips.

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Has there ever been a greater or more outrageous opening line to a film? Hunter S. Thompson's book that served as the foundation for the film is one of the greatest written works of that time, serving to encapsulate the "high water mark" of a generation. Johnny Depp and Bencio Del Toro are incredible as they portray an eccentric journalist and his insane lawyer on a drug-fueled road trip to Las Vegas. The sheer visual spectacle of their escapades is captivating and the sense of unbridled adventure and insanity always make me want to jump into a convertible and hit the open desert road.

2. Little Miss Sunshine

All families are a little dysfunctional, but Little Miss Sunshine shows what happens when you put all that dysfunction into one van and send it hurtling towards California. I love each character for their own unique foibles - the unsuccessful motivational speaker father, the silent brother with a dream, the suicidal intellectual uncle, the heroin-using and sex-crazed grandfather, and above all the little girl with glasses and a dream. This film makes every family road trip I've been on seem like a five-star luxury retreat. But it also encapsulates the true meaning of a family road trip - it's not where you're going, it's spending time with your family along the way. And everything that goes wrong is just one more opportunity to bring you closer to the people you are stuck with.

3. Easy Rider

It is impossible for me to write about road trip films and not mention Easy Rider. Probably because I don't believe there has been a more culturally significant film about the free spirit of the open road. It is certainly controversial for its use of real drugs, but the epic story of two men searching the Southwest and South for true freedom captures the longing escape that can only be found on a deserted highway. When I first saw this film in high school, I don't think I really understood it. I latched on to the need to be untethered and see country, just as I did when I first read "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac. But as I have gotten older and continued to re-watch the film, I now feel as though Fonda and Hopper are conveying some deep truth. There is a desperate longing to the two lone bikers on the road. Some furious need to be free that burns within every soul and propels us forward to tragedy. This film always fans that sad little flame within me and by the time it is over, I am always looking at a map for some new far-flung destination in a place I have never been.

4. Tommy Boy

I did not go a day in middle school without hearing someone quote "Tommy Boy." This is without a doubt the funniest road trip movie I have ever seen and has the best, most quotable dialogue. The immature and accident-prone Chris Farley has incredible comedic timing as he delivers his enduring one liners ("Do you know where the weight room is?") and David Spade is the ultimate uptight straight man with a razor sharp tongue trying desperately to survive their misadventures ("Let's say the average person uses ten percent of their brain. How much do you use? One and a half percent. The rest is clogged with malted hops and bong resin"). In summarizing my love for "Tommy Boy" I suppose there is only one thing left to say: "Fat guy in a little coat."

5. Wristcutters: A Love Story

This movie was first recommended to me by my friend Kat, and I'll be honest and say I hesitated a long time before watching it. As much as I have a morbid sense of humor, I simply couldn't imagine a film about suicidal people being funny and heartwarming. Luckily, I recognized that Kat is often much smarter than me and rented this movie because it is funny, heartwarming, inspiring, and so much more. It is a film about second chances and finding the answers you didn't even know you were looking for on the road. After committing suicide, a man finds him stuck in an afterlife purgatory. He hits the road with a rock musician who committed suicide on stage and a girl who insists she is in the wrong place in search of the his old girlfriend, who has learned in also in purgatory after killing herself. Sounds depressing, I know, but this movie offers truth and philosophy about life and the road in a way I have never seen. Whether it is that anything lost under the passenger seat is gone for good or what you have is always better than what you are looking for, this is an enlightening film that will make you think even as it warms your heart.