Cafe on the Hill
You'll want to become a regular at Cafe Europa's Union Hill location.
It’s mid-morning on a Sunday — the golden hours of brunch, let’s call it — and the restaurant is swarming with guests eager for some combination of bacon, eggs and mimosas. A beleaguered barista apologetically asks guests who have just popped in to grab a fresh loaf of country bread and to please just wait a few moments; she’s clearly negotiating with the espresso machine for several lattes for seated diners. Someone’s child is pressing fingers against the panes of the bakery case, innocently suggesting purchases.
I’m wholly charmed by this scene. Admittedly, a large part of that charm is owed to the promise of some of Café Europa’s tempting pastries: the bacon, egg and cheese brioche; the colossal green-tea cupcake; the shining croissants; the oversized snickerdoodle cookies. But there’s something equally appealing about the way the sunlight is streaming through the broad windows, further illuminating the bright space and making the bar guests look like they’re living their best brunch life.
This location at Union Hill has been open since December, and the crowds vary by meal: Brunches are banging, with neighborhood residents turning out in droves for the chilaquiles and the quiche. Those dishes are popular during weekday breakfasts, too, but you’ll have an easier time finding a table. Lunches draw mostly a business crowd, where the jackfruit melt reigns as one of the city’s most underrated vegetarian sandwiches. There’s a smattering of laptops for late lunches and early happy hours. At dinner, though, the crowds are at their slimmest: Businesses are closed, sending would-be diners back to their respective hubs, and locals who are looking for a night out are usually drawn farther away. Union Hill is not yet a dining destination like the Crossroads, the Plaza or even Volker.
That’s a shame. Café Europa at Union Hill has the potential to surpass the quintessential neighborhood vibe that its older sister, Café Europa at Crestwood, has owned since it opened more than 15 years ago.
Longtime chef Nate Feldmiller and general manager Dan Weber, who together purchased the original Crestwood location several years ago, designed the Union Hill location to develop its own personality. There’s an elegant dining room with white tablecloths for intimate conversations; there’s an open and casual bar area where the cocktails – crafted by master bartender Lazer Avery, formerly of Bluestem – carry mass appeal. (A muscled mezcal sipper called the Mezcaliano and a lavender vodka fizz called the Lavender Lemonade will be sure to put a smile on your face.) You’ll get the same service and the same menu wherever you choose to sit — including on the few terrace tables outside — but the point is that you can choose the vibe you want.
For a weeknight dinner, my group and I elected a bar-area booth table. Café Europa does not overwhelm its menu with an expansive selection of appetizers, but the potato beignets are worth the $9 investment. The payoff is a handful of perfectly puffed tater tots and a side of sweet pepper jam.
If you are committed to sharing, there are several “platters” to choose from. Our server described the cheese platter ($15) as “very adult,” and I was relieved to find that meant nothing more dangerous than a hearty board of Delice de Bourgogne triple crème brie, creamy Arrowhead chevre and tangy Bleu d'Auvergne, served with an abundance of imperfectly shaped rye crackers and quince paste. Grown-up portions and good flavors — these should be the cornerstones of any restaurant cheese plate.
For the health-minded, there are three salads on the menu, and they are all listed as entrees. This is not an exaggeration. The Green Salad ($12) is a Hulk-sized pile of broccoli, sliced cucumbers, edamame, mashed avocado, sunflower seeds, quinoa and feta cheese, all tossed with a spritz of lemon and olive oil. It looks a bit like the plate you might end up with if you left a nutritionist in charge of the grocery-store salad bar. This was perhaps the most overtly healthy thing I have willingly ordered at a restaurant in the last year or so, and it’s a credit to Feldmiller that even with deep-fried potato puffs and cheese on the table, I had more than three bites.
Like the original Crestwood location, Café Europa at Union Hill offers a set nightly special: Mondays always feature a bountiful Niçoise salad, Tuesdays call for pork schnitzel and so on. We enjoyed the mussels and frites ($20) on Wednesday, and the classic pairing was done justice.
As its name suggests, Café Europa professes no allegiance to any specific cuisine — the French-inspired mussels and frites exist next to pasta carbonara and an American diner-style griddle burger. It’s the kind of menu designed to please — if not exactly inspire — the masses. But Feldmiller’s dishes are not meant to break ground on new flavors; rather, they uniformly communicate a sense of familiarity and comfort.
Take that carbonara ($16). Fat cubes of bacon are tangled up in a pile of fresh tagliatelle noodles coated in egg yolk, and the only twist is a cured egg yolk that’s dried out and shaved over the dish like Parmesan. It gives the plate an extra boost of richness without weighing it down, and it also hints at Feldmiller’s true talent: subtlety. Café Europa has always thought of itself as a farm-to-table restaurant, and Feldmiller is at his best when he lets his ingredients speak for themselves.
Another case in point: The quail ($20). This small, light fowl is easy to overcook and overpower, but it’s a beauty when done right. Feldmiller serves his gently roasted bird with heaping sides of local grits and a spicy pepper-squash ratatouille. The cafeteria-style pile of food on this plate gives it a rather inelegant look, but there were no complaints as forks scraped the plate.
Our server was enthusiastic about the fish special ($20), a corvina fillet on a bed of hominy and kennel corns with two dollops of creme fraiche. The corvina had a lovely brown-butter sear, but the humble purple baby carrots from Greenwillow Farms stole my heart: they were like five spindly, bruised fingers resting along the rim of the plate, but they were a welcome burst of earthy sweetness.
Café Europa offers a choice of fries, salad or soup with all its sandwiches. I opted for the chilled borscht with the burger — an odd pairing, granted, but one I don’t regret. To be fair, this soup was more borscht-adjacent: ground pistachio and Middle Eastern spices gave the beet puree an unexpected new life.
I’ve noticed a recent trend with burgers: more and more chefs are moving away from the gourmet, quarter-pound patties that require a temperature in favor of the “smash” patty. We saw this a few months ago at Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room, with its excellent $8 late-night-only burger. Café Europa at Union Hill does one better for its guests: Its hamburger is available for lunch and dinner, in either single ($7) or double ($14) form. You’ll be tempted to get the single, and when you do, you will pine for twice the portion — not because the former is too small, but because Feldmiller’s burger is, in a word, perfect. Partial credit goes to the no-fuss toppings — lettuce, onion, a slice of American cheese and “special sauce” (read: mayo, ketchup and garlic) — and most of the credit goes to the 70/30 chuck and brisket patty, ground in-house.
Anna Morrow is the pastry chef for both Café Europa locations, and her desserts are unfussy and dependable. The s’mores ($6) came as a graham-cracker cake encased in a pleasantly gooey mess of toasted marshmallow fluff and hot fudge. But the lemon cake ($6), with its double layers of super-moist citrus sponge and lemon zest-buttercream icing, is the stuff legends are made of — and, in fact, Café Europa’s lemon cake is fairly legendary.
“There would be riots in the street if we ever took that off the menu,” Feldmiller told me later. “We inherited that recipe when we bought the Crestwood location, and we knew it had to stay.”
The Union Hill and Crestwood restaurants are not carbon copies of one another, though the menus share some classic items. The ever-popular quiche, with its magical lard-explosion crust, can be ordered at any time of the day (as can that heavenly lemon cake). And Café Europa at Union Hill is still finding its cadence: Its doors are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and yet, the restaurant seems wholly unburdened by guests who go out of their way to dine there. That’s fine. Café Europa might not need to be a destination. It seems perfectly suited to building a faithful clientele of regular diners — including this one.
2976 Gillham Road, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 214-5425, cafeeuropakc.com. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Executive chef nate feldmiller (below)