Happy birthday to Larkspur

Ty Issa has owned Larkspur for the second half of its 20-year life.

I spent my morning with Ty Issa across the street at Larkspur, reminiscing about the long run his popular downtown restaurant has had. They’re starting their 20th year of business this month, which is quite a feat for any restaurant.

To celebrate, Ty is putting on a customer appreciation party from 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 19. The event will be on the patio and in the banquet hall, and he’ll have free appetizers, drinks and music.

My dining story for this Friday will be about Larkspur’s big birthday, so before I went to visit with Ty this morning, I dug up the restaurant review we published when it first opened back in 1992. Very few of the original dishes remain, but it was a fun read. Plus, my late friend Diane Lewis wrote the review, and I can hear her voice in it. Thought you all might enjoy it. Keep reading.


Friday, June 5, 1992

By Diane Lewis, The Wichita Eagle

Sit down. This revelation may be more of a shock than the latest gray hair or wrinkle you discovered this morning. RichVliet opened his first restaurant in Wichita 21 years ago.

Vliet, who with partner David Burk opened the much-anticipated Larkspur in Old Town in April, has given diners several trendy eateries in 21 years. Most notable were the first, Dr. Redbird’s Medicinal Inn, loved for its stacked-high sandwiches and remarkable coffee served in hand-thrown ceramic mugs, and the last, the Looking Glass, the city’s first fern bar.

In its day, it was the place for lunch, the after-work watering hole, the place to see and be seen. In between were
Sister Jennie’s and King Lizard Barbecue.

The Looking Glass closed in the mid-’80s, and Vliet (and wife Marnie) went on to other professional ventures. At the time, Vliet said he was interested in Old Town development. It took seven years for that interest to come full circle and back to the restaurant business.

Vliet and Burk have turned the old Modern Cleaners building into a distinctive, stylish structure, having added a patio on the west side for drinking and dining (appetizers only). On the patio’s north end, don’t miss the enviable herb garden, which provides fresh herbs for the kitchen.

Inside, exposed brick, pale blond wood, soft peach and celadon green have been combined with terra-cotta planters, steel-gray wrought iron, stunning glazed tile and lots of glass to produce a room that looks very California citified and cool.

An L-shaped dining area with flower-patterned banquettes surrounds the bar. The bar tables and stools are higher than the regular tables for dining. Particularly appealing in the bar are two long tables for those “let’s-go-have-a-drink” parties that grow exponentially.

On a recent evening when my dinner companions and I gathered at Larkspur, the crowd was dotted with surviving Looking Glass regulars a few more lines, a little less hair, a new spouse here, one less there. The air was filled with clatter that didn’t abate. It has to do with high ceilings, exposed high-tech ventilation system and all those hard surfaces. Never mind.

Larkspur’s fare has been described as California-style, broadly meaning light sauces, fresh and sometimes exotic ingredients with Oriental, Mediterranean, Southwestern and Caribbean influences. The menu includes appetizers, herb-crusted pizza, soups, salads, pastas, steaks, chicken, seafood and desserts. Dinner prices range from $3.50 for a bowl of soup to $12.95 for the highest-priced meat entrees. Lunch offerings include much of the same fare with some adjustments for price and organization.

We started our meal with a shared appetizer of artichoke and spinach dip with salsa and blue corn and yellow corn chips ($5.25). A dollop of red salsa in the middle of green dip (it is cooked spinach, after all) added a peppery flavor.

Wonderful fresh wheat-and-rye rolls were offered when we sat down, and there were offers of more throughout the meal. Of all places, restaurants in the “breadbasket of the world” should serve bread products worth talking about, and few do.

The house salad is a classy mix of unusual greens romaine, OK, that’s not unusual, but curly endive and radicchio are with feta cheese and toasted almonds and understated house dressing with citrus overtones. Another dressing, spiked with Parmesan cheese, was equally good.

Crab cakes (actually an appetizer) were unexpectedly, almost too, peppery ($6.95). Although our earnest server warned that they were spicy, we wished she would have also said they are served with mixed greens, thus negating a need for an extra salad.

Spinach fettuccini with cashews, carrots and Parmesan cheese in a creamy sauce was satisying with an unusual smoky flavor ($7.50). A grilled chicken breast was topped with a subtle sauce rich cream with a salty pistachio counterpoint ($9.95). The lemon chive sauce was even more subtle, virtually non-existent on the evening’s special, grilled yellowfin tuna ($11.95). The tuna held up without the sauce with a nice charred taste, although it was quite rare. I know it’s all the rage to eat rare fish, but I don’t want to, even though that is my decided preference for beef and lamb. Should we have to ask that fish and game not be served rare?

Perfect mashed potatoes studded with black pepper and Parmesan cheese were a great accompaniment to the chicken and tuna and turned the conversation to our own failed attempts. The vegetables of the day asparagus and yellow squash were too crunchy.

Manager Pam Bjork, who returned to her hometown from Denver, where she had been in the restaurant business, said chef Douglas Martin is using locally grown produce wherever possible. Martin, most recently at the Wichita Club, Vliet and Bjork collaborated in developing the menu.

Four desserts and ice cream or sorbet are featured as Larkspur’s sweet conclusions. Old Town Decadence, the downtown version of flourless chocolate cake, was incredible, with a black cherry sauce and a light vanilla bean ice cream ($3.95). Kentucky Derby Pie, naturally, added bourbon to a chocolate chip and pecan pie ($3.25) and was only slightly less decadent than the cake. Lemon souffle was airy and tart ($2.95). But even the whimsical raspberry- chocolate twigs (confections) couldn’t save the creme brulee, which was overwhelmed by fresh ginger and sadly lacking its characteristic burnt sugar topping.

The custom of serving appetizers, called “mezze” in the Middle East and “tapas” in Spain, with drinks, is an important and delightful feature of Mediterranean life. It signifies leisure, camaraderie and good humor. In the Mediterranean you never drink without eating. You have time to enjoy the moment in an unhurried way. All kinds, hot and cold, every country has its favorites, the custom is to offer a large selection in small quantities and keep them coming.

Lamb Kebobs- Two skewers on pita bread

Mini Falafel Salad

Bass and Mussels with Fisherman’s Rice

Arugula and Tomato Salad

Spinach Pies

Lebneh- Strained yogurt

Baba Ganough- Roasted eggplant with tahini sauce

Hummus- A smooth spread of chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini

Sumac Chicken- Chicken breast marinated in olive oil and sumac, a tart red Middle Eastern spice

Tabouli- Fresh parsley, wheat, and tomatoes dressedwith lemon olive oil

Grape Leaves, also known as dolmas- Mediterraneanrice, tomatoes, and herbs wrapped in tender grape leaves

Kibbaneya and Hashwa- Lebaneseversion of steak tartar- served in a raw, ground and pressed presentation

Fried Catfish- Herbcrusted and served with tahini sauce

Fried Cauliflower-Served with tahini sauce

Beef or Chicken Shawarma- Searedbeef or chicken served over hummus, garnished with radish, beets, parsley, and tomato

Fattouch Salad- Mixedgreens with onions, radish, tomatoes, parsley, olive oil, lemon, crushed pita chips tossed in fattouch dressing

Kibbi Balls- Authentic and most favorite of all,tender sirlion filling in a crisp crust

Choose four items and adessert $20, additional plates $5