Frida Kahlo is the most famous female artist of the 20th century — that's according to Ivan Marquez, speaking not as an art critic but as co-owner and manager of the two-month-old Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine in south Overland Park.
I'm not an art historian, either, but this much I do know: The iconic painter Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (1907-54) has inspired several restaurants in the United States. Bistros are named for her in Chicago; in Madison, Wisconsin; in Bothell, Washington; and in least a half-dozen other locations. Frida Kahlo — she of the tormented self-portraits, the mustache, the uni-brow, the Salma Hayek movie — is a star. You don't find restaurants named after Sonia Delaunay or Alice Neel. I was going to toss in Georgia O'Keeffe as well, but there is an O'Keeffe Café behind the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The male servers at Frida's are passionate in their disdain of Hayek (who, like Marquez, is half-Mexican and half-Lebanese) in her role as the immortal Frida. "Salma is too Hollywood," one of the servers sniffed, "too conventionally pretty to be Frida."
I happen to think that the late Mrs. Diego Rivera was a striking figure, even with all that facial hair, but I didn't dare open my mouth because, at one point, Marquez told me that I looked like big fat Rivera, Kahlo's womanizing, artist husband. I didn't touch another corn chip for the rest of the meal.
The chips are very good, though, and the house-made salsas are tasty. (The fiery one is distinctly better than the chunkier mild version.) And the menu is filled with interesting, unusual and expensive dishes.
Marquez, who looks like a handsome former boxer (his nose was shattered during a soccer game), told me that another one of the restaurant's co-owners is Victor Esquada, the charismatic founder of Ixtapa restaurant in North Kansas City. Esquada disdains Tex-Mex fare and has banished crispy tacos, burritos and yellow cheese sauce from this menu. Marquez says only a few customers have been disappointed to find that they can't get a burrito platter.
Guacamole is a starter, but everything else on the appetizer list is traditional Mexican fare. "This is the way we eat in Mexico City," Marquez said as he set a plate of three flor de calabaza quesadillas in front of Carol Ann, Truman and me. Frida's serves two kinds of quesadillas: goat cheese and huitlacoche (a corn fungus considered a delicacy) or goat cheese sautéed with squash blossoms, butter, olive oil and oregano. We had happily chosen the latter, made with soft flour tortillas. Another starter, the enmoladas, is a torte of soft tortillas layered with strips of sautéed cactus and chicken, blanketed in a rich, sweet, mahogany-colored mole and scattered with sesame seeds. It, too, was extraordinary.
Frida's isn't much of a tribute to the artist on a visual level. A few posters of her paintings and a photograph or two of the haunting beauty are scattered here and there, but the dining room is actually quite demure, with tastefully upholstered banquettes and a concrete floor that's stained the color of cordovan leather. Marquez and his staff have wisely reserved the visual effects for the food.
Some of the plates are long rectangles, evoking stretched canvases and making great settings for dramatic presentations such as the chile en nogada: two roasted poblano peppers stuffed with sliced sautéed beef (the menu says ground beef, but why quibble with aesthetics?), chopped apple and plantain, sliced almonds, and a fluffy white-cheese sauce scattered with jewel-like pomegranate seeds.
Frida's offers a lunch menu with prices in the $7-$10 range, but the average dinner entrée runs about $14. It's well worth the cost: This is an upscale restaurant with cloth napkins, soft lighting, and servers in pressed dress shirts and aprons. One of the priciest dishes, at $16.99, is also one of the most exquisite pork chops I've eaten in town — chuleta de cerdo al achiote: thick chops marinated in apple cider and achiote paste, charbroiled and slathered in a topaz-colored mango reduction with a kicky habañero punch. Truman raved over every bite, calling it "wonderful and unique."
My platter of tacos de cochinita was served on a heavy round plate with a circular motif: five soft corn tortillas, each topped with a generous spoonful of spicy roasted pork and, in the center, a small bowl of violet-colored onions marinated in lime juice, vinegar, fresh oregano and habañero chiles. The tender pork had been marinated in fresh lime juice, rubbed with achiote paste and sour orange juice and slowly roasted. It was outrageously good.
Carol Ann's smoky grilled chicken breast, split and stuffed with goat cheese and sautéed squash blossoms, had been wrapped before grilling in an hoja santa leaf. The aromatic "sacred leaf," Marquez explained, was a favorite of Mexican shaman Maria Sabina and had special powers. Truman knew a little about the heart-shaped herb, too: "The legend is that the Virgin Mary dried the diapers of baby Jesus on the bushes of the plant."
I asked Carol if she felt any differently after eating the leaf. Her response: "Ivan looked a lot more attractive to me."
I'd eaten a couple of bites of the hoja santa leaf, too, but I was most attracted to the desserts, which are also a specialty of the Ixtapa menu: creamy, nondairy "ice creams" made from atole, a milky corn-based beverage. The vanilla-caramel version was topped with chopped walnuts, the chocolate one with chopped cookies. After a few spoonfuls, everyone in the restaurant was looking attractive to me.
On my second visit to the restaurant, I was joined again with art-loving Truman. "I'm telling you, I feel the presence of Frida in that dining room," he insisted. I warned him: no hoja santa chicken for him.
Who needed magical leaves when there were pomegranate seeds — another delicacy with mythological, if not religious, connections — scattered on top of my plate of chile en nogada. It was such a rich dish, I could barely nibble my way through half of it, but Truman lustily devoured Frida's version of a chile relleno, a roasted poblano stuffed with sweet small scallops and fresh cilantro, all smothered in a supple tomatilla sauce and sided with rice cooked with fresh basil and parsley.
We left certain that the restaurant's visual presentations would surely have pleased the venue's namesake, who once said, "I paint my own reality."
At Frida's, we celebrated our reality by eating it.