I can't remember the last time I saw Braunschweiger on a menu. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen Braunschweiger on a local menu. But here it was, at a pizzeria.
I was scanning the menu at the two-month-old Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar, in Lawrence, where the nonpizza offerings start with a small selection labeled "bar bites." They are indeed just morsels but not of the fussy amuse-bouche stripe: here, a thin slice of crusty baguette under a topcoat of grùyere; a jumble of peridot-colored pickled onions; that piquant little chunk of soft, distinctively seasoned liverwurst known as Braunschweiger. Order a handful of the two-bite flashes and you get a satisfying tease of textures and flavors: creamy, smoky, vinegary, crunchy, soft. Then they're gone. Gone but not forgotten.
Rick Martin, one of Limestone's chef-owners, tells me that the wurst, an old-fashioned deli staple, is the best of the bites. (I agree.)
"When I was a kid, my grandfather would have Braunschweiger on his table all the time," Martin says. "It was nothing like the hot-dog paste they sell at supermarkets today."
Martin and his staff make their own Braunschweiger — and their own chili paste, ketchup, pastrami, mozzarella, sauerkraut, sausage, and pickles. Everything in the kitchen, they say, is regionally sourced, including the Kansas flour in the pizza crust.
"Not all of our customers know or even care that we make everything from scratch or buy from sustainable sources," Martin says, "but the ones that do demand it. The restaurant business is changing."
The three chef-owners at Limestone know this because they have, among them, a hell of a lot of experience. Martin was in the kitchen at the Free State Brewing Co. for 20 years (all but five as executive chef). Mikey Humphrey served as the head baker at WheatFields Bakery Cafe, the iconic Lawrence shop that was founded in 1995 by Limestone partner Charlie Rascoll (whose wife, Debbie, is Limestone's noncooking fourth partner).
I'm not one of the demanding patrons Martin knows, clamoring for organic ingredients and ostentatious displays of sustainability. But I know I should be, and I applaud Limestone's owners for their visible but unpretentious attention to detail. From the polished serving staff to the gracious bartenders (who effortlessly whip together unusual cocktails using house-made syrups — rhubarb was a recent choice — and fresh fruit), this is a place where smart restaurant trends have been considered and, in many cases, transcended.
The dining room is noisy and upbeat, with high ceilings and limestone walls and, in easy view, a limestone-encased wood-burning oven (a 20,000-pound Le Panyol, from France). There's the aura of instant success, of a place whose patrons, demanding and otherwise, immediately recognize the high quality of the food. And people can afford to become regulars here; the prices are modest. A superb Margherita pizza, with house-made mozzarella, costs just eight bucks.
"I grew up poor," Martin says. "We couldn't afford to eat at McDonald's unless our grandparents were in town. I want Limestone to be accessible." And so it is, even if it can be difficult to find a table. Limestone doesn't take reservations, and the wait time can be long, especially on weekends. But once you snag a seat, there's much to access and to share: a steaming plate of roasted turnips, beets, carrots, onions and radishes or some meaty chicken wings (not too fiery but awkward to eat). Even a side of house-made pickles, coyly seasoned with garlic and allspice, is perfectly executed, and an unexpectedly tasty accompaniment to pizza.
But this is a pizzeria, and on that front, Limestone is truly exceptional. The pies — 12-inch circles of light, puffy, slightly scorched Neapolitan-style crusts (Martin prefers to call them "Neoprairie" because of the Kansas ingredients) topped with simple elegance — are as close to perfect as I've ever tasted.
With daily pizza creations, Limestone's brain trust has set its sights on luring regulars. And if I lived closer, I'd probably be in their numbers. I feel a pang of regret admitting that I missed last Tuesday's chicken-confit pizza and Thursday night's barbecue-pork banh-mi pie. But I'm sustained by the memory of the Wednesday selection I ate instead, with its white-hot puddles of fresh mozzarella and its soft meatballs. It was enlightening. The pies now on the everyday menu sound esoteric but reward your curiosity. There's a fine pie topped with thin potato slices, crispy bacon and crème fraîche, and another bacon-topped choice with a sunny-side egg, spinach and grùyere.
The pizzas serve one person easily enough, but they're best when shared. That allows opportunity to taste the other excellent things on the single-page menu: a burger (local beef topped with locally produced white cheddar) so terrific that I'd return to Limestone just for that, for instance, or freshly made fettuccine tossed with a rustic ragout of pork and chopped tomatoes.
Oh, and a great steak. Martin wanted an inexpensive steak on the menu, so he started with a skirt steak but has ended up with a much more tender tri-tip, sliced and seared with olive oil, dry mustard and sea salt. It's delicious.
It's easy to eat too much at Limestone, even when you share. But the desserts, made by guest pastry chef Jay Tovar-Ballagh (who works at Pachamamas, around the corner), are well worth the trouble of budgeting your appetite. The lemon gelato isn't tart but tastes like a carefully thought-through version of those lemon-flavored Girl Scout cookies. The hibiscus flavor has a little more punch.
One night's special was a budino, the Italian custard that's frequently served like a flourless torte or cake in some Kansas City restaurants. Limestone's version, served in a glass jar, was a true coffee-flavored custard tucked under a lid of silky chocolate ganache. And the bite-size crème caramel, not much bigger than a checker, embellished with candied orange and crushed pistachios — I could have eaten a pound of them. Like all small and pretty things, though, the bites vanish quickly. Limestone is small and pretty, too, but it already seems here to stay.