BRANSON, Mo, January 19, 2014 – With over 15 years of traveling back to Missourri for family, Branson has never been on the top of my “foodie” list. Things change and with the addition of an easy to use airport, the Branson Convention Center and Hilton hotel properties, comes Level 2 Steakhouse, helmed by Chef Nathan Read.
Returning back to their home following a late winter tornado that cut a swath of destruction throughout the town, Level 2 Steakhouse gives Branson something very unique to a burg where buffets and fried food rule.
Fine dining in a comfortable, down home atmosphere. Food worth traveling for; food to look forward to.
Chef Nathan Read deserves Kudos for elevating the Steakhouse beyond the local standards, and he has taken the steakhouse and with craft and care, created a space that is not just for cigar waiving men.
Chef Nathan offers a menu to fit a variety of tastes and hungers and though the food is remarkable and worthy, what tips the scale is the mid-Western hospitality of the staff. People are just nice in a way you won’t find in the big city.
The most important element of any steakhouse is the steak and Chef Read serves local, highest grade quality Hereford Beef to create those standard menu items, the New York strip, filets and Waygu beef, but there is so much more here than creamed spinach and cheesy mashed potatoes.
There is perfect calamari and crafted salads, on a menu that is a delight to read. Being in mid-Missouri, land of farms and fields, the question to naturally ask is where does the foods Chef Read presents come from, and the answer is “as locally as possible”:
“It took some time to make inroads to the local farmers,” Chef Read says. “But once you meet one farmer and create a relationship, they introduce you to another and so on. Before long you are able to source local, fresh produce.”
And it makes a difference.
Which means Chef doesn’t necessarily put strawberries on the menu in the winter, but then, as he says, who would want them. It is in summer that strawberries have that sun kissed sweetness and robust pink centers that look, and taste so good.
This dinner experience started with the signature Level 2 martini, and as a martini drinker, it may be one of the best I have yet to have.
The secret? Adding a bit of their signature dry rub giving a sweet/salty/smoky to the crisp, icy cold Absolute vodka, a smooth, clear winter wheat spirit that provides the mixologist a clean palate on which to create a fresh libation.
The amuse bouche brings forth a perfect slice of Waygu beef wrapped around steak house staple asparagus with sweet chunks of crab, micro greens and hollandaise.
A perfect bite that eloquently foreshadows a remarkable meal to come. The to the table comes a parade of appetizers, each more delightful than the last.
Whiskey Beef Tips [$13] Tenderloin Beef Tips Sautéed with Johnny Walker® Scotch Whiskey, Butter and Garlic Sauce are tossed together with fresh yellow bite tomatoes and micro greens with potato straws to create a wonderful layering of flavors that could easily satisfy as a lunch or dinner with salad entrée.
Chef does not miss a flavor profile in this dish that combines the flavor richness of the beef with the acidic of the tomatoes, the snap of the green and the savory crunch of the potato.
What can one say about Calamari? Plenty if over or under cooked. For Level 2 diners, what it takes to make a sweet, succulent and tender calamari is not overlooked.
Lightly battered, quickly cooked to perfection, Level 2’s Tender Baby Calamari [$9] is served with Key Lime Miso Mayo that is a perfect accompaniment, but not necessary as the flavors and texture of this gift of the sea stand on their own.
The unique presentation of the Pan Seared Hawaiian Ahi Tuna [$16] adds to the flavor of the very rare filets, seared and served on a Himalayan Pink Salt Slab.
The tuna, resting on the under-lit brick of pink sea salt absorbs the mild, flavor enhancing Himalayan salt found in the Khewra Salt Mines, the second largest salt mine in the world located in Khewra, Jhelum District, Punjab, Pakistan, about 300 km from the Himalayas.
The pink color variations come from natural formed iron oxide found in the minerals.
The dish offers a deeper flavor profile than is often found in seared tuna that can often be bland and with an ill mouth texture. Chef Reads’ tuna is firm and served and at the perfect room temperature to allow all the flavors to be enjoyed.
In addition to the salt block presentation, the Ahi Tuna serves with Lemon Grass Soy Reduction, Pickled Ginger, Wasabi, Sweet Chili Mayo, and Charred Pineapple Salsa, once again showing Chef’s deft hand with flavor.
Salads showcase the local products and are quite lovely to look at and delicious to taste. The Stacked Tomato salad was lovely to gaze upon, bringing the sweet tastes of summer sun and breeze. The ubiquitous Caesar [$8] had a fresh, house made dressing that perfectly balanced the creamy texture with the salt of the anchovies, fully flavored shavings of parmesan cheese and very crisp hearts of romaine lettuce.
Showing consideration for the dinner, Chef Read has the lettuce torn into bite sized pieces, eschewing the all too often trend of serving full leaves that not only require cutting, but that do not allow for full distribution of flavors one finds in a salad thoroughly tossed before plating.
Every meal has those items that have you recalling the flavor and feel long after the meal has passed and the L2 Salad [$8.50] is a sweet, salty, savory and crunchy party of salad.
Before taking a bit, the sweet aromas of the toasted coconut candied walnuts and vanilla vinaigrette great you. The first bites are surprising, as you taste the toasted savory sweet of the Coconut and crunch the candied walnuts.
The locally sourced Missouri Chevre goat cheese lends a tart surprise as you work your way through the layers. The coup de grace of the dish is the house made Vanilla Vinaigrette dressing that Chef has shared his recipe for (see printable pdf at top left of story).
Bib Lettuce, Fresh Strawberries (in season) and Pineapple, Missouri Chevre Cheese, Toasted Coconut, Candied Walnuts, Vanilla Vinaigrette that marries olive oil, white balsamic, Dijon mustard and shallots with Vanilla yogurt, extract and fresh vanilla beans to create a dressing that will have you finding excuses to use not only in salads but other dishes as well.
Pair with a crisp Columbia Valley Ste. Chateau Michelle Sauvignon Blanc or an effervescent Italian Prosecco and bring the memory of summer’s sun to your luncheon table.
A lost Steakhouse art is the knife presentation and our hostess Tiana does an admirable job, as she does presenting each dish, explaining the heft and use of each of the knives. A goal to work toward is that after ten Level 2 dining experiences, your knife choice will be engraved and stored for your personal use on your subsequent visits.
The knife presentation serves to make your entrée choice that much more special as we chose our favorites, my personal being a finer cut and weight with deep red handle.
The main event, the entrées came to the table with greatly deserved flourish. With four diners at the table, we were able to order a strong presentation of dishes from sea, pasture, and farm.
The sea brought us the Fresh Catch of the Day [market] and while Branson is as landlocked as one can be in the U.S., the halibut presented was a full portion dressed with a flavorful blend of micro greens, red peppers, caramelized onions, and yellow cherry tomato.
The lightly panned seared fish was perfect, creating a fresh, light offering devoid of any unpleasant flavors or smells. And a perfect option for a lighter appetite.
Duck from Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast [$28] brings a generous potion of pan seared duck breast served over sautéed baby spinach, dressed in steakhouse friendly wild mushrooms, caramelized onions with Orange Port jus. The duck came to the table moist, but with firm mouth feel that bolstered the perfectly limp onion and mushroom mélange.
Really, really good.
For many a steakhouse is all about the beef, and Level 2 does not disappoint serving a selection of pasture cuts including Center Cut Tenderloin [$25] and Filet Mignon [$30], Prime Rib [$27] and Rib Eye [$32] on the menu. Our steak choices were the Waygu [market], a supremely tender cut cooked medium rare to a perfect, uniform bright pink center. The knife cut was far firmer than one would expect and the flavor was sweet and tender and all that one does dream of.
Even though this feast is weeks behind us, the Waygu is still spoken about with fondness and longing.
A steakhouse staple the Kansas City Strip [$38] is Chef Read’s favorite and for good reason. This steak was firm, with a clean knife cut even at medium rare. Blackened done correctly, enhances, versus overwhelms the beefs superior flavors, and texture.
Steak sauces, though why one would want to obscure the flavors of either cut, are Maytag Blue Cheese Cream, Green Peppercorn Sauce, Whiskey Sauce and Béarnaise.
Steak toppings [$2 each] include crumbled blue cheese, grilled sweet onions, sautéed mushrooms, mushrooms and onions [$3] or bacon and blue cheese [$3.50]. The menu is replete in other steakhouse staples such the aforementioned creamed spinach and cheesy mashed potatoes.
Before you leave, make sure you have the time to share, for its a large dish, Missouri Butter Cake [$13] Level 2’s signature dessert ‘a moist buttery cake with bourbon caramel sauce, fresh berries, vanilla ice cream and fresh whipped cream’. In this case, a picture tells a thousand words. And each one is delicious.
Branson as a convention and tourism destination is maturing. The airport is convenient, the entertainment, while somewhat homespun, has values that make it appropriate for the group or family, and now they have a steakhouse worthy of a much larger destination.
And the martini? Worth traveling to the mid-West for.
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