It's spring, when a chef's fancy turns to morels, ramps and other seasonal ingredients.
"For me, it's always exciting to be able to use certain ingredients," says Josh Rathbun, executive chef at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse in the Ambassador Hotel. "It's going to be my first menu in springtime here."
Rathbun will be using all the locally grown ingredients he can get his hands on to complement Siena's steaks, seafood and handmade pasta dishes. Morels are wild mushrooms prized for their rich, earthy flavor. They can't be cultivated, only found. The chef's family connections around Kansas provide access to enough acreage to source the restaurant. Ramps are wild onions, "super small and tender," in Rathbun's words. He'll grill them fresh and "probably pickle a bunch so we can use them" after their short season has passed.
"I really like fava beans and ramps," Rathbun says. "They're so wonderful, you don't have to do much to them."
Rathbun, who took over at Siena last summer, seems like the ideal candidate to head an upscale Kansas steakhouse. Since beginning his career at The Anchor and Cibola in Wichita, he's cooked in fine dining establishments in Denver and Australia. He has also worked here as a butcher in the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop, known for its Creekstone steaks and other locally sourced produces.
It was actually a medical emergency that brought Rathbun home: he needed a kidney transplant, which his cousin Brett provided. Today he's healthy and, as this article was being prepared, was expecting a second child with his wife, Andrea.
Succulent Creekstone steaks, produced down the road in Arkansas City, Kan., form the backbone of the "manzo" or beef menu at Siena: center-cut filets, Kansas City strip, ribeye and the Vegas strip are grilled to perfection.
In addition to seasonal ingredients and steaks, Rathbun is passionate about pasta. Siena makes its own in an array of shapes and sizes, from ravioli stuffed with braised short ribs to black fettuccine (made with squid ink) that's tossed with lobster and shrimp.
Spring is also the season for some special occasion brunches including Easter (April 17) and Mother's Day (May 14). Siena will also be fea- turing specials around National Administrative Professionals Day (April 24-28).
Rathbun tinkers with Siena's menu about every six weeks, so if you haven't eaten there lately, there's sure to be something new worth trying, along with a few favorites like bucatini with meatballs that have earned a permanent spot. The restau- rant's lunch menu includes sandwiches and flat- breads, and happy hour specials — featuring half-price Kansas microbrews and bar bites starting at $6 — are a great introduction to the place.
One other change Rathbun has made is bringing in pastry chef, Britt Shoffner, who's created desserts such as chocolate and hazelnut semifreddo (a type of mousse topping flourless chocolate cake). "That's something I've wanted to do since I started here," Rathbun said.