Every restaurant needs a personality. Anton's Taproom and Restaurant, at 16th Street and Main, hasn't stopped at just one.
It's not just a restaurant. It's also a saloon, with 72 beers on tap. And a butcher shop. And an art gallery. Oh, and there's the sustainability center in the basement, where baby-lettuce plants grow under artificial light and, in a different, glass-enclosed space — black, bubbling tanks about the size of bathtubs — tilapia is raised.
Anton Kotar, who opened his namesake venue last month, seems to have packed a whole career's worth of restaurateur ambition into the place. And now it has yet another identity: You can call it a success.
I've eaten at Anton's at least five times, and the main dining room (which also holds the bar) has been packed on each occasion, even weeknights. It's an attractive space, lighted with an array of mismatched chandeliers and with black-and-white harlequin triangles painted onto the building's old wood floors. The room is noisy when the place is full, but the sound is convivial rather than annoying. And the voices you hear mainly belong to men.
"Are the patrons here always mostly male?" I asked my server one night. He looked at me with undisguised incredulity.
"This is a steakhouse," he answered.
Oh, right — Anton's is also a steakhouse.
In fact, the succulent, dry-aged beef here is among the work-in-progress menu's more stable choices. Weeks after Anton's official opening, the single-page listing of starters, salads and dinner choices is still printed in red and gray ink (in a hard-to-read typeface), with the red items reliably available and the gray (chicken-fried steak, braised pork belly, fish tacos, that tilapia) still missing in action.
On one of my visits, a server aggressively steered me toward a rib-eye that he insisted had been aging nearly as long as I have. It sounded tempting, and his pitch was sure and amusing. But at more than $2 an ounce, my entrée would have cost more than my cable bill. I settled on a 7-ounce filet instead and was rewarded with one of the most beautifully prepared, delicious filets I've ever eaten in Kansas City. It was so good that I almost wish I had thrown caution to the wind and ordered the rib-eye. Almost.
One of my favorite places to sit in the restaurant is at the four-seat counter that faces the kitchen and prep area. The kitchen crew at Anton's is top-notch, and it can be a pleasure simply to see people at work when they're this serious about turning out good food. I stopped in one night for a sandwich and watched one of the cooks carefully slicing fat from some well-marbled hunks of beef, fastidiously saving the scraps. "We render them and use the tallow in other dishes," the cook explained.
That combination of transparency and sustainability amounts to the real identity at Anton's. If the staff members aren't too busy, they'll happily take customers to the basement to see the lettuce and the herbs and the tilapia tubs. (When I worked in restaurants, it was rare to see a kitchen crew recycle anything; a lot of perfectly good foodstuffs were thrown in the trash at the end of the night.)
The hamburgers here — 8 ounces of house-ground beef — are splendid, and the fries hold their own in that company. The meat in the fried-chicken sandwich is good, but the concoction is nearly impossible to eat gracefully. The two chicken tenders, fried in a thick armor of crunchy batter, are tucked into a bun slathered with way too much whole-ground mustard. It's a yellow accident waiting to happen. The best sandwich is a heap of tender short-rib meat piled on a bun with caramelized onion, fresh arugula, a slice of Gruyère cheese and mushrooms.
At a glance, the Anton's menu doesn't seem to offer much for vegetarians (give or take the salads and the tempura-fried pickles). But one night, I watched some dazzling bowls of roasted veggies — fresh-picked carrots cooked with sage, amber slices of butternut squash glazed with honey and cayenne pepper — steam out of the compact kitchen. They were featured specials that evening.
Kotar has hired Carter Holton, one of the best pastry chefs in the city, to create the desserts for the restaurant, and Holton's list changes frequently. One night's offerings included a lemon tart, profiteroles filled with brown-butter-and-praline ice cream, and a bourbon-pecan bread pudding served on a puddle of silky caramel sauce. I went for the bread pudding, and its texture and consistency were just right. It would have been extraordinary if served warm. (Cold bread pudding always tastes sad and leftover to me.)
I expected a little attitude from a place with such a distinct hipness quotient, but the service at Anton's was smooth, professional and generally first-rate. That hip factor emerges in the occasional joke, with the staff's collective wit tending toward a half-ironic arrogance: "I'm just here," one server told me, "to guide you through the dining experience."
Well, a guide comes in handy when a restaurant has multiple personalities and a maze of interior destinations — the art gallery is upstairs, and the butcher shop is just south of the kitchen. Anton's Taproom is still figuring out which of its voices should be dominant, but whatever identity the place settles into will be anything but ordinary.