I have a dream that someday in Kansas City, I'll be served a cheese plate that doesn't look as though it had been hastily assembled for — or by — a group of third-graders.
There is something both romantic and elegant in a proper assiette de fromage, that combination of fruit, cheese and bread designed as the overture to a good meal. Think of 16th-century poet Giovanni della Casa comparing the qualities of a kiss with cheese and pears. Around here, though, restaurant cheese plates rarely aspire to much more than a peck on the cheek.
Still, my hopes were high for the version I ordered at the two-month-old Baked in Kansas City. I figured that the bread would be very good, and it was. But the rest of the plate was a still life of disappointing elements: a few bland balls of goat cheese, several slices of creamy brie, a hunk of milky Spanish manchego surrounded by a fan of sliced strawberries, a smattering of fresh raspberries and blueberries, a few oily olives. A kiss this was not.
This is a problem only because Baked in Kansas City clearly means to be much more than a mere kiss. Its object is something closer to a long, loving caress, starting with breakfast and lasting through a late dinner.
Baked is the dream project of restaurateur Frank Sebree, who did an impressive job reviving the former Majestic Steakhouse (now the Majestic Restaurant, at 931 Broadway) after it had lost much of its old luster. Sebree wanted to stage a similar makeover here, returning the brick building on the less raucous side of Westport — once the beloved Napoleon Bakery — to its roots as a place for bread and pastries. The plan didn't stop there, though. Sebree also set out to create serious dining: lunch, dinner and a weekend brunch, each with a separate, ambitious (sometimes too ambitious) menu.
To bring all of this to life, Sebree installed an imaginative kitchen staff, including executive chef Liz Huffman (who holds the same position at the Majestic), sous chef Grant Klover and pastry chef Nicolette Foster. To that team's credit, this restaurant mostly works. That cheese plate may lack ingenuity, but the main courses, like the pretty pastries in the glass display cases, are often close to perfect.
I have to pick on another starter, though, because it sums up the clash between Baked's aspiration and its execution. I've twice ordered the menu's trio of distinctly different deviled eggs, and both times I've wondered how the plate made it past testing. The old-fashioned preparation — dusted in paprika — is fine but not especially flavorful, but the other two don't justify the experiment. One egg is purple from a sherry marinade yet dominated by a harsh vinegar flavor; the third is a breaded and deep-fried version that comes on like a brawny KFC nugget but offers nothing beyond the novelty of its crunch. Contrary to popular lore, there are some culinary creations that fail to be enhanced by deep-frying. We can now add deviled eggs to that list — and scratch these eggs off Baked's good-ideas list.
But the brunch here — in this restaurant's sunny, plum-colored dining room — is a fine idea. Huffman takes advantage of Baked's being essentially a satellite of the Majestic by using that downtown restaurant's high-quality beef. That means a tough choice between a thick, first-rate steak burger (which comes, naturally, on a fat brioche bun) and a hearty prime-rib hash. Both are excellent.
On a recent Saturday morning, I was seduced by a grilled panini, the slices of sourdough bread encasing a thick, succulent mound of rich duck confit, pickled onions and a slice of Swiss. It's a magnificent sandwich, and it's only improved by a stack of hand-cut fries — particularly if you choose the ones that have been fried in goose fat. From a cholesterol perspective, it's a brush with heart disease. But as a meal, it's a brush with the divine.
There are less decadent choices on both the brunch and the lunch menus, of course, but why settle for a salad when there's a pancetta Benedict dripping in hollandaise on house-made focaccia? Or when the French toast comes amply stuffed with raspberry cream cheese? Well, don't settle. As a rule, the more meaty or cheesy or rich-sounding a dish is at Baked — the more unabashedly stimulating you imagine it might be — the better it really is. Who needs the light, poetic kiss of a cheese plate when other dishes offer to plant a big fat hickey?
Things get more carnal in the evening, in the more intimate dining area adjacent to the bakery-case-dominated main space. When Sebree gutted the old Napoleon, he replaced a little-used kitchen area with a cozy anteroom, painted in sexy shades of purple and red. The dinner menu touches on a few aphrodisiac ingredients, and certain dishes beckon like a siren. I couldn't resist a bowl of pasta blanketed in a sauce of bubbling Gruyere, white cheddar, blue and Muenster cheeses. I had mine with thick, fleshy slices of quivering pork belly, but it also was excellent without the meat.
Equally alluring is Huffman's steak frites, boasting a tidy slab of culotte (the tri-tip end of bottom sirloin), topped with a smoked-paprika béarnaise. (It wasn't grilled exactly as I ordered it, and neither was my burger a few days later; this kitchen likes to see pink.)
The meaty bison short ribs, slow-braised in Anchor porter, were sumptuous, and they came with turnips sliced nearly as thick as paperback novels. They were allegedly roasted, but I found them too bitter and not tender enough.
The best thing about dinner in a bakery is that the dessert possibilities for the finale can be head-spinning. Baked offers an enticing assortment of house-made ice creams and sorbets to go with its pastries, and the salted-caramel ice cream that I tasted was enthrallingly candylike. What I really wanted was one of chef Foster's "BKC candy bars," each a squat, dense brick of chocolate enameled in shiny caramel. They tend to sell out long before dinner, though, and for good reason.
I found a different antidote to my overindulgence in goose-fat fries: a custard tart embedded with fresh fruit. That's always better than a kiss, and it never goes too far.