Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Bright Spot

The Red Star Tavern may be slightly dull in the kitchen, but sparks fly in the dining room.

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No one's ever going to mistake the new brick shopping complex in Kansas City North -- called the Shops at Boardwalk -- for a little slice of Atlantic City. That's too bad, because it would have been an unexpected thrill if the developers had copied some of the New Jersey Boardwalk's more vulgar qualities. Instead of a traditional shopping mall with the usual conglomeration of corporate stores, the Shops at Boardwalk could have really shaken up the Northland and added a gaudy casino, a few saltwater-taffy stands, a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum and a 65-foot wooden elephant. That would have been a Boardwalk rather than a bored walk.

Instead, the Shops at Boardwalk seem to have been patterned after Leawood's Town Center Plaza -- a perfectly nice, perfectly ordinary suburban shopping center. The one odd apple in the barrel is the cavernous Red Star Tavern. The humongous restaurant arrives in Kansas City courtesy of the Chicago-based Restaurant Development Group, which operates a dozen casual-dining venues, mostly in Midwestern shopping malls.

Unlike RDG's more established chains, such as Bar Louie or Chelsea Tavern, the Red Star Tavern is considered a slightly fancy "casual American concept." Red Star Taverns have "a larger selection of entrées, with more varieties of fish, shellfish and meat, a larger selection of wine and a hostess at the door," says Liza Lathouris, the company's director of marketing and public relations. In other words, the restaurant embodies that fabulous new oxymoron "upscale casual," or, more succinctly, middle-class sophistication.

"We also see more families at Red Star Tavern," Lathouris says. Maybe she does, but I didn't see a single kid on any of my forays into the restaurant, which resembles an airplane hangar that's been creatively converted into two mammoth rooms, one for drinking, smoking and eating, the other for dining without smoke. The oversized photographic prints hanging on the walls are so slick and vacuous that they feel more like Abercrombie & Fitch ads than art. The message? Gorgeous young people come here to embrace, laugh and smoke.

"Those are there to attract beautiful couples and tell them what they're supposed to be doing later," said my friend Bob, admiring a swarthy hunk and his sloe-eyed girlfriend (she had frosted-pink eyelids, like one of Tony Soprano's dancers) at the next table.

Trust me, most of the couples I saw dining at the Red Star -- not to mention the line of broad-shouldered guys in red Chiefs jackets hanging out at the bar -- don't need lessons on what to do later. In fact, after a few of the restaurant's more potent martinis (including the provocatively named Tease, made with vodka and Sour Apple Pucker, which Bob sent back because "it was just too sweet"), God only knows what happens in the parking lot.

Still, the Red Star Tavern would be the last place I'd take a date, particularly for a meal in the dining area. That room had so many hard surfaces -- limestone walls, lots of windows, a stainless-steel kitchen tucked behind glass panels -- that the noise was sometimes deafening. There may be a method to the madness, though. "The sound level forces you to get closer to each other," my friend Joy observed as she looked around at some of the couples snuggled together in the comfortable booths. "I mean, it's the only way to have an actual conversation."

That was the night that Bob, Joy, Lou Jane and I yelled across the table to hear each other. Finally, Bob gave up and finished his meal in silence. "It was too much work to try to figure out what you were all talking about," he said later.

Mostly we were talking about the manly bar food. There's nothing wildly imaginative on the menu, although even basic tavern dishes such as onion rings get a glamorous presentation: The thick, golden bangles of crunchy onions come stacked on a wooden dowel, accompanied by a punchy chipolte mayonnaise. "I told you that you'd love them!" said our server, the savvy and attentive Jenesa, who also had told us that we'd love the skillet corn bread topped with honey maple butter. Love it? We didn't even like it. One of the weirdest appetizers I've ever encountered, the yellow disc was slathered with so much honey and sugar that it looked like a relic from some rural church bake sale; it tasted like coffee cake, despite bits of jalapeño that did nothing to tone down the jarring sweetness. One bite was more than enough for a lifetime.

Because most of the menu has been inspired by other old-fashioned supper dishes -- pot roast, ribs, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese -- I worried about how chef Todd Mitchell might tinker with those recipes. But the old standbys are solid and rewarding. Lou Jane could barely make a dent in her juicy prime rib, and the stuffed baked potato it came with was nearly as big as the beef. Bob's pot roast, served on a mound of steaming mashed potatoes, was real grandma-style stuff: tender chunks of long-simmered beef cooked with pearl onions, celery, carrots and peas. It was wonderful but not nearly as good as my hunk of barbecued meatloaf (the Red Star bottles its own brand of hot-sweet barbecue sauce, made with lots of brown sugar, ketchup and a chipolte purée); the frazzle of fried onion straws on top was impressive, too.

We had the highest expectations for -- and were most disappointed by -- the dish that Joy ordered. The menu had promised a flaky fish "crusted in hazelnuts." Joy looked forward to a fish with a crunchy crust, but the hazelnuts must have been pounded into a fine powder before being dusted onto the fish, which was tender and moist but not particularly flavorful or even interesting.

Even sadder were the commissary desserts we sampled, including a ridiculously huge slab of otherwise unremarkable chocolate layer cake and some caramel-chocolate ice cream confection.

A few nights later, Bob and I returned with Melissa, who insisted that we sit on the bar side (where the acoustics were better) so that she could smoke lots of cigarettes before, during and after her dinner. She gave all the single guys the once-over, immediately dismissing a potbellied Grizzly Adams type patting his tummy on the rust-colored love seat. But she snapped to attention when a group of four nice-looking goombas crowded around an adjoining four-top. "Who even knew that this place was out here?" she asked.

Melissa and I shared the BLT salad, a fat wedge of iceberg lettuce dripping with a Parmesan ranch dressing and lots of blue cheese and crunchy bacon. Later, she raved over her beautifully roasted rotisserie chicken. I wished I had ordered that instead of the seared-fish tacos, made with odd-looking cubes of mahi mahi and something the menu called "cabbage salsa" that tasted like plain old grated cabbage. Bob's 10-ounce sirloin, though, was expertly grilled and nearly fork-tender.

Melissa insisted on dessert, so we chose the apple pie, which was served chilled on a custard base. Blah! Later I discovered that only the bread pudding and the Key lime cheesecake are made at the restaurant; the others are shipped in from a Chicago baker.

The martinis probably outsell the chocolate cake anyway. "You can't help but like this place," Melissa said as we squeezed our way out of the busy bar. "It has something going for it."

That something is a palpably sexy energy, which may be the only thing this ersatz Boardwalk has in common with the more famous one on the Jersey shore.

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