Awhile back, I ran into a woman I'd met in the early 1980s. Back then, she considered herself one of the queens of the hipster scene. She hosted wild parties in her grungy apartment, bragged about sleeping with musicians in the local band of the moment, chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes and dyed her hair a different color every other week. She was always loudly quoting phrases by some existential author or lyrics by some angst-ridden songwriter. I thought she was the essence of bohemian glamour.
And then she vanished. Someone told me that she moved to New York City. Another friend said she'd fled to Paris to escape a violent boyfriend. It was all too enthralling for words.
You can imagine my shock when, after two decades, I saw the bohemian queen again at a local charity event not too long ago. She was still très chic, but in a more conventional, Michael Kors kind of way. Now she was a tidy blonde who wore expensive jewelry. All her teeth had been capped. I suspect there was a little Botox work, too.
She didn't remember who I was, naturally; I'd been, at most, a peripheral character in her social set. I asked if she remembered so-and-so, who had once been one of her best friends. Her smile slightly soured. "We don't run in the same circles," she said with a sigh. "I think she lives in Lee's Summit." It felt like a tart dismissal of both me and the subject, and then she swept off in a cloud of expensive perfume. She had seemed so much more fascinating to me in the old days, when she had nothing but intensity and attitude.
I tell this story because I had the same reaction to the new Room 39 in Leawood. The original Room 39 is a cozy and unpretentious café on 39th Street's restaurant row in midtown. The bigger and brighter Leawood outpost has many components of the original restaurant: a menu that changes daily, friendly and attentive service, baskets of Farm to Market bread, even an artistic homage to the pressed-tin ceilings of the 39th Street venue.
It's the same but different. And that's not because of the décor, which is stylishly simple: The sunny room has been painted in shades of celery and turquoise, the tables are draped in white linens, and the soundtrack is light and jazzy. It's a pretty room, but not as warm and welcoming as the smaller, less sleek location. Not until my second visit was I able to figure out what it was about the place that felt cold. There's an attitude here, all right, possibly influenced by the more upscale clientele or the owners leaning toward a more formal style. The new Room 39 is distinctly hoity-toity.
"You don't have to see it to feel it," said my dining companion, KCUR 89.3's Walt Bodine, who has lost a good deal of his vision. "It has none of the congenial spirit of the old place."
My friend Bob, who visited on another night, disagreed. "I don't think this place puts on airs at all. It just doesn't have any of the charm of the other restaurant. That location is unique," he said as our server delivered a gorgeous salad of lump crab with crème fraîche. "This is just, you know, a bigger, cleaner version in a brand-new development. And most of the clientele is older and kind of stuffy."
Stuffy? I had to look twice at a couple of stone-faced patrons to confirm that they were even alive! But Bob and our friends Robert and Debbie were a trio of live wires. They liked this incarnation of Room 39 better than I did, though Debbie noted that the expensively mounted Mission Woods shopping complex would probably prefer a "sanitized version of any place you'd find on 39th Street."
The original Room 39 was created in 2004 by two young chefs, Ted Habiger and Andrew Sloan. Sloan oversees the kitchen at the Leawood location, and the food is as fine as it was when he was cooking in the midtown restaurant. The dinner menu changes daily, but there's usually a beef or pork entrée, a scallops number and one other seafood dish, and a vegetarian creation — risotto on both my visits.
Once we passed the amuse-bouche presentation — a dollop of salmon mousse on a thin circle of tart apple — and I was able to dig into my "Two Way" Caesar salad, it was easy to ignore the tastefully attired zombies at the next table. This Caesar did indeed swing both ways: On one plate, a hunky grilled romaine heart, lightly drizzled with dressing, nestled romantically against a more demure, traditional, chopped-up Caesar.
Debbie was a bit miffed that her cup of clam chowder arrived with a handful of oyster crackers already thrown in. "I prefer to put the crackers in myself," she said.
But she was more than placated by a delicate and flaky pan-seared barramundi served with "forbidden rice," a black heirloom rice that, our server explained, was historically reserved for ancient Chinese emperors because it was healthy or an aphrodisiac — or both. Robert had the supple sea scallops — also reportedly an aphrodisiac, though we didn't notice him growing any more animated or excited during the meal. Perhaps the bacon-and-apple-cider reduction toned down the sexy side effects. Beef-loving Bob, meanwhile, approved of his juicy 14-ounce ribeye with roasted garlic mashers.
I'm a sucker for grilled lamb, and Sloan's racy rack was exceptionally tender and flavorful — so good, in fact, that I couldn't take a bite of the dessert that Bob insisted on tasting, a wine-poached pear dressed up with balsamic syrup, crunchy pistachios and blue cheese.
My second visit was the one with Walt, a man of unfussy tastes who couldn't be lured by the idea of roasted duck breast with blueberry pan sauce or risotto Milanese with balsamic-marinated cipollini onions.
"Don't they have a steak?" he asked.
They did. Another 14-ounce ribeye, this time slathered with pancetta butter. Walt didn't want that much beef, so the staff graciously found a smaller slab, an 11-ounce cut, for him and even sliced it up back in the kitchen. "It's kind of fatty," Walt said after a few bites. I took a taste and thought it was wonderful, but I vastly preferred what turned out to be an extraordinarily good pork loin chop, prepared saltimbocca-style, stuffed with prosciutto, sage and luscious, slow-ripened Grana Padano cheese.
Walt and I shared a wonderful old-fashioned dessert, a hot apple crisp with fat slices of the real forbidden fruit in a bubbling caramel sauce, blanketed with a crispy pastry-crumble topping. While Walt nibbled at his portion, I tried not to stare at the middle-aged couple unabashedly smooching at the next table.
"Maybe this restaurant isn't so uptight after all," I whispered to Walt. And then I noticed a well-dressed senior citizen at another table, giving an evil eye to the lusty lovers.
At the bigger Room 39, there's room for everyone: the good, the bad and the hoity-toity.