Movie remakes are rarely as interesting as the originals. The same goes for restaurant remakes. What makes a certain restaurant inherently lovable and unique is hard to re-create in a different location. There's always something missing, even if what's absent isn't immediately definable.
It's an axiom that has led to some notable flops. The second La Mediterranee (the short-lived bistro in an Overland Park strip center in the '90s), for example, was a shabby version of the pretty Plaza original. The Accurso's restaurant now on Main Street lacks the joie de vivre of the restaurant's first incarnation — though I can tell you what's missing: Joe Accurso. And the two or three versions of the Lobster Pot that followed the popular Union Station restaurant were sad, pale imitations.
There are exceptions. When the Mirabile family moved Jasper's Restaurant from 75th Street and Wornall to Watts Mill, it became less formal, more accessible and, frankly, a lot more relaxing. Not everyone likes the Stroud's in Fairway, where it's not at all like the beloved 1930s roadhouse off Troost. But I think Mike Donegan has kept the spirit of the iconic place, and the quality of the food is mostly intact.
Which brings me to the three-month-old Michael Forbes Bar & Grille, a kind of remake of a remake. The first restaurant, simply called Michael Forbes Grill, opened in 1985 in a has-been Waldo strip center. It closed in 1999, but owner Forbes Cross tried to draw a second lightning strike in 2003, when he opened another restaurant of the same name in a free-standing building at 5200 West 95th Street. I'm not sure it lasted a year.
"It was the wrong location," Cross admits today.
It was the wrong everything. If the Waldo restaurant had been laid-back, clubby and eccentric, the Prairie Village remake was the Stepford Wives version: cold, lifeless and filled with mostly cold, lifeless people. The first Michael Forbes was a dining room where everyone seemed to know your name. The Johnson County version was a place where you didn't want anyone to know your name — or your dinner order, some nights.
When Forbes Cross took over the old Sharp's location, on 63rd Street, he'd finally found the right location for a Michael Forbes remake: Brookside. No one was ever going to remember Sharp's for its cuisine — the food was almost always mediocre — but it had a loyal following for its congenial ambience and several really wonderful servers (including veteran Gregory Marino, who has been schlepping plates at this address since Lindsay Lohan was in diapers).
Sharp's was clubby, too — maybe too much so at times. There were regulars who not only knew your name but also could say how many times you'd been to rehab. That kind of intimacy I don't need before coffee on a Sunday morning.
Avoiding that overfamiliarity is probably why I haven't yet forced myself to eat breakfast — or even the $10 weekend brunch — at Michael Forbes Bar & Grille. I've heard from friends that the brunch buffet is underwhelming, but when eggs, fruit and potatoes come at that price, who cares?
Framed menus from the original Michael Forbes Grill and some of the other Forbes Cross creations hang on the mint walls of the freshly decorated Michael Forbes Bar & Grille (which is now so squeaky clean, I thought I had walked into the wrong building). I was a fan of the old Parkway 600 and an Italian-style place in Johnson County called Martini's; his CV also includes the hoity-toity Japengo. The current Michael Forbes menu has Forbes Cross dishes from almost all of those previous ventures, but it concentrates on that first restaurant.
You might think that, given modern concerns about cholesterol and fat, diners would avoid a signature dish restored to the new menu: fried catfish. But no such health consciousness has gripped his client base. "We can barely keep it in the kitchen," Cross says.
I'm not supposed to be eating catfish myself, but I daringly shared the meal with a friend one night, and it was luxuriously moist and flaky under a golden, crispy crust. (The watery lemon-dill tartar sauce wasn't so memorable, though.)
Cross ought to consider putting his persistently fresh catfish in the tacos he serves here. The grilled fish in this boring platter was shredded so fine, I could have been eating canned tuna slathered with chili aioli. If not for the mound of cabbage tucked in the soft tortilla, I might have starved.
Forbes' son, 25-year-old Matt Cross, oversees the kitchen, which is capable of better: the pot-roast soup is hearty and satisfying, the steamed mussels — served in an aluminum pot, in a sauce of lemon, wine and dill — are fresh and plump. A family-recipe "green olive Bolognaise" is a winner, a mound of spaghetti heaped with a meaty (beef and Italian sausage), robustly seasoned sugo with lots of mushrooms and small stuffed green olives. I could barely make my way through a bowl.
An expensive garlic filet is doused in garlic sauce, but a better deal is the less showy but very fine steak mirin (juicy slices of the teres major cut) marinated in soy, garlic, cilantro and shallots, and expertly grilled.
There are only a few desserts here, all made in-house (including a white-chocolate bread pudding created from Parker House rolls). A slab of iced chocolate cake is listed as "double chocolate fudge cake," but it's neither — clearly baked and frosted with milk chocolate. "We use half dark and half milk chocolate," Cross explains. It's a tasty, old-fashioned layer cake, but I'd prefer more dark chocolate. And the "famous sour cream apple pie" needs a lot more sour cream to earn celebrity status.
Still, why quibble? Cross has been in the restaurant business a long time, and on his third Michael Forbes go-round, he clearly means to give his customers what they want. He personally interviewed every server in the joint, and the result is a motley but well-trained staff with skill and personality. This includes a quick-witted server (yes, the one last seen at Accurso's) who recently responded to a customer's "Do you have any hard rolls?" with an immediate "Not for a couple of weeks, but I might get lucky tonight."
I swear I heard him use the same line at the original Michael Forbes Grill. He says he wasn't there, but I think we've all been to Michael Forbes Bar & Grille before.