In 1928, the quiet little borough was home to only five businesses, including a restaurant, a hardware store and a barber shop. Today dozens of shops line the stretch of Johnson Drive between the Mission Center mall and Toto's coffee shop just east of I-35. But it feels like the original five must still be there, invisible and unchanged among a jumble of architectural styles ranging from classic art deco to 1960s grotesque. Still, the dinky, unpolished "city" (population 9,504) is home to an excellent bakery (Chacko's), a lovable movie house (the Fine Arts Theatre) and the only Town Topic on the Kansas side. And despite Mission's determinedly Baptist roots, a wild undercurrent hums down Johnson Drive after dark, thanks to a handful of rollicking bars.
Now there's a new ruby-slippered kid in town, a combination bar and restaurant that seems an unlikely candidate for success in Mission. At MelBee's, well-dressed customers strike poses at a curvy concrete bar, drinking from chilled martini glasses as a pianist effortlessly segues from "Some Enchanted Evening" into -- surprise -- the Judy Garland reverie "Over the Rainbow."
A cultured friend of mine dismisses the space as "pretentious," but it pretends to be exactly what it is: a cocktail lounge with delusions of grandeur, evoking memories of Fred Astaire films, Russell Wright cocktail shakers and Cole Porter lyrics. In contrast to its culinary neighbors down the strip -- Applebee's, Souper Salad! or Village Inn -- it's practically Studio 54. But as my friend Linda observed, "Isn't it time Mission got a little sophistication?"
Well, it already has a little. For the past few months, Linda and her husband Richard, longtime Midtown residents, have been taking tango lessons at a ballroom dance studio in Mission. They were thrilled to discover MelBee's, if only so they wouldn't have to eat greasy burgers or measly salads before their classes.
"Mission's turning into a swinging city," Linda said as she took a seat at a linen-draped table in the taupe dining room. The Friday-night clientele was a cross-section of Johnson County diners: an attractive young family with three kids at one table; a beautifully manicured, pencil-thin matron and her chubby husband; two handsome gay men sipping wine; and, straight across from us, a silver-haired felon who'd once been a Kansas City business powerhouse.
Linda took a sip from a big goblet of Clos du Bois Chardonnay and perused the menu, which I had already warned her about: little portions, big prices. I had eaten here once before, with my friend Bob, who couldn't stop raving about the smoked, grilled beef filet served with a splash of horseradish cream and hot, puffy pommes frites. Later that night, though, he'd had to make himself a peanut butter sandwich. "I was starving," he said.
He isn't the only one who has complained that the petits plats from chef John Beasley's kitchen are way too petite and as costly as a Kansas City strip at one of the area's ritzier steakhouses.
But owner Lloyd Boothe, who named the place after two old friends of his -- the late Melvin and Bee Schlesinger, founders of the Heart of America Kennel Club -- has definite ideas about what he wants MelBee's to be. He wants patrons who are interested in having a tidy little bite with a cold cocktail instead of shoveling down a chicken-fried steak and a baked potato. In fact, later this summer Boothe and his partner, Peter Reddy, plan to move their dining room into the comic-book store next door, keeping the larger main room (which now doubles as bar and eating space) as a lounge.
A friend of mine says he often lounges and dines at the bar "to watch the most interesting collection of rich people and, of course, to stare at Ty Simmons" -- the restaurant's bartender, who looks like a young Rock Hudson. I've decided that all the waiters look or act like some celebrity, including the Nebraska-bred makeup artist who attended to Linda, Richard and me. He sounded like the Jack character from Will & Grace, offering an amusing patter as he scurried out with petite plates arranged like Joseph Cornell sculptures.
Richard looked quizzically at the elegantly composed miniature portions, which included delectable -- if bite-sized --spring lamb chops and domino-shaped brioche with a translucent window of aspic at one end and a savory, gamy pheasant pâté at the other.
Linda and I almost came to fisticuffs over the last of nearly a dozen tissue-thin slices of veal carpaccio, having already practically fenced with our forks over the delicate shavings of tender beef drizzled with white truffle oil. I used one of the accompanying slices of rustic bread (from Costco!) to soak up the rest of the aromatic oil, then wished I'd ordered a second plate of the silken vegetarian spring rolls, with their creamy unsweetened hazelnut sauce.
I was unimpressed with only one of chef Beasley's creations, a plate of overcooked ravioli wrapped around whispers of butternut squash, drifting in a brown butter sauce lightly seasoned with sage. That sauce was wasted on the rubbery pasta -- it was much better covering a bread crust. My spirits were roused, however, by a steaming bowl of mahogany lobster consommé, richly flavored with long-simmered seafood stock and punched up with Thai chiles (spicy, not fiery), with three tiny crabmeat wontons floating on top. Other plates were simply gorgeous: Ordinary mollusks never looked as elegant as Beasley's fat, sweet diver scallops, lightly browned and cloaked in jade-green sweet pea purée. Amber chips of papery fried potato, seemingly embedded with little wisps of cilantro, accompanied pink curls of citrus-cured salmon. A triangle of crispy, autumn-gold fried polenta served as a hearty platform for an intricately sliced chicken breast oozing with fresh herbs and nutty fontina.
Maybe it's this sort of visual artistry that helps MelBee's customers rationalize paying Sotheby's prices for appetizers. Some portions can be doubled -- along with the price -- to create something like a real Kansas City dinner, but it's much more fun to sample a variety of dishes. I gasped when I realized that the tab was inching into the stratosphere, but Linda, Richard and I decided to break the bank and share one of the restaurant's newer desserts. I had, on a previous visit, tried a lightly peppered, shiny -- and boring -- panna cotta custard. This time, Linda and I split a tower of shortcake-style pastry layered with a Grand Marnier-doused custard and lots of fresh-tasting strawberry purée.
It was such a sumptuous finale that, a few nights later, I had one sent over to another table for a friend's birthday. This "tower" looked smaller and was drenched in a frothy zabaglione custard with barely a splash of strawberry purée. Or was it only my eyes deceiving me? After all, there's a lot of hypnotic splash and dazzle going on in this dining room: The liqueurs in the cocktail glasses glow like jewels, the pianist often gets caught up in a dramatic frenzy of showtune bravura and the servers, wafting across the floor in white shirts and long black aprons, smile as if they're ready for a close-up at any given moment.
Who cares if the Fine Arts Theatre is closing its doors and moving to Shawnee? There are stars to be seen at MelBee's. One night, I watched a craggy Robert Mitchum lookalike smoking and drinking exotic cocktails at the bar -- but pointing his pinkie in a way that Mitchum never did. Well, not onscreen, anyway.
Mission may never be the same.