Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Pain and Pleasure

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Kansas Citians like to think that their town's most famous contributions to the American cultural landscape are jazz, barbecue and Harry S. Truman. But the real Kansas City export that changed life in America was the Country Club Plaza, the nation's first suburban shopping center. This concept, created by real estate developer J.C. Nichols in 1922, unwittingly set the wheels in motion for the death of the traditional downtown -- in both metropolitan areas and modest-sized cities -- as a retail and entertainment center.

Long before Sam Walton's Wal-Mart stores were putting mom-and-pop operations out of business, those suburban shopping malls, modeled after the auto-friendly J.C. Nichols template, were easily luring customers away from the inner city. Why go downtown, where it was so hard to find a parking place, when the nearby shopping center made it all so convenient?

The punch line, of course, is that in the past two decades, the Country Club Plaza has become more of an old-style "downtown" -- with high-rise office buildings, shiny new hotels and condos, lots of chain retail outlets, and at least one swinging nightclub. It's no longer a pretty suburban shopping center with such neighborhood amenities as a drugstore, a supermarket, a dime store and a bowling alley. What happened to that Plaza?

There's a framed black-and-white photograph in the new M&S Grill (located, symbolically, near the restrooms) of the Plaza in those simpler days. It's a picture of a man dressed as Santa Claus standing near a 1950s-vintage rocket. It's a hilariously bizarre artistic note -- totally out of character -- in the front dining room, which is otherwise free of any personality. Don't get me wrong: The place is not unglamorous or unsophisticated. It's a very attractive restaurant, but soulless. And like most of the Plaza's restaurants, it's an import.

When the owners of M&S Grill, Portland, Oregon-based McCormick & Schmick's, gutted a former retail space for its fifth grill-concept restaurant, they chose not to copy the 19th-century interior décor of the Oregon or Baltimore locations. Instead they created what my friend Ned calls "toned-down Prairie Style." It's been toned down, all right, to the point that there's no style at all. Yes, it boasts all of the tasteful interior touches of most modern corporate-owned restaurants (including P.F. Chang's next door): shiny wooden floors, uncloaked tables, comfortable booths, attentive servers in starched white aprons. The conceit is that the place appears to have been around for decades rather than installed last July.

The space is huge, almost cavernous. On my first visit, I felt like I'd passed an army of servers and at least three giant dessert trays on my way to a table in the less noisy back dining room. It's hard for an interior this overwhelming to make a creative statement, but the food speaks volumes. It's stylish, beautifully presented and unexpectedly delicious -- almost sensational. And it had damn well better be; the prices are steep, right in line with those of the Capital Grille. Where did I hear that M&S Grill was not going head-to-head with the other top-dollar steakhouses? There are no bargains on this menu. In fact, the Capital Grille's 14-ounce filet mignon is only about four bucks more expensive than the 9-ounce cut at M&S Grill. (The M&S beef does include spuds.)

One friend calls it the S&M Grill because "the pleasure of the meal is tempered by the pain of the prices." I had a little masochism action myself on my first visit to M&S; I ate way too much and was moaning (not necessarily with pleasure) as I waddled out the door. How could I not go wild with lust when I saw an appetizer called "Crab Tater Tots" on the menu? I was with Bob, Marilyn and Sidonie, and we all scanned the menu and caught those same alluring words -- tater tots -- at the same moment. "We must have those," Sidonie said. She wanted the bacon-bound -- excuse me, bacon-wrapped -- barbecued shrimp, too.

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