In Kansas City, there's a tradition of swinging from Point A to Point Z without ever looking back, because the bigger the jump, the greater the change. Take the case of that scrappy local salesgirl named Billie Cassin, who worked for her mother's laundry business, waited tables and scrubbed floors until she hopped a train out of Union Station one day in the 1920s and was reborn several years later as movie star Joan Crawford.
Venues can also undergo dramatic changes. Two years ago, the Milwaukee-based Marcus Hotels & Resorts chain elegantly refurbished the once-grand Hotel Phillips, finally turning some serious attention to the wood-paneled dining room, which opened as the Walnut Room in 1931 but is probably best remembered as the dowdy Sir Loin Room and, in its last incarnation before the hotel's 2001 renovation, the Walt Bodine Steakhouse.
At that time, Marcus decided there were already too many other steak and chop houses between Crown Center and downtown, so the former Walnut Room became the inexpensive but innovative Platters. For a set price ($16.95 at dinner), customers were served an all-you-can-eat meal that included salad and four entrées. Not one of four entrées but all four at once. The food, created by chef Carl Scavuzzo (who left to open his own Italian restaurant in Overland Park), was good -- and a bargain -- but it was a concept that demanded volume business, which too few restaurants in the downtown loop could sustain. Platters might have worked on the Country Club Plaza, but in that twilight zone known as downtown Kansas City, it stayed open less than a year.
Suddenly it didn't matter that there was too much steakhouse competition in the area. Marcus swapped concepts, reopening the dining room in April as the Phillips Chophouse and installing chef Michael Dunn in the kitchen and actor-turned-restaurateur Paul Dionne as the congenial dining room director. But the biggest change is the restaurant's price point. Good-bye, bargain supper; hello, dinner tabs that average about $50 a person. The most inexpensive entrée on the silvery new menu is a bowl of pappardelle pasta, richly laden with artichokes and briny kalamata olives, for $16; the other entrées range from $22 to $38.
"When we switched over from Platters to the Chophouse, we made a night-and-day concept change," Dionne says. "It's much more expensive than Platters now, but we're competing with steakhouses like Capital Grille and Plaza III. And unlike those restaurants, we offer a potato and vegetable as part of the dinner."
Yes, but unlike those restaurants, which pour a generous glass of vino (and at those prices, they should), Phillips Chophouse has high prices and stingy pours. My friends Jim and Marie succumbed one night to our sloe-eyed assistant server's sultry suggestion of the Domaine Laroche Premier Cru chablis -- at $13 a glass -- and were startled to each receive a slender goblet that was less than half-full. They were too scandalized to order a second glass.
I know what you're thinking: If an inexpensive dinner concept couldn't make it in this space, can it find success as a high-priced, fine-dining venue? Well, it's worth a try. The Savoy Grill has been the only upscale dining room north of 14th Street in decades, and there's certainly no competition from the lowbrow hotel restaurants in the neighborhood (which can be lumped together under the heading Dumb and Dumberer). The 72-year-old dining room is still stunningly beautiful and commands the dignity of formal service, which Dionne has returned to the space after a long, long absence (particularly during those laid-back years as the Walt Bodine Steakhouse). At the new Phillips Chophouse, service is formal but not flawless. The first time I dined there, our group was greeted by a waitress in a buttoned-up vest and pigtails who looked straight at us -- three men and one woman -- and asked, "Can I bring you guys something to drink?"
While we "guys" were waiting for our drinks, all of us became aware of the background music -- too loud, too pounding, too crass. "It's like the soundtrack of a porno film," whispered my friend Bob, buttering a piece of rustic garlic bread. Mary blushed, looking around at the three other occupied tables in the room. We were, by far, the youngest diners there. The servers are even younger -- and beautiful -- which made us forget the throbbing disco beat while we shared two disappointing appetizers: six rubbery, flavorless escargots in the shell, and a tiny sliver of pan-seared foie gras lolling on an airy fried wonton.
Dinners were a vast improvement, though Mary's husband, Randy, found the intense, gamy flavor and aroma of his thick wild-boar chops too disturbing to finish; I took a hunk myself and found it tender but with a violently pungent aftertaste. Bob was thrilled with a luscious wood-fired strip, dripping with rosemary butter and served with an artfully constructed twice-baked potato whipped with cream and wild mushrooms. The potato was mushroom-colored, and, oddly enough, so was the creamy polenta that served as the nest for my dinner, a golden chicken breast stuffed with herbs and dappled with chopped olives, artichokes and tomatoes. Loved the bird, but the gray-brown polenta was a visual turnoff.
Mary savored the taste of her flaky, potato-crusted halibut, gorgeously presented on a bed of jade-colored leeks in truffle sauce, but she couldn't understand why it was served in an awkwardly shaped bowl and accompanied by two dry crusts of grilled baguette that stuck out of the bowl like two rabbit ears.
When I returned on a Saturday evening (with Jim, Marie and Bob), the dining room was no busier and the patrons no more spry, though the same thumping disco beat resonated. "It's so out of place," Jim said, taking a spoonful of one of the featured appetizers, a quivering square of polenta baked with bits of crawfish. It was described as "fritters" on the menu but was served as a hot, fluffy slab rather than something crunchy and deep-fried. The spring rolls, filled with seasoned duck, were crunchy and fried -- and delicious -- and served with a wonderful seaweed salad.
The three salads available are artistically composed (particularly the painterly Chophouse Salad, tossed in a brash, purple huckleberry vinaigrette) but costly. Two of us shared the lightly grilled hearts of romaine salad, doused in a garlicky aioli and served with those boring baguette slices.
The slab of cedar-plank salmon I ordered was brawny and full-flavored, though the accompanying cipollini onion risotto was surprisingly salty. Bob's center cut of beef was juicy and fork-tender. It was served with chef Dunn's trompe l'oeil pommes William, a potato croquette filled with brie cheese and molded to look like a fresh pear, then lightly fried. It was a superb tribute to an era when the fanciest restaurants in town were usually located in hotels and served dozens of stylish variations on the lowly spud. Two classic hotel kitchen dishes, lobster Thermidor and veal Oscar, are featured on the menu. Jim ordered the veal (named for Sweden's King Oscar, not the legendary maitre d' at the old Waldorf), and we both loved Dunn's version, which draped curls of tender veal over sliced fingerling potatoes and asparagus, mounding this with flaky crabmeat and blanketing the whole thing with a creamy hollandaise instead of the traditional béarnaise.
The Chophouse takes an equally unorthodox approach to the dessert tray. The classic crème brûlée is deconstructed here, the egg custard floating free on a passion fruit pedestal, then fitted with an amber pane of hardened sugar candy. Another sculptural innovation is the Chocolatini, a martini glass layered with ganache, fudgy pastry, sliced strawberries and chocolate mousse. It's nirvana.
Dionne -- who worked at the famed Windows on the World (until shortly before September 11, 2001) -- takes over the tableside dessert preparation himself, theatrically tossing the ingredients for classic bananas Foster into a sizzling pan over a blue gas flame, then spooning the caramelized fruit over giant scoops of vanilla ice cream. It's a grand show (and, paradoxically, one of the best bargains on the menu), a perfect finale to a stylish supper.
The new Chophouse definitely has the savoir faire to go with its audacious prices, so who knows? The change may do it good.