A month ago, the venerable Raphael Hotel on the Country Club Plaza, eager to connect with that desirable younger demographic, introduced Chaz on the Plaza.
The dining room is definitely dolled-up compared with its stuffy predecessor. My friend Truman, looking around at the red Fortuny-style lampshades, the smoky mirrors, and the Lucite panels embedded with bamboo sprigs and gingko leaves, agreed: The room had been updated all right. "They've updated it from the 1940s to the 1960s," he said with a laugh.
The layout of the old dining room is still very much in place. "That's because we're on the National Register of Historic Places," one of the managers explained. "We couldn't make extensive changes."
I don't know the National Register's policies, but it should be noted that the building opened in 1926 as an apartment building, and the space currently occupied by Chaz originally was a beauty parlor. If there were some historical requirements involved in the redecoration, maybe the hotel's new owner — Salina-based Lighthouse Properties, which has sunk a lot of dough into this building's renovations — should have installed a few vintage hair dryers.
My immediate reaction was that it looked like the long-defunct Trader Vic's restaurant in the basement of New York City's Plaza Hotel, but without the thatched ceilings and dugout canoes, of course. But there's still a hint of the Oriental in decorative references to dogwood blossoms, the mandarin-red chairs and the jade-green carpeting.
Thankfully, the menu doesn't lean toward the Asian or exotic in any way. The chef is still Peter Hahn, who has set the tone for the Raphael Hotel's cuisine for many years. The food is very good, as it always has been. And despite the claim made to me several months ago by this hotel's publicist — that Chaz wouldn't have the perception of an expensive restaurant (whatever the hell that means) — it's pretty damn pricey. There's not a starter on the menu for less than $10 and not one entrée under $20.
"It's still pretty sedate in here," Truman said between sips of an expertly concocted martini. "Chaz isn't exactly luring in the Kona Grill crowd."
But it's trying! Our server that night, the effervescent James, insisted that the new Chaz was going after younger clientele. "And some of them are coming in," he said.
None were dining in the restaurant that night, though. In fact, when we were escorted to our table by one of the managers (wearing jeans!), we passed a few tables occupied by the cutest geriatric couples, all sipping cocktails mixed by the same manager who was now taking us to our table. The bartender was MIA that night ("He's resting for St. Patrick's Day," was the explanation), and so were all the other servers except James. "We didn't expect to be so busy on a Monday night," he later confided to us.
If Chaz wants to be busier on any night, it would help to do something about the ghastly lighting, especially in the section facing Brush Creek. When the sun sets, some of the light fixtures — including the rococo ball of dusty prisms over our table — are as harshly clinical as spotlights.
But it's the cuisine, not the décor, that's the lure for Chaz. Peter Hahn is an excellent chef, and he has never played fast and loose in the creative department. His meals are solid, Midwestern-style variations on classic themes.
The free-range chicken that Truman ordered for dinner wasn't served in a covered casserole as the menu promised, but it was prepared à la Morocco — simmered in olive oil, with preserved lemon and olives — and was sumptuously juicy and delicious. I was less entranced with my meal, the least costly offering: a bowl of bowtie pasta tossed with a couple of sprigs of broccoli rapini, mushrooms, olive oil and too many red pepper flakes. The adornment of house-made ricotta and "crispy prosciutto" sounded fabulous, but the slightly charred slices of Italian ham were too visually unappetizing to taste. We shared a side order of mashed potatoes whipped up with creamy, garlicky Boursin cheese and fat chunks of lobster. It was so good, I would return just to eat this luscious number as a dinner. Unfortunately, another side, the Catalan-style sautéed spinach, was too salty.
For dessert, James suggested a chilled, bittersweet Marquis au Chocolat, which would have been prettier served as a slice instead of a wedge (which made it look like an unthawed hunk of cheesecake). But it was a nice finale to an expensive but satisfying meal.
I had a much superior dinner on a different visit, when I was the guest of my friend Bill, a former graphic artist and an unabashed snob. He liked the look of the new Chaz. ("Anything's an improvement over the way it used to look," he whispered.) And he adored our server, an attractive woman who waits tables to supplement her flagging career in real estate.
She rattled off descriptions of the night's special and the soup du jour — a cream of something uninteresting — and nodded approvingly over Bill's choice of the garden salad and my desire for the sherried wild- mushroom bisque. I'm usually wary of rich soups like bisques — after a few spoonfuls, I'm ready to put down my spoon and go home, completely full. But Hahn's signature soup is one of the most tantalizing creations I've tasted. Served in a cup topped with a savory baked pastry crust, the supple, creamy soup was rich, yes, but delicious. I wanted another cup!
Bill raved over his plate of huge scallops, pan-browned in olive oil with garlic, piquillo peppers and white wine. I wished that I had ordered it, too, after he offered me one along with a spoonful of the saffron risotto. I had gone for Hahn's spin on the classic French cassoulet, prepared Kansas City-style here, with duck confit and bits of wonderful buffalo sausage mixed in with the slow-simmered white beans, roasted tomatoes, and grilled asparagus — and a slightly overcooked pork chop.
It was a soothing experience, though. The service was attentive and smooth, and the place was calmingly quiet — before the musical artists started warbling in the bar. At least, Bill noted, "They don't use Muzak." Then, he said with a sniff, "The staff doesn't polish the flatware. Look, water stains."
"But it's not supposed to be a fancy restaurant anymore," I said. "It's supposed to be new and more casual."
"Not at these prices, kiddo," Bill said, pulling out his credit card.
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