Downtown Kansas City isn't exactly a mecca for first-class hotel dining. (Some people cite the Savoy Grill as the exception to this sad rule; even when I do it, though, it's largely out of habit.) But there's reason for new hope. The Reserve, tucked into the refitted Ambassador Hotel (at 11th Street and Grand), marks a step up in class from any dining venue in the Power & Light District, and it has a young chef with real talent, Geoffrey van Glabbeek. There's no question that this neighborhood needed a boutique hotel. But is the boutique boîte inside a little too ahead of its time?
Really, the first question might be: What time is it at the Ambassador? The mad clash of styles dominating the narrow lobby of the Ambassador evokes several different eras without paying homage to any of them, a temporal collage that you pass through before you actually reach the Reserve. It all works, though. Paul Coury, owner of the new hotel, knows good bone structure when he sees it. This dazzling, street-level space was once the lobby of the Gate City Bank, constructed a decade before the Depression, back when a little ostentation at your local money lender didn't look vulgar. The floors are tea-colored marble, and the coffered ceiling, still boasting its original moldings, soars up past the mezzanine.
Inside the swanky Reserve, there's another busy motif to consider. Silvery rings hang from the shiny-metal drum light fixtures, and each chair, upholstered in clean white leather, is adorned with a single metal ring. Angelic halos or sexy hoops, they add up to some kind of statement, and I'd already seen more shapes and colors than my subconscious could cope with. (And I haven't even told you about the original paintings on the walls, all with double-entendre names that make you think you've wandered into the Krafft-Ebing Café.) Your mind may need a few minutes (and a tiramisu martini) to process the overload.
Of course, you're not necessarily supposed to see everything in a hotel restaurant. The Reserve is well-lighted during the breakfast and lunch shifts, but it's seductively dark after dusk. If you're looking for the perfect spot for a secluded romantic assignation, this room should be high on your list. You'll be lucky to see your dining companion, let alone the couple at the next table.
I was here to eat, though, and chef van Glabbeek's four menus (breakfast, lunch, dinner and a limited late-night selection) are — for now — less seductive than they are simply creative. The execution isn't yet as refined as the décor. Still, there's plenty of time for van Glabbeek to make improvements, and it won't take much. He's too young to remember when hotel dining rooms were the best places to dine in any city (an axiom now decades out of date), but he's savvy enough to see that he has the chance to fill a niche. What's missing from lodgings north of the Crossroads District is an intimate, sophisticated urban bistro that can offer both hotel standards (a good burger, a club sandwich, decent breakfasts and coffee) and a few unexpected choices.
Some of his small plates are outstanding, including a crustacean "corn dog" on a skewer: a succulent hunk of sweet lobster dipped in a light cornmeal tempura batter and fried until there's a crispy, almost evanescent crust. His version of a diner "slider" — two on a plate for $12 — is so haute cuisine, you'll feel guilty eating one with your fingers. The coaster-sized beef patty is smothered in a sultry chipotle jam and a swath of queso fresco and tucked into a puffy egg bun. I think anything called a slider need not be much bigger than a White Castle burger (somewhere between a postage stamp and a chewing-tobacco tin), but in this case, I welcome van Glabbeek's generosity.
The two crab "cakes," on the other hand, aren't much bigger than traditional marshmallows, and the ones I sampled had been fried until the exterior was the color of a very old copper penny — and nearly as tough on the teeth. "They're 90 percent crabmeat," my server explained. What's the other 10 percent? I wanted to ask. I took refuge in the accompanying spoonful of slaw — a tart salad with ribbons of Granny Smith and red pepper, bits of red onion and parsley in a sassy champagne vinaigrette.
Van Glabbeek's six entrées can be ordered in either a small "tasting" portion or dinner-sized. I made the mistake of first ordering the petite version of the braised short rib, which was just enough to make me wish I'd asked for two big plates. It's an exquisite, tender beef rib, seared and slow-cooked in red wine and veal stock, and served on a spoonful of creamy herbed orzo. Van Glabbeek says he prefers short ribs to steak, and he serves it like he means it: The Reserve's ribs are a blue-chip affair.
More surprising: The blackened-chicken sandwich — a dull obligation on most menus — kicks ass here. The kitchen rubs the bird breast in a blend of allspice, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon and chili powder, then sears it, slathers a piece of puffy focaccia with chipotle mayonnaise, and drops the meat onto it with a slice of pepper jack cheese.
There's not much meatless here, though, outside of salads, a plate of hummus and flatbread, and most of the side dishes (including a wonderful, rich, vegetarian-friendly macaroni and cheese that's blanketed in a thick sauce made with cheddar, Parmesan and nutty Gruyere). The only meatless sandwich on the lunch menu is an awkward concoction of al dente lentils, crumbles of feta, chopped tomato and arugula daintily spooned between two thin slices of bland flatbread. I found the one I tried impossible to cut, clumsy to eat and visually boring. (I failed to sample the dinner menu's pappardelle pasta, which comes in a seasonal-vegetable ragoût. I plead ribs.)
The kitchen bakes some kind of quiche every day, but a more memorable lunch entrée is the platter of tempura-battered sunfish, fried and served with a spicy poblano coleslaw, and house fries as thick as chubby Crayolas. (Their girth comes at a price, though; they need to be a hell of a lot crispier.)
If the server tells you that the praline cheesecake is made on-site, he's lying through his pearly teeth. It's mediocre anyway. You're better off with the fine house-made beignets, rolled in vanilla sugar, or a really dense devil's-food cupcake, topped with espresso meringue rather than with sticky frosting. The ice-cream sandwich is surrounded with house-made chocolate-chip cookies, which are crispy and delicious, but it's another small-plate-style notion, not a dessert made for sharing.
The servers I've encountered here so far are as friendly as can be, but their style doesn't yet have the polish that a sleek room like the Reserve deserves. One regaled us with his life story (a cliffhanger — he just graduated from college), and a lunch waitress another day frequently disappeared to see to her room-service duties. (I spotted her wheeling a tacky-looking cart toward the elevators. Scandalously, the lunch dishes had not been placed under metal covers.)
"We have a few kinks we need to work out," Lenny, a manager here who used to work at the Raphael, told me.
But only a few. On the whole, the Reserve is an excellent asset for downtown dining. The Ambassador itself is embracing its own more-is-more style, and van Glabbeek is working day and night to compound public interest in his kitchen. There's free parking, and the prices aren't hotel-inflated. For my money, the Reserve is a smart investment.