A friend of mine - a restaurant-industry veteran - was complaining to me last week about the arugula salad she had been served in an inexplicably popular venue in the Crossroads. "The arugula was pretty tired-looking, and there were several pieces that were even yellow and slimy. There were a few sprinkles of goat cheese and a couple of pecans and no discernible salad dressing that I could taste. And they were charging $11!"
I was reminded of that conversation a few days later when I was dining in the three-week-old Merchants Pub & Plate at 746 Massachussetts in Lawrence. I was there for lunch and tasted one of the best arugula salads ever. Sure, the chef, T.K. Peterson, calls it a panzanella salad, but a smattering of toasted croutons does not a classic Italian bread salad make, no matter how wonderful the fresh herb vinaigrette tasted. But as a snazzy arugula salad, tossed with heirloom tomatoes, cucumber and shallots, and topped with slices of grilled quail, it was outstanding and, at $12, practically a bargain.
I'll make a confession: I was almost always underwhelmed by the cuisine served in the various incarnations of the restaurant formerly known as Teller's that long occupied this soaring space - built as the new Merchants National Bank in 1930. The Teller's dishes never seemed to be able to compete with the visual grandeur of the surroundings.
Another unexpected, delicious dish: crispy fried beer-battered walleye sandwich (walleye isn't frequently found on local menus), topped with a tart citrus-red pepper coleslaw. The french fries - hand-cut by the cooks! - are really excellent, but if you're going to go with a fried side dish, I'd suggest the fresh corn arancini (and they do look like little oranges) that would have been called corn fritters in a simpler, less cosmopolitan time.
The prices may be a bit steep for a university town but are modest by Kansas City standards. The entrees on the all-day menu range from $17 for crispy pork cutlets (served with hoppin' john) to $32 for a 12-ounce rib-eye.
The kitchen at Merchants Plate & Pub, 746 Massachusetts, stays open until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, but a bar menu is offered until midnight.