The American Restaurant's stately dining room is silent and as carefully arranged as a movie still when I stop by early one afternoon to meet Paige Unger. Tables are fully set with china and glassware, and scalloped white-oak fixtures artfully diffuse light.
Unger hops down from a bar stool as I arrive. She's dressed casually in black pants and a blue ruffled top, her bright-red hair hanging around her shoulders. She hasn't clocked in yet for this, her second shift at the iconic Crown Center restaurant. She's replacing Willie Grandison, the American's longtime barman, who retires June 27 after 40 years here.
"I basically was brought on because they wanted somebody to fill his shoes," Unger tells me. "I don't know if I can. He's the most humble human being I've ever met, and he's just such a hospitable gentleman. Willie definitely has a following - I think because he makes people feel the best when they're drinking his drinks."
The 28-year-old has a following of her own, and deservedly so. Last August, Unger - who then worked at Extra Virgin - won the 2013 Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition, and went on to compete nationally. And in April of this year, she defended her crown at Speed Rack Kansas City - an all-female bartending competition - winning top honors for the second year in a row. If management at the American wanted someone with skill and vision and a fanbase, then she was an obvious choice.
But Unger's transition to the American isn't just a career move. As a child growing up in Kansas City, she ate at the American with her grandmother.
"I had come here as a little girl, and I remember walking into this room and just being blown away by it," Unger says, recalling those lunch dates. She gestures to the windows and the rich view beyond. "It's so gorgeous."
She goes on: "And [local wine guru] Doug Frost got his start here. He's kind of a mentor. I just wanted to be a part of this, and also have the chance to take it to a different level and bring it into the modern cocktail era. I was kind of ready to start my own program, and here, I'm able to do exactly the cocktails I want to do, the way I want to do them."
I've asked Unger to do a version of that: Make me a drink with an ingredient I've requested - Bénédictine, a French herbal liqueur - but do it the way she wants to do it. She starts working, and I can see that cognac is also going to be involved. And she keeps talking, telling me some of what she has planned for the American's cocktail menu.
"There's going to be molecular gastronomy for sure," Unger says. "That's something that I've never been able to do before because I've always worked at high-volume bars, and the American is more about the quality and not quantity. I'll be doing things like frozen-spirit cocktails and different infusions. I'll be making a sparkling vermouth, which I don't think anybody's done. I get to play with really high-quality ingredients here, so there are a lot of possibilities."
The ideas continue to spill out as Unger picks up a tulip glass, rubs the lip with an orange slice and coats it in sugar. She scoops ice into the glass, and as I feel the completion of Unger's creation nearing, I change beats. Bénédictine, with its 27 herbal ingredients and secretive history, is something of a mystery to me, and I ask Unger for some context.
"Some say Bénédictine was created during the French Revolution by monks, but it actually predates it, going back to 1510," she says. "It's a traditional herbaceous liqueur, but it's not a bitter. It's got some honey notes. The monks love it."
Unger laughs and continues: "I like Bénédictine really well on its own. It always adds a subtle hint of herbs and honey. A Bobby Burns is probably one of the popular drinks that it's made with. I add it to a lot of things, just to bring out the subtle flavors that are in drinks already. It kind of enhances everything."
What she's about to hand me is a twist on a Crusta, a classic cocktail typically made with cognac and Grand Marnier. She has shaken a mixture of Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac, Bénédictine, dry curaçao and lemon juice, then poured the burnt-orange liquid into the glass. She peels a whole clementine to create an absurdly long twist to garnish the drink.
"It's what the recipe usually calls for," she says.
"I don't know if you really drink cognac," she says, sliding the drink my way. "It's such a gentleman's thing. But this will be different, I think."
Unger's American Crusta looks beachworthy, and it goes down like a smoother, more refined version of a Long Island Iced Tea. It's refreshing, and the sugared rim slows down my desire to finish the entire thing in one gulp. The sweetness is subtle, not dessertlike.
Unger expects her American Crusta to appear on the cocktail menu at some point, but she says the list will change frequently because of the variety of ingredients at her disposal. This most staid-seeming food-and-drink destination is about to become a laboratory for progressive flavors.
As Grandison makes his exit and Unger prepares to usher in her own new era, her excitement and self-assurance are clear.
"When I signed on, it was with the long term in mind," Unger tells me. "It's such an iconic restaurant that I can't imagine anyone wanting to leave it. Everything is so professional here. We all hold each other to the highest standard, and having some of the most creative people around has made me feel more creative."
2 ounces Pierre Ferrand
1/2 ounce Bénédictine
1/2 ounce dry curaçao
1/2 ounce lemon juice
Unger: "You put the sugar on the rim so there's no sweetening agent other than the liqueur. Combine the ingredients and shake well with ice. Pour over ice and garnish with a long orange or clementine peel."