The West Bottoms stretch of Genessee isn't exactly kicking these days, so one has to suspend disbelief to remember that a hundred years ago, this neighborhood was one of the city's noisiest and bawdiest, with pool halls, hotels, brothels, cheap cafes and taverns aimed at the cowboys and cattlemen. When the Kansas City Stock Yards finally closed in 1991, a vital energy drained out of this area forever.
But after many, many months of work renovating the century-old building that formerly housed Sutera's Restaurant, Joy Jacobs and Lisa Morales opened the R Bar and Restaurant a couple of months ago.
The giant letter R hanging on the brick wall across from the bar used to belong to actor Ron Megee, back when his stylish West Bottoms loft was the scene of many arty events. Megee left the Bottoms several years ago, but the R — which stands nearly as tall as a Schwinn bicycle — has obviously stayed in the neighborhood.
And the rest of this combination bar and upscale bistro has been brilliantly designed to look like the kind of honky-tonk that might really have lined this street back in the stockyards' heyday. Hell, no one in the early 1980s could have predicted that New York City's forlorn meatpacking district would, two decades later, become one of the city's trendiest dining destinations. It took one enterprising culinary pioneer, Florent Morellet — who turned an unassuming diner into the 24-hour French bistro Florent — to start that ball rolling (even if Florent ultimately lost its lease and closed last year).
It's tempting to wonder whether the R Bar and Restaurant's success may be the push that the West Bottoms needs to become the city's new dining mecca — it has already been discovered by both the hipster crowd and society A-listers. (Arts patrons John and Sharon Hoffman rave about the place and everything on chef Alex Pope's menu.) After all, the Power & Light District ain't it.
What's interesting about the R Bar and Restaurant is that everyone I know who has been there agrees that the place looks fabulous, has a terrific staff (including Shawn Moriarty, one of the city's best bartenders) and a comfortable, exciting vibe.
What no one seems to agree upon is the food. "The chef tries too hard," my friend Missy said. "The food needs to be a little less pretentious." But my friend Dan loves everything on the menu and is thrilled that the list of starters includes dishes such as foie gras and a caviar waffle instead of fried pickles and slider burgers. "I know it's a bar with upscale pretensions," he said, "but, damn it, it's so refreshing to go someplace and not see fried jalapeño poppers and fucking artichoke dip on the menu!"
No, there's no fucking artichoke dip on Alex Pope's menu. It's entirely possible that this personable young chef, formerly at the American Restaurant, has never tasted artichoke dip. Instead, he serves a delectably rich "slaw" inspired by the rustic French cassoulet, mixing cabbage with confit chicken, sage sausage, cannellini bean puree and truffle crème fraîche. It's unlike anything resembling cole slaw (or "coe slaw," as one burger joint in town calls it). And it's extraordinary.
Yes, it is a pretentious menu for a place that looks like a 19th-century saloon, although you're likely to find more boyishly attractive cowgirls bellied up to the bar than swaggering cowboys. And I think Pope lives up to his culinary affectations. At least he has a sense of humor. Instead of bread before the meal, servers bring out a savory fried funnel cake drenched in a sauce of goat cheese and paprika. It's a light, airy creation and fun; I appreciate the novelty of the invention even if, after two dinners at the restaurant, I feel that I can go through life without tasting one again.