What do you mean you've never heard of a BaRestaurant? Kind of catchy, isn't it? In the heyday of the nightclub called the Drum Room (this would have been in the 1940s and '50s), that's how the owners of the hotel described the swanky space, which had a drum-shaped bar up near the street-level entrance.
The real action in the old Drum Room took place seven steps down from the bar, in a large space that served as a dining room, show room and dance floor. It really was a BaRestaurant, as postcards of the era proclaimed — a place to see and be seen.
It still could be. The redesigned Drum Room is one of the more striking spaces in the renovated President Hotel, which reopened in 2006. The street-level bar is no longer drum-shaped, and the lower level is completely different from the way it was in 1950, when Marilyn Maye headlined here. Back then, downtown Kansas City still gave off a little glamour. Several places were destinations, offering both entertainment and dining (notably Eddy's, just up the street).
These days, the President Hotel still offers local performers, who play upstairs, in the less spacious bar area. The only show taking place down those seven steps is chef Eric Carter's cuisine.
Hiring Carter, who did an impressive job as executive chef for the Sheraton Hotel in Overland Park, was a smart move by the Hilton Corporation, which manages the 84-year-old property. The food in the Drum Room is better now than it has been in more than four years. When I last reviewed this restaurant ("Dish-Approval Ratings," July 27, 2006), the dinner-only menu was too creative for its own good, and many of the tropical-inspired dishes (the osso buco salsa de licores, for example) sounded much better than they tasted.
A few changes were made prior to Carter's arrival in the Drum Room this year. The venue now serves both lunch — a fabulous one, by the way — and dinner, and most of the Caribbean remnants were scrubbed from the menu. Carter has further emphasized the basics. His 20-ounce, bone-in Kansas City strip might be the best grilled strip in the city; it is a succulent hunk of Kansas-raised beef (the cattle aren't fed antibiotics or hormones), and is buttery and juicy.
It's not an elaborate dinner menu: three steaks, two fish, one pasta, and roast chicken. Carter has only recently added a vegetarian entrée, a happy development for one guest I took to dinner at the Drum Room one night. Along with two meat-eating friends was Jeff, who won't touch red meat. Carter's house-made gnocchi with fresh vegetables sounded like something he could love. It was, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Our quartet — composed of Jeff, Judy and Judy's daughter, Carrie — were seated in the room's "Rat Pack Booth," a six-top watched over by a vintage photo of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis Jr. Rumor has it that these show-business icons once performed in the Drum Room, though no one familiar with the BaRestaurant in the 1960s recalls that happening.
We squeezed into the booth, with its jewel-colored square pillows. ("They're itchy," Carrie complained; she was wearing a backless dress.) But we noticed that, sadly, the dining room was nearly empty on a Friday night. Why? The prices aren't astronomical, and the ambience is stylish and pleasing. It's at least as interesting as any other restaurant in the Power & Light District and it definitely offers better food. Why hasn't it become a see-and-be-seen place once more? (A friend of mine says the hotel owners need to take lessons from the Sherman Billingsley handbook and cajole celebrities into dining there with free meals and drinks, as the legendary Billingsley did at New York's Stork Club in the 1930s and '40s).
The upstairs saloon got busy — and noisy — while we were dining, but the lower level felt like Siberia. Not that we minded as long as we were receiving devoted service from veteran waitress Connie. If we didn't see any celebrities, she made sure that we felt like celebrities.
The starters were first-rate: Carter makes his own ricotta cheese and, as an appetizer, bakes it in a ramekin under a crust of fried artichokes. The fluffy spread comes with thin flatbread wedges. The light, crunchy calamari — flash-fried with a few pink shrimp — was superb, served with a kicky tomato-chili jam.
It's the apex of tomato season now, and Carter has been smoking them with fervor. We sampled a peppery chilled gazpacho (terrific) and a supple, smoky tomato vinaigrette on a luscious tower of arugula, asparagus and moist grilled lobster bits. Another featured potage, a creamy concoction of fresh corn and leeks blended into a silky, ocher-colored soup, was dazzling.
There's a show, all right, when the dinners are served. I've already praised the outstanding strip, topped with caramelized cippolini onions and sided with whipped garlic potatoes, but the other meals were equally applause-worthy, including Carrie's tender slab of yellowfin tuna, lightly seared and perched atop a round ravioli pillow stuffed with long-simmered veal cheeks. It was sensational. So was my bowl of bucatini noodles, served up, Bolognese-style, in a hearty sauce of roasted tomatoes sprinkled with peas, mesquite-smoked lobster and a couple of fat scallops.
We all tasted and loved the golden gnocchi dumplings peeking out of sautéed fresh bok choy, carrots, peas, asparagus and, again, tomato. Carter is pretty pleased with the dish, too. "I know our vegetarian patrons were getting tired of having to create a meatless meal out of side dishes and baked potatoes," he told me later.
For dessert, my dining companions ordered a wee lemon tart with blueberry compote. It was such an intimate affair that only a few crumbs (satisfying crumbs) remained on the plate by the time they passed it my way. I thought of complaining, but who needs that drama. This is a showplace now, not a show room.