The Oak Room Cafe Express,

All Threshed Up 

Farm tools on the wall show too many of The Oak Room’s roots.

Most hotel restaurants seem to be simple conveniences, with food that isn't much good and ambience that's barely a notch above that of a coffee shop. But there was a time when hotel dining rooms were more than afterthoughts, more than mere amenities for the overnight guests. The Hotel Muehlebach's Terrace Grill and Café Picardy were snazzy destination spots, much as the city's two best hotel restaurants -- the Hyatt's Skies and The Peppercorn Duck Club -- are now.

The Fairmont Kansas City is dressing up to join them. The first-floor space once occupied by the Alameda Plaza's legendary Pam Pam Room (the best hotel coffee shop in the city's history) is the fashionable recipient of a $1 million makeover, into what the hotel's publicist calls an "upscale steakhouse."

Yes, there are four steaks on the menu, as well as a half rack of lamb and a couple of pork chops (which aren't selling well, one manager confessed), but I wouldn't put the new Oak Room anywhere near the same league as its neighbors, the Capitol Grille or Plaza III. And the expensive makeover? The long and colorful room does to interior design what fashion designer Christian Lacroix does for haute couture: It's bold and flashy, but not cheap.

I cringed when I first saw the place, horrified by what Dodie Demarchi, the restaurant's assistant manager, called an "art installation." Farm tools and pieces of farming equipment have been painted gold and hung on nearly every surface of wall space, a shiny tribute, Demarchi said, to "our city's agricultural heritage."

One of my dining companions, Connie, saw it differently. "It's a slap in the face. The restaurant has a fancy menu and formal service, but the tools are just another way of telling diners, 'You're still in the Midwest, and don't you dare forget it.' I hate them."

"It's meant to be whimsical," explained the restaurant's manager, Robert Mann. "The shovels and digging forks resemble forks and spoons."

Now there's a creative interpretation! The "installation" is an ugly, unnecessary distraction from an otherwise elegant room drenched in shades of cool sage, pale mint and dark evergreen. Unlike the original Oak Room (at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, now one of the Fairmont Hotels), there's little in the way of oak, unless you count the occasional leaf stenciled on the bronzed ceiling insets. Mann said one wall of the farm tools will come down shortly to make way for wine racks -- not a moment too soon, I say. On two visits, I turned my chair toward the windows, preferring a view of the hotel pool to the gilded reminders of the Little House on the Prairie. I liked the room otherwise: the tables draped in lemon yellow and gray linens, the fresh flowers and the highly formal -- though inconsistent -- servers in starched white jackets.

The real art in The Oak Room comes from chef John McLean's kitchen. His dinner menu is an eclectic combination of classic European and hearty Midwestern, all of it better than you'd hope for in a hotel setting -- and more visually impressive than even the faux old masters out in the lobby.

Evening meals begin with a basket of crisp flatbreads and little pots of bland hummus or lusciously oily kalamata olive tapenade (and on one occasion, both). The appetizer selection weighs heavily in favor of seafood, including an excellent plate of light, crunchy fried calamari served with both a tart aïoli and a brisk marinara. Crab cakes arrive hot, brown and crusty -- cut into them to find a light puff of crab meat -- on a plate drizzled with balsamic vinegar and tiny curls of vegetables.

Another basket of breads, rustic and fresh, accompanies the salads. (Only the ciabatta is made at the hotel.) The garlicky Caesar is seriously overdressed, but it comes on a round, grilled flatbread that would have been heavenly had it been warm. Spinach salads are bedecked with sugary spiced walnuts, curls of fried onion and a little pitcher of steaming vinaigrette, flavored with salty pancetta. A salad of fresh mozzarella and thick slices of tomatoes comes topped with a headpiece of mixed greens and balsamic mist -- it was so good, I ordered it twice. And then there's the most artistic creation on the salad list, a plate so lovely, it could pass for a painting by Gauguin: a white plate with golden tomato vinaigrette encircling a jumble of red tomatoes, summery green arugula and bits of purple onion.

Lowly chicken gets a glamour makeover too, roasted until it's plump and tender, then swathed in a deep, rich truffle sauce. Served with a sensational mushroom risotto, it may be the most decadent bird in town. My friend Sally, a gourmet cook herself, justifiably raved over a peasant dish -- given four-star treatment here -- of grilled fennel sausage served with a heap of fragrant sautéed Swiss chard and a swirl of boiled potatoes coated with an emerald-green pesto cream. And out of four rich veal dishes, the tomato-slathered Parmigiana version is predictably the most popular, but the least-ordered veal, à la Milanaise, turned out to be a happy surprise. "A la Milanaise" refers only to the fact that the veal is breaded and fried in butter; this version adds bits of paper-thin prosciutto, sliced mushrooms and kalamata olives.

Steak au poivre, tastefully crusted with crushed black peppercorns, was juicy and tender, dappled with a lush Cabernet demi-glace. I sampled only one of the five featured pastas, a bowl of linguini puttanesca that claimed to be served in a "spicy tomato sauce" that wasn't spicy at all.

After dinner, our servers wheeled over a cart bearing waxy imitations of pastry chef Jesus Magana's creations. The ever-changing assortment always boasts a bowl of crème brûlée and a lovely, creamy square of tiramisu encased in jagged slices of chocolate. I fell in love with one offering, a sweet lemon tart in a thick graham cracker crust, served slightly warm and topped with crispy, lightly browned whirls of meringue.

Several visits revealed that The Oak Room's primary clientele is an over-forty set, with lots of dark suits and sports jackets (which aren't required, according to the young woman taking reservations, "but it would be nice") and ladies in dresses. "It's a grown-up restaurant," said my over-sixty friend Marilyn. "The formality might scare the young people off."

If it doesn't, the farm tools might. Even under a layer of gold paint, a spade is a spade.

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