I'm willing to bet that most people reading this have never heard of a restaurant called Bistro La Scala. It's a very strange little dining room inside a very odd little hotel on a very misbegotten stretch of Metcalf. I'm not even sure how I found it, but I've eaten three pleasant meals in the restaurant.
The place has a real chef — New Orleans native John Christopher, formerly of Soho 119: The Restaurant, in Leawood — and an ambitious menu. Too ambitious, maybe. The bistro is located in a hotel with such pretensions that anything seems possible.
But this restaurant's survival depends on its ability to attract a lot more diners than I saw. On two occasions, my friends and I were the only customers. The dining room was silent except for the occasional sound of that ringing chime from Wheel of Fortune, which was playing in the closet-sized lounge across the hall.
Bistro La Scala is inside the Clarion Plaza Hotel — a name that evokes both the Country Club Plaza, about 20 minutes away, and the legendary New York City lodging house. Yet this might be the metro's least assuming hotel. Back in the 1980s, this hostelry was a Rodeway Inn. In more recent years, it operated as a Wyndham Garden Hotel. Last month, the owners signed on with the Clarion Hotel chain. And if the building weren't painted a bold coppery-orange, you probably wouldn't even notice it.
Most corporate-managed hotels are required to have a dining room to provide amenities such as room service and lunch meetings. But in this day and age, a modest inn like the Clarion Plaza Hotel is lucky to have a coffee shop. And if John Christopher weren't in the kitchen, this attractive, intimate dining room probably would be a coffee shop.
But Christopher has talent, and his menu dreams big: beef filet with fresh risotto; lasagna stuffed with lobster, clams, crab and shrimp in a lobster cream sauce; a New Orleans-inspired Sunday brunch with airy beignets, eggs Sardou, and crêpes Suzette.
The problem here is that no one seems to know what Christopher is trying to pull off, including the rest of the hotel staff. On my first visit to the restaurant, my waitress was also the hostess. The female bartender stopped over to visit after the "bar crowd" — five people — vanished when she gave them directions to the Argosy Casino. "I'm bored," she explained.
On my second visit to Bistro La Scala, the bartender — a different woman, with bee-stung lips and a voice to suit a 1930s Warner Bros. character actress — was also our waitress. Luckily for her, there was no one in the bar and no other customers in the dining room. Still, she managed to write down the wrong dinner for one of my friends. "I get flustered," she told us.
At one point during that meal, my friend Bob became convinced that we weren't in a real restaurant at all but a staged dining room with hidden cameras capturing footage for a reality program. And just what kind of reality this restaurant exists in would make for an interesting show.
In this suburban twilight zone, the chef makes command decisions. The night I dined with Jeanne, Alexandra and Roxanne, we each ordered different salads but were served one large salad in a big bowl and given four side plates. I was able to overlook this eccentricity because the dinners were good — really good. The seafood lasagna was divinely, ridiculously rich, and the buttery Alfredo sauce on one of the pasta dishes was nearly perfect.