It's a whole different world in the dining room, the snobbier domain of steak-eating men, who outnumber the female patrons at least 3-to-1. There's no dividing wall between these two rooms, so it's still loud, and pungent cigar smoke still manages to waft over from the saloon side.
Even at its noisiest and most frenetic, though, the main dining room in the Capital Grille maintains an air of gentility and solidness that suggests the place has been around for at least a century, like its rival, the 101-year-old Savoy Grill on Ninth Street. But that's where the Capital Grille, which is fewer than four years old, proves itself to be the Holly Golightly of the Kansas City steakhouse scene. Holly wasn't a phony because she was "a real phony," Capote wrote in his 1958 novel. "She believes all this crap she believes."
In the case of the Capital Grille, its sheer theatricality -- the dark woodwork, the oil portraits of Kansas City notables (all of recent vintage, by the way), the crisp white tablecloths and heavy glassware, the silvery bread baskets, the formal service by jacket-clad waiters and waitresses -- is such brilliantly conceived phoniness that you almost yearn to believe this venue is as old and revered as New York City's Delmonico's. And like that historic restaurant, a lot of the Capital Grille's allure is its reputation for drawing power brokers and high rollers. Certainly they're the only ones who can afford to eat there -- the prices are among the highest in town. What the hell was I doing there?
Acting like a high-rolling phony, I suppose. I cringed at my bill after two meals, even though I left loaded down with enough leftovers for two more meals. There was another payoff, too: The combination of Gilded Age décor, over-the-top service, gargantuan portions, and general manager Mary Simpson's larger-than-life persona was so entertaining that I walked out feeling as if I had just watched a Broadway show.
One night, joined by Cynthia and Lorraine, the production started as melodrama when the conversation turned toward a revelation that literally brought me to tears. Soon enough, though, we were distracted by a chorus line of tantalizing appetizers -- a massive jumble of crispy calamari flash-fried with fiery hot peppers and vinegary pepperoncinis, an artfully constructed tower of steak tartare (chopped beef tenderloin filet layered with bits of egg, onion and capers), plump lobster-and-crabmeat seafood cakes as wide as silver dollars. Then we indulgently nibbled supple pink Norwegian salmon on triangles of crispy pita. Who could ask for anything more?
Lorraine, the wisecracking showgirl of that night's performance, couldn't believe the size of the starters. "How are we supposed to think about eating dinner, let alone eat it?" she wondered. And honestly, we should have stopped right there. But our server, a friendly and efficient graduate student named Bill, was such a seductive salesman that before anyone could say "The Wedge," Cynthia was eating one. A hefty salad that could easily pass as a meal, it's one-fourth of an iceberg-lettuce head drenched in a creamy blue-cheese dressing and a serious handful of crispy crumbled bacon.
She had barely made a dent in it when dinner arrived. I was already stuffed and looked cross-eyed at a plank of seared salmon in a delicate mustard sauce. Amazingly, though, I got a second wind and polished off half of it. Lorraine had chosen that night's special, a 22-ounce Delmonico steak coated in a jolting rub of finely ground espresso, sea salt, sugar and spices. We all wound up sampling tender slices of the flavorful beef while waiting for Cynthia's filet to come back from the kitchen. She had ordered it medium, but it had arrived medium rare, with the traditional seared surface and a modestly red center.
If there's one shortcoming to the Capital Grille -- besides the fact that, as Cynthia cannily observed, the clientele seems to consist primarily of George W. Bush contributors -- it's that chef Ray Comiskey's kitchen has its own distinctive opinion on how to cook meat. Clearly his staffers favor the rare side, rebelling against the Midwestern belief that beef, veal and pork should be "safely" cooked until all the flavor and juices are drained out. They may be right, but if a customer wants a medium steak, she should get it. And eventually, Cynthia did -- the returning filet was, it turned out, deliciously done, a perfect medium.
That night's finale, a "molten chocolate truffle cake" was bittersweet and sensually good, but not half as wonderful as a surprisingly light coconut custard tart buried under a cloud of whipped cream.
"A wonderful meal," Lorraine noted on the way out, "but extremely noisy. I feel like I yelled all night."
I discovered the antidote to that problem on my second visit: Table 5. It's a booth tucked behind a little waiter's station (piled with too many accessories) that buffers the noise level considerably. I was actually able to have a quiet conversation with my friend R.Z. over a silver platter of cold jumbo shrimp and, after some careful cooking negotiations with our waitress, Jevene, the 14-ounce steak au poivre that R.Z. insisted be cooked medium rare. But leaning toward the medium side.
"We call that medium plus," Jevene revealed.
R.Z. announced that it was exactly as he wanted it, moist and pink. A Courvoisier-laden cream sauce covered its crisp, peppery crust, and an accompanying copper dish was loaded with buttery roasted mushrooms.
"Perfect," he sighed, "but much too rich." He could eat only half of the steak. I, of course, took no time to devour every bit of my splendidly cooked veal chop, which was dripping with a butter sauce discreetly flavored with Roquefort cheese. I was disappointed that the mountain of cottage fries and onion strings (enough to feed a family of ten) had hot spuds but lukewarm fried onions, though that probably kept me from eating more than I should.
I wasn't so disciplined when I saw the fat wedge of cheesecake that R.Z. ordered and, after two bites, pushed in my direction. "Excellent but too decadent," he proclaimed. "I'd gain 15 pounds if I took another bite." I ate the rest of the silken, fluffy cheesecake myself and didn't feel one bit guilty.
However, the $135 dinner bill -- for two, no booze! -- was massively guilt-inducing. But then, on my way to the front door, I passed the pretentious display of not-so-private wine lockers (with a $350 yearly rental fee) owned by a dozen or so rich local celebs. That's when I realized that the Capital Grille, with all of its affectations, is all about show business. For folks who can afford the price of admission, it's a very good show.