I can only guess that Lee's Summit residents are so eager to return to their burgeoning little borough that they'll break the sound barrier to get home to one of the ninety brand new subdivisions in "A City Bountiful." That's the humble motto of the fastest-growing town in Missouri, but it's more hyperbole than truth. Still, by modern suburban standards, Lee's Summit does seem relatively unspoiled (it makes Olathe look like Detroit). There's still a quaint three-block downtown -- though it's not exactly what the city's breathless Web site describes as "vibrant."
Fate delivered me and two friends, alive and well, right into the middle of this cozy downtown. We arrived at the site of the former Mojo's, in a building that for decades housed the Jones Lumber Mill. This stretch of Main Street is being gentrified with a whole strip of brand new shops in a $1.3 million project called Main Street Centre. One look at the illustration posted in front of the nearly completed buildings and we understood why Mojo's had to go.
"It was kind of a biker bar," our hostess whispered as she escorted me and my friends, Bob and Kathy, to a booth in the center of the dining room.
Mojo's owners, Kurt Pycior and Steve Froelich, decided that it was time to give the old lumber mill a serious redo. After all, if the attractive new Main Street Centre hopes to lure the well-dressed, well-heeled population of A City Bountiful, it can't have some rowdy ol' burger-and-beer joint in the middle of the street. Thus, the Cork & Grille was unveiled in March, complete with fake ferns, cloth napkins, a sophisticated wine list and a real chef: Brandon Crain, formerly of Japengo's.
"We felt it was time to turn the place into a neighborhood restaurant," says general manager Douglas Beaven. "The place is just as busy as it was when it was Mojo's. The sales figures are the same -- we're just selling more food. And the clientele is very different."
Based on the clean-cut current patrons, I can imagine what the former ones must have been like. The Cork & Grille was filled with fresh-faced young couples with babies; tastefully coiffed matrons and their jowly mates; middle-aged, middle-class couples in search of good wines; well-behaved families and, on one visit, a trio of conservatively dressed prom couples.
It was culture shock for Kathy, who lives in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas.
"It's like Mayberry," she said as she spread soft Boursin cheese on a triangle of hot, puffy fried pita bread. I had ordered the restaurant's version of a cheese platter, the "Corkboard," and was amused to see what arrived: a dollop of Boursin, a clump of tart blue cheese and a little wedge of pungent fontina alongside a mound of carmelized onions, roasted red peppers, marinated artichokes and dozens of sour little capers, which seemed to multiply on the plate even though no one bothered to eat one. But we did eat every last bite of cheese and fried pita, and the irresistibly greasy bread was even better for scooping up the restaurant's hot, salty dip of chopped artichokes, cream cheese and spinach.
Beaven winces if you ask him whether the Cork & Grille is "upscale," but the food has panache. A house salad is artistically arranged with spring greens and heaped with rings of purple onion, chunks of blue cheese and chopped red tomato, glistening under a piquant red-onion vinaigrette. Along with the greens comes a miniature loaf of bread, served with one tiny cup of olive oil and another of balsamic vinegar.
The menu lists sandwiches (served with a jumble of curly fries), but the moderately priced dinners offer a better bounty. We especially enjoyed a bowl of braised Yankee pot roast slowly cooked with carrots, onions and portabella and button mushrooms, draped over a buttery mountain of smooth whipped potatoes. We were mildly disappointed, though, when the grilled beef tenderloin medallions that Bob ordered arrived overcooked (if still tender), floating on a soupy puddle of cheddar polenta.
The beef medallion dish is named for Crain's son Bastien, and M's fried chicken bears his wife's initial. She ought to be annoyed by that: The breasts were coated with a heavy breading that was as tough as armor, and the nutty flavor of the melted fontina was distractingly strong and so rich that the country gravy was almost gratuitous. A better chicken dish was a piccata-style pasta concoction that plopped a juicy pan-seared breast on a Matterhorn of linguini noodles and artichokes in a lovely, lemony sauce of white wine, butter and, once again, a fistful of those damn capers. I love capers, but the kitchen ought to be more careful when throwing them around.
On another visit, I fell in love with the lightly grilled slices of pork tenderloin splashed with a robust roasted garlic sauce. I was saddened to hear that it's being replaced on a new menu with a pork chop stuffed with Boursin and basil cream.
That isn't the only dish getting popped off of the Cork & Grille menu. The "crème brûlée" cheesecake (an imported item that, though lovely, tasted nothing like crème brûlée) will be succeeded by cheesecake of that ubiquitous chocolate-and-caramel "turtle" variety. The restaurant's signature dessert is tasty -- but a culinary fraud. Imaginatively called strawberry shortcake tiramisu, it's pure strawberry shortcake and nothing more. (The Italian word tiramisu means "pick-me-up," a reference to the espresso in the original Tuscan dessert recipe of mascarpone cheese, brandy and chocolate.) But it's hard not to appreciate the layered tower of sponge cake soaked in sparkling white wine, real whipped cream and frozen strawberries.
A more accurate Italian name for this clever creation might be torretta della fragola. But I would never actually suggest that to chef Crain. I'm not sure, but I think it might be bad luck.