I was sympathetic, of course. After all, as composer and memoirist Ned Rorem once wrote, "It's so much more interesting to hear about rich people suffering." And honey, I was interested!
Lozoff said that she and the new executive staff overseeing the bankrupt Houlihan's chain were working furiously to revive it, and if I wanted to check out the new test menu at the company's store at 4900 West 119th Street in Leawood -- its "laboratory" location -- I could see what direction they were headed.
The last time Houlihan's unveiled a menu, in 1999, it was done with very little testing and far too much fanfare. All of the Houlihan's restaurants got the new menus (fourteen-page affairs designed like photo albums) at the same time, and some of the kitchens weren't able to properly execute the unfamiliar dishes. The results were miserable. "We're not going to let that happen this time," Lozoff said. "We're going to roll out this new menu very, very slowly."
This menu is just one page and puts several culinary innovations alongside lots of familiar choices, all given some new ingredients or "major tweaking," according to Lozoff. I visited the Leawood laboratory last week and noted that the youthful servers were cute, funny and attentive, and they all had at least half a clue about the changes going on in their kitchen.
One waitress might even have had too much of a clue about Houlihan's strategy for widening its appeal: She raved to me about the Asian lettuce-wrap appetizers. "They're incredible!" she said. "They're exactly like the ones at P.F. Changs!"
You tell 'em, girlfriend. She did display some wisdom when it came to recommending dinner dishes, including an excellent rosemary chicken delicately seasoned and served on a mound of creamy, hot mashed potatoes. And Houlihan's had been serving an incredibly boring grilled salmon, so I was thrilled to find that the test version, covered with a crispy coriander crust, was vastly superior. I was also impressed by a tender pot roast in a rich red wine sauce.
But the biggest shock was discovering that all of the once-elaborate desserts have been downsized. Bucking the current trend toward big, expensive desserts, Houlihan's now offers five diminutive (but not stingy) variations of their most popular desserts for $2 each. A glutton can get all five for $9, but I wasn't suffering when the half-sized slice of cappuccino cake appeared. It was so rich I almost cried.