It's practically a miracle that the former President Hotel survived. Not only survived but, thanks to developer Ron Jury and the many people involved in the renovation from construction crews to window washers remade as one glamorous babe. She deserves to be a major player in the uncompleted Power & Light entertainment district.
But it's going to take more than a pretty face, sleek terrazzo floors, tasteful accessories and a classic sense of style to lure diners into the President's two dining rooms. Before I walked through the historic hotel's revolving door, I'd heard ominous rumblings from friends who had dined there. Still, I had high hopes for the hotel's food service. After all, the owners had shrewdly hired two local chefs with solid credentials: Chris Hall, the hotel's executive chef, and talented young Kevin Kimbraugh, who oversees the Drum Room's cuisine.
The good news is that the two very different dining rooms have loads of potential. The bad news is that they're not living up to it.
The Walnut Room, which serves breakfast and lunch, is a stunning space; it's actually prettier now than it was 50 years ago, when downtown Kansas City was still a first-class dining destination. In the 1950s, this room was paneled in dark wood, and the big, south-facing windows were draped in thick curtains. Jury and his design team lightened up the room, adding gilt touches to the soaring ceiling and painting the plaster walls a creamy caramel. It evokes a graceful 1930s hotel dining room (and plays swing-era songs over its speakers). With its white tablecloths, burgundy napkins and big tables, the Walnut Room would make a great setting for a high-powered business lunch or a romantic afternoon rendezvous.
The menu has upscale pretensions: jumbo shrimp cocktail, club sandwiches, salads and a daily pasta special. But the food doesn't live up to those delusions of grandeur. That visually blah shrimp cocktail, for example, isn't cold enough, and it seems the servers will describe the pasta special only if you insist on it. The first time I lunched there, I ordered the grilled sirloin and barley soup. It was thick with barley, mushrooms, tomato and carrots but not a hint of meat. The server shrugged when I pointed this out. When I came back for another lunch, I ordered the soup again. This time, there was one tiny sliver of beef.
And then there was the daily special, described to me as "fettuccine Alfredo with peppers."
"What kind of peppers?" I inquired.
Again, a shrug. "Red," the server said. The bowl of pasta that arrived was pretty, but it was linguini in some creamy sauce certainly not traditional Alfredo scattered with bits of chopped red and green peppers and garnished with four spears of asparagus. Oh, well, it was wonderful anyway.
We had high hopes for the crab Louis, an old tearoom dish most commonly prepared by mixing lump crab with a dressing of mayonnaise, cream, chili sauce, scallions and peppers. The Walnut Room's warm variation comes on bibb lettuce, its stringy crab meat flavored with a bland tomato-basil reduction. Light but not worth a postcard home.