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.
My friend Harris' request to see a dessert list was met with a cross-eyed stare. There was no dessert list. There was, though, an amber apple-tatin tart that Harris liked a lot.
My dinner at the Drum Room with Steven and Bonnie was much more enjoyable. The 65-year-old combination bar, nightclub and dinner-only restaurant is less formal, brighter and sexier. It may be a couple of flights of stairs down from the Walnut Room, but it's several floors up in class.
The renovated dining room's décor is both an homage to its past life and something more sensuous and lively. Within its cream-colored walls, a long, curvy banquette is lined with jewel-colored cushions and tables draped with ebony cloths. A hotel staffer told me that the menu had been created by "the corporate office and the owners," but I hope Kevin Kimbraugh will be allowed to change it to reflect his own style and the room's jazzy ambience.
As in the Walnut Room, though, some dishes don't translate from printed page to reality. An appetizer called "crab and Serrano ham tater tots" is simply modest crab cakes topped with a tissue-thin squiggle of Spanish ham. The intriguingly titled Srirachi Fried Calamari led us to expect something fiery, perhaps with hot Asian Sriracha chili sauce. No, the Drum Room's airy, crispy and delectable calamari is sprinkled with cubes of mango and avocado and served with dreary brown balsamic-vinegar syrup. Much more exciting was a "pizza" made from spinach tortillas layered with Drunken goat cheese, topped with melted cheese and a trio of ethnic ingredients such as the jerk-chicken version we enjoyed.
For dinner, I was torn between the cayenne-and-vanilla-roasted chicken or osso buco salsa de licores, a braised pork shank simmered in Curacao and Pernod liqueurs. I chose the latter, and it would have been fabulous if the meat hadn't been chewy and dry.
Ambitiously, the Drum Room offers three versions of paella, each named for a Rat Pack member (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.). Noting that the menu said the paella was made with arborio rice, Bonnie looked suspicious. Arborio can get sticky, she said; she preferred Valencia rice. But Steven liked the sound of the Sammy Davis Jr., made with chicken, blue cheese and peas. It was sticky, all right, and overpowered by the pungent cheese.
Bonnie made the wisest choice. Her Cuban Cowboy steak was a juicy grilled ribeye sided with a nice jumble of patatas bravas. She graciously shared her steak with us Steve ate nearly half after pushing away his paella.
Service was much better in the Drum Room. Our server, Kito, was extremely attentive (only two other tables were occupied) and dramatically described the dessert list which was exotic, to put it mildly. We decided to share three, starting with a tres leches cake that bore no resemblance to any pastry of that name that I'd ever seen. The browned meringue coating led Bonnie to think it was a Pavlova, but it was a pretty ordinary (and none too moist) white cake made with, Kito told us, "whole milk, skim milk and cream" instead of the traditional tres leches cream, and evaporated and condensed milks.
The visually elegant "Bang the Drum" was a molded, hollow dark-chocolate snare drum filled with "white chocolate mousse." (It was a shade runny for that name.). It was so sugary it made my teeth throb. But it was far superior to the third dessert, a shiny avocado tartlet.
"I think it tastes like sweet-potato pie," Kito confessed as he set a plate of two bright-green pastries in the center of the table. No, they did not taste like sweet-potato pie or any pie known to mankind. They were flaky, round crusts filled with what could only be described as guacamole cream.
I never thought I'd say this, but the food at the Drum Room has too much imagination.
Like I said, though, both of the President's dining rooms are bursting with potential, and it's only going to take a little tweaking. The kitchen staff just needs to pick up a few cues from the decorators.