In all the years that I've been reviewing restaurants, I don't remember ever visiting a venue and tasting everything on the menu at one sitting. That was before I discovered Shields Manor Bistro. Four entrées typically are on the menu, which changes (but not dramatically) once a month. After one visit, I felt that I knew the place. Intimately.
I'd heard about the cozy, upscale boîte that's located in a 19th-century house in beautiful downtown Platte City, but Platte City had never exactly beckoned to me. I'm not sure I even knew that the hamlet had a downtown. It does, but it's not beautiful or even particularly interesting. There's a Main Street with a few retail businesses and several very old houses. Also, a police station is somewhere in the vicinity. I know this because, several years ago, I received a speeding ticket from a cheery Platte City police officer, who seemed to imply that I'd be tossed in the hoosegow if I didn't pay it promptly. I did, but it dampened my enthusiasm for a return trip.
One recent night, however, I did drive back to Platte City — observing the speed limit very carefully — to dine in the pretty white-frame home that DeDe Shields and her husband, Max Shields, have operated as the Shields Manor Bistro for nearly a decade. They restored the once-condemned house and turned the two largest rooms on the first floor into charming dining rooms.
The house survived the Civil War. The town's original courthouse and several other buildings were torched in the legendary "burning of Platte City" in 1861. Union troops, hunting down bushwhacker Silas Gordon, apparently got a little carried away. (Another notorious Platte City resident — well, temporary resident while she was held in the Platte City jail — was Blanche Barrow of the Bonnie-and-Clyde gang.)
The only famous person to have actually lived in the house now occupied by the Shields Manor Bistro was a 1940s jazz musician named Mickey Pope. His saxophone hangs on the wall in the old parlor. He apparently is as well remembered in Platte City for his romantic exploits as for his musical accomplishments. "We've been told," DeDe Shields says, "he was a real Don Juan."
If only the walls of this restaurant could talk (about Pope's prowess, if nothing else). It's as discreet as dining venues come, the metro's best spot to conduct an illicit affair. It's unlikely that you'll ever see anyone you know dining here.
In fact, my friends who joined me for dinner at the restaurant that evening — Bob, Susan and Martha Mary — had never heard of the restaurant. I'm not sure that Martha Mary had even heard of Platte City.
Because their dining rooms are tiny, DeDe and Max Shields require reservations. "Once you're seated," DeDe explained to me over the phone, "the table is yours for the rest of the night."
To say the service isn't rushed puts it mildly. And that isn't the place's only eccentricity. When our group was first seated at our linen-cloaked table, we were handed heavy bound menus. Or we thought they were menus. We had each been given a copy of the wine list. Bob thought it was a mistake, but Max explained that this was protocol at Shields Manor Bistro: Everyone gets a look at the wine list, first thing. Only after that do you discuss food.
Not that the food discussion takes long. The menu consists of just one appetizer and four meaty entrée selections. (DeDe accommodates vegetarians but needs to be notified well in advance.)
Our server, a friendly young woman, wore a tuxedo and white gloves. This nod to formality would have been more impressive, Bob whispered, if her gloves had been clean. "I love this place," he said. "It's so 19th-century."
I'd say the restaurant evokes a completely different era: a stylish, fancy small-town restaurant of the 1940s. My mother, who grew up in an Indiana town of maybe 30,000 (a metropolis compared with tiny Platte City), used to talk about a restaurant that had linen tablecloths, fine china, fresh flowers and candles. It, too, was in an old house and was expensive, as is the Shields Manor Bistro, where the entrées (all four of them) are priced well north of $30 each.
But the food is delicious, and meals include a "complimentary seasonal salad" and rolls with butter. The lone appetizer — shrimp sautéed in butter and blue cheese, the night I was there — serves two, so we ordered a pair for the table. The presentation was lovely: The fat crustaceans were heaped into cobalt-blue martini glasses, the rims of which had inexplicably been dipped in salt like a margarita.
After these glasses were taken away, we were served the pretty little salads and, after that, our meals. Each dish was more attractive than the last. Martha Mary ordered the Hudson Valley grilled duckling, which was exquisite: moist and flavorful, under a golden, crackly skin and sided with a fresh relish of corn and black beans. The sauce, served on the side, was a punchy, sweet raspberry-chipotle concoction.
Bob's hunk of grilled Alaskan salmon was smothered in a sexy cream sauce laden with bits of crabmeat and lobster. Susan's satiny shrimp étouffée, perhaps the most handsome presentation of this Louisiana dish I've ever seen, was equally superb.
But the most scrumptious offering of the night was mine: a hefty and succulent slab of beef, beautifully grilled and glazed with a sultry, peppery cognac sauce. The dish was so addictive that I hesitated before sharing even a bite with my dining companions.
When the dinner plates were cleared away, DeDe appeared in her chef's jacket. Her flashy diamond ring and perfectly manicured nails caused my eyebrows to rise slightly — she cooks? — but this entrepreneur had several businesses before opening this restaurant, and she proudly refers to herself as "a businesswoman who just loves to cook."
After coffee was served, she sent Max out with the dessert tray. It is, after all, his dessert tray — he bakes the pies himself. And such pies! We sampled a silky, tart Key lime cheesecake, a moist apple pie and the very fine Platte County black bottom pie. Max wouldn't reveal the ingredients of the latter, but I swear I tasted good bourbon in there somewhere.
By then, the other customers had left the other dining room, and we encouraged DeDe to sit down and join us. She's a first-rate raconteur, telling the story of renovating the old house, dishing about her neighbors and recalling — in hilarious and ribald detail — her former life in St. Joseph.
"It's her house," Susan said later, "and she's the best hostess."
That house might be the best reason to drive to Platte City. The dinners are very good, but the proprietor, in this old house, is the star.