Kansas City has so few restaurants with distinctive style that I had to think about it for a long time to come up with a definitive list. The American? No it's glamorous but comfortably square, the dining equivalent of a bouffant hairdo and a Bill Blass gown. Lidia's has some style, as do Rob Dalzell's 1924 Main and James Taylor's Re:Verse. I'd also throw in Bluestem, Le Fou Frog, Café Sebastienne and maybe three or four more that aren't exactly haute cuisine but have a personal flair.
Add to that list the eccentric, highly entertaining Nara, a self-proclaimed neo-Japanese robata grill that's been drubbed by some in the humorless foodie contingent who gripe that it's more about style than serious Japanese cuisine. That may be true, but if you want serious Japanese food, take a flight to Tokyo. If you want something out of the ordinary, Nara scores high for imagination and a sense of joie de vivre.
"But it's so 1980s," complained a friend of mine, who thinks that some of Nara's retro "industrial" décor elements, along with its black-clad servers (and frosty hostesses) and loud dance music evoke the New York downtown cool of the Reagan era. But any kind of cool past, present or future is a welcome enough relief from the squaresville chain restaurants dominating the suburbs that I had no problem walking like an Egyptian to a discreet deuce in this dining room.
You have to remember that Nara's 30-year-old owner, Casey Adams, was probably still watching the Smurfs when the interior style that my friends find so retro was on the cutting edge. Besides, it doesn't seem to me that the engaging interior, created by 360 Architecture, is inspired by anything from the days of big hair and bad music. It's a spartan, unfussy dining room during the day, and it's darker and sexier at night.
At least the room has a style, unlike many of its downtown contemporaries. So does Adams, who had black hair streaked with fire-engine red the same color combination of the restaurant's matchbooks and business cards when I last saw him prowling through the room, introducing himself to customers in a manner that was remote but not unfriendly. My friend Franklin calls him "Sprockets," after the show hosted by Mike Myers' solemn existentialist Dieter on Saturday Night Live.
Whatever you call him, Adams son of local Toyota dealer and TV-commercial star Ray Adams is just one of the dramatic elements in a restaurant that's practically a stage set. Let's not leave out the pots of orchids, the hunky waiters, the sinuously curvy chinaware, and the battery-operated "flickering candles" on the tables.
The menu, created by Terry Barkley, is a pleasant surprise. Despite the restaurant's name, Nara doesn't make a big deal of the open robata grill, which is at the rear of the dining room. Even the menu sidelines the eight robata items, giving them a hard-to-find spot on the last page. I've tasted three of the robata specialties, and I understand why the joint downplays them. The orange-ginger-spiced yakitori chicken was unremarkable; the lightly charred hotatesai scallops were plump but bland; and the oddball choice grilled Kansas City Polish wasabi soy sausage poached in Japanese beer had a light, smoky taste but was strictly a novelty item.