Here's the news, if you can call it that: Figlio, the 20-year-old Italian bistro on the northeastern tip of the Country Club Plaza, finally has a "new look." What's so amazing about that? The Plaza has evolved over the last two decades, while Figlio stubbornly remained a relic of the late 1980s.
Oddly enough, Figlio decided to toss out the Reagan-era brass railings, the frosted glass panels and the gold-tinted mirrors just as people were rediscovering the decade of big hair and big pop stars (Madonna! Jacko!) as kind of campy, outrageous and cool.
Figlio's owner, the Haddad Restaurant Group, installed a much more modest bar and replaced the big old cocktail lounge with two private dining rooms. Gone is that oversized bar, always bathed in a sexy red glow from the neon Figlio sign. The bar scene at Figlio never justified the massive space devoted to it — unlike the Minneapolis restaurant of the same name (which had only a brief connection to Kansas City's Figlio and is legendary for its popular and inexpensive happy hour).
The focus of this new Figlio, with its freshly laid rustic floor tiles and peach-tinted walls, is the food. The menu's changes, however, aren't necessarily for the better. In fact, the combination of old favorites and new dishes is a lot like the "redecorating" job: The changes aren't nearly as dramatic as they should be.
Servers say the renovation isn't complete. I hope that's true, because the place currently has all the charm of an airport terminal. Many of the walls are empty (and the "art" on other walls is mediocre, to put it kindly). The ambience isn't helped by the low, slatted ceiling. It's another airport-terminal touch, although my friend Patrick says it reminds him of the ceiling in a discount shoe store at an aging shopping mall.
Patrick and I were dining with Carol Ann, an interior designer, on my first dinner at the newly revived Figlio. None of us had eaten there in some time, so the new décor was a surprise. And not in a good way.
"I understand less is more," Carol Ann said as she unfurled a white linen napkin into her lap, "but this place is completely devoid of any personality or style." She looked over at the next table and wrinkled her nose. "And I see they didn't reupholster the chairs."
I never thought Figlio had much personality or style — even more than a decade ago, when the 1997 Zagat Survey described the dining room's "breezy ambience" and noted its "primo people watching." Breezy? Whatever. I guess there were more people to watch back then, too, because the dining room wasn't especially busy on either of the weeknights I visited.
"The Power & Light District has really hurt our business," one of the servers told me. I asked whether the newer Italian restaurant on the Plaza, Brio Tuscan Grill, had been a more potent competitor. "Oh no!" she said quickly. "Our clientele doesn't go there. And Power & Light has hurt them a little too." Little must be in the eye of the beholder: I peeked into Brio after each of my trips to Figlio and each time, that stylish Tuscan joint was packed.
The real question is this: Is it too late for Figlio to update its décor? Has its time come and gone?
I don't think the food at Figlio is up to Brio's standards. And even though the current chef, Eric Argie (formerly of Café Trio), is talented, I'm not sure Figlio's fare is even up to the standards of what the restaurant was serving a couple of years ago. I tasted some very good starters — the artichoke frita I shared with Patrick and Carol Ann was first-rate, a bowl of tortellini chicken soup was both comforting and delicious, and those yeasty breadsticks are still terrific (and the servers aren't as stingy with them as they used to be). But the fried calamari I tasted on another visit was served in a puddle of balsamic butter sauce, emphasis on the butter; we requested a little lemon aïoli for dipping. And the salads, which cost an extra $4 with entrées, were awful. The Caesar was oily and puckery-tart. The "Plaza salad," which I remember as modest but tasty, was now a gloppy, overdressed mess and heavy on the cabbage — it was more like cole slaw!
After those starters, Patrick loved the linguini tossed with fat scallops and shrimp, and Carol Ann raved about her grilled pork tenderloin with a red pepper and Gorgonzola sauce. I ordered badly, though. That night's pasta special, linguini in basil pesto cream, might have been pleasant if there had been any cream in the so-called sauce blended with the linguini. The sticky pesto was so unpalatably bitter that I stopped eating after the first few bites.
Fortunately, a stacked tiramisu we shared for dessert was good enough to finally vanquish that bitter aftertaste.
Things were somewhat better when I returned with Shelby, who had once been a server at Figlio. He wasn't convinced the wall color was any different from the 1990s, even though our server insisted it was "more pink."
After our server had concocted the little pool of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grated parmesan in front of us, Shelby dipped a breadstick. "It was a lot busier in the old days," he said. "And with more vitality."
The service was superb, we agreed. All the waiters and waitresses are polished, attentive and well-trained. Our meals that night were good, if not extraordinary. Shelby ordered one of Argie's daily specials, Chicken Natasha, described on the menu as a chicken breast stuffed with bacon, broccoli and rice. "There are sliced grapes in here too," Shelby said, poking his fork into the bird.
I had ordered Chicken Milan, a traditional pollo milanese — a thinly pounded, breaded cutlet splashed with lemon juice. Although it's not a fancy dish it's one of my favorite comfort foods, and I liked it. The side of linguini Alfredo was delicious, too.
After that meal it was hard to turn away the well-laden dessert tray. The dolce has always been one of Figlio's strong points and the chocolate-coated raspberry tartufo looked wonderful.
Alas, I had eaten too many of those wonderful hot breadsticks to indulge in a fattening finale. "The breadsticks can really kill our dessert business," one of the servers told me.
Trust me: No matter what the décor looks like, if those beloved breadsticks ever go, it really will be all over for Figlio.
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