Lillis, who has lived most of the past six decades in Kansas City, knows Union Station well. She can tell you exactly where the old marble counter stood in the long-vanished Harvey House -- site of the renovated station's ill-fated "food court" -- and precisely where one entered the Westport Room, the station's "fancy" restaurant, which lasted until well into the 1960s.
For the last five years, Pierpont's has been the station's only upscale dining venue, withstanding the tenuous fortunes of a would-be entertainment destination that has nearly been derailed by questionable planning. Pierpont's is one of Union Station's few success stories. It has always outclassed its culinary rivals in the historic hall: Fitz's Bottling Company went flat pretty quickly, the food court is an uninspiring use of a stunning space, and the Union Café had neither focus nor identity. (Tellingly, Union will be taken over next month by its fourth operator, corporate food-service giant TreatAmerica.)
Anderson has been running Union Café (he's the third manager) and is glad to be ridding himself of the place. "Pierpont's had to hold off on directly competing with it, particularly at lunch," he says. But I doubt that the two restaurants were ever in competition for customers. Pierpont's has always enjoyed positive name recognition -- often more positive than Union Station itself.
"Business has always been good, but we've been hurt by so much negative publicity generated by Union Station," Anderson says. "Some customers equate the restaurant with the Station. We're just getting over that hump."
The last time I reviewed Pierpont's ("The Spirit of J.P. Morgan," February 24, 2000), the place was newly minted, chef Todd Brooks was still in charge of the kitchen (he's now the corporate executive chef for the Anderson Restaurant Group) and there wasn't a decent piece of bread to be had in the joint. I'll never forget our snippy waiter announcing, "We haven't instituted our bread program yet."
It took a couple of years to find the right "program," but the warm sourdough boule now served with dinners is a vast improvement over the wimpy breadsticks and salty rolls from five years ago. In fact, just about everything coming out of newly promoted executive chef Brandon Crain's kitchen is superior to the fare Pierpont's offered in its early days.
I was sad that Pierpont's had abandoned its version of the famous Westport Room Salad (a chilly wedge of iceberg dripping with lemon-parmesan dressing), but Anderson assures me that it's revived periodically. Besides, I found solace in a more creative innovation: a combination of fresh greens, red onion, blue cheese, candied walnuts and garnet slices of poached pear drizzled with a chocolate-balsamic reduction.
On the night I was dining in the former ladies' room -- now as tastefully appointed as a 19th-century tearoom -- I could have made a pleasant meal out of that salad and the bread, but my dining companions goaded me into ordering something more elaborate out of pure rebellion.
You see, Lillis, Fred and Bob were delighted by the "Small Plates Menu," which Crain offers only on Sunday nights. (He says it's too labor-intensive for busier nights.) Diners can order as many of the choices as they want or select four dishes for $27. The small plates are just tinier versions of the restaurant's full-size dinners (with the exception of salads and desserts, which never vary in portion size). This inspired Bob and Lillis to go for the tournedos Lili, and Fred to order the sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna.
I opted for a full-size order of the cashew-crusted halibut, but when the entrées arrived, I got a doll-size dinner as well. It was an omen, I decided, not to eat so much. Alas, I made too-quick work of the flaky little hunk of fish, which came encrusted with crunchy crushed cashews and floated in a roasted-shallot cream sauce. I was finished, in fact, before Lillis and Bob had made a tiny dent in their luscious tenderloin medallions, pan-seared with artichoke hearts in a brandied veal reduction. Fred, a slow and fussy eater under the best circumstances, took an extra long time to eat because his seared tuna was served stone cold and had to be sent back to the kitchen. It came back considerably hotter but mysteriously missing the sautéed asparagus that had once been on the plate.
"It's the server's fault," sniffed Lillis, who was insulted that the inattentive young man had never poured her wine from the bottle she'd ordered. He was probably afraid of her, having witnessed her irritation upon initially being seated at a "completely unsuitable" table in the adjoining dining room before scoring a nicer table in the calmer Rose Room. You know, the former salle de bains des femmes.
On that note, the Pierpont's menu hasn't lost its vaguely Gallic sensibility, though it's serving more steaks these days. Lots of rich sauces complement each dish (even the simple grilled steaks are drizzled with a potent jus lie flavored with truffle oil, unless a patron requests otherwise). And the finest dessert on the menu remains a satiny-smooth ginger crème brûlée.
Other desserts sort of miss the train, as it were. We found the flourless chocolate-espresso torte too dense and crumbly, and the white-chocolate bread pudding -- theatrically flambéed with high-octane rum at tableside -- a quivering mound of bland ganache, barely held together by any bread. There's a price to pay when one makes comfort food fancy, and this particular creation flames out before the rum does.
I had a happier experience on my next visit, when the service was better and the kitchen was really on the mark. I was sitting in the more spectacular outer lounge, and perhaps its soaring 25-foot ceilings and marble floors inspired me to be adventurous that night. I don't know what else would have compelled me to order the blue-crab-and-sweet-corn bisque, because I'm not generally a fan of corn-based cream soups. But this relatively new addition to Pierpont's menu is one beautiful bisque, a pale, pumpkin-colored concoction that's sinfully creamy and loaded with lumps of crab.
For dinner, I bypassed the lamb chops and gnocchi and the portabella Napoleon and went straight for the rotisserie chicken, one of the signature dishes at Pierpont's. Crain's kitchen roasts each semi-boneless bird until its skin is amber, then presents it, fragrant with tarragon and garlic, on a soft potato pancake (more flapjack than latke) that turns to a starchy mush fairly quickly. But this meal is more about the succulent chicken than the accompaniments, though the scattering of soft, golden cloves of roasted garlic was a nice surprise.
The rich soup and the hunk of chicken left me too weary for dessert, but it took every bit of self-control not to be tempted by a sponge-cake roulade served with strawberry sorbet.
And on the subject of temptation: I winced only slightly when I saw the bill. Even without dessert, a dinner at Pierpont's is an expensive proposition. After all, it was the Pierpont's namesake, legendary financier J.P. Morgan, who said, "If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it." This just isn't the kind of restaurant where one quibbles with prices, regardless of where one sits.
Walnut and pear salad $6.50
Cashew-crusted halibut $27.95
Tournedos Lili, small plate $13.50
Blue-crab-and-sweet-corn bisque $6.95
Rotisserie half-chicken $18.95
Flourless chocolate-espresso torte $7
White-chocolate bread pudding $6.50