Flo’s ambitious menu might be a bigger draw than the drag shows 

Anyone who has ever worked the front of the house in a busy dining room knows that the restaurant business is a form of theater — sometimes high drama, sometimes opéra bouffe. And staff and customers alike are part of the show.

Flo's Cabaret, which opened in April in the former Bar Natasha space, takes this concept to a new level. It's not just a nightclub that serves food, or even dinner theater. It's something larger-than-life, like the joint's owner, "Flo," the brassy waitress persona of local drag celebrity John Koop. Koop may be the only restaurateur in town who starts his workday in male clothing and ends the night in stage makeup, a sassy wig and a dress. Well, let's just say he's definitely the only restaurateur who admits to doing that.

If Koop hadn't ventured, unsuccessfully, into the restaurant business two decades ago, there might never have been a Flo. At age 21, with braces still on his teeth, Koop opened a restaurant called The Bridge at 39th Street and Main. When his dinner business began to falter, Koop started serving late-night breakfast to the after-bar crowd and created the character of a snappy, hilariously rude waitress to entertain the customers. The character proved to be a lot more popular than the restaurant. After The Bridge closed, Koop took his show on the road, playing Flo at gay clubs for the next 20 years.

No matter how you feel about the iconoclastic Koop, in or out of drag, the guy has always been ambitious. His latest venture, Flo's Cabaret, reflects this. It wasn't enough to create a 1950s-style "show bar." (Few people, myself included, can remember the old "world famous" Jewel Box Lounge on Troost, but that was one of Koop's inspirations.) But his place had to be a real restaurant, too. That's why Koop hired Sean Leventhal, the talented young chef formerly of One80 in Westport. Leventhal's menu, a surprisingly sophisticated array of starters, sandwiches and entrées, is as ambitious as everything else about Flo's Cabaret.

My fear is that it might be too ambitious for this particular venue, the patrons and the neighborhood, though I'll go out on a limb and say it's not. I have friends who disagree with me. Flo's Cabaret is not for every taste, but neither was Bar Natasha, the cabaret-style nightspot that actress and director Missy Koonce previously operated in this spot. The two places are decidedly different, just like the public personalities of Koop and Koonce.

Koop's redesign of the venue is more in keeping with a traditional nightclub. He moved the stage from the center to the north side of the room and seriously improved acoustics by carpeting the space (in flamboyant leopard print, naturally) and cloaking the tables in dark linen. It feels a lot friendlier than Bar Natasha. The serving staff is practically bubbling over with enthusiasm — a couple of the featured performers wait tables, though they don't actually haul out the food in female garb (as the servers did at a short-lived, 1980s midtown bistro called Sarah Crankankles). And they're happy to tell you about their onstage personas.

On the night I dined with my friend Steve, we were fussed over by Cory, who slips into something more feminine for the 10 p.m. show. "My stage name," he told us, "is Raven Waye."

He was delivering a hummus platter just as two statuesque females with extraordinarily large breasts walked past our table. They were wearing long formal gowns.

"They're very famous porno stars," Cory whispered. "Mia and Courtney. They've been in transsexual movies like, I think, Chicks With Dicks 2."

"I'm glad to see that this place is already attracting celebrities," Steve said as he spread a bit of chopped, pickled vegetables on a wedge of warm pita bread. The hummus was good; even better was the bruschetta heaped with chopped tomato and fresh mozzarella. But both dishes paled in comparison with the dishy Courtney, who strolled over to tell us that she had recently moved to Florida to be the promotions director for a complex of nightclubs. "They bought me a house," she said.

She was performing that evening but not until well after Steve and I finished our meal, of luscious Kobe beef sliders, excellent small French-dip sandwiches with layers of shaved beef piled on garlic-roasted mini baguettes, and addictive little sausage sandwiches — all sided with a first-class Brussels sprout cole slaw that sounded awful but was actually wonderful. We ended with a tasty chocolate-mousse confection made not in Leventhal's kitchen but by one of those big conglomerate food-service operations.

"You're not staying for the show?" Cory pouted when I paid the check. Another time, we promised.

But I lied. I returned several nights later with my friend Debbie, who loved everything about Flo's Cabaret. She thought the décor was divine. "Those faux-painted walls! It's so 1980s. I love that," she gushed. She was crazy about Cory, too. He didn't push our sticking around for that night's show, but Debbie was tempted after he told her that Raven's lip-synching repertoire included Dolly Parton and Celine Dion.

The food was showy enough. Debbie's Moroccan chicken comprised lightly curried chicken breasts served on a puddle of devilishly sweet chili sauce, sided with fresh green beans sautéed with garlic and a fine couscous dotted with chopped fresh vegetables. I didn't know what to expect after reading the description of the fresh-salmon pinwheels. It didn't do justice to the actual dish: plump pink salmon fillets rolled around a dollop of pesto and Boursin cheese, baked until hot, delectable and juicy and slathered in a robust roasted-red-pepper sauce.

We didn't stay for the show that night, either. "That's all right," Flo assured us after I paid the tab. "This place is a restaurant for most of the night. We want people to come and eat."

There was a show already in progress a couple of nights later when I arrived for dinner with Cynthia. It wasn't a drag show but one of the Fringe Festival's short plays. Because we only saw the last 30 minutes or so of playwright Michael Ruth's Homo Terrorist, I can't begin to describe the plot, but there was one memorable line. As the gay terrorist is plotting to bomb God-only-knows-what, his partner cries, "This is no time for Italian pastry!" I'll use that one myself sometime.

The room was so dark, I could barely see the appetizer I was eating. Once I fumbled around and grasped a wedge of the shrimp flatbread baked with a tart basil-tomato relish and molten mozzarella, I liked it a lot, though Cynthia thought the cheese was weirdly gooey.

And for some reason, possibly because it was so hard to read the menu in the dark, I had assumed that the "plum sesame seed encrusted ahi tuna niçoise" was going to be a salad! What arrived was actually a hearty meal with thick slabs of pan-seared tuna afloat on a supple, hot concoction of chopped peppers, olives and tomatoes, tossed in a warm vinaigrette that was created with a heavy dose of Dijon mustard.

Cynthia's beef medallions were excellent but might have been better served with a blue-cheese sauce rather than the uneven fromage spread on the tender beef and a splash of a satiny marsala reduction. And after one bite, she avoided the towering pile of garlic mashers, which could have warded off the entire population of Transylvania. While we were finishing the meal, both Cory and Koop stopped by the table in T-shirts and shorts, their faces heavily painted for that night's show.

"How was the food?" Koop asked.

Fit for a queen, I wanted to say. And I would have meant it in the best possible way.

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