You can't have too many concepts. Just ask Forbes Cross, who has opened so many different restaurant concepts over the past two decades that I can't even remember all of them.
The best known of those was probably Michael Forbes Grill, the clubby Waldo pub that was his first great success, in 1985. Between the opening of that restaurant — which closed in 1999 — and his last venture in Lee's Summit, Cross has operated seafood grills, pan-Asian bistros, steak joints, Mexican cantinas, and even a short-lived revival of the Michael Forbes Grill in Johnson County.
Working for legendary restaurateurs Paul Robinson and Joe Gilbert, Cross learned early that the restaurant business is a gamble. And he knows that the most important hedges against failure are the simplest: good food, friendly service, moderate price points. He has adhered to these tenets even when his ideas have been too far-reaching (like Japengo, his expensively mounted Pacific Rim restaurant on the Country Club Plaza). Better ideas than that can still flop, but sometimes the combination of location, concept and staff is so winning that a dining operation just takes off.
Cross hopes for that kind of luck with his latest creation, the month-old Hickok's Bar & Grill, in the River Market. It does have some impressive components: a sunny and comfortable space, a talented chef and a very appealing menu. But is Hickok's in the right space at the right time?
Dinner traffic has always been a problem for restaurants in the River Market, which is why some attractive venues that once held ambitious restaurants — River Market Brewing Company and Oldham come to mind — continue to sit empty and unleased.
"I think this neighborhood is on the edge of a real revival," Cross says, with all the optimism you'd expect. "We just need a few more restaurants to come in and create a potent destination. The energy is already there."
Hickok's Bar & Grill is the first time that Cross has attempted to create a restaurant in downtown Kansas City. The urban locale is actually what attracted him to the old building in the first place. "It's a gorgeous building in a great neighborhood," Cross says. The building, at the corner of Fifth Street and Walnut, previously housed a failed Tex-Mex restaurant, Dos Hombres, so Cross knew that he would have to offer something seriously different. His original plan was a saloon that served both Mexican and upscale bar food. That was before a familiar name answered his Craigslist post for a chef.
"I was stunned when I saw that Michael Peterson had responded to the ad," Cross says. "We had never worked together before, but I'd known of him and his talents for years. I was never so happy to see that someone was out of work."
Another Gilbert-Robinson veteran, Peterson made his name at Grand Street Café and has had a tumultuous career since leaving that venue, working in nearly as many restaurants as his new boss has opened and closed. But Cross says he knew that Peterson was the right fit for his new venture. Cross immediately gave Peterson carte blanche to change the menu that he had designed for Hickok's. "I told him I wanted burgers, tacos and dinner entrees, but he could pretty much do what he wanted."
He did, quickly tossing out some of Cross' ideas (deep-fried pickles, for example) and revising others. "I knew I wanted a lot of interesting, creative burgers and fresh, hand-cut fries," Cross says. "Michael really delivered."
Cross wasn't sure what to make of the Wild Bill's fried burger — an 8-ounce Angus patty dipped in a Boulevard-beer batter and deep-fried — but patrons love it. My friend Bob certainly did when he tried it. He went on about the crispy tempura-light crust, the tangy jalapeño-cheese sauce and the mound of frizzy fried onions that topped the burger. He thought it was weird and delicious at once. And at nearly 10 bucks, not a beefy bargain.
I'm thinking that this may be the consensus response to this restaurant, which defies categorization. "It's not really a Mexican restaurant," says Cross, who dropped the word Southwest from the name shortly before opening it. "But it's not a burger place, either. We have steaks, meatloaf, ribs. It's an American neighborhood restaurant, I guess."
That's what Applebee's calls itself, too. But trust me, there's no comparison. Most of the dishes I tasted at Hickok's were as satisfying as what I've found in any saloon with culinary pretensions, and Peterson's cooking lives up to most of his (and Cross') pretensions. A plate of Texas steak tartare, for example, with its sinus-clearing rojo vinaigrette and puffs of fluffy fry bread on the side, was superb. And where else in town can you score juicy chicken wings slathered in a roasted-garlic-and-agave glaze that can be dipped in house-made mango ketchup? If that's snooty, it's the kind of snooty I can fall in love with. (You can get the traditional cayenne-based buffalo wings, too, and they're very good.)
The carnitas tacos, made with tender braised pork, were gorgeous and easy to love, drizzled with just enough caramelized onion, roasted peppers and pepper-jack cheese not to overpower the fragrant meat. Ditto the dazzlingly punchy red-chili-chicken tacos. (The grilled-sirloin variety was just fatty enough to be less than perfect.) Fans of the cheap street tacos that you can find in Kansas City, Kansas, may have to get over a little sticker shock here; the side dishes — sweet-pepper rice and wonderful salt-and-pepper frijoles — justify the price.
I didn't love everything I tasted at Hickok's Bar & Grill, but I enjoyed a lot of it, including the beef-and-chorizo meatloaf (it needed to be spicier and a little more moist) and the fish and chips, which were also battered with that feathery beer concoction and served with a kick-ass cabbage slaw blended with fiery chiles. In this case, the batter needed to be hotter and crunchier. (Though I suspect that the laid-back server took his time picking up the plate from the kitchen because the fries were soggy, too.)
I should have ordered some of that mango ketchup or, better yet, Peterson's roasted-jalapeño ranch dressing as an alternative to the traditional — and boring — tartar sauce that came with the fried cod on the fish-and-chips platter. I'm surprised that Peterson didn't think of that himself. He's not one for modest seasonings, which is particularly evident in his version of a favorite comfort soup, corn chowder. Peterson's chowder had a little fire and smoke, thanks to those chopped green chiles, grilled chicken and cured bacon. It was one of the most restorative cream-based soups I've enjoyed all winter.
Peterson has dotted his menu with other good creamy dishes. Starters like the supple fondito, made with goat cheese, and the thick queso espinaca are filling enough to endanger the main course. After three or four bites, I was content to leave the rest to my dining companion, who eats spinach only when it comes camouflaged.
After an appetizer like that — or even an order of chips and smoky, sassy house salsa (roasted peppers and oven-charred fresh tomatoes) — followed by a full meal, dessert would be overkill. Still, I tasted the featured chocolate layer cake. It turned out to be its own kind of overkill, all thick, fudgy icing and grating sweetness.
"I'm thinking of adding something light and simple," Peterson told me later. "Like a flan."
A light and simple flan: another concept worth considering at Hickok's.