Loula's Bistro and Wine Bar

Horse Sense 

Loula’s jockeys for a bit of star power in Lee’s Summit.

It's been thirty years since Loula Long Combs, fabled horsewoman and heiress to the Long lumber fortune, passed on to that big rodeo in the sky. But her name still gets trotted out each year during American Royal season, because the doyenne of Longview Farms was also the queen of Kansas City's annual horse and livestock extravaganza. Longtime fans of the American Royal can still recall Combs' showing off her matched heavy harness horses right up until her 79th year, the fresh orchid pinned to her dress barely quivering as she guided her team neatly around the ring while the audience gave her a standing ovation.

As heir to her millionaire father's "private village" -- the 1,685-acre Longview Farm, complete with its own power plant, chapel, water tower and hotel (for the farmhands) -- Combs was Lee's Summit best-known celebrity until her death at age ninety in 1971.

Loula's celebrity status is getting a revival thanks to the Summit Inn & Suites, which turned a space formerly occupied by a third-rate hotel bar (it was "not quite a biker bar, but almost," according to the current bartender) into Loula's Bistro and Wine Bar. The place is high-glamour by Lee's Summit standards, with linen-draped tables, fresh flowers in glass vases, flickering votives and a tiny herb garden right outside the front door, where chef Matt Drummond can go out and pick a handful of parsley or sage.

Though I wouldn't call the restaurant a tribute to fine dining, everyone there is trying hard to make it something out of the ordinary. That effort alone is worthy of a blue ribbon, since the handful of decent independent restaurants in fast-growing Lee's Summit are competing with dozens of chain operations. I noticed a great big Bob Evans going up right across the street.

Loula's, with its grassy-colored walls, gilt-framed horse prints and wood-burning pizza oven, at least has some potential -- even if its management can't quite pull off the little niceties of upscale dining. For example, two gorgeously framed chalkboards mounted on each side of the dining room ostensibly list the evening's specials -- the menu even instructs diners to "Check out our plates du jour and vins du jour on the chalkboard." On both visits, however, neither plates nor vins were scribbled on the boards. One was blank; the other listed a prime rib special from another night.

And while it's friendly, the service remains unpolished. A waiter ought to know the ingredients of the "Sauce Provencal" on the grilled chicken breast when it's one of only two chicken offerings on a menu that isn't exactly extensive, and he should be a bit more wine-savvy in a restaurant that's also billed as a wine bar. The staff at Loula's is young, however, and the manager, Robert Unverferth, is a recent addition, so we could forgive a lot.

Not everything, though. I'm still reeling from the festive sprig of white snapdragon poking out of a scoop of mashed potatoes -- just one of the restaurant's absurd garnishes.

On my first visit, with my friend Bob and novelist Lou Jane Temple (the latter-day "Loula" of Kansas City, having once owned Café Lulu), we arrived early and were the only people in the restaurant for an hour or so. Eventually a quartet of tastefully dressed elderly folks wandered in. Bob reminded us that we were, after all, "right next to John Knox Village."

Before we could order appetizers, the server dashed over with a plate of chewy wood-fired focaccia bread, smothered in grated Asiago cheese, alongside a tiny dollop of olive tapenade. We must have been in an artichoke mood, because we ordered both the spinach-and-artichoke dip and the whole grilled artichoke. The former was a predictable crock of molten white cheese dappled with spinach and chopped artichoke -- maybe even artichoke heart, since the tender heart had been cruelly ripped out of the dark green "whole" artichoke. That heartless bulb had been sliced in half and grilled in God only knows what -- its entire surface was glazed with a black, oily residue. Pulling off the skinny leaves left our fingers so greasy that I looked as if I had just replaced my carburetor.

Perhaps it would have fared better in the wood-fired oven, whose intoxicating fragrance had settled over the entire dining room, inspiring us to try one of the four pizzas. We shared a sausage, pepperoni and portabella mushroom version dripping with liquefied cheese but no discernable mushroom.

Salads were a slight improvement, although the spinach salad -- a pile of dark green leaves heaped around some sliced strawberries, bits of blue cheese and none of the promised honey-roasted pecans -- was drenched in a balsamic dressing so vinegary that I puckered up at the first bite. The Caesar salad had a little more panache, although it too was dressed with a heavy hand. Loula's bistro salad, a plate of mixed greens and a handful of tiny grape tomatoes, was the simplest and best of the lot. (On a second visit, I wisely ordered the balsamic vinaigrette, which turned out to be less puckery, on the side.)

Three pasta offerings (including fettuccine Alfredo, which comes in a standard meatless version or with shrimp or chicken) all turned out to be uneventful. A slab of traditional lasagna was spurred by a fresh-tasting marinara, but each three-cheese layer had congealed so densely that it seemed as if corn tortillas had been tucked between the levels of sausage and pepperoni -- the portion had clearly been reheated.

I was the only one complaining, though. Bob's Kansas City strip was delicate and flavorful, while Lou Jane noted that her chicken was surrounded by a lovely pool of amber juice from the roasting pan.

On my second visit, I took a gamble on the mysterious Chicken Provencal, which turned out to be a plump grilled breast under a luscious blanket of cooked chopped tomatoes, garlic, onion, peppers, button mushrooms and a splash of horseradish. And Bob happily devoured a plate of wood-grilled shrimp drizzled with a sauce of cream, lemon juice, butter and the slightest pinch of garlic.

Though we had been eager to see the dessert tray -- imagining something worthy of a lumber baron -- we were disappointed to find the usual suspects: a wedge of apple pie, some sort of brownie creation and a thick, steaming slab of chocolate bundt cake under a scoop of ice cream. I've always believed that microwaves remove flavor from food, and this cake proved my point. A glass dish of crème brulee, however, was silken and lovely.

The spirit of Loula and her floral corsages still haunts the place: Nearly every dish came tarted up with some blossom or sprig of flower -- a marigold here, a pink snapdragon there. It was all quite ridiculous -- but also, I decided, just another example of how Loula's staff was trying to be unique, to show off. And wasn't that what the trophy-winning Loula was all about?

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