If there were an Academy Award for schmoozing, local honors would go to 55-year-old Joe DiGiovanni, who looks like a cross between Bruce Willis and Ed Harris and has the sex appeal of both. That's one reason his first namesake restaurant, Joe D's Winebar Café & Patio, immediately became a magnet for female diners of all ages, whether they were eating alone, dining in groups or having an intimate supper with a date. It was all about the cult of Joe.
"It's my favorite restaurant. I eat there at least once a week," brags one friend of mine -- a thrice-divorced lady with impeccable taste in clothes, wine, travel and younger boyfriends. "They know me there, and I'm treated like a celebrity."
It's true. I've watched DiGiovanni working his claustrophobic Brookside dining room as if it were a nightclub stage, flashing a goblet of wine like Frank Sinatra used to hold a microphone. He's funny and charming and suave, and the customers -- male and female -- love him for always being the host of his own little dinner party.
So it's no wonder that, when businessman Jack Hanrahan decided to take over the old Café Allegro, he made the deal contingent on DiGiovanni becoming "a player." Hanrahan says he knew DiGiovanni wanted to expand his Brookside location, but there simply wasn't any more space available to the former gas station. Still, DiGiovanni's name had enough cachet to lure customers elsewhere.
"I came up with an idea for taking Joe to another location but not keeping him too far away from his Brookside restaurant," Hanrahan says.
As a result, Joe D's on 39th opened as a combination bistro and music venue last September. Café Allegro's owner, Steve Cole, said adieu to the location he had built into one of Kansas City's most exclusive, sophisticated boîtes, leaving behind the mirrored bar, the exposed brick walls and his restaurant's old phone number. Gone are the white tablecloths, the fresh flowers and the formal service by waiters in starched aprons.
Now the tables are uncloaked, the servers wear black T-shirts and the walls have been given a theatrical finish, including a trompe l'oeil mural of some Tuscan-inspired setting. Whereas Café Allegro was the essence of stylish understatement, the new dining room is positively brassy.
But the patrons come to see each other, not the walls. On weekend nights, it's the new see-and-be-seen place for baby-boomer glitterati, from the sublime (heiresses and business tycoons) to the subversive (former drug dealers, current art dealers, vicious old queens) and everything in between. My friend Tessie was agog at the glamour wattage one cold Friday night. "I've never seen so many expensive fur coats and expensive face-lifts," she said after taking a sip from the Duck Pond pinot she had ordered in spite of our youthful server's hesitant recommendation. "It's, like, not too heavy," he told her.
OK, only one server on the floor is, like, old enough to remember Depeche Mode. That doesn't matter, though, because they're all attractive, attentive and amazingly well-trained. If they don't know the answer to a question, they make a point of finding the answer. Right away. And several are so engaging and sweet, you don't want to just tip them; you want to adopt them.
I felt less warm and fuzzy about chef Sarah Walker's menu, which has some culinary nonsense mixed in with extremely well-executed bistro fare. Walker, who moved over from the Brookside Joe D's, might call a lowbrow Greek salad -- heaped with feta cheese, kalamata olives and a handful of oversized croutons -- a panzanella salad, but it's not. Panzanella is a salad with bread -- pane -- as the primary ingredient, not an afterthought. Along the same ethnic line, her Mediterranean salad is a salty, gloppy mess with the same ingredients as the "panzanella" salad alongside artichokes and some gratuitous pine nuts.
Like most young chefs with artistic pretensions, Walker likes to experiment with lots of different ingredients, getting mixed results in the bargain. A recent soup dujour, a Southwestern concoction of beef, black beans and fresh corn, was marvelous. An appetizer of lobster ravioli in -- get ready -- "a Thai curried coconut cream sauce with rum and pineapple grilled shrimp" sounded too exotic for its own good but was actually a mellow symphony of mildly sweet flavors, the tender pillows of pasta floating in a pale orange cream. It could have been served hotter, though.
A pile of shiny, meaty black mussels in garlicky cream sauce was a sumptuous carryover from the Brookside menu. But a roasted ball of fluffy goat cheese needed more garlic and had such an overabundance of fresh raspberries, strawberries and blueberries that it should have been moved to the dessert menu.
I wasn't particularly impressed by any of the four featured salads (available in a pre-dinner version or as a main course affair). However, Tessie and my friend Bob raved about Walker's variation on the spinach salad, tossed with spiced cashews, dried apricots and blue cheese. I appreciated the soft, yeasty rolls (made by the Roma bakery and finished off in Walker's ovens), served with a sweet butter that varies from night to night. On one visit it was made with honey, another night with brown sugar and strawberries.
All of the sugary butters in the world couldn't sweeten my opinion of the "Gruyere roasted chicken breast with prosciutto mashed potatoes" that I ordered at my first dinner. It sounded intriguing, but the bird had a tough, baked-on cheesy crust, and the potatoes were bland. Happily, that turned out to be the only clinker on a dinner menu with one of the city's best versions of osso buco, a luxuriously tender and moist veal shank served with slowly braised garlic cloves, fennel, carrots and tomatoes.
So forget the salads and go straight to the meats. Walker transforms pork tenderloin into exquisite little slices of roulade, filled with herbs and chopped wild mushrooms and nestled against a mountain of rich parmesan risotto. Beef lovers will especially adore a thick hunk of exquisitely grilled filet, sizzling under a cap of pungent blue cheese butter.
In keeping with the festive atmosphere in the restaurant, the two desserts I tasted were liberally boozy. A big, fluffy slab of tiramisu looked innocent but was deceptively heady with cognac and espresso. (I was up for hours afterward.) A fudgy mocha-truffle torte drizzled with Kahlua was as big as an evening bag.
But it's DiGiovanni, not the desserts or the cocktails, that gets this new restaurant's patrons in the right mood.