Gilbert's name has resurfaced in the media lately thanks to the recent bankruptcy of Kansas City-based Houlihan's Restaurants Inc. That chain is a spin-off of what used to be Gilbert/Robinson, a powerhouse that once boasted more than 100 restaurants nationwide. Today, Houlihan's is trying to reorganize and breathe new life into its dull establishments. But the one company-owned restaurant that most closely captures the essence of the late Joe Gilbert is the most understated in the bunch: J. Gilbert's quietly serves choice, grain-fed steaks -- the staple of most Kansas City restaurants until Gilbert and Robinson came along.
"When we started in the restaurant business, that's about all you could find to eat in a Kansas City restaurant," Robinson recalls from his home in Florida. "Steaks and potatoes. We changed a lot of things. I was the creative one, always thinking of new menus and concepts. [Joe Gilbert's son] Bill was in charge of the financial end, and Joe was the ultimate PR person. He set the tone, basically, for all of our restaurants because he loved people so much. Not just our customers but our employees, too."
Walt Bodine, who was a friend of Gilbert's, remembers that whenever he got a promotion or an honor, Gilbert sent him a handwritten note. That was one of Joe's trademarks, says Robinson. "He started every morning by writing ten or twelve personal notes to people. And then he'd stop in one of our restaurants and chat with all the staff."
"There was never a nicer person in Kansas City," Bodine says. "He cared a lot about the people who worked for him. And his customers. He made everybody feel special."
That quality has long been missing at Houlihan's (where customers are lucky if one of the moon-headed postpubescent hostesses even acknowledges them). But it still pervades the dark, masculine dining rooms of J. Gilbert's -- which is a tribute to its namesake, who died more than a decade before this suburban restaurant even opened. Just beyond its heavy wooden doors is a restaurant that has little in common with the more elegantly appointed dining rooms at Capitol Grille or Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Or Joe Gilbert's own Plaza III, which Paul Robinson originally designed in a "colonial Spanish theme."
With its roaring gas-log fireplace, tile floors and rough-hewn wooden beams, J. Gilbert's is instead straight out of a Zane Grey novel. The booths are big. The food is big. Even the lemon wedge riding the lip of an iced-tea glass is a quarter of the fruit instead of some spindly yellow wheel. One night I arrived at the restaurant famished and was greeted by an entire loaf of warm sourdough bread (baked for the restaurant by Farm to Market Bread Company). After eating the whole thing, I was so full I had to take most of my dinner home.
On three subsequent visits I took only a few tidy bites, being careful not to ruin my appetite for luxurious starters such as jumbo shrimp (the crustacean version of Arnold Schwarzenegger's biceps) sautéed in ancho chile butter with fresh tomatoes and spinach. Or a grilled quesadilla stuffed with smoked chicken dripping with ancho butter, grilled peppers and onions and melted cheese. I loaded the wedges with a freshly made salsa of jalapeno, chopped mango and pineapple, the hot pepper's fire only slightly muted by the sauce's fruit juice and honey.
Our server that night -- a sassy Bristol veteran who watched over her tables with the same focused attention that conductor Anne Manson gives to the Kansas City Symphony -- told me how I could make the same concoction at home. The service at J. Gilbert's, which is as smooth and polished as the swirly art glass panels that separate each booth, certainly evokes the kind of deft, seamless training that was a hallmark of Joe Gilbert's restaurants: graceful, elegant, yet friendly and accommodating.
My friend Bob, formerly of the Bristol wait staff himself, insists that J. Gilbert's absurdly rich crab bisque -- the soup was merely a thick, pinkish moat around a generous mound of slightly tinny-tasting chunks of crabmeat -- is the Bristol's recipe. Who cares! It was as comforting as a flannel blanket on a frosty night. More original was J. Gilbert's variation on a Caesar salad, with its romaine dressed in a delicately peppery version of the standard dressing and adorned with lively croutons baked in red chile powder.
Equally impressive were crispy Maryland crab cakes. The appetizer menu lists petite versions, but I ordered them in a dinner-sized portion served with a heap of cheesy au gratin potatoes -- like many of the vegetables here, these potatoes are fired up with some kind of hot pepper, in this case poblanos. And the restaurant's baked potatoes are nearly as large as John Wayne's boots; before baking, they get a coating of kosher salt that makes their crackly skins as much of an asset as their fluffy insides, which gurgle with melting butter and sour cream.
Despite his experience working at the Bristol, Bob was surprised by both the size of the potato and the tenderness of his 12-ounce Kansas City strip, which arrived still sizzling and smoking from the kitchen's wood grill. He blanketed his steak with a side dish of sliced shiitake and button mushrooms glossy with Merlot butter, then spent the next fifteen minutes eating in silent reverie.
That was the night I savored a brawny hunk of salmon branded with grill marks and smacked with a punchy barbecue sauce. It rested on a mound of cheddary mashed potatoes -- unfortunately emasculated by a frilly jumble of tortilla tendrils. The presentation was as absurd as confetti on top of a Michelangelo sculpture.
But the sculptor might have appreciated the structural integrity of this restaurant's showiest (and most expensive) dessert, the Chocolate Souffle Pompeii. Molten chocolate and raspberry sauces smolder underneath the baked-chocolate crust of this confectionery Vesuvius, eventually oozing out onto a cool cloud of freshly whipped cream. This creation far outclasses the menu's ordinary praline cheesecake and apple cobbler and the "fruit taco" constructed out of a folded tuile cookie. The Pompeii is the kind of dessert that makes me want to handwrite a personal note of praise to chef Ruben Rosales.