"It's a Latin word," she said. "It means to nourish. At least that's what they told us it means. Some of the other Doubletree Hotels have Trofi restaurants, so I guess we stole it."
Now, I confess I wasn't exactly a stellar student in my high school Latin classes, but I absolutely don't remember running across trofi while translating painfully boring ancient texts. I even dug out my old Latin dictionary. Trofi wasn't in it. So I called the restaurant a few days later and asked one of the restaurant managers the same question: What does trofi mean?
"I do know it's a trademark Hilton word," the young man said with a chuckle. "It might be Old English. It means to nourish. That much I do know."
Old English? Rather than consult a medieval scholar, I looked through my trusty Random House Dictionary to find the root for a more familiar word, trophy. And there it was, trophia: "Greek for nutrition ... as in hypertrophy." Hyper what? I flipped the pages to that word: "the abnormal enlargement of a part or organ." Well, leave it to a behemoth hotel chain to think big.
Last year, Slohat Hotels purchased six Doubletree Hotels, including the Overland Park-Corporate Woods site in the heart of Johnson County's office jungle. Slohat poured an estimated $8 million into renovating the Johnson County facility, which included upgrades to the guest rooms, the ballroom, the health club and the lackluster Rotisserie Restaurant. The Rotisserie was best-known for its inexpensive lunch buffet, so I never thought of going there for dinner. I had friends devoted to the place, but I never thought the Rotisserie ever had a solid culinary identity in its menu or its décor.
Even in its new, redecorated incarnation, the gigantic dining room still looks like a standard-issue hotel coffee shop. The more intimate and secluded "fancy" dining area is segregated from any hotel hoi polloi. It's even a journey to get there, crossing through the casual dining room, climbing up three frosted-Lucite steps and taking two strides across a tiny bridge that spans a gurgling little stream. There's a subtle snobbery going on here, but I'll leave the psychological implications to Freud.
Last summer's renovation spiffed up both dining areas superficially. The banquettes have been reupholstered in pretty new fabrics, and the outer level got drumlike lighting fixtures that are fantastically theatrical. But the menu changes are distinctly less dramatic. Years ago, a Rotisserie manager told me that the culinary concept of the place was "American contemporary with an Asian flair." Last week, a Trofi manager used the exact same words to describe the new Trofi menu.
I didn't need a dictionary to know that "Asian flair" should mean something more exciting than the three allegedly Thai creations (that's what the menu says: "Authentic Thai Specialties") that I suspect would be totally unrecognizable to anyone born in the former Siam. What the hell is a Thai Chicken Wrap, made with "Asian cream cheese"?
There's also a Hot and Cold Chicken Salad my mother clipped a similar recipe out of Ladies Home Journal in the 1960s and the popular Cheng Mai Chicken, a holdover from the old Rotisserie menu. The description of the dish sounded more Chinese-American than Thai: "battered strips of boneless chicken deep-fried and tossed with sweet sherry sauce."
"It sounds like sweet-and-sour chicken," said my friend Marilyn, looking over the lunch menu. The coffee-shop-looking side of the Trofi dining room was surprisingly busy at noon, and most of the lunch crowd filled plates at the buffet, which was generously laden with an oddball assortment of stuff cold shrimp, barbecued pork, strawberry shortcake. One glance sent us scurrying back to our table to order off the menu. I asked Marilyn to split the Cheng Mai Chicken with me. She grudgingly agreed ("It's going to be sweet-and-sour chicken," she sighed), as long as we also ordered the smoked salmon salad, too.
When I later described the Cheng Mai fried chicken pieces; strips of yellow, red and green peppers; and snow peas in a glossy, sticky sauce to a good friend of mine who had been raised outside of Bangkok, she burst into laughter. "It's not Thai but sounds like very good sweet-and-sour chicken," she said. She was right.
The smoked-salmon salad was supposed to be served with a lemon vinaigrette, but our waitress suggested the peppercorn-ranch dressing. "Everyone around here prefers ranch," she said, motioning to the other tables, mostly seated with pasty businessmen wearing three-piece suits. They looked like ranch types. The salmon salad was better than the Cheng Mai but without, you know, any Asian flair.
When I returned for dinner a few nights later, the bigger dining area was darkened and only the more intimate dining space the place on the other side of the bridge was being used. It was a Friday night, but only a handful of tables were occupied. I was dining with Carol Jean, Steve and Michelle, who were all first-timers at Trofi. Since we had been quickly whisked to the nicer side of the restaurant, they thought the dining room was pretty snazzy.
Well, it is a white-tablecloth setting, which is unusual in Johnson County's plethora of casual restaurants. And there are a few attempts at formality, such as menus tucked into heavy leatherette covers and silvery baskets of crusty bread. The experience was so different from my hurried lunch in the same restaurant that I wasn't even sure I was in the same hotel.
Steve was starving (he had a grueling day as a dentist in Topeka), so we ordered three appetizers. But here's where Trofi's illusion of formality quickly vanished: Our waitress hurried right back to the table to inform us that two of our choices were "unfortunately not available." What was available, fortunately, was a plate of deliciously crunchy calamari, served with an orange-wasabi aïoli, which sounded too exotic for its own good but wasn't too weird; there was barely a hint of wasabi.
I don't order fried cheese sticks at a pizza parlor, let alone at a restaurant with delusions of grandeur, but my dining companions were intrigued by the menu's description of three triangles of havarti cheese rolled in chopped macadamia nuts and deep-fried. We agreed that it didn't matter how expensive the ingredients were, it still tasted like a glamorous version of a Texas Tom's fried mozzarella stick.
Steve complained that the Caesar salad wasn't really a Caesar because the dressing not only seemed anchovy-free but tasted, he said, "like garlic mayonnaise." Maybe it needed a touch of, uh, Asian flair say, a splash of soy sauce. It was as all-American as my cup of chicken-noodle soup, which was loaded with carrots, linguini and big chunks of breast meat.
The dinners were an improvement over both the starters and lunch. Finally, the kitchen seemed to be giving more than lip service to taste, eye appeal and texture. There were a couple of idiosyncrasies, however. Carol Jean, for example, couldn't understand why her herb-marinated, "wild-caught" salmon served hot from the oven on a square of steaming puff pastry would be accompanied by an ice-cold pink dill sauce loaded with pink shrimp. "It's supposed to be a hot and cold thing," our waitress assured Carol.
Michelle's mustard-crusted rack of lamb was excellent, and picky Steve gave a thumbs up to the Trofi version of filet Oscar, which was topped with a crab cake (instead of the traditional crabmeat) and smothered in béarnaise.
I decided to be adventurous and order that night's pasta special, which the waitress described as "cheese tortellini topped with a meat ragu." I asked what kind of meat was in the ragu Italian for a hearty meat sauce and she told me it was beef.
What actually arrived at the table was a bowl of lukewarm tortellini drenched in bland red sauce with paper-thin strips of what looked like ... lunchmeat. "This is beef?" I asked the waitress. She ran off to the kitchen and returned with an answer. "It's prosciutto," she announced. I took another taste and shrugged. Sorry, it tasted like packaged ham. I pushed the bowl away.
The waitress also insisted that the pretty pastries on the dessert tray were made in the Trofi kitchen, though the carrot and chocolate mousse cakes had that flawless, manufactured look. The mousse cake was terrific; the crème brûlée, alas, tasted like nothing more than a runny vanilla pudding.
It wasn't a spectacular dining foray, we agreed, but we were all nourished, so I guess Trofi lived up to its name. Even if something was lost in the translation.