Pain and Pleasure 

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"Do you think they'll look like tater tots or oblong crab cakes?" Marilyn asked. Happily, the gorgeously crunchy and airy potato-and-crab puffs do look like big, fat tots, and we greedily dipped them in both the mango vinaigrette and the jalapeño tartar sauce. "They're the most delicious things I've ever tasted," Sidonie said. I felt equally passionate about the spicy shrimp, sided with a cooling heap of apple coleslaw.

The salads need a little tinkering. The Caesar was invariably overdressed both times I tasted it, and the beefsteak-tomato-and-mozzarella number was skimpy on the cheese. But the baby-spinach salad was a deftly constructed heap of the green stuff, blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and a jumble of fried onions.

Like its sister restaurant, McCormick & Schmick's, the M&S Grill offers fresh fish, but only a dozen or so choices rather than an ocean of them. No plain-Jane fish dishes here: Catfish is either crusted with pecans and glazed in bourbon-maple sauce or blackened with andouille sausage and crab. Salmon is grilled with a Pinot Noir reduction or stuffed with blue crab and Brie.

Marilyn raved about the Parmesan-crusted tilapia (so did I), and Sidonie kindly offered me a tender hunk of her pot roast, which was served in a little covered china pot and was quite possibly the best in the city. I don't know what possessed me to order a big ol' hunk of beef, "Old KC Rib Eye Steak," after all those tater tots, but it was peppery and luscious. Bob's dry-aged Kansas City strip was excellent, certainly comparable in quality to any other Plaza steak palace.

But the real stars at M&S Grill are the desserts. We're not just talking visually pretty. They're gigantic, too. The oversized slices of cake and pie are reminiscent of baked goods from a 1940s steakhouse. This includes the biggest slab of red velvet cake I've ever seen. The traditional version is made with a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, but I couldn't taste any in the layers of dark-red sponge cake here, thickly iced with cream-cheese frosting. A server told me that it was the same sponge-cake recipe used for the excellent Boston cream pie (vastly superior to the velvet cake, by the way). Still, when was the last time you saw red velvet cake or Boston cream pie on a modern dessert tray?

Instead of the ubiquitous crème brûlée and tiramisu, executive chef Nathan Holm has pushed for vintage desserts, including a walnut-and-caramel "Upside-Down Apple Pie" (fabulous!) and a hot-fudge sundae (in this case, a martini glass piled with vanilla-bean ice cream, warm Kahlua fudge sauce, and three golf ball-sized homemade truffles). Sidonie, sadistically, denied me a truffle; I was tempted to bite her finger instead.

I bit my tongue on my next visit, this time with Bob and Darren. Instead of overindulging, I decided to take a more moderate approach. We shared the seared pork tenderloin appetizer, a big tray of paper-thin slices that we swirled in sweet teriyaki and bland "hot" mustard sauce. Darren's stuffed salmon, crammed with shrimp, crabmeat and bubbly Brie, was almost too decadent to finish. Bob manhandled the succulent stuffed chicken breast, implanted with shrimp, artichoke and sun-dried tomatoes.

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