"It's kind of a buffet theory, without the buffet," I said. Then I shifted to a kind of interpretive dance to depict how some servers present the food with balletic grace while others struggle a bit. One shy novice waiter almost trembled as he awkwardly guided a portion of saffron-scented paella from the big platter to my dinner plate.
"He probably thought you were going to bite him," Karen said tartly, adding that while she had already made a reservation, she worried that the actual service in the dining room would be anticlimactic after watching my theatrics. The next day, I called her to find out if she liked the restaurant.
"Liked it? I loved it!" she gushed. "The food was wonderful. But there was nobody else there. It was like eating in a private dining room."
That's the biggest problem facing Platters right now. It's one of the city's most interesting new culinary ideas, but hardly anyone knows about it. The executives at the gorgeously revitalized downtown "boutique" hotel are hoping that word-of-mouth will lure patrons into a historic dining room that, until its recent facelift, had been nearly forgotten.
This wood-paneled dining room still sports most of its original fixtures from when it opened as the Walnut Room in 1931. There have been only a few name and menu changes over the last seven decades. For the longest stretch, it was an old-fashioned, pedestrian steak house called the Sir Loin Room -- a name with so many Freudian overtones it was a miracle the place lasted into the politically correct '90s. After that it was transfigured into the Walt Bodine Steakhouse, which was a bit livelier than some of its downtown contemporaries. But the Hereford House and the Golden Ox have long-standing reputations as purveyors of beef, while Bodine is best known for his broadcasting skills and his unabashed passion for chili dogs and chocolate malts.
So when Milwaukee-based Marcus Hotels & Resorts took over the Hotel Phillips, the lower-level dining room was primed for a change. Downtown Kansas City didn't need another steak house, so Marcus' execs came up with the Platters concept. It's the first of its kind among the Marcus Hotels, and I think it's a clever idea. For a single price ($16.95 for dinner, $9.95 for lunch), diners receive an "endless salad bowl," bread and four different entrees. Not a choice of one of the four, but all four.
On my first visit I dragged along my friend Bob, lover of all buffets. It was a quiet weeknight when we walked into the dining room, which had been freshened up with tasteful new carpeting, polished woodwork and reupholstered chairs. We were the only customers in the place. Bob immediately zeroed in on the rolling dessert cart and its bounty of sweets, but he almost broke his neck craning for a recognizable icon, like a steam table or a cafeteria line. And the black metal "bowl holders" on each table really threw him for a loop.
"What are these?" he asked, sinking into a chair. "Sculptures?"
In a way, yes. The circular stands hold the ceramic bowls that servers whisk out of the kitchen. The first one comes piled with mixed greens, shredded carrots, translucent curves of cucumber and papery shavings of pungent parmesan, all tossed together in a spirited balsamic vinaigrette. (There are other traditional dressings if you don't care for this house-made concoction.) Underneath the salad bowl's perch sits a square plate piled with fragrant breads and a dollop of butter mixed with lemon juice, garlic and parsley.
Our waitress that night, a good-natured veteran of the service trade, handed us a sheet of rice paper printed with the day's featured dishes. "Here are the selections tonight," she said. "You don't order anything. We just bring it out."
Short and succinct, eh? The hotel's food and beverage director, Chris Schaffer, should take a cue from this server. "It's hard to explain the concept in a few words," he told me.
But it's easy to sing the praises of the restaurant's talented young chef, Carl Scavuzzo, who actually gives a damn about food. Despite early publicity claims that Platters would serve "homestyle fare," it's actually the only restaurant in a downtown hotel that serves sophisticated cuisine. On my three dinner visits, I tasted dishes that were comparable to any you'd find in trendier bistros, including a generous portion of roasted duck, its moist slices dappled with a tart sauce of dried cranberries and tidily arranged on a mound of walnut-sprinkled rice pilaf.
Platters rotates most of its dinners through the month. I was served the same dish only once -- the paella, which was heaped with clams, mussels, chicken and sausage -- but I wish that they offered some of the dishes more frequently, like the juicy pieces of roasted lamb on polenta, drizzled with a garlicky cream sauce. Or a dazzling presentation of beef tenderloin, dusted with porcini mushroom flour, lightly sautéed and draped over a mildly fiery red pepper coulis.
Even the meat loaf is glamorous, wrapped in smoked bacon and baked with beef, pork, veal and chopped pistachios, served with a sleek, intensely flavored sauce made from reductions of beef and veal stock. The other three offerings on my third visit were fillets of kajiki marlin (lightly grilled in a pineapple-and-teriyaki sauce so that the faintest hint of a caramelized crust had formed around the flaky fish); fork-tender slices of veal prepared scalloppine-style, with salty prosciutto and fresh sage; and orecchiette pasta and thick chunks of spicy sausage tossed in a gorgonzola cream sauce with a dash of dried red peppers.
"This pasta rocks!" my friend Brenda said, giggling as she asked the server to bring out another platter so she could have a second helping. Brenda had come along with some trepidation. "Hotel food usually sucks," she said, but found herself to be a Platters convert long before anyone rolled the dessert cart over to our table.
Dessert is an additional expense, but at $4.95, it's a bargain if you crave sweets because you can ask for second helpings -- or more. Fresh berries, chocolate mousse and a silky crème brulee have been standards on the cart since the restaurant opened, but Scavuzzo is experimenting with seasonal offerings, including a delectable ginger-flavored bread pudding served one chilly night and a cobbler baked under a crumbly topping with thick slices of pears, walnuts and raisins on another. I worried about the heap of chocolate mousse sitting unrefrigerated on that cart, but Scavuzzo confessed that it's an eggless invention of his own, made with chocolate ganache, whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. It was a heavenly way to end a perfect dinner.
But if Platters doesn't find its audience soon, I'm afraid that this unique way to sample a variety of dishes will be sent packing from the Hotel Phillips. Diners don't have to check in to check it out.