Not long after the Red Door Grill opened in Leawood last month, chef Debbie Gold — the James Beard Award winner and reality-TV star — overheard two customers talking about her in the dining room.
"Debbie Gold left the American Restaurant," one woman said to her dining companion, "to make hamburgers?"
It's not quite that simple, but yes, at her new place, Debbie Gold is making burgers. And taco platters. And hot wings. The Red Door, you see, is the template for a chain of similar dining spots. She and her business partners, Jason Gleaton and Gary Zancanelli, have envisioned it as a "neighborhood grill," an appealing but not very sophisticated menu with affordable prices. If the concept takes off, it could make Gold wealthy.
For now, though, she isn't rich; she's tired.
Since she left the most high-profile culinary position in Kansas City earlier this year, as executive chef of the glamorous American Restaurant (a job she shared with her former husband, chef-restaurateur Michael Smith, from 1994 to 2001), Gold has dedicated herself to finding an identity for the Red Door. That has meant working long hours, seven days a week, tweaking a menu that did not, as late as last Tuesday, include a printed list of entrées. (What the menu does have is something I detest: cutesy categories. Appetizers are listed under the heading "A'Teezer," and you can guess what comes under "H'Burgers" and "S'Wiches.")
"My life keeps traveling in circles," Gold says. She worked at the American twice, and this is her second foray into the restaurant scene at 119th Street and Roe. The Red Door Grill is across the street from the space that held Gold's previous restaurant, 40 Sardines, which she opened with Smith just over a decade ago and that closed in 2008, after the couple divorced. By then, the place had developed a strong following, but the imperiousness of the serving staff (well, most of it, anyway) sometimes trumped the creativity and quality of Gold's cuisine.
That's not the case at Red Door, where the young servers and bartenders are so cheerful, you might wonder if Gold is keeping them medicated. She may want to adjust the dose; everyone here is likable, but the collective intuition is running a little low. Details that would catch the eye of a veteran waiter or waitress (missing flatware, empty water glasses, a dirty plate) aren't yet resonating with this front-of-the-house staff, who seem to be learning on the fly.
And flying is how you keep up with Gold, who remains among the metro's most talented chefs but may not have been quite ready to open Red Door.
Most of the dishes I've tried here are very good. (Young, redheaded Jacob Moeller is the chef, and Gold sings his praises, but the menu is her invention.) But Gold's reputation comes with baggage. So stellar is it that, when a dish fails to be a showstopper, its taste is a disappointment.
The servers one night talked me into a squid-and-chips platter, but it was soggy and greasy. (Most of Red Door's dishes are served in metal trays that look like Teflon-coated cake pans.) The meaty, muscular chicken wings (so bulky as to suggest steroids) were moist, and the rub was delicious and spicy, but the texture wasn't crisp enough. And I wasn't sold on a blue-cheese dressing that was a vivid orange, thanks to the gratuitous addition of smoked paprika.
The wings, like several other dishes here, come scattered with wilted arugula (even the squid arrives with the stuff, flash-fried). The leaves are lifeless and flavorless, but that doesn't spoil things. I even found something mercifully arugula-free: the flatbread. The variety I sampled, anyway, was tasty: a jade-colored creation with an artichoke puree and a garlicky chimichurri.
Gold makes her five couture hamburgers using a McGonigle's Meat Market blend of beef brisket, short rib and chuck tenderloin. I tasted only one, which the menu says is made with a "secret" sauce. I don't know if the recipe is exactly the stuff of Freemason rites — the secret seems to be the snappy onion jam that dresses the meat — but it's a good burger. I prefer the roasted-pork-and-tomatillo-salsa tacos, the closest thing to real Wyandotte County street tacos that you'll find in Leawood.
Gold and Moeller have been slowly adding dinner items to the menu, and the three dishes slated to become permanent are great: a sirloin steak that drips with bone-marrow butter; a fantastic slab of miso-glazed salmon, delicately smoky from the wood-fired grill and served on a swirl of soba noodles and bok choy; and an autumnal, beautifully prepared brined pork chop chunked up with an amber-apple chutney.
The chop's chutney would be as good on ice cream as it was on the pork, but there's nothing that fruity among the desserts yet. The signature sweet is a quintet of sugar-dusted sarsaparilla doughnut holes, served in a black-iron pan and topped with two dainty scoops of Christopher Elbow sweet-cream ice cream.
There are also a layered red-velvet cake — served too cold here, the creamy icing as dense as caulk — and a pound cake that our server warned we wouldn't like. But the desserts, like almost everything else behind the Red Door, are still in the preview stages. Gold confesses that she has been so busy working on everything else, the sweets aren't quite up to her standards.
I'm sure they'll get there. Gold is a perfectionist, after all, and she left the American Restaurant to do more than just make burgers.