Take my friend Kitty, for example. She has a phobia about Johnson County, even though she was born and raised there. Frankly, she's more comfortable confessing lurid tales from her pre-marriage sex life (including a hilarious hot-tub orgy) than admitting that she grew up in Overland Park. Ever since she moved back to Kansas City from New York City and settled on the Missouri side of State Line, she's been a confirmed midtowner. She actually cringed when I invited her to dinner at a restaurant at 114th Street and Metcalf.
"You know how I feel about going all the way out there," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't have anything in common with those people."
Out there? Those people? The restaurant was maybe 17 minutes from her house, and I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see Kitty's own parents dining there. It wasn't the distance that annoyed Kitty but the fact that the venue in question, J. Alexander's, has an almost Stepford Wives-like quality. This corporate restaurant strives so intensely for middle-class perfection that when it occasionally fumbles, the results are as jarring as being jolted from a soothing dream by an earthquake.
That's because no one expects such a well-oiled machine to stall in the first place. J. Alexander's operates as slickly and efficiently as an automobile assembly line, thanks to the savvy business model initiated by the Nashville-based company's three original founders (including the late Jack Massey, who operated both a giant hospital conglomerate and the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire). The payoff for investors in the J. Alexander's Corporation has been solid: The company, which owns and operates 27 of the restaurants in 12 states, saw a 47 percent rise in second-quarter net income this year, and same-store sales for the period increased 7.8 percent.
Clearly these "full-service, contemporary upscale American restaurants" -- which are nearly always located in the suburbs -- are doing something right. And even a critical snob like me appreciates all the nice details: cloth napkins, comfortable booths and chairs, an uncomplicated menu with most of the dishes and dressings made from scratch, attentive service, gigantic portions.
But even the technologically advanced, perfectly programmed robot beauties in The Stepford Wives could go haywire, and J. Alexander's has its own little bizarre glitches, too. Like the lighting in the cavernous, wood-beamed dining room (intimate as a barn), which erratically plunged from a dimly illuminated "romantic" level to near pitch blackness at precisely 7:10 p.m. on a Friday. I was dining with Kitty, her husband, Dan, and my friend Bob, who momentarily thought he was going blind.
"Good God," said Dan as we all struggled to read the 16-point type on the menu. "Is this an eclipse?"
We asked a roaming waiter about the dramatic light change, and he glibly answered, "We have some new people up at the front. Maybe they don't understand the rheostat." We soon came to learn that the "new people" were responsible for any and all mistakes in the restaurant. A pushy food runner? "He's new." A frazzled hostess? "She's new." A funky glass of wine? "It's new to the wine list."
This particular restaurant is, at age nine, old enough to figure out which of its young, blond servers need a little extra training (or, in keeping with the Stepford theme, a new hard drive). We all loved our effervescent, super-accommodating waitress at that first meal, but she was so eager to turn our table -- there was already a 20-minute wait by 6:30 p.m. -- that she started hustling desserts before Dan and Bob had even finished their dinners. "Honey," I whispered to her, "slow down ... this isn't Waffle House."
So we stubbornly lingered and enjoyed a leisurely meal, which had started with a pricey but satisfying plate of calamari -- big rings of squid, nearly as thick as a doughnut, under a surprisingly spicy, crunchy armor. The oversized salads that accompany many of the dinners could easily pass as complete meals themselves; ours were tastefully accessorized with flaky miniature croissants drizzled with honey butter.
J. Alexander's is best-known for its prime rib and steaks, which is why Kitty irrationally ordered that evening's fish special, a flaky hunk of halibut, which she found "disappointingly bland." And she was livid that the menu didn't clarify that the orzo and wild rice served with her meal wasn't actually a hot side dish but a pile of cold rice salad dotted with soft orzo and kernels of corn. "It's not what I wanted," she sniffed, grabbing a big spoonful of the herb-flecked, Parmesan-flavored "Smashed Potatoes" from the mountain of spuds on my plate. I wound up sharing my succulent, bloody slab of prime rib with Kitty; even the smaller, 12-ounce cut was big enough to feed two.
Bob's gorgeously grilled 14-ounce Kansas City strip, slathered with butter, was nearly too much for him to polish off. He reluctantly gave up at the halfway mark. Dan had scored, I thought, with the best featured special of the night, the "Steak Brazzo," a bowl of grilled tenderloin tips in a rich, delectable Madeira reduction served over the smashers. It was, he raved, "like the world's very best beef stew."
Since my friend Sally, an unabashed food snob, insists that J. Alexander's makes the very best chocolate cake (it's even called that!), we opted to share it for dessert. I didn't think the chunk of warm Bundt cake was particularly memorable, even with the ice cream and the hot fudge sauce. I've baked a richer Bundt cake myself, which isn't saying much.
As we each plunged a fork into the cake, Kitty told the story of a childhood friend who used to hang out with her on the Country Club Plaza during their teens. This friend, a matron who lives south of 135th Street, now won't consider dining in Kansas City's urban core. "She says her husband wouldn't be comfortable in the inner city," snorted Kitty. "Can you believe that?"
Well ... yes. A few nights later, I made another foray to the restaurant with Bob and got slightly weirded out by one of the customers, an elderly gentleman who walked around the perimeter of the dining room several times, talking to himself. We seemed to be the only ones in the dining room who noticed him, which added to the Twilight Zone quality of the meal. Bob, munching on the "South Carolina-style" fried chicken fingers on Mr. Jack's Chicken Finger Platter, was mesmerized by the sight of the man aimlessly wandering the room. I was much more interested in my dinner, luscious slices of maple-cured pork tenderloin ladled with a slightly sweet "Bang Bang" sauce. The name must be a reference to sex --the mahogany-colored liquid didn't pack much in the way of heat.
But for sheer sensual appeal, nothing comes close to the restaurant's excessively moist, warm carrot cake -- a single slice is nearly as large as a Maeve Binchy paperback novel -- blanketed with a sultry cream-cheese icing. I want to say that it was almost too good for a suburban chain restaurant, but really, I don't want to sound like a snob.