There was a time when some of the best restaurants in any town could be found in its hotels. And I still count the Hyatt Regency's Skies, the Raphael Hotel's namesake dining venue and the Phillips Hotel's Chophouse among my favorites.
But too many other local establishments, such as the Marriott on the Country Club Plaza, treat dining as a necessary evil. Years ago, after visiting the dreadful Aladdin's Restaurant in the Citi Centre Plaza Hotel (the former Aladdin Hotel) at 12th Street and Wyandotte, I gave the place a scathing review and never went back. Still, I was sorry to hear that the grand old hotel had closed last month. The food might have stunk, but the facility was gorgeous -- it was the last hurrah from 1925. That year, 12 other major hotels were completed, including the President, the Commonwealth (now long gone) and the once-spectacular Ambassador at 35th Street and Broadway. Each operated a dining room, and so did many of the other -- are you ready? -- 300 hotels that ran from Ninth Street to Linwood Boulevard.
Kansas City was a legendary hotel town in those days. According to Jefferson Williams' History of the American Hotel, it was the first major American city to have a hotel with a bathroom connected to each room. That particular venue, the Victoria at Ninth Street and McGee, was torn down in 1960, when all of downtown's inns were growing shabby.
The last big luxury hotel built in the city was the Alameda Plaza Hotel on the southern end of the Plaza. Designed in a faux-Spanish motif by the late Clarence Kivett, who wouldn't recognize the place today, it opened in 1972. The Ritz-Carlton later took over, replacing the Blood and Sand theme with a clubby English sensibility. When the Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels bought the property in 2001, it added a few weird décor elements to the ersatz British interior, including bizarre illuminated screens in the formerly tasteful bar.
As I've written before, the most absurd change took place in the dining room. The Ritz-Carlton had foolishly eliminated the hugely popular Pam Pam Room; it was too lowbrow for Ritz standards, so in went a hoity-toity room boasting cream-colored woodwork, high prices and snotty servers. The Fairmont wizards tried to make the current incarnation, the Oak Room, a more accessible and likeable place. In some ways, they've succeeded.
When I last reviewed this restaurant, three years ago, I went on a harangue about the décor -- an absurdist mix of European elegance and The Beverly Hillbillies ("All Threshed Up," May 17, 2001). I still think the gilded farm tools and machine parts -- mounted on the walls like a Louise Nevelson installation gone awry -- make for a masterpiece of bad taste.
The good news is that the venue finally has a talented young chef, Brian Lewis, who has assembled an excellent menu. Now, though, I'm afraid that menu might be too good -- and too expensive -- for a room that still lacks an identity. At one point, the Oak Room was calling itself a steakhouse, which wasn't a great selling point in a highly competitive Plaza restaurant scene that already boasted two upscale steak joints. It's not pretending to be a steakhouse now, though Lewis does serve some excellent beef. But what is it?
It's not the Pam Pam Room, which was always crowded. I dined in the Oak Room twice on weeknights, and both times, only one other table was occupied. One possible reason for the turnoff: On both visits, I spent more than a hundred bucks -- even on the night that there were just two of us. And no, we didn't have a bottle of wine or the $10 crab-cake appetizer.
Lewis' menu lists only two entrées for less than twenty bucks, including a bowl of capellini pasta tossed with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil for $14, à la carte. I anted up a few more bucks and ordered a chicken breast, which arrived roasted to a superb mahogany-brown on the outside and was moist and flavorful with herbs and salty feta cheese inside.
That night I had brought along two of my more cosmopolitan girlfriends, Carmen and Karen, who thought that even though the Oak Room was ugly, its food was spectacular. "The visual presentation, the little touches, the taste is exquisite," Karen said. She had worried about dining in a nearly empty room -- "It's not a good omen," she'd said -- but cheered up when a wire basket of warm, rosemary-scented focaccia arrived with swirls of butter perched on shiny, green geranium leaves.
Carmen and Karen were also impressed by the fashionable composition of their salads. The mixed-greens salad was splashed with a tarragon-and-pine-nut vinaigrette and topped with a tangle of julienned carrots and goat cheese rubbed in chopped pistachios. The spinach version, in a warm, smoky pancetta dressing, was studded with crunchy sugared walnuts. And I found comfort in a tureen of Lewis' chicken noodle soup, heaped with chunks of roasted chicken, carrots and celery in a fragrant, amber-colored broth.
Unfortunately, though, neither Karen nor I could detect a mussel in the spicy cioppino. But Karen admired the plump scallops, the hunk of red snapper and the fat lobster claw floating in the tomato-based broth (with a hint of saffron but, Karen said, not enough salt). Carmen scored with a supple scaloppine of pink salmon languidly lying atop a mound of truffled lump crab and organic green lentils.
We ended that night sharing a trio of house-made sorbets: tart lime, sweet mango and a pucker-inducing fresh raspberry piled into a crisp pastry basket.
A few nights later, I returned with my friend Bob for a more robust steak dinner. He started with an appetizer of poached shrimp swathed in minced parsley, lemon peel and garlic accompanied by a bourbon-laden cocktail sauce. And I was mesmerized by honey-glazed slices of tender, moist duck breast, fanned atop a cool compote of chopped tomatoes, orange wedges and vinegary capers.
When it comes to steak, Lewis marinates his black angus strip with fresh herbs before tossing it on the grill, drenching it in a sleek Merlot demi-glaze and serving it with crunchy potato croquettes. "They look like giant tater tots," said Bob, who let me snatch one off his plate. My own hunk of prime rib was fabulously tender but almost dwarfed by the biggest salt-baked potato I'd ever seen (accessorized by tidy little cups of sour cream, grated cheese, bacon and chives).
It was overly indulgent to follow this meatfest with dessert, but we found ourselves irresistibly drawn to two items: a silken crème brûlée flavored with Tahitian vanilla (which was surprisingly lemony) and a tiramisu sheathed in chocolate as if it were a gift box.
Service was superattentive -- because we had the entire restaurant to ourselves for the first hour. That lent a bittersweet quality to the occasion. The view from the picture windows was beautiful, the appointments were elegant, the food was delicious. But the customers? Gone the way of the Pam Pam Room, I fear.