I have dozens of examples from my own employment history, dating back to my first reporting job with an alternative weekly in Indianapolis. The publisher of that long-defunct trashy tabloid was concerned that not enough readers were placing personal ads, so he ordered me to make some up. I did as he requested, including such gems as "desperately lonely hot blonde dominatrix" and "buff bi bodybuilder bottom." But a few weeks later, he complained that the readers paying to respond to the fictional ads that I concocted weren't getting any answers.
"Of course they're not going to get answers," I tried to explain to my boss. "How could they get answers from people who don't exist?"
There was a long pause before the publisher said, somewhat timidly, "Well, couldn't you be, like, their pen pal?"
Yeah, right. It wasn't long before my job didn't exist, either.
The only curveball if you can even call it that I've experienced in my role as restaurant critic for this newspaper has been the assignment to return periodically to places that I've already reviewed. But you have to be on your toes to keep up with Kansas City's ever-evolving culinary scene, where restaurants change menus, staff, concepts and chefs almost overnight. And let's not forget the places that go out of business, get shut down by the health department or simply vanish into the mist. I rarely return to restaurants that I didn't like the first time around, but going back to the good places is like paying a surprise visit to an old friend.
That's how I felt returning to The Range Steakhouse at Harrah's Casino. Five years ago, I thought the steakhouse was a real winner ("High Steaks," July 26, 2001). It's the only thing close to an upscale dining venue in the entertainment complex. The food, service and prices were terrific, considering that the entrées included a salad, a vegetable, a potato and bread. I have distinctly less affection for the greedy, clanging slot machines in the actual casino around the corner, where I've had nothing but spectacularly rotten luck, but that's another story.
There's a subtle stigma about dining at the gambling boats. I have friends who cringe at the idea of eating in such dens of sin, where people gamble, smoke cigarettes and wear cheap polyester pantsuits. One night, I couldn't find anyone willing to dine there with me, so I went to The Range solo. Some restaurants treat single diners like third-class citizens, but the staff at The Range was so accommodating, I felt like a high roller sitting in my booth, eating an excellent slab of roasted prime rib and one of the biggest damned baked potatoes I'd ever seen.
The Range has undergone a couple of small changes since my last visit, but I was pleased to see that prices haven't gone up much in half a decade. The décor is still faux Southwest: The oblong dining room is a pastiche of fake adobe and red "stone," and an airbrushed desert sunset floats over the salad bar. But the menu no longer leans to the Southwest. The servers don't offer a complimentary plate of red corn chips served with a smoky roasted poblano tapenade anymore, and the chile-cured duck glazed with ancho chile sauce has disappeared from the menu in favor of a less complicated bone-in ribeye steak "with Southwest spices."
What I particularly like about this Range menu is the addition of old-fashioned steakhouse fare, such as a gigantic 22-ounce porterhouse and a 16-ounce chateaubriand for two. The carved filet, named for a 19th-century French statesman, has fallen out of fashion in recent years. (The title refers to the way the beef is roasted, not the cut of the meat.) But for decades, it was a popular example like caviar and cherries jubilee of what rich people supposedly ordered when they dined out.
One doesn't need to be particularly wealthy to dine at The Range, but it's easy to get carried away by starting with a costly appetizer. On the night I dined with Bob and Patrick who were thrilled to come along Bob insisted on having the shrimp cocktail all to himself. Our server, Gus (who was a fixture for years at Farraday's at the Isle of Capri before jumping ship to join the competition), told us that it's the most-requested starter. And it should be. This isn't any ordinary chilled crustacean cocktail but rather a martini glass containing three huge, freshly grilled shrimp, sprinkled with spices and boasting cool stripes of fresh pesto along the spines.
Patrick and I shared the lobster tempura, which would have been sensational if the batter coating the fluffy pieces of lobster tail hadn't been dark, greasy and overfried.
The Range's salad bar, which so delighted me five years ago, hasn't changed a bit and still offers a few accessories rarely seen on garden-variety salad buffets: golf-ball-sized beets, fat artichoke hearts, roasted garlic cloves, huge and tender hearts of palm, thick spears of asparagus and a giant wedge of cheddar cheese.
The corn chips may be history, but servers still bring out a miniature loaf of bread and a ramekin of honey-flavored butter. Bob also claimed these for himself, but it didn't matter because I knew I'd be overwhelmed by my dinner: a sumptuous grilled elk chop prepared "Oscar style," with a mound of lump crab meat in one corner, a stack of asparagus in the other, and a modest puddle of béarnaise under the juicy chop.
I made the mistake of ordering a deflated and puny twice-baked potato instead of the oversized baked spud that came along with Bob's succulent mesquite-grilled strip. After loading up the salt-baked potato with butter, sour cream, chives and bacon, he slathered his Kansas City strip with béarnaise and devoured every bite. The steak, he insisted, was as fine as any in those snobbier Plaza steak joints. Patrick might have agreed, but he was too engrossed in gnawing every morsel of meat clinging to the bones of his rack of lamb. "This is the most perfectly prepared lamb I've ever had," he said. And he marveled over his spinach, flash-sautéed with garlic cloves.
After dinner, the siren call of the penny slots nearly lured Patrick away, but Bob wanted to stay for dessert. He considered the pear en croute but decided on The Range's version of the "Chocolate Bag," hoping that it would be like the signature dessert at McCormick & Schmick's. It was not, alas. Yes, it was a dark-chocolate sack filled with white-chocolate mousse, but it was about one-third smaller. Bob finished it in three bites.
Patrick and I took a more leisurely approach to nibbling on The Range's bread pudding, two paperback-sized wedges of the baked bread custard, dripping with caramel-rum sauce. It was an interesting presentation, but it didn't taste remarkable.
But desserts aren't supposed to be too fabulous at a casino restaurant diners aren't supposed to dawdle over coffee and pastry when they could be shoving coins into a slot machine.
It's a shrewd plot. Like an employer who waits until your first day to tell you that you'll spend your days posing as a dominatrix.