A less-familiar name is George McKerrow Jr., Turner's partner in the 20-unit Montana Grill chain. But in the restaurant industry, McKerrow is a bigger legend than either Buffett or Turner. He's had a Midas touch, turning steak into gold since founding the LongHorn Steakhouse chain in 1981. That business evolved into the vastly successful RARE Hospitality International, which operates hundreds of restaurants, among them Kansas City's upscale Capital Grille and the five distinctly less classy LongHorn venues, including the one directly across the street from the two-month-old Ted's Montana Grill.
I suppose that means McKerrow (who still sits on the board of RARE Hospitality) will be competing with himself, at least on Wyandotte County's West Village Parkway. But even though both Ted's and LongHorn offer reasonably priced -- and not particularly memorable -- beef steaks, there are considerable differences between the two operations. Ted's Montana Grill specializes in leaner, high-calorie bison ("We sell much more bison than steak," one manager says) and has much more tasteful décor.
In fact, the restaurant's interior is so warm and inviting that one might be tempted to hold the place to a higher standard of dining than it actually deserves. Yes, I greatly admired the arts-and-crafts architectural details, the comfortable booths, the soft lighting and the Western landscapes in gilded frames, but one doesn't leave a restaurant extolling the interior design, particularly if the food comes off as second-rate. And that's where Ted's Montana Grill is more bull than bison.
There are dozens of reasons why I should have loved Ted's Montana Grill, starting with the restaurant's fresh-made policy: no microwaves in the kitchen, no frozen foods, chili and soups made from scratch, and just-baked rolls. It's unusual in this day of cheapskate corporate kitchens to find that kind of devotion to culinary quality. And in fairness to the restaurant, the bison chili is hearty and tasty, and the tiny rolls (barely bigger than a half dollar) are doughy and good.
But over the course of two visits with various friends, I rarely tasted a dish that wasn't lukewarm. And don't even get me started on the side dishes, which were never hot. One, in fact, was inedible.
"It's too bad there are little problems," said Carol Ann, the interior designer, "because the place is really attractive."
"And so is the serving staff," noted Bob, who went so far as to ask our stunning 19-year-old server, Brandi, if she was a model. I was wondering the same thing about the lean Orlando Bloom look-alike waiting tables on the other side of the room. But the joint is clearly understaffed for busy weekend nights, and if the server is relatively inexperienced, like Brandi was, that can mean some timing annoyances -- dinners arriving just a few minutes after the salads and long waits for side dishes or to have water glasses refilled.
For purely visual turn-ons, several of the dishes rack up high scores. A veritable mountain of big, golden onion rings (one of only three appetizer offerings), thickly coated with a crunchy, salt-and-peppery breading and served with a wonderful creamy horseradish sauce, was a promising omen of saloon food to come.