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.
There were bad omens as well, though. On my two visits to the restaurant -- we were dining early in both cases -- our servers introduced themselves with this ungrammatical caveat: "First, let me tell you what we're out of." The daily blue-plate special goes fast, we discovered (though I'm not sure why -- the selections didn't seem all that enticing to me), and so do the mashed potatoes.
I ordered the slow-roasted bison pot roast, which really was tender and delicious, even if the portion was stingy and the garlic mashed potatoes tasted garlic-free. (I may have gotten the last order.) Carol Ann's "Beer Can Chicken," which the menu lovingly describes as "infused with rosemary, garlic and Anchor Steam Beer," was beautiful to gaze at, but the crackly amber skin was shockingly salty, the chicken itself was dry, and it wasn't hot. Bob, thank goodness, loved his beefy burger, even though it was far too juicy for its sourdough roll, which quickly dissolved into mush.
Like the appetizer menu, the dessert list isn't very substantial. It's mostly ice cream and cookies (which are baked in the kitchen but are hardly exceptional), though Ted's recently added a fruit cobbler. Its big chunks of tart apple in a caramel syrup might have been really wonderful -- had the dish been a few degrees hotter.
The problems continued on my next visit a couple of nights later with Bob and Gia, when two really fine salad offerings -- a Caesar tossed in a light, garlicky, eggless dressing and an iceberg wedge scattered with crunchy bacon and chopped tomato -- were followed by three disappointing entrées. I picked at my bison meatloaf, which was barely warm. But it was practically steaming next to a side of stone-cold "squash casserole," a congealed, overly peppered mound that looked and tasted like wallpaper paste. And yes, I have accidently sampled the latter, so I know. I swallowed; Gia spit hers out.
Gia's 7-ounce "seared beef tenderloin filet" was barely thicker than a pancake. It was such a cheap-looking cut of beef that I asked the server if it was even choice. (She insisted it was.) Bob's Kansas City strip wasn't just flat; it was fatty and tough. He managed to gnaw through it only after dousing it with steak sauce. And even though the accompanying french fries were fabulously crispy, they were once again ... cold.
"I hate to say this, but maybe they should rethink their microwave policy," Gia whispered. Or get a really powerful heat lamp. Or hire some swift-footed runners to assure that customers get their dinners as soon as the kitchen plates them up.
I don't care that Ted's menu calls the joint "the most authentic saloon this side of Montana." I visited Montana last year and ate in several real saloons and steakhouses -- and was overwhelmed by the sizes of the portions and the quality of the meat, the vegetables, the oversized desserts. The food, I noted, lived up to everything else in Big Sky Country.
Paradoxically, things aren't so eye-popping at Ted's Montana Grill. But my opinion must be in the minority, because although the restaurant isn't exactly a cattle call during the lunch hours, the dining room and bar were as raucous and noisy as the old stockyards on the two nights I visited, including a 40-minute wait on a Saturday night. Flawed or not, Turner's bison bistro has obviously made itself home on the range.