Even as a contented carnivore, I can understand why Kansas City vegetarians wish for more restaurants like Udipi Café (see review). For most of this city's history, local restaurants have peddled beef, chops and chicken, treating vegetables as merely an accessory.
Things have picked up for vegetarian diners, though. I made a recent visit to Benton's Steak & Chop House at the Westin Crown Center Hotel, which has dramatically altered its menu but not its focus on meat. Though there was no actual vegetarian entrée, there were lots of inspired side dishes that sounded more lyrical than the ubiquitous "vegetable medley." Benton's new menu offers small portions of baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms or steamed asparagus with a rich egg-and-butter Choron sauce (which can be left off on request), a ragoût of forest mushrooms and, of course, onion rings.
For flesh eaters, Benton's has lowered prices by eliminating its longstanding "package" dinner: Each entrée included a porcelain bucket of iced shrimp in the shell, a theatrically prepared salad and a basket of bread. The breads and herbed butter are still gratis, but the new menu prices for the steaks and prime rib include only a choice of potato.
"We have customers who still insist on getting the old package dinner," says the restaurant's young manager, Jason Blonde. "So for $9 extra, we offer a shrimp cocktail and either a Caesar salad or a house salad."
The cold shrimp, which always tends to be mushy, is now peeled and perched on the edge of a martini glass. But for veteran customers who demand tradition, the restaurant still has a few of those old white porcelain buckets hanging around, says Georgianna Jones, who has worked in this dining room through thirty years and two different concepts. "If they still want the shrimp in a bucket, they can have it."
The new menu also boasts two new appetizers: a superbly crispy and nongreasy spring roll filled with shredded pork and chopped vegetables, and golden puffs of crab rangoon. They taste like the delicacies once served at the Westin's vanished Trader Vic's. There's a reason for that.
"We brought back Miss Lee, who used to make those appetizers for Trader Vic's," says Blonde. "Our customers love them."
The certified Angus steaks haven't changed, but happily, the old grilled chicken has. The plump, juicy free-range bird that now flies out of the kitchen bears no resemblance to the dried-out, flavorless product the restaurant used to serve. This tender, golden-brown breast is smothered in caramelized onions and is so fragrant it might tempt a vegan into flipping a bird to the bok choy.