A friend has just started studying tarot. Recently she called with a warning: "Don't eat chicken today. The cards warn against it."
I'm superstitious by nature, so I took the woman at her word. And, luckily, I hadn't planned to go to Stroud's or Granny's anyway. But the next time she called, I cut her off at the pass. "But you don't want to be surprised by the future, do you?" she asked.
As a matter of fact, yes. The element of surprise is one of the more exciting things about being a restaurant reviewer. Many times, I don't know anything about a new restaurant other than its name and location. And sometimes I'm not even sure of that.
When driving out to the new Gaslight Grill in Leawood, I was armed with little advance knowledge. I knew it was in a building that had formerly housed another restaurant, but I couldn't remember what the previous venue had been. My friend Bob, who doesn't particularly care for surprises, only came along because the "grill" part of the name sounded reassuring. Grill means grilled meats, so he would be on familiar ground and wouldn't be forced to choose between a tofu burger and a tempeh stir-fry. He'd had that kind of surprise before and wasn't very happy about it.
He was even more relieved when he recognized the building: "It's the space that used to be the Leawood Plaza III."
Sure enough, restaurateur Dick Hawk, who used to own a hotel at the Lake of the Ozarks, had installed the Gaslight Grill in what had been the short-lived Johnson County outpost of the venerable Plaza III (the oldest restaurant on the Country Club Plaza). I had eaten there a couple of times and hadn't been overwhelmed by the food or the service, although the main dining room was dramatically large.
In fact, the dining room seems as big as a train depot, with a sweeping barrel-vaulted ceiling. If it weren't for the black-leatherette banquettes and the tables cloaked in black linens, you might stumble in looking for the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Now that it's Hawk's place, you might actually hear that song in one of the smaller, adjoining dining rooms, such as the Jazz Room, where a quartet plays five nights a week. When Hawk sold his hotel and moved to Kansas City, he brought the Lynn Zimmer Band along with him. I think he may have opened the Gaslight Grill just to give the band a place to play.
Meeting and greeting customers on one of my two visits, Hawk is not a man for understatement. His restaurant is only four months old, but the Web site already proclaims it to be "Kansas City's Finest Restaurant." I'll give Hawk this: He's sure trying hard to create something out of the ordinary with this restaurant.
Like the West Chase Grill (another new restaurant in Leawood), the Gaslight Grill is a retro dining experience. It's formal but not stuffy. And the menu leans to the continental cuisine of an earlier time; Hawk calls it "American contemporary with a European twist."
Not too European, though, even if chef Eddie Djilali does include English fish and chips on a menu with entrées starting at $12 for creamy mushroom and leek risotto and peaking at $32 for an organic Piedmontese strip steak. Unlike some of its swankier contemporaries, though, the Gaslight Grill offers sides with many of its dishes. That Piedmontese steak, for example, comes with grilled asparagus and roasted garlic mashers. Additional sides aren't too costly, and the upcharge for adding soup or salad is nominal.