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.
Service is a little shaky, though. Bob and I had a veteran waitress, the lovely Leah, on that first visit. She was a total pro. The server at the second meal was a completely different story, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Some of chef Djilali's culinary inspirations were a little odd for me, like the bread basket's rustic cinnamon-raisin nut bread (along with slices of a terrific French loaf) that would have been great with morning coffee but not so fabulous with a salad of mixed greens. And the butter whipped with balsamic vinegar was a creative idea and a beautiful color, but after spreading it on bread, I lost interest after taking one bite.
As his starter, Bob had excellent crab cakes with a firm, crunchy crust. I was impressed that the Caesar salad was served in a chilled bowl, but I was thrown by the addition of papery shards of oven-dried Parma ham on the greens. Some classics really don't need reinventing.
Those fish and chips were wonderful, encased in a feather-light, tempura-style breading and sided by a sassy rémoulade passing as "English tartar sauce." Bob decided to create his own entrée by requesting a double order of one of Djilali's starters: oversized scallops, beautifully pan-seared and neatly arranged on a bed of sweet corn mousse.
Bob was so pleased with this idea of doubling an appetizer for an entrée (it wasn't as economical as he pretended it was), he tried it again when he joined Kaite, Kimberly and me on a second visit to the Gaslight Grill. Before some of us had even opened the menu, he had decided to double up on the lemon-and-rosemary marinated chicken skewers.
But first, the salad course. Our server, a smart and attentive young man, would have been excellent if someone had shown him how to serve soup and salad bowls without putting his fingers all over the rims of those bowls. The secret? A napkin, although it's not especially easy to serve anything at a banquette.
Kaite loved that night's potage du jour, a creamy squash concoction delicately spiced with fennel. I had the signature soup, one of the Gaslight's typically generous servings of a robust beef and lentil.
Not so generous was the pathetic little bird impersonating a meal of "blackened chicken." It was blackened all right — and overcooked. The pieces were so tiny that I was convinced it was a quail or a parakeet lolling in that puddle of delicious Cajun butter sauce.
My dining companions were much happier than I was, even though Bob's chicken skewers were more than a shade dry. Kimberly, though a fussy eater, thought the pistachio-crusted salmon was top-drawer — juicy, just a bit oily, coated in a delectable jade pistachio. Kaite had ordered fat ravioli pillows stuffed with chopped spinach and Gorgonzola and was on cloud nine for the first few bites. "It's wonderful," she said, "but so rich." She had the rest boxed up to take home so she could request dessert without feeling guilty.
And desserts at Gaslight Grill are works of art — fantastic creations bedecked with spun-sugar adornments, architecturally inspired cookies and fresh fruit. Kaite's wonderful vanilla bean crème brûlée was scattered with berries and a wedge of almond brittle. Bob's "Chambord Chocolate Torte" was less torte and more Salvadore Dali: a dark-chocolate cookie arch penetrated by arrows of amber sugar tipped with raspberries, resting on a mound of moist cake artfully iced with chocolate mousse. It's the kind of culinary conceit that's almost too lovely to eat but vanishes in five bites.
These elegant desserts were among the many surprises I discovered at the Gaslight Grill.
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