It's a new year, and there's a new Majestic steak joint at Ninth Street and Broadway. No, not the New Majestic Steakhouse. That's what former owner Doug Barnard called the legendary old saloon and brothel at 931 Broadway after he took it over in 1993; before Barnard, a couple of ambitious but unsuccessful restaurateurs had operated a place called Fitzpatrick's in the century-old building.
Barnard named his restaurant the New Majestic in honor of the popular Majestic Steakhouse at 31st Street and Holmes, which closed in the mid-1970s. That original Majestic was gone long before I moved to town, but people still rave about the food served by the charismatic Tudie Lusco (Kansas City Athletics players loved it). The name apparently still carried some cachet because Barnard's New Majestic had a 16-year run before it finally closed last May after Barnard complained of facing "unmanageable debt." That's when the Sebree family stepped in.
Mary Ann and Frank Sebree, along with developer Jim Nutter, renovated the historic building in the early 1980s. They did a masterful restoration job, bringing in the 19th-century bars (purchased in New Orleans) and turning the third floor (once the living quarters for saloonkeeper Fitzpatrick) into an apartment before it later became a private banquet room. They leased the restaurant space to various operators over the years, and when no one stepped up to run the restaurant after Barnard left, Frank Sebree Jr. and his wife, Jolyn, decided to reopen it on their own. They rehired New Majestic chef Jim Nelson, collaborated with him on a new menu, and several months ago opened the Majestic Restaurant.
The dining room looks cleaner than it has in years, and the menu has all the classic steakhouse fare — and at competitive prices. Dinners include a salad; vegetables; and the choice of rice, garlic mashed potatoes, a baked or twice-baked potato or fries; and a dinner roll — so the Sebrees can give some of the Majestic's downtown rivals, such as the Hereford House's new Prime Rib Grill or the Savoy Grill, a run for their money.
And because Frank and Jolyn Sebree (both lawyers) lived in France for a year, the menu also has a few Gallic touches: a free-range chicken pan roasted with herbes de Provence and an excellent salmon slathered with beurre blanc. Still, the dinner rolls could have been better — bring on a toasty baguette, I say — and chef Nelson's soups, while creative, were never served more than lukewarm. A beautifully seasoned Thai chicken chowder was nearly room temperature.
But this new Majestic has a lot of potential. I loved sitting in the long, narrow dining room while one of Kansas City's best musicians, Bram Wijnands, played old standards at the piano up near the front entrance. Talk about a throwback! On my first visit, I brought along my friends Carol Jean, David and Becky (who used to dine at the old 31st Street Majestic with her late father so was feeling nostalgic before she unfurled her napkin).
"I used to come to this restaurant back when it was Fitzpatrick's," she added. "For a long time, it was one of the few places downtown that was still serving after the theater."
Becky and David now live in New York City, and their great pleasure, here in Cowtown, is finding the perfect Kansas City steak dinner. I was hoping that the Majestic would live up to their expectations — or mine, for that matter.
As a starter, I shot down the suggestions for spinach-artichoke dip (it's one of my New Year's resolutions: no more spinach-artichoke dip or fried calamari anywhere) and fried onion rings. But Becky insisted on tasting the fried green beans. "It sounds like something that's healthy and unhealthy at the same time."
That's the best description I've heard for this bar snack, served with a peppy avocado-and-ranch dressing. Tasty, yes, but memorable it wasn't. But I did get a kick out of the fried risotto balls, a down-home variation on the Sicilian arancini di riso, filled with Cheddar cheese instead of beef or sausage. The big balls, sided with a nice spicy ragu, were kind of trashy and elegant at once.
The salads were lovely, even if the Caesar was seriously overdressed. But the true test of any steakhouse is the beef, and that's where the Majestic scores the highest. David's dry-aged Kansas City strip was superb, and Becky's beef tenderloin, served as that night's special under a blanket of molten blue cheese, was grilled to perfection and fork-tender. "It's one of the best things I've tasted in a long time," she said.
Carol's salmon, practically glittering under a supple butter-wine sauce, was excellent, too. Feeling possessed to order something completely different, I chose the trio of sliders: three excellent little sandwiches (ground lamb, filet mignon and a salmon BLT), each boasting a different house-made sauce (the chipotle aïoli on the salmon kicked ass).
Not all of the Majestic's desserts are made in-house, and the ones prepared in Nelson's kitchen are superior to the store-bought ones. An "English toffee" bread pudding was luscious, though it needed more toffee. And the homemade apple crisp, topped with a big scoop of Shatto vanilla ice cream, was sensually satisfying: hot, crunchy, spicy. "Sex in a bowl," Becky said.
Carol Ann and I stopped in a week later for another first-rate dinner. She hadn't been in the restaurant for so long, she had no idea the place had temporarily closed and reopened. "What I love about this place is that it looks as if it had never closed," she said, spearing a strawberry from her spinach salad. "It seems like it's been operating since 1911."
True, that's one of the charms of this dining room, which actually is what at least one of its rivals, the City Tavern, pretends to be: a classic Kansas City saloon with good food.
At our server Will's suggestion, I ordered the 16-ounce T-bone, and it was a hell of a slab of beef: tender, loaded with flavor and grilled precisely as I had requested. Carol had a thick hunk of grilled yellowfin tuna, topped with a button of delicately seasoned wasabi butter that had just the right degree of head-clearing punch. "The vegetables, the potato — everything's perfect," Carol Ann raved.
The medley of green beans and peppers was fine, but I thought the twice-baked potatoes tasted sort of prefab, as if they'd been made well in advance and tossed into a freezer (or made in a commissary and baked to order). Disappointing in my book, but I ate the dryish spud anyway. It was the only clinker in an otherwise excellent dinner.
"If you didn't like the potato," Carol Ann whispered, "why would you eat it?"
Who knows. But I told her I'd eat the hot apple crisp again, too.