Downtown Kansas City isn't exactly a mecca for first-class hotel dining. (Some people cite the Savoy Grill as the exception to this sad rule; even when I do it, though, it's largely out of habit.) But there's reason for new hope. The Reserve, tucked into the refitted Ambassador Hotel (at 11th Street and Grand), marks a step up in class from any dining venue in the Power & Light District, and it has a young chef with real talent, Geoffrey van Glabbeek. There's no question that this neighborhood needed a boutique hotel. But is the boutique boîte inside a little too ahead of its time?
Really, the first question might be: What time is it at the Ambassador? The mad clash of styles dominating the narrow lobby of the Ambassador evokes several different eras without paying homage to any of them, a temporal collage that you pass through before you actually reach the Reserve. It all works, though. Paul Coury, owner of the new hotel, knows good bone structure when he sees it. This dazzling, street-level space was once the lobby of the Gate City Bank, constructed a decade before the Depression, back when a little ostentation at your local money lender didn't look vulgar. The floors are tea-colored marble, and the coffered ceiling, still boasting its original moldings, soars up past the mezzanine.
Inside the swanky Reserve, there's another busy motif to consider. Silvery rings hang from the shiny-metal drum light fixtures, and each chair, upholstered in clean white leather, is adorned with a single metal ring. Angelic halos or sexy hoops, they add up to some kind of statement, and I'd already seen more shapes and colors than my subconscious could cope with. (And I haven't even told you about the original paintings on the walls, all with double-entendre names that make you think you've wandered into the Krafft-Ebing Café.) Your mind may need a few minutes (and a tiramisu martini) to process the overload.
Of course, you're not necessarily supposed to see everything in a hotel restaurant. The Reserve is well-lighted during the breakfast and lunch shifts, but it's seductively dark after dusk. If you're looking for the perfect spot for a secluded romantic assignation, this room should be high on your list. You'll be lucky to see your dining companion, let alone the couple at the next table.
I was here to eat, though, and chef van Glabbeek's four menus (breakfast, lunch, dinner and a limited late-night selection) are — for now — less seductive than they are simply creative. The execution isn't yet as refined as the décor. Still, there's plenty of time for van Glabbeek to make improvements, and it won't take much. He's too young to remember when hotel dining rooms were the best places to dine in any city (an axiom now decades out of date), but he's savvy enough to see that he has the chance to fill a niche. What's missing from lodgings north of the Crossroads District is an intimate, sophisticated urban bistro that can offer both hotel standards (a good burger, a club sandwich, decent breakfasts and coffee) and a few unexpected choices.
Some of his small plates are outstanding, including a crustacean "corn dog" on a skewer: a succulent hunk of sweet lobster dipped in a light cornmeal tempura batter and fried until there's a crispy, almost evanescent crust. His version of a diner "slider" — two on a plate for $12 — is so haute cuisine, you'll feel guilty eating one with your fingers. The coaster-sized beef patty is smothered in a sultry chipotle jam and a swath of queso fresco and tucked into a puffy egg bun. I think anything called a slider need not be much bigger than a White Castle burger (somewhere between a postage stamp and a chewing-tobacco tin), but in this case, I welcome van Glabbeek's generosity.