The eight-year-old cigar bar and restaurant lost a great deal of joie de vivre when its founding triumvirate -- veteran bartender Harry Murphy, chef Trey May and advertising maven Loy Edge -- left the business after a five-year-long soap opera that included internal disagreements, a bankruptcy and lawsuits, not to mention lots of menu changes. Nowadays the menu continues to morph, as do the kitchen's hours. When Harry's opened in the autumn of 1994, it offered formal meals at lunch and a selection of hot and cold tapas in the evening. But the current chef, Joe May (no relation to the aforementioned Trey), cooked his last lunch on December 13, and Harry's now limits itself to dinner, plus a late-night menu served from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.
That seems a savvy choice, given Westport's reputation as a nightclub mecca. Once an interesting blend of shopping, dining and drinking establishments, Westport has lost much of its retail presence; this year, even longtime Harry's neighbor Perfect Scents fled for the Country Club Plaza. "I got tired of looking out my window and seeing all the 'For Lease' signs," explains the shop's owner, Nancy McAnany.
Harry Murphy, the musically motivated mixologist (he hosts a weekly country-rock show on 90.1 KKFI), moved even farther south, out to Leawood's Hereford House restaurant, where he once again pours drink as a hired hand. He hasn't set foot in his old namesake restaurant since he left in 1996. (Edge eventually bought out his interest.) "It was a vibrant and exciting place, and I may have been a small part of that," is all Murphy will say about his departure.
Actually, Murphy was a very big part of what was, in its first few years, a distinctly untraditional venue -- raucous, smoky and sexy, with delicious food served on linen-draped tables. That vibrancy is what's missing now. Joe May's food is rightfully a drawing card, but a lot of the old Harry's sex appeal is gone.
One night I came in for a late dinner -- late by Kansas City standards, anyway: after 8 p.m. -- with my friend Claudine, who'd been a Harry's regular and had glorious memories. "I remember those wild nights drinking Moscow Mules out of copper mugs and seeing guys at the bar that I either wanted to have sex with or I had already had sex with," she said. Alas, only a handful of people were sitting at the bar as we walked past it to one of the dozen black-lacquered tables at the front of the narrow, tiled room. "I wouldn't fuck any of them," sniffed Claudine, though she did brighten considerably when apron-clad General Manager Jeremy Roth, doing double duty as waiter and bartender, brought our menus. The clean-cut, amiable Roth was at least as interesting to look at as May's menu, a collection of dishes that are easy to share, like tapas, flatbread pizzas or uncomplicated pastas.
We ordered two big bowls of soup, a mahogany-colored beef consommé perfumed with rosemary and a creamy, pale-pink bisque of sun-dried tomatoes and puréed artichoke. "People used to come here for the food, too," commented Claudine, noticing that we were the only diners in the place. (The other two parties were drinkers.) She took a spoonful of the bisque and smiled. It was a lovely, elegant concoction, soothing and flavorful, and it would have been substantial enough to pass as a meal had it been accompanied by some bread. It wasn't, though -- inexplicably, bread is brought out only with certain appetizers.
The house salad was a sadder story. It looked beautiful, all decked out with crumbles of blue-tinted Gorgonzola, chopped red tomato and purple onions. But it was seriously overdressed with an oily tomato vinaigrette that made it nearly inedible.
Matters improved when Roth arrived with our entrées: for Claudine, a perfectly cooked beef tenderloin glazed with a shiny sheath of melted Gorgonzola; for me, a hefty bowl of linguini Bolognese. The beef, perched on a mound of piping-hot mashed new potatoes, was gorgeously tender and flavorful. (The dish is also offered in a superb appetizer version.) The pasta, named for the hearty meat sauce beloved in the sausage-making city of Bologna, was thick and tasty with brashly spiced sausage.
On a subsequent visit, my friends Jim and Marie were put off by the uncomfortable bistro chairs and the noise level. To put it bluntly, Harry's needs to turn down the volume. The sound bounces off the brick walls and the painted tin ceiling in a confined space that's a lot more hospitable during the summer months, when the dozen-plus windows near the original entrance (the building spent half of the twentieth century as Doershuk's Drugstore) are open. In the winter, the place is too loud, and one pungent cigar can smoke up the whole room until not even the most fragrantly garlicky bowl of sautéed Scampi al Burro can compete with the aroma.
On this particular evening, though, we were able to enjoy the scampi -- buttery and augmented with the bite of chopped chilies -- unhindered by stogies. Also excellent was a twin hummus appetizer, a traditional version matched with a fiery, roasted-red-pepper preparation and accompanied by crumbles of salty feta cheese and fat, juicy cloves of roasted garlic.
When it came to the main courses, a Tutto Mare was Tutto Dullsville. Though the menu listed clams as an ingredient, we failed to find a single one among the shrimp and chopped mushrooms. The supposedly "lightly curried" cream sauce, meanwhile, tasted as bland as any store-bought alfredo. Plenty of smoky bacon and chopped chicken inhabited a creamy chicken carbonara, which was tossed in a thick sauce of cream, egg and Parmesan cheese. Chicken Parmesan, on the other hand, was brought down by a jarringly sweet house-made marinara that topped the lightly breaded breast. "It needs red peppers," said Marie. She preferred the jazzier flavors of the aromatic Gorgonzola chicken pizza, which featured a paper-thin flatbread crust. An Italian-sausage pizza packed even more heat, thanks to spicy sausage, a red-pepper cream sauce and an extra jolt of fire from a drizzle of neon-red chili-garlic coulis.
Speaking of hot stuff, one of the desserts exhibited a bit of a kick: The toasted-almond napoleon is layered with phyllo pastry glazed with almonds and sugar, swirls of chocolate ganache and fluffy dollops of cream whipped with vanilla, almond and cinnamon. It's served, with dramatic flair, in a martini glass. Visually it's dazzling, though it's awkward to eat and even harder to share.
But it's a sensual dessert, and that's a good omen, because Harry's has gotten a little tame since losing the effervescent spirit that Harry Murphy and Loy Edge brought to the place. "All the food should look as attractive as the manager," observed Claudine as she coyly licked the cream off her spoon. "Put that in your review."