I don't know if there's any connection between Ophelia's, the attractive, upscale restaurant across from the historic Independence courthouse, and the more famous Ophelia who was driven mad in Shakespeare's Hamlet. But I do know this: In 2000, I was driven mad one night by the glaring incompetence of the Independence Ophelia's staff and manager, and I walked out vowing never to set foot in there again.
It took almost a decade and the fine reputation of two chefs — Marshall Roth and Aaron King — to lure me back. A friend of mine assured me that much had changed at Ophelia's over the years, particularly in the way that the restaurant was operated (it's owned by Independence lawyer and business maven Ken McClain). "You'll be very surprised by how professional the staff is now," my friend promised me.
Kathi Rohlfing — formerly of the Phillips Hotel and Room 39 — is the current general manager, so I was inclined to believe the news. She's a class act. Another friend of mine insisted that the Sunday brunch was pretty classy, too. "It's not very expensive and it's really nice, kind of glamorous."
It's not easy for me to imagine the words glamorous and Independence in the same sentence, but I was willing to give Ophelia's a second chance after so much time. I mean, yes, I'm a grudge holder of epic proportion (I'm still mad at a waitress I used to work with in the 1980s, even though I've long forgotten exactly why I'm angry with her), but after a good meal, I can be very forgiving.
I decided to return to Ophelia's in my most forgiving mood: after church. My friends Bob and Georgina were eager to sample the Sunday brunch. Snobbish Georgina, who rarely ventures as far east as Independence, couldn't stop talking about Ophelia's interior. She kept admiring the polished wood floors, the comfortable banquettes, the elegant light fixtures, the baby grand in the corner. "It's very refined," she said. "I could come back to this restaurant with some of my bridge partners!"
Bob was a little less impressed, mostly because there weren't any eggs Benedict on the buffet. There were scrambled eggs, a hearty wedge of spinach-and-ham quiche, and a man in a crisp white chef's coat making to-order omelets, but Bob's hallmark for a successful brunch is eggs Benedict.
At roughly $17 per person, I thought the fare was elaborate enough without eggs Benedict. There also were carved-to-order roast beef, fire-roasted vegetables, bacon and sausage, excellent pastries, and a first-class array of cold salads. The biscuits and gravy needed a little work, but the pretty desserts, including a wonderful bread pudding, made up for that disappointment. Besides, for an additional eight bucks, the servers were happy to note, you can have as many mimosas as you can drink.
The service was extraordinary. Georgina is legendary as a high-maintenance customer, but the staff attended to her every request. "It's a charming place," Georgina said, tucking two chocolate-chip cookies into her Chanel purse. "I can't wait to tell all my friends about it."
I cringed, thinking about how many years I'd spent telling my friends how much I hated Ophelia's. Hell, even a restaurant critic is guilty of that old industry adage: "If someone has an excellent meal in a restaurant, he or she will tell five people. If it's a disappointing meal, the same customer will tell 50."
A few nights later, I invited Truman for dinner at Ophelia's. "Where have I heard of that restaurant before?" he asked. "Oh, wait a minute. I heard about it from you!"
"Oh, that was 10 years ago," I sheepishly explained. "It's much improved now."
Truman wasn't sure he believed my promises until I explained that a year ago, Ken and Cindy McClain hired larger-than-life chef Marshall Roth, who had overseen the kitchens at several Power & Light District restaurants, to serve as executive corporate chef for their mini empire of Independence establishments (the others are Café Verona and Square Pizza). A lot of people, including me, shook their heads at the idea of the young, wildly creative Roth teaming up with the hands-on McClains. But the partnership apparently has been successful. Roth works with the head chef at each restaurant, designing menus and visual presentations for each dish. "But the McClains," Roth explained to me later, "have the last word on everything."
The current menu is solidly Midwestern — steaks, lamb, pork chops, seafood and salads — but Roth's eccentric sensibility is all over the place, starting with his clever spin on fried shrimp as an appetizer: jumbo shrimp dipped in a light tempura batter, rolled in sugary Rice Krispies cereal, then fried and skewered on bamboo sticks. They looked fantastic and were addictive, dipped in a hot-sweet chili sauce.
I was less enthralled by Ophelia's chips — a plate of tissue-thin, homemade potato chips made with both Idaho spuds and sweet potatoes, the latter inexplicably dusted with sugar and served with a gloppy toasted onion dip. "This is not a marriage that works," Truman clucked.
I'd considered ordering that night's potage du jour, but the description suggested that it had one too many ingredients for moi: potatoes, leeks, peas, cream, and God only knows what else. So I settled on the pretty salad of soft Bibb lettuce with blue-cheese crumbles, pecans and a lovely creamy onion vinaigrette. Truman liked his cold wedge of iceberg lettuce dripping with Thousand Island dressing and stacked with large slices of crispy bacon and hard-boiled egg. After that, he had to choose his entrée carefully.
"Since I'm planning on dessert," Truman whispered, "I'm ordering something from the 'Spa Menu' category."
There are three possibilities in that group, all seafood. He decided on the Italian seafood stew, a delicately light cioppino made with superb hand-rolled noodles, shrimp, scallops, crab and grouper in a supple lemon-saffron broth. While he went to work on that, I gazed on the most breathtaking grilled pork chop I'd ever seen: a succulent double chop glazed with a caramel cranberry-apple sauce (not as sweet as it sounds, thank goodness) atop layers of roasted potatoes and caramelized apple slices, topped with matchsticks made from a tart Granny Smith apple and, finally, a jaunty pile of spicy sprouts. I gave Truman a tiny piece and enjoyed the rest of the giant chop myself; it was out of this world.
Also otherworldly were the beautiful delicacies on pastry chef Laura Comers' dessert tray. Comers, who has sterling credentials (Bluestem, 40 Sardines) will soon run a complete bakery for the McClains, but for now she makes the sweets for all of their restaurants. That night's offerings: a rose-petal flan; a Key-lime and white-chocolate parfait; and a moist, delectable Mexican tres leches cake, which Comers bakes as a hat-shaped timbale.
I couldn't resist the luscious dark-chocolate tart, flavored with just a hint of fresh mint and grapefruit, topped with a spoonful of whipped cream deftly flavored with orange. It was heavenly.
"So what do you think now?" Truman asked, after I paid the bill and we got up to leave. I tried to think of a line from Hamlet, but nothing perfect enough came to mind. Let's just say all's well.
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