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"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.