But poor Loula Long Combs, the lumber millionaire's daughter who for decades ruled over the local livestock extravaganza known as the American Royal, didn't last a year as a restaurant name. The horsewoman, who passed on to the big rodeo in the sky in 1971, enjoyed an unexpected homage when her name was attached to the sage-colored dining room at the Summit Inn & Suites off Highway 50 in Lee's Summit.
But Loula's Bistro and Wine Bar, with its wood-burning pizza oven, gilt-framed prints of glossy horses, and food bedecked with fresh flowers ("Horse Sense," October 4, 2001), attracted neither the hunt club nor the hundreds of young new homeowners in the fast-growing Missouri suburb. The hotel's owners sent the Loula's concept to the stables and made a fast phone call to Patrick Quillec, owner of Hannah Bistro Café, Café Provence and Café Paris. He had looked at the dining room two years earlier and given it a nay. This time, however, he was interested.
"Yes, they gave me a very good deal," Quillec says. "And the neighborhood had changed quite a bit. Now there was a giant shopping center across the street. It had potential for being more than just a hotel restaurant."
In Quillec's native France, a hotel dining room is still a prestigious thing, with excellent food and service. In America, most hotel restaurants have lost the glamour they had in the early twentieth century. Formal dining rooms in many first-class hotels have been replaced with coffee shops or pizza parlors -- or simply been closed off, like tombs.
Quillec blames the hotel industry's focus on banquet business, saying it has taken attention away from the less-lucrative dining rooms. When he took over the banquet business as well as the restaurant at the Summit Inn last month, he separated the kitchen into two units. He asked executive chef Joe Damaria -- whom he met in 1996, when both were cooking for the downtown Doubletree Hotel -- to bring the same integrity of Hannah Bistro Café on 39th Street to the new place, which he has also named Hannah Bistro Café.
Why not? The 39th Street operation, built in a converted Pizza Hut (and named for his ten-year-old daughter, one of Quillec's six kids), is his most successful operation and most recognizable commodity. "We had many customers from Lee's Summit who kept pestering me to open a place there," Quillec says. "So we did."
Now it's Quillec's turn to pester those same mouthy Lee's Summitites to start packing the place. On each of my visits, barely a handful of tables were occupied; one night, the biggest group was a party of six, and they were all related to one of the waiters. The room -- still sage-colored and still boasting those clubby horse prints (though Quillec will replace them soon) -- deserves to be packed, because the food is absolutely excellent.
Quillec has done a lot of menu tweaking in his first month. He had hoped to make pizzas in that wood-burning oven, but too few customers ordered them, so now the oven flickers and crackles as a decorative accessory. Damaria's lusciously rich foie gras terrine, as pale and creamy as freshly churned butter, was discontinued for the same reason: no response. Same with the lobster ravioli.
After enjoying a decadent appetizer of double-cream brie baked in flaky puff pastry on my first visit, I was disappointed to discover that it had been yanked off the menu by the following week. "I couldn't find brie that oozed just right," Damaria complained. Quillec's logic? "It was too much for one person to eat by himself."
But how many people eat an appetizer solo? I certainly don't. My friends Ned and Bob raved about the dish (though, admittedly, it wasn't oozy) almost as much as they applauded Quillec's signature starter, a big bowl of shiny mussels in a broth of white wine and garlic. A jumble of crunchy french fries dusted in paprika and curry was also a hit.
Ned, an unrepentant snob, had curled his lip at the very words Lee's Summit and refused to believe that Quillec had opened a second version of his high-profile Hannah Bistro "way out in the boondocks." He was thrilled to see that the menu was nearly the same as the 39th Street location -- still, he found flaws.
"The lighting is unflatteringly harsh," he said, shuddering. "If we were sitting at that table over there," Ned told me, pointing at the canned halogen bulb, "you would look as ancient as Quentin Crisp."
Thank goodness the server, a good-natured and unfussy guy in a rumpled shirt, arrived at that moment so Ned could stop insulting both me and the décor long enough to order a glass of wine. After much waffling between vintages, he finally settled on one after the waiter announced, "If you don't like it, I'll drink it and bring you something else."
"I like that server," Ned said. "But I don't like the music." After a song by Sting, a jazzy Ella Fitzgerald number had suddenly segued into a pounding techno beat. "What do they think this is, a bathhouse at 2 a.m.?" An older lady at the next table turned to stare at Ned. "See, she doesn't like the music, either," he whispered.
Ned calmed down during dinner, soothed by another trademark dish from Quillec: a brawny, tender shank of braised lamb. Bob had ordered a filet, and what arrived was a gigantic hunk of beef fragrant with garlic and olive oil, rising up from a dark pool of red wine reduction. And I had never tasted quail as succulent as Damaria's: He'd marinated it for hours in apple cider, cider vinegar, shallots, garlic and pickled ginger, then seared it, stuffed it with cornbread, sage and tart apples, and roasted it until the skin was crisp and brown, lightly glazed with Calvados brandy and brown sugar.
On my next visit, with the somewhat less-snobbish Marilyn, we decided to choose only the dishes that Damaria had invented. We were richly rewarded, especially Marilyn, who had chosen Duck Two Ways, a duet of slowly cooked (two days, to be exact) confit of duck leg and ruby-colored slices of seared rare duck breast arranged on a vibrant orange bed of butternut-squash risotto cooked with apples and pears.
Damaria's exotic spin on the ubiquitous -- and increasingly boring -- salmon was equally sensational. Dusted in "Moroccan" spices, including cumin, coriander, cardamom and lavender, the fleshy pink fish was seared, then roasted in the oven so the crust was crispy and slightly fiery.
Marilyn cooled her palate with a big goblet of Thierry and Guy's robust Fat Bastard Merlot. "I prefer wine to desserts," she said. But I dug my fork into a creamy scoop of house-made cinnamon ice cream; it was perched on a plump, puffy tartlet of freshly baked apples floating on a thick puddle of amber caramel. I prefer desserts to vino, particularly here, where a slice of frozen dark-chocolate marquis is aptly named Chocolate Heaven. If Quillec's name can't revive this hotel dining room, nothing will.