It's better than the IMAX! And since yet another upscale steakhouse, the Capital Grille, has been getting ready to throw open its doors (see Mouthing Off), I thought it was time to visit an old standby. Benton's hasn't changed a bit since it replaced Top of the Crown, a quasi-French restaurant, more than sixteen years ago. An old Top of the Crown menu reveals that it had more or less been a steakhouse too, with châteaubriand, pepper steak, prime rib and Filet Mignon Cafe de Paris offered alongside Supreme of Chicken Gourmet. Along with the name Benton's -- for Thomas Hart Benton, the gruff and virile Kansas City painter -- came a more robust menu, with eight cuts of beef, a few seafood choices, a pricey Australian lobster tail and a plebian chicken breast dish that lost more than a fancy name when it was demoted from "gourmet" to simply "grilled."
Benton's etchings and sketches are scattered throughout the restaurant, which still sports the rose-colored carpet, earth-toned walls, mirrors and brass railings it's had since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. I'm not knocking it -- there's something comforting about eating in a place where things stay the same. In fact, the restaurant's regulars howl if there's even the smallest change. Several years ago, the Benton's management decided to lower prices and eliminate the porcelain bucket of cold "peel your own" shrimp that's served with dinner. "Our customers threw a fit, and we went back to the old way of doing things," says the restaurant's manager, Todd Neff.
The old way still means that each dinner is a package deal, including the shrimp, a basket of breads, a salad prepared tableside, a medley of vegetables and either a fat baked potato or a Benton's Potato, a layered, deep-dish concoction baked with cheese. Benton's isn't as polished as other steakhouses, like Morton's of Chicago (just across the street), and the prices may seem high at first glance. But when real restaurant pros -- such as Connie Drury and Georgianna Jones, who have been working the room since the 1970s -- bring out that much food, the place starts to look like a bargain.
On one visit, I arrived for dinner far earlier than I expected. My companion, Lesa, was on a weight-loss eating schedule that demanded she be finished with dinner by 6:30 p.m., so we were at a table, napkins in our laps, at 5:30 sharp. How was I to know that was the best time, during the early spring, to get a breathtaking view of a Kansas City sunset? We could see the northern span of the city, stretching from Kansas City, Kansas, to North Kansas City, with the downtown skyline in between. We saw things we'd never noticed before -- but by that point we were preoccupied with an appetizer of fried calamari rings, which we dipped into an avocado-colored sauce made with wasabi, the grated root of an Asian plant with the sting and snort of horseradish. Though the sauce had been toned down, it still had enough bite to give the overly chewy squid some punch.
Then came the shrimp, artfully piled on ice to give the illusion that lots of shelled crustaceans were in the giant porcelain bucket. There were only about a dozen shrimp, though. Luckily for me, Lesa is shrimp-phobic and shuddered as I peeled back each crackly little pink shell, dipped it in a tangy herb and tomato-based cocktail sauce and gleefully chomped it down.
She was much happier when the breads arrived: warm and fluffy multigrain breadsticks, wedges of sugary nut bread and little yellow balls of sweet butter. Soon our server, Hector, rolled over the cart (which looked as if it had barely survived the flood of 1951) with all of the salad ingredients. With great panache, he whipped up a Caesar salad for Lesa and a garden-variety version for me (with a peppercorn ranch dressing), mixing them up in the same kind of wood-grained plastic bowls Stuckey's used to sell next to the pecan logs. The salads were fabulous, though -- fresh and crispy, with oversized croutons and thick wheels of sliced tomato. "It's the best salad I've had in a long, long time," raved Lesa.
Then Hector lifted the salad plates away from the wooden charger plates and replaced them with black iron skillets sizzling with a thick Kansas City strip for me and a filet mignon for Lesa, each alongside a potato and a generous helping of baby carrots, broccoli and squash. Lesa's filet was lusciously fork-tender, and while my strip was a shade fatty and not particularly tender, it was perfectly cooked. I loved my decadent square cake of Benton's potato, which alternated layers of thin potato slices with Gruyère cheese and cream. Lesa's baked potato was accompanied by one of those great 1960s turntables outfitted with pockets of sour cream, bacon bits and butter, which she greedily heaped on the steaming spud. I'd also been enticed by a plate of fat, golden steakhouse fries, but they turned out to be limp and dry. Lesa, however, had ordered a cup of sauteed mushrooms to go along with her steak, and they were so buttery and flavorful, she took the leftovers home.
After this Midwestern extravaganza we were too full to attempt sampling one of the beautifully displayed dessert offerings.
Fortunately, pastry chef James Holmes puts on an even more lavish show on Sunday, the restaurant's busiest day of the week. Benton's brunch is a downright Lucullan affair, with a buffet stacked with (surprise!) lots of cold shrimp, smoked salmon, oysters and even a bowl of black, salty caviar (without much to spoon it on; I made do with crackers and a slab of fresh mozzarella cheese) along with an eye-popping array of fresh fruit. Made-to-order omelets, however, are vastly preferable to the congealed lumps of eggs Benedict on the sideboard along with five or six "hot" dishes. Nothing in these metal tureens -- including the sallow-looking chicken or the waxy and glutinous pasta -- looked as tempting as it should have or tasted as hot as it could have.
But those dishes hardly matter, since the real draw is Holmes' extraordinary sweet rolls, flaky croissants and other creations. One recent Sunday there was something in a glass goblet called orange mousse, which was the exact shade of pureed carrots and without a hint of citrus taste. Bring back the chocolate mousse! The lovely pies, creamy tortes and cakes are pure heaven.
Even at brunch, however, the best part of the meal is still the view. It's a real work of art.