That's partly because more and more local restaurants are hiring publicists to bang their drums -- Pat O'Neill for the ill-fated Lemongrass at Oldham and Platters at the Phillips Hotel; Parris Communications for the American Restaurant; Chicago-based Wagstaff Worldwide for 40 Sardines, to name a few.
But Dan Clothier and his partners didn't bother hiring a PR firm to announce that they'd be opening their City Tavern. Five months before the place opened, they sent out their very own press kit in a gold-embossed red folder, describing the history of the 115-year-old Freight House building as well as previewing plans for the restaurant's décor and hinting at its menu. Then came the billboards, a splashy gush in The Kansas City Star (after the restaurant had been open four days) and a rush to judgment by food snobs like my friend John, who turned up his haughty nose. "So overpriced! We had Conundrum Chardonnay, and it was $12 a glass! And a light pour, I might add. My friend had a tuna sandwich that looked like it came from the lunch counter of a Woolworth's luncheonette. And we spent $150. If we go again, I'm sneaking in my own food in a brown bag." But John is the Cassandra of the restaurant scene -- he venomously predicts the worst about every restaurant he visits.
The real buzz on City Tavern -- what people are saying, as opposed to the manufactured hype -- is just what you might expect in a faltering economy. "It's a beautiful dining room," reported my friends who got there early. "But it costs so much. They charge extra for sauces."
After three meals in the place, I have a slightly different take. Yes, the high-ceilinged brick dining room, with its reclaimed dark woodwork and antique mirrors, is stunning in its simplicity and elegance. Yes, it's easy to put together a costly meal by ordering an appetizer, a salad, an entrée and a dessert, though the prices of à la carte items aren't especially princely.
And chef Dennis Kaniger's cuisine rises to the occasion -- for the most part.
Kaniger is still tinkering with the menu. For the restaurant's first month, all the steaks and chops were à la carte, and the seven "accompaniments" (including Madeira sauce, shallot butter and tomato relish) were $1.50 extra. But "people just weren't getting it," Kaniger says, and on October 11, he revamped the menu.
"We raised the prices a couple of bucks on the steaks and chops," Kaniger says, "and threw in a side dish, like a potato or vegetable, and one of the accompaniments."
He's still tweaking some of the main courses: A tender Tri Tip of Beef one night became a Beef Bourguignonne the next. A deep-fried jerk shrimp in coconut batter on Monday night's menu was fried shrimp in tomato sauce on Tuesday.
Neither shrimp creation was a work of culinary art. The jerk shrimp might have undergone the traditional Jamaican splashing in garlic and peppers, but who could tell? Each little crustacean was encased in a puffy fried shell that tasted more like cooking oil than coconut, and the accompanying sauce was so sweet with honey that I would rather have eaten it over ice cream. Cornmeal-dusted fried shrimp weren't any livelier, but my friends liked them better than an appetizer of cornmeal-dredged fried oysters lolling atop gray shells and a stingy dollop of bland "salsa."
"All I taste is cornmeal," sniffed my friend Richard.
The oysters tasted fine to me, but I'm hardly a shellfish aficionado. I'd already voted down one friend's suggestion to order the $60 "small" Seafood Tower, a tiered assortment of fresh oysters, shrimp, seaweed salad and varying in-season "treats" (chilled sea urchin, anyone?). There's a difference between luxury and insanity.
Still, I thought I'd lost my mind when I let our server, Amy, talk me into ordering a bowl of that night's potage du jour, a steaming brew of lettuce soup. I imagined a mound of soggy iceberg leaves reeking like cabbage. Amy, however, insisted that the soup was "delicious" -- and I trusted her judgment because I'd known her from other restaurants. The soup turned out to be a dark, rich jade concoction flavored with a hearty chicken stock and lots of smoky bacon.
Iceberg lettuce -- the crispy, nonsoup variety -- also makes up the best salad on the menu. It's a wedge cut straight from the heart of a Titanic-sized head, sided by tender asparagus, hard-boiled egg and purple beets, all doused with a creamy buttermilk dressing. This great interpretation of a classic recipe is far superior to the common Caesar. For another starter, Kaniger has resurrected spinach gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce, an old favorite from his former restaurant, Venue. The puffy little potato-flour dumplings are as wonderful as ever, but the sauce is just as tasty if you soak it up with one of the fat rolls Kaniger imports from Farm to Market bakery.
Another dish I happily remembered from Venue was a "flattened" chicken roasted with lemon, garlic and fresh rosemary. My grandmother used to make a similar dish by frying a butterflied bird under a plate weighed down with a brick, but Kaniger says he just smashes the chicken with a mallet.
Lou Jane ordered an oversized haunch of braised pork prepared "Cobbler's style" -- not as in shoe cobbler but dessert cobbler. Kaniger covers the meat with bread crumbs, sliced peaches, braised cabbage and sauerkraut. It sounds dreadful, but the sour and sweet flavors work fabulously with the gamey shank of juicy pork. In the wrong hands, though, it could pass as a weapon -- it was so big, Richard noted, that it was less a dinner than "one's very own, personal ham."
Equally mammoth was a hunk of grilled salmon prepared "Boulevard Brewery-style." For 24 hours, Kaniger marinates the pink fillet in wort and hops -- the leavings from all that beer making at Boulevard's nearby plant -- then soaks the fish in salty miso and sweet rice wine. Artfully grilled, it was crunchy and nearly black on the surface but fleshy and dark-pink inside.
The billboard-advertised dry-aged steaks and chops are standouts. It's fun to give the grilled tenderloin or the rib eye a little culinary costuming -- such as a peppery au poivre sauce; a little pancake of purplish wine-and-shallot butter; or a heap of mushroom, peppers and onion -- but the beef shines even without them. My friend Carol rubbed her splendid pan-fried rib eye with a dab of melting shallot butter. When she took half the steak home, she took the rest of the butter too. "Why not? We paid for it," she snapped.
Jane, however, declined a to-go box for her big bowl of Beef Bourguignonne. She griped that the dish "had too much bacon in it" -- though that was precisely why I loved Kaniger's traditional preparation of tender beef chunks, sweet with the flavor of white onions, red wine and slightly salty bacon. For his part, vodka-loving Bob didn't find the plate of penne pasta drenched in a creamy vodka sauce and peppers to be as spicy -- or as intoxicating -- as it was billed.
He didn't get a buzz until much later, after spooning into a mound of hot chocolate cake oozing with melted bittersweet chocolate. We also discovered that Kaniger's version of Apple Brown Betty -- a moist, spicy square of apple-scented pastry -- was less an old-fashioned crumble than a New Age bread pudding. And the Tavern's surprising lemon-pudding cake looked like a fluffy snowball hovering like a cloud over a pool of raspberry coulis.
To hell with hype, I say. If the City Tavern wants to start a buzz, it should just let the food do the talking.