In a 1904 volume titled Vivilore: The Pathway to Mental and Physical Perfection, Mary Ries Melendy writes: "A complexion of cream and roses cannot be expected to result from a diet of pork, pastry and preserves." As advice from old self-help manuals goes (this one's subtitle: The Twentieth Century Book for Every Woman), that's pretty sound.
Keep it in mind, perhaps, at Vivilore, the restaurant (and event space, gift shop and art gallery) that brother-and-sister owners Whit Ross and Cindy Foster have opened in Independence's Englewood Arts District. They named their five-month-old spot with Melendy's title in mind, but maybe not her counsel: Pork and pastries are on the menu, which might present more dangers to the waistline than to the complexion.
"It's full of old wives' tales about health and beauty and what women should do on their wedding night," Ross says of the book. "Disappointment too deep to be expressed comes to the bride," Melendy advises, "who has found herself in the embrace of a human gorilla."
A human gorilla, like the proverbial bull in a china shop, might be cautioned against muscling into Vivilore, where paintings in gilded frames are hung on every wall, and delicate antique china and fragile knickknacks occupy nearly every available surface. Having a meal in one of the street-level dining rooms is like eating in a set designed for a Merchant Ivory film. And though Vivilore may look prissy, it's a terrific small-town dining room.
Englewood isn't short on quirky charm. The arts district has a 1940s movie theater that may yet reopen, a wonderful old-fashioned diner (the Englewood Café, which serves the best homemade pies in Kansas City) and a very good South American café and market. Vivilore gives the neighborhood a snazzy alternative to chicken-fried steak and green beans, and it also saves one of the more fascinating architectural artifacts in the area.
Until the 1980s, the townhouselike structure, with its immense front doors and big windows, was the showroom for one of the classiest interior-design firms in the Midwest: Sermon-Anderson Inc. It was T. Sermon (the son of a former Independence mayor) and his partner, Mitch Anderson, who ripped the front off a 1928 bungalow in 1969 and replaced the façade with a brick Butler building. The entrance hall is paneled in rare pecky cypress — one of the few details left from the days when Sermon and Anderson entertained wealthy customers and celebrities ("Jim Nabors was one of their friends," Ross says) with cocktails and decorating advice.
After the decorators died, in the early 1990s, their offbeat structure fell on hard times. "It was in very poor condition when Cindy and I bought the building," Ross says. "The roof was leaking, the electric work was antique, there was no air conditioning and the plumbing was shot. We spent thousands of dollars just bringing the building up to code."
It also had no kitchen — which would have been a problem for veteran chef Hope Dillon (the Grille on Broadway, Poco's Latin American Grill), one of Ross and Foster's first hires for their dream restaurant. But Dillon now oversees a smartly outfitted commercial kitchen, big enough to handle both the main dining room and the sunny banquet room on the third floor. (At least I think it's the third floor; Vivilore seems to have as many sets of stairs as the Eiffel Tower).
A talented chef who has never really gotten her due over the years, Dillon has crafted imaginative but accessible lunch and dinner menus. Her spin on the standby Reuben, for instance, tops house-cured pastrami with a slice of creamy fontina cheese and a heap of "slaw" (marinated red cabbage, apples and red onion simmered in a reduction of apple-cider and balsamic vinegars). It's wonderful, one of the best versions of this sandwich in town.
There's nothing more boring than a grilled chicken breast, but Dillon gives her bird a Southwestern drawl, slathering the tender meat with a sultry, tart blanket of fresh salsa-verde paste and feta cheese and serving it with a sweet, fluffy corn pudding. The lobster rolls are almost authentic but fully delicious. Dillon may break the rules by using chopped cucumber — according to a Maine chef who dined with me here, classic lobster salad can be dressed only with mayonnaise, pepper and salt — but her lobster salad, tucked into yeasty rolls split down the center, works.
I have a couple of quibbles with Vivilore. Meals are served with a basket of baguette slices and a little dollop of pecan butter, but the tawny concoction that dominates the bread is a strange, gooey banana jam that calls for hot biscuits rather than Gallic crusts. And another of Dillon's French touches needs a little attention. On the starters list is that 1970s favorite, coquille St. Jacques: browned scallops in creamy wine sauce.
"Is the dish made with the little bay scallops or the fat sea scallops?" asked one of my dining companions.
"The little bay scallops," the waitress assured my friend. The same server was strangely silent when she served the dish, prepared with big scallops sliced into quarters.
These are small gripes, however. Dillon's days of cooking with the late, great Lorenza "Poco" Gutierrez are reflected in several dishes, including an outstanding, fork-tender pork porterhouse, flattered by its glaze of bourbon-ancho-chile sauce. I also like her steamed tamales, made with profoundly assertive French Comté cheese. And the lamb-shank osso buco, served with a silky mushroom risotto, is succulent enough to make you consider gnawing on the bone.
My favorite starter is a mushroom "cheesecake": a hot, bubbly casserole of cream cheese, smoked gouda, mushrooms, peppers and onion. It's an addictively fine excuse to eat more bread. It's vegetarian-friendly, but the menu here doesn't offer much else for meatless diners. In addition to the tamales, the other vegetarian entrée — triangles of airy baked polenta — are satisfying, thanks to a hearty mushroom sauce. And a delectable meal can be made from Dillon's best side dish: a mash of roasted root vegetables including golden beets, parsnips, red onion, carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes. It's buttery and comforting.
The dessert list changes frequently. I was underwhelmed by a dry triangle of an alleged "chocolate torte" but seduced by a slab of crumbly, fresh apple cake.
It's easy to eat too much at Vivilore, which must have the namesake's author spinning in her grave. After all, she spends two chapters discussing a "beauty diet" that recommends small portions, very little meat, and lots of fruits and vegetables."
"She was way ahead of her time," Ross says.
Vivilore is not ahead of its time, and it isn't supposed to be. It's a throwback to a time when people wanted to eat in gracious, genteel dining rooms, places with soft music and banana jam.