Zurich's legendary Cabaret Voltaire was an avant-garde oasis while World War I devoured Europe. Almost a century later and a continent away, as hipsters devoured the Crossroads, the West Bottoms' R Bar was a different kind of oasis. One gave the world Hugo Ball's Dada manifesto. The other gave Kansas City Ron Megee's giant, illuminated R. Both flourished briefly — while Cabaret Voltaire recovered, R Bar floundered.
That lighted R may be gone, but the space itself is back from no man's land, this time as an exceptionally promising bistro called Voltaire, a reference to that radically chic place where exiles changed art and caused a riot or two.
No one's going to attack the stage at Jill Myers and chef Wes Gartner's dinner-only restaurant. For one thing, there's no longer a stage. Before Gartner and Myers opened Voltaire seven weeks ago, they converted R Bar's bandstand into a cozy seating area with a big sofa and two comfortable chairs. They aren't planning to book live music; for now, they're encouraging their patrons to bring in their own vinyl albums for a spin on the high-grade turntable behind the bar. (I suppose I could have started an uprising if I'd taken my old pressing of Ethel Merman's disco album.)
The new owners have wisely decided to change virtually nothing else about the inside of this saloon and restaurant. It still looks like an untouched relic from the days when this neighborhood was dominated by the stockyards, with original tile floors and all the touches engineered by Dolphin gallery owner John O'Brien, who designed R Bar's interior in 2009. Instead, Gartner and Myers have channeled their efforts into an imaginative menu of small plates (and three more substantial dishes that could be considered entrées), which are so attractive and pleasurable that you can't help but quote Voltaire as they arrive at the table. As that 18th-century wit put it: "Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking, if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity."
No one would ever consider drinking cabernet a necessary evil at Voltaire, if only because the wineglasses are so novel: Spanish-made vessels that suggest a cross between a specimen cup and a Pyrex custard dish. They're practically unbreakable, Gartner says, as though made for a revolting dadaist to hurl. The wine list itself is compact and serviceable, though it could use more wines by the glass from its moderately priced bottles.
Myers, who was concerned that people would assume she and Gartner were simply reopening R Bar, has been relieved to see Voltaire's almost immediate success. "It helped that it took so long for us — nearly a year — to get the place open," she says. "We could rebrand it as Voltaire right away."
Gartner and sous chef Ryan Holopter are getting raves for their food, even from the critical patrons who frequented R Bar when Alex Pope was in the kitchen. There's no reason to miss Pope here. Voltaire's is the best bar food in the city right now, served in one of KC's most comfortable saloons.
Two people could easily make a satisfying light meal of Gartner's $14 cheese-and-charcuterie plate, a Marcel Duchamp–style assemblage of soft, hard and blue cheeses; a clump of duck prosciutto; two circles of sopressata salami; a rectangle of house-made pâté; a lonely anchovy; a spoonful of stone-ground mustard; a jumble of crispy giardiniera; and slices of grilled baguette and house-baked crackers. I shared it with two friends but got to keep it mostly to myself because they were entranced by their own plate of tiny, gorgeously crisp Vietnamese chicken wings. Here, these dainty but meaty drumettes get the Ho Chi Minh treatment: a bottle of nuoc cham and a cluster of soothing, minty watercress-and-cucumber slaw.
There's a similarly arresting emphasis on flavor all over the menu. The chunky sticks of fried yucca would be a yawn served naked, but the serrano-kiwi ketchup delivers a serious undercurrent of cardamom for an almost currylike edge. The steamed mussels (good and plump) give off an intoxicating perfume of fennel, thyme and Pernod. The pulled pork in Voltaire's tacos al pastor has been marinated in chiles and pineapple until the meat is succulent and gloriously rich, further complemented by fresh cilantro, lime, pickled onion and salsa verde. One hot Friday night, I went through two orders of the tacos without a second thought.
A bowl of pigeon peas, cooked with lemongrass and coconut, comes scattered with cauliflower florets that have been rubbed in olive oil, sprinkled with turmeric and slow-roasted. I like the fiery nam prik num and the long, curly bean pod (dipped in tempura batter and flash-fried) that dress this dish, and vegetarians shouldn't miss it, but I'd rather have the risotto. Voltaire's version isn't the usual boring sop to the meatless crowd but is instead perfectly creamy, adorned with bits of asparagus, morels, toasted pistachios and translucent flakes of grana padano.
Gartner's interest in Indian cuisine shows up again in his delicious lamb chop entrée. The delicate chops are discreetly crusted in coriander before roasting, and they come out perched on a fluffy saffron-potato pancake that's surrounded by a vivid-orange tikka masala sauce.
Far less fancy are the fish and chips, but there's no need for flash when the beer batter is this evanescent and the skate wing is this flaky. There's also a fine hunk of pink salmon, slathered in a sake-yuzu beurre blanc and then grilled and glazed with miso and ginger. It comes with roasted daikon and baby-soft bok choy.
You can polish off a meal here with a cocktail or a pot of Oddly Correct coffee, served in a press pot. The latter tempers the delicious brass of Myers' pillow-soft carrot cake (made with lots of fresh orange zest), but it was one of Andy Cool's cookies that I found myself craving later. Cool, a Hallmark artist, frosts some of these spicy little half dollars in lime-jalapeño or orange-habanero icing, and also makes a potently gingery snap and a snickerdoodle-style cookie rolled in a cayenne sugar.
It takes a certain self-assurance to nibble on a toddler-size cookie in a see-and-be-seen room like this one has already become. I'm sure the real Voltaire — or Hugo Ball — must have composed an appropriate bon mot for such an absurd scene. But I can't recall it just now.