Recently I had the professional privilege of cooking with group of nationally celebrated chefs at a Friends of The James Beard Foundation dinner at The American Restaurant in Kansas City. The restaurant, the crown jewel in the Hallmark empire, was opulently designed by Warren Platner 40 years ago, borrowing stylistically from another of his restaurants, Windows On The World. The opening menus were written by none other than James Beard himself.
It’s rare that we get even a glimpse of a restaurant like this anymore, built for a service team that still prepared food table side for diners in jackets and evening ware. The cascading dining room, spilling into two story glass windows, glimmers with a regal formality almost entirely gone from haute cuisine. As I descended the sweeping staircase, passing the baby grand piano, I could practically see yesteryears dishes being set on the tables, gold rimmed china, the food upon them rigid in technique and precise, fanciful design.
As someone who recently left behind the world of fine dining, I had brought with me a dessert from the Publican, and was feeling anxious that it was going to be out of place, too simple. A variation of an Eton Mess, my dish was a mound of whipped cream folded with meringue and concord grape preserves. I’ve seen fine dining versions of this dessert which would have been right at home at The American Restaurant, deconstructed and reconstructed with 4 times as many components, and at points in my career I would have made that. But this weekend my dessert, dubbed the Fulton Mess for The Publicans street address on Fulton Market, was not to be one of them.
I started to doubt myself, worrying that my mess would stick out compared to the other chefs dishes. I consoled myself with the thought that after a long meal of heavy food, the diners would appreciate something light.
When the dinner began, my anxiety receded.
The first course was a decadent seafood risotto, who’s only flare was the dining room presentation, Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson ladling it from an oversized pot onto plates where it oozed into place as it was rushed to the tables unadorned.
Through out the meal, I saw Viet Pham serve Regal Springs Tilapia in an aromatic whey broth, a humble fish that has likely never graced the dining room at The American Restaurant before. Jeremiah Stone filled a bowl with side by side scoops of danish rye bread porridge and intentionally overcooked beans which hugged a generous lump of uni. And Alex Talbot served hand made pasta in pepperoni ragu.
The main course by Erik Bruner-Yang, a Cambodian style short rib, was composed by sight, but nodded towards Kansas Cities roots in down home, sweet, sticky BBQ.
If I’ve downplayed the food at all, don’t mistake me, it was all stunningly delicious. Some of the best in the country. By the time Fabian Von Hauske began piling a pistachio crumble to anchor a vanilla mousse served straight from a siphon, and dripped pistachio sauce, pickled celery, and elderflower granita over the top, obscuring it completely, I knew I was right at home.
Much of the haute cuisine of today has been stripped of it’s pomp, leaving just the circumstance; flavors of the moment, served simply in stripped down settings, to diners in comfortable attire.
After 40 years of service The American Restaurant will close it’s doors at the end of this 2016, and with it goes a bastion of the gilded age of American dining. It couldn’t have been more poingient, serving the simple, stripped down contemporary cuisine in this passing setting. Two moments in our dining history crossing for one of the last times.
I feel a tickle of sadness in my heart to see restaurants like these slip from our grasp. While they may not be relevant anymore, they are undeniably beautiful, and have honored cuisine and the dining experience in a way I am sad to see disappear.