American Context

I think that I’ve eaten at The American more in the past month than the previous ten years combined. And whether the visits have been sparse and spaced over time, or in rapid succession as I hurry back to sample what is surely some of the finest cuisine to grace their historic menus, my anticipation rises along with the elevator before the doors open slowly and I make my way around the corner and the timeless vision of that dining room comes into focus, and my soul is at once both thrilled and sated….

Yeah, I’m just fucking around. The American or not, I can’t keep a straight face when I’m sounding like a dated porn version of another tedious review.

American Small-11

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of happy hour, I had only two things on my mind: Joe Baum and my continued research into the legacy of J.C. Hall….

Still just fucking around, I literally know nothing about those people. I got to look into Windows on the World once during a trip to New York, but that’s as far as my knowledge of Joe Baum goes. And I’ll smile and nod when someone drops the name of someone in the Hall family, and I’ll piece together parts of the conversation in case I feel the need to chime in at some point, but outside of eating at Trader Vic’s in my twenties, my “fancy” experiences with Crown Center, and The American, started later in my life. So for the purpose of my latest too-long cascade of thoughts, I will frame it within my own personal history. Because when you want to say something about The American that hasn’t been said in a thousand different publications over the past 40 years, personal history is all you’ve really got.

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The part about going there more in the past month than the past ten years is totally true. I went to a couple of Beard dinners, and then once when Celina Tio was there I think, but that was it until recently. Beard dinners were a relatively cheap way to meet several famous chefs at once instead of travelling to visit their restaurants, but they were a mixed bag. The food was always good, but unlike high-end meals at places like Daniel where I could enjoy my solo dinner in peace, I was stuck next to strangers. I remember sitting next to a guy from a big-time KC family and his wife at one of those things, and it was obvious he would have been much happier to have one of his River Club buddies at the table….which made two of us. At one point he looks at me and goes “so what do you do to be able to afford dinners like this?”…and he asked in a way that made me 99.9999% sure he wasn’t making polite conversation. The answer would normally be out of my mouth before I could even think….”Your wife. Your wife buys my meals. Now we just get to sit here, because awkward silence is like heroin to me. Probably not for you though, am I right?” Back in my fancy-Trader-Vic’s days, that’s where I would have taken it and worse, but who knows….there was that .0001% chance he wasn’t being a total dick, or that he was just stupid. Plus, the food critic for The Star, the late Lauren Chapin was at our table, and of all of the things that should have kept me reined into polite society, for some reason that was the thing that stuck out most to me. I just gave him a smart ass answer like I was retired, or something like that. The dinner was good. But I still prefer dining alone if given the choice between that and strangers.

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Fast forward a few years and a couple of chefs, and I find myself obsessed with what is arguably the best Happy Hour in Kansas City. I still don’t suffer nonsense from the aristocracy, but I do feel immense pressure to be the best customer I can possibly be when I am in a nearly empty lounge with Willie and Robert. I have no history with either of these gentlemen, but I’m a quick study as far as knowing my place. While chefs and patrons can come and go, these men own the room. It’s kind of like how I’ve never been in the military, but if I ever spent time around a General I’d do my best to behave and show total respect. I don’t feel self-conscious about never ordering alcohol until Willie comes over and says “Here is your club soda and lemon”. Completely irrational on my part, I know that, he has never been anything but gracious, but in the back of your mind you’re going “I am wasting this man’s time”. Where do I stand? I’ll never know. And I’m not going to try and find out in the short time he’ll still be at the helm. And Robert is the kind of server, who if he were to openly judge you, you’d absolutely deserve it. Just shut up and take it. Your bad. Not that he would….but there is a lot of evaluating going on behind that smile. He’s seen some shit, and he knows things about people. He’s the man. And he is an absolute professional in style, knowledge and enthusiasm for the menu. His name will never go in my reservation notes. He’s way out of my league. Like I said, I have no history with these men, but I am pretty sure I am correct on these points.

American Small-5

And that is what I view as the most secure flank of the service cocoon at The American. I am very well taken care of at a lot of local restaurants, I get some special treatment, am made to feel like family at one or two, but from your initial greeting to your exit when you realize the valet asked for your name upon arrival because the restaurant would call them to start bringing your car around later…there is a combination of anticipation, professionalism, assistance and rhythm that sets this place apart. I’m not saying it’s perfect, and I’m sure as hell not a noob who can’t get over magically replenished flatware, but the service is stacked deep…what we call redundancy in the IT industry. If I’m the dismissive patriarch of a local retail dynasty, the level of service is committed to muscle memory at this point. If I’m just some random dude who mixes dick jokes in with typical food blogging like it’s unique, the service is as engaging as you want it to be. Everyone knows the food, they can talk about the ingredients and they can give you honest feedback about what they like and how they’d order, and they love for you to dine in comfort and to love what you’re eating. Granted, I expect that type of service anywhere I’m a regular, but there is something unique about that room, the entryway, the view and even the volume that makes it seem like the time and place exist solely for YOUR experience. It is special occasion dining, so I will happily and shamelessly feel special when I’m there. Jared was our server when my wife and I dined there recently, and again when I attended the Dave Crum anniversary dinner, and he’s top tier. Friendly in a very genuine way, knows the food, what to recommend and why, paces things pretty flawlessly, and he’s more than got you covered from start to finish. It’s a solid dance. That’s the name that will be in my reservation notes. Vetted. Oh I know, “Well if Robert is the one the biggest regulars ask for then I’m requesting HIM!”……okay cowboy, you do that while I’m down squeezing my fat ass into some Armani because “Everyone says it’s the BEST!”. That won’t be ridiculous at all.

American Small-3

I’m not in the industry, but I have managed to pick up a modest amount of information about the business from my friends. That said, I have zero knowledge of the politics and/or planning that goes into choosing a new chef for a place like The American. A new direction, a rebranding of sorts has been simmering there for a while now (but the ‘you can wear jeans’ thing gets the most attention for some reason), so does that mean you immediately go outside of Kansas City to fill the position? Do you need someone who has no history here, vs. a local who brings well-known, preconceived ideas about the food with them? If they aren’t a “name”, how far off the reservation are you willing to let them go with the food? Because you sure as hell will do more damage to the brand allowing someone to come in and flame out than you would with a safe, predictable choice. There is a lot at stake. Or is there? The reason I ask is because it’s the American….my assumption is it will always be there as long as there is a Kansas City, and there will always be people with money whose personal histories demand it….sooooooo exactly how profitable does it need to be? Far enough in the black to stand by the mandate “the only rule is you have to use the best ingredients money can buy”? How differently do people with for-real money view a new chef compared to the rest of the food community? Does a new person have wear the hat of “hired help” who can placate them with the familiar while still drawing in new blood with some creative vision? What is the policy on comps? How many dinners and luxury bottles of wine do you have to sell, or private events do you have to book, to cover the products going on the plates AND the plates? How many times per weekend do you have to decant a wine that does not need decanted because some rube wants to see you pour their glass from clear across the room out of one of those crazy contraptions? I bet it’s a lot! A lot of times! But I’ll bet that Riesling looks just fabulous! Candle that bitch like you’re looking for Sea Monkeys!

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SO…the place has you covered experience-wise, and no there is no fucking with the overall room design, so let that go all of you bloggers who feel the need to shoe-horn that into every review. You lack basic comprehension and you’re not learning about things that matter on my dime. I talk too long already to go into forensic pornographic detail about all of my bites of food, but the food is why I’m saying anything at all. The tasting menus have taken some quick new directions and are constantly in transition, but when I went there for dinner and saw the chicken course listed, instead of a list of ingredients you can pretty much just put “Chicken- because of course there is”. I’m not making fun, the chicken dish was killer….prepared 2 different ways, grits, confit egg yolk…no argument here. A place like The American, you keep chicken on there for The Greatest Generation and the special occasion diners who know that’s where you’re supposed to eat for special occasions. It’s all in the game. Caviar, truffles, foie gras, lobster, CHICKEN. That is the fine dining law. So here is where it starts to get weird…….Sous Chef Andy McCormick was showing me the new menu one afternoon, and….no chicken. There was squab. That’s some real highwire without a net shit that demanded explanation. He clued me in to the thinking and then I confirmed it when it was literally the first thing I brought up to Chef Corvino the first time I officially met him….what the hell, man? In short, you keep dishes that you want to showcase rotating in and out of your tasting menus, BUT always have your a la carte selections stocked with flawlessly executed classics like….drum roll….. great steak and hot soup. And THAT kind of win-win thinking is what makes him the man for the job.

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While the Piedmontese Bavette, which is $12.50 during Happy Hour in the lounge, is an unbelievable bargain and hearty meal…I’m not coming in for the steak and soup. And I’m not coming in just to have another retelling of a luxury ingredient tale involving caviar and truffles. Sure, things like caviar and foie gras NEVER get old, but truffles….they only count when eaten in extreme over-the-top excess. I’m a hundred times happier with a fresh ramp than a slice of truffle, and even a comped dish involving caviar and oysters is appreciated most when it’s from a page in your book, not some safe relic (which does have its own time and place). I’m not going to keep coming back for reruns of something David Kinch did at some point, or a respectful continuation of a past chef’s vision. I’ve already got trusted, beloved restaurants in my dining rotation that are at the special occasion price point, so I’m sure as hell not putting another one in there just for the sake of conversation. I have eaten MANY dishes there recently that are worthy of their own blurb here, but in the interest of ever shutting up I’ve got three biggies. #1- Composed Cheese Courses…how is that not happening more? Why do so many restaurants give you a list of cheeses and accompaniments that should just be titled “An Afterthought”, instead of just saying “I’m driving this goddamn bus, and I’m going to tell you the story you need to hear”? Chocolate cake, cherry mostarda, blue cheese……smoked soft cheese, onion French toast, maple syrup…….I love cheese so very much, and I’m just going to give everyplace else the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t know how to handle ADNY buying all the damn cheese carts many years ago, and have worked with what they’ve had. But seriously. Composed cheese courses that keep you riveted. I will get in the car and drive to them. #2 Appropriate Use of Black Truffle….it’s in ice cream, and it comes with impossibly light and crisp fried morels that eat like savory madeleines with kumquat and dill weed to bisect the richness. I would like to meet the dish that knocks this from the top of my “Best of 2014” list. Because that dish will have to be one formidable sonofabitch. Literally one of the favorite things I’ve eaten in recent memory. #3 Steamed Honey Cake…you’d have to ask my wife how unusual it is for me to crave a dessert, but trust me when I say this does not happen….ever. Bluestem taught me that a great dessert is as mandatory a part of a tasting menu as any other course, and this specific creation of Nick Wesemann’s reinforces that belief like a hammer. Steamed honey cake, pignoli crumble, cucumber slush, lime gel, white pine gelato….no way to adequately describe it except to say all flavors and textures are mutually omnipresent, and that as long as it is on the menu I will never visit without ordering it. I love it like the first time I tried uni, and I love it like the cheap ice cream sandwiches of my childhood. So that little nutshell is my way of saying- proper use of the room, chefs. Well played. I’m still me though, I just don’t know Chef Corvino well enough yet to bust balls and say things like “You plate a lot of your entrees like an Achatz dessert…minus the overt sperm shapes”….not true, maybe just one, I’m just a horrible person to have inside your head. My love is a mixed bag.

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Recently I read a really great Eater review of Le Grenouille in New York City that made me want to visit it as badly as any place else in that town. The oldest of the old school high end French dining rooms…classically and luxuriously appointed….pike quenelles and burgundy braised oxtails….completely foreign and completely familiar at the same time. A time capsule that needs to be there. Forever. I’m not a Kansas City food historian, there are people far more qualified to address whether or not pike quenelles have ever graced our local menus, but we have seen many a “classic” dining room close within the past ten years. The Peppercorn Duck Club comes to mind….do those places close because they become a typecast moment in time? That’s at least part of it. And I don’t care how many of the wealthy Kansas Citians of my limited imagination throw their weight behind it; the same thing would happen at The American if it ever became one of the places that “was so great when…”. The engine that drives the history of that room either remains dynamic, or the whole thing dies. It’s what “Paris of the Plains” means. Chefs can come and go, even your longest serving staff can eventually leave and be replaced. This isn’t New York. Our homestyle diners like The Corner can stay the same for decades and flourish, but our fine dining absolutely cannot. I think the team at The American truly understands that, and they allow the dynamics to adjust as needed. We have to be able to approach it at different points in our personal histories to make the tale relatable over time….the big group of prom kids that made me wonder where in the hell they got their dinner money because I thought I was the king of prom when we went to Peacock Pavilion at Seville Square…the two young couples who ordered Boulevard Tank 7 on a Saturday night because there is a generation spending money now that would laugh at beer ever being gauche as well as at the word gauche….the well-dressed dad with the two remarkably behaved young daughters enjoying a special dinner like the one I hope share with my daughter one day. If you can meet your customers where they are at in their own history, make them comfortable and give them even more than they were expecting, you will always have dialogue with your town that doesn’t ever leave you scrambling for context.

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Categories: Fine Dining, Food Reviews, New

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