The American Restaurant has the distinction of being the only Kansas City restaurant with the Mobile 4 Diamond Award, and it is mentioned by many as the top restaurant in all of Missouri. It has also received the AAA 4-Diamond Award since 1992, reflecting the restaurant’s longevity. Obviously, such a long track record reflects a sustained record of success, but longstanding restaurants can also get easily forgotten about by the community and just get complacent. After arriving in Kansas City, my brother and I immediately made reservations, curious to see whether or not the restaurant felt dated and also which sort of clientele frequents the venerable space.
The dining room is both a virtue and drawback and certainly the aspect of the restaurant that I will remember most strongly. Such affect is due primarily to the fourth-floor location, which offers commanding views of the Kansas City skyline. The height made the dining room feel like a poor man’s version of Everest in Chicago, and I find the rarefied air inevitably creates the expectation for a memorable meal; any restaurant located so high up carries an expectation for grandeur, and the dining room does its best to deliver. Gold and pink are the dominant color tones, although this actually made the room feel a couple decades out of style. Instead of a chic, grand room, I immediately felt as though the restaurant were entrapped in a state of decadence. With long-tenured restaurants, I like to be able to get a feel for the history of the institution, but at the same time I don’t want to feel like the past was more glorious than the present and unfortunately, this was a case of the latter.
It is also worth noting that Executive Chef Debbie Gold just left a couple of months ago to open a grill restaurant in the suburbs; why the star chef would open a restaurant in a contrasting culinary genre was another topic of interest. Obviously, there is easy money to be had in the suburbs, but it’s shocking to me that the chef wasn’t even motivated to remain in the fine dining landscape. In any event, Chef Gold’s influence remains all over the menu, and there is only one dish that was actually crafted by the current (interim) Executive Chef. That the menu should remain so unchanged would suggest an identity crisis, and unfortunately this appeared to be the case; after asking our server whether the cuisine had changed at all during the past couple of months, our server gave a painfully awkward answer about the new chef being more interested in simple flavors and that he was not as interested in “foams” as the previous chef. To be fair, I’m sure I caught him off guard, but it still rubbed me the wrong way that he would simplistically reduce the previous chef’s modernist American style to revolving around “foams.”
In any event, the menu structure has retained Gold’s progressive format in which the diner not only decides the number of courses (3, 5, 7, or 9) but also the progression. I really enjoy this unusual structure, which I first experienced at Arrows, as there is definitely an element of wish fulfillment (handed the car keys, so to speak) involved in being allowed to design one’s own tasting. There were many interesting appetizer, fish, and meat courses from which to choose, even though most every dish was designed by Chef Gold rather than the current chef. In light of this, I couldn’t help but consider the absurdity of the fact that the true “author” of our meal was someone who had already broken their ties to the restaurant. Fortunately, The American is also known for its star pastry chef, Nick Wesseman, and I knew that at least the desserts would show the distinct style of someone who is still a paid employee of the restaurant. We selected 7 courses in total, with 5 savories and 2 desserts.
The amuse bouche was a sliver of radish with balsamic coulis. It was nice but probably the most unsubstantial amuse I’ve ever had.
The American doesn’t bake their bread in-house, but instead source two varieties from a local bakery. Butter included an unpasteurized cow butter with lava sea salt, as well as a goat butter. They were terrific.
For our first courses, we chose different offerings: I went with grilled langoustine, served with hazelnut, meyer lemon, and sunchoke. On its own merits, the langoustine was delicious, but the grilling made it especially strong and it overpowered the long array of accompaniments. I suppose it’s always a good thing when the main ingredient takes center stage, but in this case the hazelnut and meyer lemon were imperceptible and this was a case of too many ingredients.
My brother went with a safer choice: ricotta cavatelli with English peas, lemon, and spring onion. One of the drawbacks of the American’s cluttered platting style is that it obscures many of the ingredients and upon delivery we wondered whether the cavatelli had simply been forgotten. I did not try the dish, but my brother enjoyed it very much and he found the flavors went together nicely.
I then went on to wild ivory king salmon, served with buckwheat, kohlrabi, turnip, and chicken jus. On paper, this was an interesting set of ingredients, but the salmon tasted less than fresh and had an almost sickening tinny flavor. It was also overcooked and tough, although I think this might be due to the fact that they were used to cooking a larger portion size (for those ordering the 3-course) and therefore were not accustomed to the reduced cooking time for a smaller piece.
For his second course, my brother had the more successful foie gras torchon, with grape jelly and brioche. Like me, he enjoys his foie gras in torchon or terrine preparations and was satisfied with this rendition.
We then went on to the same third course: Maine Halibut: flavors of paella, bomba, clam, Spanish chorizo, ramps, and saffron jus. I ordered this because halibut is my favorite fish, but also because this happened to be the lone dish that the new chef had designed. Frankly, this deconstructed paella preparation didn’t really mesh with our server’s line about the new chef being committed to simple flavors, although that wasn’t necessarily a problem. For me, the big issue with this was that the halibut was well overcooked, although my brother likes his fish cooked longer and he found the texture acceptable.
The first meat course was roasted squab with foie gras, toasted barley, sour cherry, sorrel, and fava bean. When this was delivered, I couldn’t see the foie gras (it’s not visible in the picture below either) and so I asked the backwaiter how it was prepared. He responded by telling me that it was done in a torchon preparation, and then launched into a long-winded description of how foie gras torchon is prepared. Obviously, there was nothing rude about this, but it stills seems painfully mechanical that he would feel the need to “educate” me about such a ubiquitous cooking preparation. The conduct of a waitstaff sheds light on the type of customers the restaurant is used to dealing with, and it is telling to me that The American does not even assume that their audience is familiar with foie gras torchon. Awkward delivery aside, this was easily my favorite savory of the meal and it blew the seafood courses out of the water—the squab was tender but with a crispy skin, and unsurprisingly, it went great with the foie gras and sour cherry. In a meal filled with overcluttered preps, this was also the most well-balanced.
We both chose the same red meat course: antelope with asian pear, milk jam, macadamia, and chorizo. This was a case in which the accompaniments went together nicely, but the meat was overcooked and had dried out. As with the salmon and halibut, I suspect that this dish had been conceived on a larger scale and they failed to correctly adjust the cooking time needed for a tasting portion.
As noted above, The American has received a lot of positive press for Nick Wesseman, its pastry chef, and we were pleased to get to sample two of his offerings. First, we were given a delicious pre-desssert of root beer custard, a reworked root beer float.
We each chose the Nickers Bar (a reworking of a Snickers candy), one of the restaurant’s signature desserts. I have seen this theme done elsewhere, but the flavors and plating were both fun and inspired. This dessert also continued the “deconstructed classics” theme initiated by the dessert amuse, making this the rare case in which the pre-dessert actually illuminated the style of the pastry program as a whole.
My brother’s other choice was grilled brownie with cocoa puffs, peppermint frost, meringue, and choco-mallow gelato. I don’t enjoy marshmallow and so I didn’t try it, but he was enthusiastic about this fun dish.
My final dessert was “Berries ‘N Cream Flambe.” This involved a tableside prep, and ingredients included granola, a trio of berries, elderflower, Barenjager, and frozen yogurt. The American’s grand dining room rewards the formality of tableside preps, so watching the server cook the dessert really punctuated the meal.
Even though it’s hard to tell from the photo, this was easily one of the largest desserts I’ve ever consumed. I think the size was a result of this dessert usually being ordered to share, but it was outstanding and probably the highlight of the meal.
Our meal closed with a trio of mediocre mignardises: shortbread cookie, pate de fruit, and caramel.
I never like when a restaurant resonates as though it is on a downward slope, but unfortunately that is how I feel about The American Restaurant. One could reasonably grant the restaurant a recovery period in the wake of losing its star chef, but the basic execution errors on so many of the proteins suggest that bringing in a new chef may not be a sufficiently substantial makeover. Amazingly, The American Restaurant was named on the Opinionated About Dining list of top 100 restaurants, although I suspect this was a result of its close affiliation with prominent blogger(s) based in Kansas City. Obviously, evaluating restaurants is a matter of personal preference and restaurants exist outside the realm of right versus wrong or good versus bad, but outside the outstanding squab dish and the desserts, this meal really didn’t come close to Michelin-level cuisine. In a sense, this meal muddled what the term “category” means when applied to restaurants; analyzing the setting, one would place the restaurant in the same category as L’Espalier, Sixteen, L20, White Barn Inn, etc. However, taking the food into consideration I wouldn’t place The American even close to this class, exposing how “category” resists a secure definition.
All criticisms aside, I am still happy to have dined at The American Restaurant. After all, the restaurant’s history makes it a real Kansas City landmark and a sort of high-end tourist attraction. It was fun spending an evening with such a nice view of the city, and the restaurant partially redeems itself by offering a notably inexpensive price for its tasting menu—7 courses at $94 is pretty hard to beat. Still, I feel like the plating style is better suited for larger portion sizes, so this may be a case of a restaurant that is more appealing in 3-course format. Even if this meal will not go down as one of my favorites of 2013, I still appreciate the significance of the restaurant in Kansas City dining’s past, present, and future.