Kansas City doesn’t have too many restaurants that are well-known outside the state, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ones that hold cachet within the metropolitan area. One of these is Room 39, which opened on West 39th Street in Midtown KC in 2007. Three years later, a second venture with the same title opened in the suburb of Leawood, in the same strip mall as Rye. I had aspirations of dining at both and writing a comparative review, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to get to the midtown location and so this write-up focuses exclusively on the Leawood one.
Opening a second venture with the same title is a bit of a turn-off for me as it suggests that the new restaurant doesn’t add anything to the first one, and indeed suburban Room 39 has the same menu structure and price point. Browsing the menu online, it seemed like the restaurant wants to have it every which way it can; there is a four-course prix fixe that would suggest a fine dining focus, but the website also effects a down-home feel, substantiated by the fact that it is open for breakfast and lunch. In addition, the restaurant also lists all of their purveyors, as though they wanted to claim a farm to table identity—difficult to accept in light of the highly artificial setting. The ingredients are entry-level high end, with items like duck breast, ahi tuna, and even foie gras, but one won’t find caviar, truffles, etc. Room 39 strongly disincentivizes patrons from ordering a la carte by pricing the prix fixe at just $39—just $10 or so more than the main dishes. The prix fixe consists of a soup or salad, appetizer, main dish, and dessert; this is a bit awkward as a more standard structure would reverse the first two courses in this progression. The course sequence implicitly distanced the restaurant from a true high-end restaurant, but at the same time the “error” imparted a neighborhood charm.
As with many suburban Kansas City restaurants, Room 39 has a large, yet pointless, outdoor seating section. What motivates people to want to dine al fresco in a strip mall? Offering outdoor seating in this context just feels like an empty gesture, although everyone seated outside seemed to be enjoying themselves, so at least they were happy. Moving inside, the dining room effects the emptiness that seems to characterize the many strip mall restaurants in the city—lots of whites and yellows, designed as if from a template. Basically, the setting feels like the restaurant equivalent of the many condos and subdivisions scattered throughout Leawood.
I studied the menu a few times before our meal and noticed quite a bit of turnover from one day to the next. One of the themes raised by the Room 39 menu is what constitutes ambition in a restaurant? Certainly, changing the menu on a regular basis suggests that the kitchen doesn’t rest on their laurels, but at the same time none of the options were particularly inventive. I noticed a great deal of familiarity, with uninspired references to foreign cuisine and characteristically Midwestern plates like filet mignon and mashed potatoes. One gets the sense that Room 39 tries to please everyone and while I would criticize this in a higher-scale restaurant, the kitchen’s cautiousness was entirely understandable given the entry-level fine dining category.
My brother and I obviously went for the tasting menu; I chose the prosciutto and roasted tomato salad, seared ahi tuna, seared duck breast, and then lavender panna cota. My brother ordered similarly and decided on the same salad and main dish. He chose the pappardale with lardons for his second course and the goat cheese beignets with caramel soup as his dessert.
The amuse bouche was “vegetarian sushi,” a lazy title indeed for the nori roll. It was nice.
Bread service was house-baked baguette. Standard but crusty and pleasant.
Our first courses arrived pretty quickly. The prosciutto and tomatoes were quite nice. The kitchen got slightly carried away with the parmesan and overgarnishing would be a theme for this meal.
I love tuna and mushrooms and so my second course was an easy pleaser. The mushrooms were served with smoked sea salt and the tuna was cooked to a perfect rare temperature and more than generous in portion—really large enough for a main dish. If one evaluated this dish intending to find an original culinary style they would be disappointed—the tuna and mushrooms weren’t particularly inspired—and the presentation is best enjoyed by someone (like myself) who doesn’t get to have ahi often and just wanted to enjoy well-executed tuna.
The pappardelle is a staple on the lunch menu and pasta seems to be a minor niche of the restaurant. All of their pasta dishes are prepared in-house and I noticed many of the other tables ordering the pappardelle, gnocchi, and risotto.
As with the tuna, our duck breast could not have been cooked to a more satisfying temperature. Yet, there is a reason that the picture below only shows half of the plate: the accompaniments—lentils with goat cheese and swiss chard—held an off-putting, overly monochromatic forest green coloration, so I chose to leave them out of the photo. The duck was the clear attraction and very appetizing, but it drowned out the lentils and chard to the point that there was no balance. The rhubarb sauce was completely unnecessary and felt like a cursory item that they included so that the preparation could resemble the duck dishes one finds at any number of other restaurants that serve seared duck breast. I could see someone ordering this dish and reveling in the superb duck, but then someone could also focus on the apathetic accoutrements. Basically, to enjoy this course one really needed to like duck; my brother and I do and so we were happy with it, but the dish certainly supported different impressions.
Panna cottas are hit or miss, particularly for a restaurant in this category, but Room 39 puts the panna cotta on both the dinner and lunch menus and so I figured it would be satisfying. This prediction was only partly true; the panna cotta itself was appropriately silky, but the berry broth and mint were overbearing. The taste wasn’t entirely bad, but it was certainly the opposite of the refreshing spring flavors I’d expected.
My brother was very satisfied with his goat cheese beignets, which were served with caramel soup and whipped cream. I tried them and found them overly dense, but the flavor profiles were difficult to screw up and legitimately tasty in their own right.
I enjoyed Room 39 for the freedom they give to the diner. It’s nice to go to a restaurant in the superbs, order a four-course meal, and have many options from which to choose. If one wanted a four-course meal heavy on meat, they could order that, or they could go heavy on fish instead—this freedom is at the heart of why I would return to Room 39. However, it’s also true that while it’s exciting to see the restaurant change their menu, the apparent lack of thought that went into the accoutrements suggests that perhaps the dishes would benefit from more time in the editing room. If I saw a dish that looked interesting on the menu, I’d only be confident that the protein would be prepared at a high standard. Fortunately, the restaurant earns a great deal of slack for the low price point, which excuses “errors” such as the heavy hand with garnishes, unsatisfying complementary ingredients, etc. When the protein is skillfully done, any dish is enjoyable enough for me, but I still feel as though botching the ancillary components make the compositions seem almost incomplete.
Room 39 is whatever one wants it to be; I could see someone referring to it as fine dining, as an upscale casual restaurant, or as a neighborhood restaurant and I would still nod in agreement. For myself, the lack of polish places the restaurant closer to the neighborhood restaurant category than fine dining, but I can also point to aspects that the restaurant does well—basically, cook proteins and maintain an attractive price point—and so I’d say they are successful. Given that they serve three meals a day, I wonder how much more impressive the dinner service could be if they devoted more time to it, but with two successful ventures the Room 39 team seems to have arrived at a successful formula for thriving in Kansas City. This meal wasn’t my favorite in Kansas City, but I can still relate to what Room 39 does well even if I’d love to see what could happen if the restaurant gave the minor ingredients as much thought as the headlining proteins.