The neighborhood restaurant remains one of the more interesting restaurant categories, even though I tend to prefer the precision of fine dining cuisine. A good neighborhood restaurant not only offers higher-end cooking at a reasonable price but also constitutes a prime site through which to glean an understanding of its neighborhood’s personality. With the contemporary emphasis on locavorism, foraging, and farm to table, much attention is paid to capturing the character of a region through cuisine, and one of the benefits of neighborhood restaurants is that they can accomplish this through setting as well. For this reason, at their best, neighborhood restaurants can be more regionally specific than high-end luxury restaurants. Inhabiting a liminal terrain somewhere between casual and fine dining, these restaurants are accessible enough to maintain a local following while generally operating with enough creativity to maintain interest from those who apply a more critical perspective to restaurants. Given that many of its most attractive options are out in the suburbs, Kansas City doesn’t have too many interesting neighborhood restaurants (in my opinion), and so Room 39’s original Midtown location, set in the artsy Volker neighborhood, captured our interest.
We dined at Room 39’s newer, Leawood outpost in June and were pleased with the proteins and price, but it is clear the two restaurants have very different personalities. The Leawood spot caters to a business-heavy clientele, while the Midtown one cultivates more of a hipster vibe. Both are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and I suspect they get decent business throughout the day, but achieve their success through very different means. I can imagine the city location drawing from the hipster crowd, while its suburban sibling likely makes its money from power lunchers. This difference speaks to what I think is so unusual about Room 39 and Chef Ted Habiger: in most cases where a chef operates two or more restaurants, they are either chains or they have very different ambitions. Moreover, in cases where the same chef has two restaurants of similar ambition (Keller’s Per Se/French Laundry, or Achatz with Alinea and Next), the two restaurants generally operate with a pretty similar spirit; having dined at Next and Alinea, for example, I don’t think it’s hard to tell that they are authored by the same creative force. (One exception to this is Paul Kahan’s restaurants, as I don’t think it’s easy to tell that Blackbird and Publican are siblings.) With Room 39, meanwhile, the two restaurants are priced identically and yet the different vibe makes it impossible to tell that they are controlled by the same chef.
I make it a habit to review a restaurant’s website before visiting and so I knew to expect a tiny dining room, but the ambiguously-entranced space still threw me for a loop. Our confusion was exacerbated by the absence of anyone positioned near the entrance. Room 39 doesn’t have a hostess, for the simple reason that there is no room for a hostess. Instead, the woman who would be our server sat us at a tight two-top not far from the door. The shabby-chic décor was wonderfully in line with the neighborhood setting, and the clientele was quite youthful. There was an energy that wasn’t present in Leawood. Unfortunately, from the start it was not hard to see that they were understaffed, due to a couple of factors; first, the tight space left little room for another server; and second, there were way too many tables (12) for the space—a major departure from the roominess of the Leawood spot. I think there’s a commonly-held belief that small restaurants offer more personalized, homey service, but the opposite is usually the case for me—so often, these restaurants have just one or two servers covering the entire room (due to spatial and financial limitations), leading to robust waiting times.
Menu structure is the main commonality between the two Room 39s. Both have the same four-course, $39 prix fixe that includes a soup or salad, appetizer or pasta, main dish, and dessert. Each purports to serve as much local fare as possible, although I believe the beef was sourced from California and there were probably other exceptions. Given the moderately expensive ingredients (lamb, duck, foie gras, etc.), the price can’t be beat, but I’d definitely be fine with a price increase of $10 if it meant a roomier, more attentive experience; just as one ‘reads’ the menu, I think one must similarly analyze the space as it relates to the logistics of the restaurant. At the same time, the $39 price tag was part of what drove me to the restaurant in the first place; it may be gauche to bring up these pecuniary concerns, but a restaurant cuts itself quite a lot of slack when it offers such a bargain.
Both Room 39s have very similar, protein-dominated menus, and yet technically, they are entirely different since no dish is served in both restaurants. This reflects Chef Habiger’s creativity, and I find it interesting that there are certain dishes that never leave the menus at each of the restaurants. At Leawood, for example, the beignets with caramel soup are always offered, while the goat chesse gnocchi are a constant in Kansas City, suggesting that each restaurant has its signature dishes, even if Chef Habiger does not. Foie gras is offered, although I didn’t trust the kitchen to execute it well and so I stayed away. Still, Room 39 really demonstrates the changing connotations of foie gras, which has of course been traditionally associated with fine dining, only to expand its appeal in recent years through satisfying the offal preferences of hipsters.
Naturally, we both went with the four-course menu. I chose kale salad, fettuccine with bolognese, Kansas City strip with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and apple bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. My brother ordered cream of wild mushroom soup, the same fettuccine course, lamb loin with stewed beans and radishes, and goat cheese cheesecake with poached pears.
We started out with good fresh bread, butter, and marinated olives; these were nice to nibble on since our meal progressed slowly.
The kale salad included house-made lardons and apple slices. The ingredients benefited from a creamy caesar dressing.
Equally tasty was the cream of mushroom soup, which also included truffle oil. Beginning the meal with a soup or salad (rather than a raw fish course, for example) announces from the outset that Room 39 is more neighborhood restaurant than fine dining, but the cozy flavors of our first courses were just what we desired.
Our fettuccine included a liberal amount of shaved grana padano. The noodles were softer than we’d like, but the strong flavors of the ground pork and shaved cheese made up for it. Still, overcooking the pasta made this course a mild disappointment; I don’t usually select pasta dishes (unless they have truffles) and had only ordered this one since my brother raved about the pasta at the Leawood restaurant.
Before this meal, I’d had bad luck with overcooked meat at Kansas City restaurants and so I was really glad to see my beef cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Basically, cooking this steak to the appropriate temperature was worth the price of admission for this meal; the excellent-quality beef didn’t need the maitre d’ butter but it certainly didn’t hurt. I don’t care for mashed potatoes, but the bacon-and-brussels sprouts combination satisfied.
The lamb loin wasn’t as attractive as the beef, although at the same time I would characterize the stew-like composition as emblematic of neighborhood restaurants; I sort of accept it as fact that restaurants of this caliber will just cobble the ingredients together into a mound and there is a charming sloppiness to the act (although my patience wears off when restaurants are this messy while claiming fine dining aspirations, Craigie on Main and Primo being two examples.)
Bread pudding is one of my favorite desserts and this one was comfortable. It could have used either a topping (caramel, perhaps), a liquor, or both, but I was pleased and still in a good mood from the beef, anyway.
My brother enjoyed his cheesecake. As with my dessert, it possessed little ambition but offered the familiar pleasures specific to its category.
When choosing a restaurant, I pay great attention to the identity of the chef, but this meal demonstrated how the chef has to be considered in concert with their neighborhood, as well as the space of the restaurant. Comparing this meal to our experience at Leawood, the food was not dissimilar and I can see Chef Habiger’s personality come through in both instances. However, with Midtown Room 39 the impact of the neighborhood outweighs that of the chef, leaving lasting memories of the energetic (and cramped) setting, as well as the eclectic art on the wall. I wonder if perhaps the gravity of fine dining restaurants allows for the personality of the chef to shine through more heavily, whereas neighborhood restaurants give more room for the patrons and community to really lay claim to the restaurant. This wasn’t cuisine that I would hand a Michelin star to, but everything was tasty and a good backdrop against which to observe a community I hadn’t yet visited.