The American Restaurant is perched over the Hallmark complex in Kansas City, emcompassing wide-windowed views of downtown and the complex itself. It's a Kansas City institution, a conscious convenience for the corporation, and the culinary home of the 1999 James Beard winner of best midwestern chef. Friends recommended it, and so we stopped off for a moderately leisurely dinner in the midst of a day of driving from Little Rock to Des Moines.
Fake gothic fan vaulting enlivened a spacious cube of carpeted concrete which is the restaurant's main service space. The art historians I was eating with dated the space to late '60s, possibly early '70s. Mid-70s was the actual answer, with a renovation in the '90s to spruce things up. Well-spaced white-linened table cloths and gold-edge glass presentation plates kept up a kind of elegance which appeals to business accounts and, as my companions reckoned, first dates. They thought the thought-provoking food might be wasted on both of these major audiences, however.
The menu is flexible, with pricing from three to seven courses listed, and our waitress encouraging us to have as many or as few courses from each of the four menu sections as we liked. The more courses, the small the portions, she promised. Just as well, given that the four courses I did have left me stuffed; I overheard two other women say they wished they'd skipped dessert for the same reason. In other words, the courses were more than substantial enough for me.
We began with an amuse-bouche from the chef: a small cup of tomato gelée with basil, goat's cheese, and saffron threads. The cold jelly was the star of the piece, intensely tomato-y and gently earthy, with the basil providing refreshing little notes which eclipsed the other ingredients.
I really liked the baby octopus starter, which matched squiggly black tentacles with squiggly black tentacle-like pasta and a cozy tomato sauce for the best seppie nere-like pasta I've ever had. My foie gras, in contrast, was not the melt-in-the-mouth silkiness I had hoped for, but pleasant, matched by similar flavor strengths in the form of a rhubarb sorbet, halved cherries, and sweet pistachio mandel bread, served in little round slices, and in dust beneath the sorbet. The waiter-profiled Campo Lindo 63° egg, topped with porcini foam, slices of summer truffle, and resting on rice pudding was another pleasant confection but ultimately a friendly flavor rather than a coherent dish.
We all had the same salad, a tower of dressed baby spinach leaves crowned with crunchy pecan halves and resting on superb mozzarella, made in-house, which had lovely depth of flavor and texture, with a bit of coppa (like prosciutto, but from the pig's shoulder or neck) from La Quercia, acting as a condiment for touches of sweet-salty meaty depth. (The company whose owners gave us the restaurant recommendation.)
Campo Lindo is a chicken farm vaguely close to Kansas City, which is why I had the Campo Lindo chicken breast as a main. It was succulent and robust, but the over-salted crunchy, battered skin ultimately reminded me of an extremely upscale version of KFC. This isn't an insult as I rather like KFC chicken flavoring; rather it's an indication on the kind of base flavors on which the kichen is refining. The chicken came with gnocchi, a served-at-table garlic-rich sauce vierge, and the highlight of the dish, a delicately crunchy deep-fried squash blossom stuffed with a soft white cheese, perhaps cream cheese. The highlight of the duck breast was its accompaniament of pickled blueberries: the vinegared berries provided a lovely sweet-sour to cut through the sweet of the duck and the rest of its accompaniaments.
A flourish preceded our dessert: a light cactus honey pudding with crunchy things and densely jellied cantaloupe. My passion pain perdue featured the fun of deep-friend brioche, but with overly-sweet sauces to go with it; the dab of maple-brown butter gelato was rather nice, however. The lemon poppy seed cake, deconstructed like all the other desserts, looked like a fun little city of shapes on the plate.
Mignardise came, with or without coffee. The best of these was a tart mound of apricot jelly. I like peanut butter and jelly as a combination, but found it swamped by the dryness of the mini-coffee cake it came embedded in. The chocolate-mint fudge had a rather stodgy texture for my tastes.
Service was perky and generally attentive, with frequent refills of our tap water glasses. We had warned them that we needed to be done within two hours: even so, it was unfortunate at a restaurant at this level that one course arrived before we had finished with the previous one. Their cooperation with our timetable, however, gave us a full half-hour to spare for loiterting.
Overall, what the American Restaurant is serving seemed to me as if its root inspirations lay with highly processed, mass-market food. Don't get me wrong: I am in no way saying that this is what the restaurant is cooking. It serves refined, complex dishes made from high-quality, fresh ingredients, transforming them into plates of elegance and intelligence. So few of the dishes wholly came together for me, though. I would be entirely willing to return, but I'm more interested in checking out the other restaurants which Kansas City has to offer, should I have the opportunity.