It may be a bit premature, in the days leading up to Lent, to already start talking about resurrection. But sometimes restaurants rise from the dead, too. That’s exactly what has happened in the case of Michael Forbes Grill, which from 1985 to 1999 existed as a dimly lit, clubby little joint tucked into a Waldo shopping strip. Even in the 1980s, the restaurant was a cultural throwback, the menu heavy with chops, steaks and deep-fried foods (including crispy catfish, back when it had fallen out of favor almost everywhere else), and the bar smoky and loud.
The interior was deftly designed to resemble a restaurant from the 1940s, with dark-paneled walls, deep booths, and low-slung lighting that made even the act of looking across the table a moment of film noir. Lest you miss the decorative and culinary references to those simpler times, the place was filled with black-and-white photographs of Kansas City’s past: long-razed department stores and drive-ins, movie theaters and soda fountains. “Ah, yes,” you might say, nursing a stiff vodka stinger and gazing at a photograph of the old Isis movie palace, back when theaters were grand and admissions were cheap, “those must have been the good old days. Weren’t they?”
The fate of that first Michael Forbes Grill took an unexpectedly Victorian turn.
Like an Edith Wharton character who recklessly divorces and loses first her decent married name and then her respectability, the original Waldo restaurant was sold, stripped of its name (Forbes Cross, who founded Michael Forbes Grill, wisely kept it) and then its reputation. The restaurant that opened in the same location was clever enough to keep Michael as part of its name, but that was the only shrewd move the ill-fated Michael’s Grill pulled off. The old photos stayed on the wall, but the food was never very consistent, and Michael’s was quickly forgotten.
The well-bred Forbes Cross, whose own name could have been plucked from a Wharton novel, has been less lucky with the restaurants he created after the early success of Michael Forbes Grill (Soulfish, Japengo, Union Café). But reviving his original concept in conservative Prairie Village is an inspired idea. What had once been a kosher delicatessen and market is now a sleek new Michael Forbes Grill, lighter and more attractive than the old place but still evoking a 1940s look.
That said, it should come as no surprise that the aging population of this Johnson County hamlet is flocking to the place (which offers an early-bird special from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday). The tasteful amenities of pre-World War II dining still exist: a chilled salad fork; a busboy in a starched jacket roaming the dining room and using tongs to serve hot Parker House rolls from a baking tin; comfortable, tweedy booths; and bartenders who know how to mix a no-nonsense cocktail. As the night goes on, the patrons get considerably younger. The baby-boomer and Gen-X crowds miss the early-bird specials, but no matter; all of the dinners are reasonably priced and include — shockingly in this stingy new à la carte world — rolls, salads, and vegetables or potatoes.
The restaurant may be only a few months old, but its style harks back decades. The servers have good manners, the sound system plays songs from the Hit Parade era (Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Tormé), and the menu boasts vintage dishes like liver and onions, spaghetti with meatballs, and club sandwiches. That’s the good news.
But just trying to conjure the spirit of the good old days doesn’t always make a good dinner. Those divine-looking Parker House rolls were hot and fresh on only one of my three dinners there; on one visit, they were so hard and tough that my friend Bob insisted they weren’t really meant to be eaten at all. “They’re props,” he said, tapping his on the side of the table.
Still, that was the night I enjoyed a bowl of the restaurant’s signature “Pot Roast Soup” — a fragrant concoction of vegetables, pasta and thick chunks of tender beef — and a delicious but dumbed-down Greek salad (made with ordinary black olives instead of kalamata and drenched in a thick, tangy dressing one wouldn’t find anywhere near Athens, though it was delicious).
Cross and chef Tom Barnett have wisely trimmed the old Michael Forbes menu (which featured as many as 200 offerings) to a selection of 55 items, ranging from traditional sandwiches and steaks to pastas. Good ol’ Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs is preferable to Barnett’s more “artistic” creations, such as the garlic-chicken-pasta concoction that was generously laden with garlic and grilled chicken but arrived swimming in a watery alfredo sauce and accompanied with a slab of garlic bread. I have friends who rave over another signature dish, a boneless grilled lemon-pepper chicken served with boiled potatoes, but I found it to be disappointingly bland, short on both citrus and pepper.
Better bland than downright awful, which was my reaction to an appetizer of fried spring rolls, wontons wrapped around a filling of chicken, carrots and cabbage, served with a honey-mustard sauce that was all honey. The rolls had such a bitter, vaguely metallic aftertaste that I quit after one bite. The slightly chewy strips of flash-fried calamari (a Parkway 600 recipe), served with an excellent basil pesto, were vastly better.
“It’s best to stick to the tried-and-true favorites here, like the catfish,” I warned my friend Carmen at one dinner.
I, of course, ignored my own advice and ordered that night’s fish special, a hunk of delectable halibut tucked into a shell of crunchy grated potatoes and jazzed up with a dollop of lightly seasoned crab relish, a splash of rich béarnaise sauce and sprinkles of red caviar. It was elegantly composed and very tasty; it would have been extraordinary had it been served hot. My dish was at least lukewarm, unlike my friend Adam’s pair of pan-fried pork chops, which were brought out cold and were flavorless and dry, too.
Had these dishes been lingering in the kitchen while our young waiter (extremely nice, but excessively chatty if you got him going on subjects like fly fishing or how he nearly lost his foot) was busy with another table? I suspect rather that the problem was in the kitchen. Bob had ordered that night’s steak special — a 12-ounce strip topped with a grilled portabella and melted Brie — and it had arrived with the colder dinners but was still sizzling. It was a visually sumptuous, fork-tender cut of beef, perfectly grilled and served atop a layer of creamy mashed potatoes flavored with cheddar and bacon.
Carmen’s catfish was equally hot, whisked out of the kitchen while its amber crust still crackled from the fryer. She wanted the fish deboned, so our server, the expert fisherman, whipped out a knife and did a veritable filet ballet on the fish in a second (we applauded!), setting it in front of her with bravado. Carmen raved about the rich, flaky and moist flesh under that splendidly crispy armor. After snagging a few bites for myself, I did, too.
So much fried food in one setting usually leaves me resistant to dessert (and prone to indigestion, but who’s complaining?). But after our dinner dishes had been cleared away and we perused the dessert list, our server informed us that the sour-cream apple pie or the fudge cake could be served “Alamo.” Carmen furrowed her brow. “Like the fort in Texas?” she whispered to me.
“No, Alamo. With ice cream,” the server said. We decided to share both cake and pie, and Bob ordered that night’s dessert special, a crème brûlée made with milk chocolate, which sounded heavenly but arrived as a runny mess under a caramelized shell. The apple pie was tart, moist and crunchy; Adam noted somewhat sardonically that the fudge cake was served far warmer than his pork chops had been.
One of the managers came over and asked if everything had been all right. “No,” I might have said. “Adam is not flirting enough with Carmen, Bob keeps asking the waiter about how he nearly lost his foot, the obese man sitting at the next table chews with his mouth open, and I distinctly remember ordering my pie Alamo!”
But I kept silent. The three-month-old Michael Forbes Grill is just learning how to walk again. And, after all, not every resurrection is a miracle.