Irish Ambassador: Shaun Brady energizes the Reserve

When a new executive chef takes over a restaurant’s kitchen, it can be like a new conductor stepping in to take over a symphony. The performance space stays the same, but style and tone and interpretations change — sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly.

When the boutique Ambassador Hotel, at 11th Street and Grand, opened last year, the owners of the expensively mounted property introduced the Reserve, a combination dining room and bar that was also part of the building’s lobby. The point was to offer a sleek, sophisticated alternative to the traditional hotel restaurant or coffee shop, and it was an elegant room, full of shiny surfaces and tufted seating. It seemed to have more in common with the theatrical lobby designs created for New York hotels of recent vintage (the Ameritania, the Andaz 5th Avenue) than, say, the Raphael’s Chaz on the Plaza or the InterContinental’s Oak Room. The Reserve made a strong visual statement.

But the look turned out to be far more exciting than the cuisine, which was created for the space by the hotel’s first chef, Geoffrey van Glabbeek.

To his credit, van Glabbeek had a vision for the Reserve, but his menus lacked the high drama necessary to play against the stylized setting. It was like seeing a set built for the musical Chicago, only to witness the production performed by the Baldknobbers. I mean, why?

A year later, van Glabbeek has returned to Tulsa, and the Ambassador Hotel’s culinary service is now overseen by Shaun Brady, a baby-faced native of Tipperary, Ireland, who has taken his time making the Reserve his own. Instead of a big, all-at-once culinary statement, Brady has introduced breakfast, lunch and dinner menus slowly, and each has reflected his own taste. (He’s working on his new autumn dishes now.)

There’s a cosmopolitan feel here that reflects Brady’s years of cooking in Dublin restaurants. In the morning, he bakes real Irish scones — crusty, golden-brown pastries, filled with dried currants and raisins that he has soaked in apple and orange juices. They’re served steaming hot, with his own thick mixed-berry jam and fresh whipped cream.

The prices for breakfast and brunch are, as at most hotel restaurants, hardly modest. But Brady’s theory is that if you’re going to pay premium hotel prices — say, $12 for a bowl of corned-beef hash — then you should get the best damned corned-beef hash in the city. Brady buys his pickled beef from the local purveyor Boyle’s and boils it for hours with carrots, onions, bay leaf and celery until it’s so moist, it practically falls apart when you look at it. It’s served as a chunky jumble with eggs, roasted Yukon gold potatoes, caramelized onions, and two thick slabs of toasted Irish soda bread. After polishing off a bowl one morning, I honestly wasn’t hungry again until the next day — though the slice of cheesecake I ate, post-hash, might have had something to do with that.

I stand by that choice. Sous chef Jeremiah Lyman has a passion for luscious cheesecake, and that morning, he had concocted one that blended layers of moist chocolate cake with pumpkin cheesecake on a chocolate-cookie crust. Who wants a doughnut or a sweet roll with coffee when you can have cheesecake?

Or bread pudding, for that matter. Brady makes a surprisingly fluffy brioche pudding and drenches it in a creamy chocolate-and-coffee sauce (the house-blend Roasterie coffee), and it almost works better as a breakfast dish than a dessert.

One of Brady’s lovelier desserts, an old-fashioned crumble made with blueberries and apples, is being excommunicated from the new fall menu. (“I’m focusing on apples or sweet potatoes,” he says.) I hope he reconsiders because the piece I tried was the highlight of a late-night supper I enjoyed one Friday, when the saloon part of the Reserve space was packed with well-dressed (and well-behaved) revelers. The noise level went up considerably, but the vitality in the room was intoxicating.

The food can be equally head-spinning. A swooning cabernet perfume wafts from Brady’s succulent coq au vin, a rustic French dish not so easy to find about town anymore. His is made with chicken, not rooster, and it’s heady stuff. (Cabernet is also a stimulating ingredient in Brady’s slow-braised beef short ribs, which he serves with rich gratin potatoes made with what tastes like a scandalous amount of cream.) An equally fragrant entrée, steamed mussels in a shrimp-and-herb broth tucked into a crusty Farm to Market bread bowl, proves that the better a dish smells at the Reserve, the more popular. The coq au vin, the mussels and a juicy Creekstone Farms Kansas City strip are Brady’s best-selling dishes.

Brady loves good Irish pork, so pork belly turns up in several choices: a starter of soft tacos filled with chopped pork belly and pineapple salsa; a marvelous crispy pork-belly sandwich on the lunch menu — he slowly cooks the pork in apple cider and white wine for hours and tops the well-stacked sandwich with a layer of tart apple slaw. It’s outstanding.

Of course, you can also pick from the traditional hotel-menu items: a burger (well executed here), a club sandwich (memorable), a Caesar salad (pretty good). A relic of the van Glabbeek era remains: a crispy crustacean corn dog (van Glabbeek used fake lobster; Brady uses shrimp), but it’s about to slide permanently off the menu. Brady means to replace it with a Mediterranean-style shrimp saganaki.

Brady has been in Kansas City — and at the Reserve — just four months, but he says it’s going to be a long-term residency. “The minute I walked into this hotel, I knew I really wanted to work here,” he tells me.

Good. This 34-year-old chef is the best thing to have happened yet to Kansas City’s newest hotel, if not the Power & Light District’s restaurant community. Brady isn’t much for blarney, but he does have a theatrical flair, and it makes this intimate venue a solid dining destination.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews