Searching for an identity, the Oak Room just feels lost
You know what? To hell with nostalgia. I’ve been as guilty as anyone when it comes to comparing the restaurant in the hotel at 401 Ward Parkway — whatever that hotel is, because there have been at least four over the past three decades — with the groovy but dated coffee shop that used to be there.
So much time has gone by since the Pam Pam Room closed, I realize that I don’t even remember much about it anymore. I know you could smoke in the dining room (I did) and the waitresses were smart and funny, and the food was pretty good. But was it really that great? No, but it had a distinct identity, unlike all the dining rooms that have since come and gone in the space.
After the hotel stopped being the Spanish-themed Alameda Plaza, it was the super-fancy Ritz-Carlton. Then it was the Fairmont for several years. Now it’s the InterContinental, a supposedly upscale chain whose owners have let the property start to feel a little forlorn. Just look at the carpet leading from the garage elevators into the hotel: It’s stained in a lot of places, unraveling in others.
The current occupant of the dining room at 401 Ward Parkway is the Oak Room. Thankfully it’s no longer decorated with ridiculous gilded farm implements mounted on the walls. But it still lacks an identity. It’s not elegant enough to be considered a formal restaurant — or even a classy one — but it seems to be trying to maintain that charade. On the flip side, it’s too hoity-toity to be a casual dining room, even though it’s leaning more and more in that direction.
Take the Sunday brunch. It’s set up in the lounge area, which is quite nice, but at 11 a.m. one Sunday, the food in the silvery chafing dishes had either been completely picked over or was looking dry and congealed. The weekday lunch buffet wasn’t much better, set out in an alcove of the main dining room. It featured sliced fruit and the ingredients for making sandwiches. But what was in the silvery chafing containers? “Make your own fajitas,” said one of the managers.
I wanted to tell her, Honey, that’s the kind of fare they serve at the Golden Corral!
I was having lunch with Cynthia, who wasn’t any more intrigued than I was by the lunch buffet. The room was packed with conventiongoers — mostly well-fed men in blue suits discussing world finance — but we were seated at a pleasant little table for two near the windows overlooking the lovely pool.
Cynthia’s water was served in a traditional water glass, mine in a wineglass. Some of the tables had tall, thin salt and pepper shakers while others had fat, squat ones. (Ours needed to be cleaned so that salt would actually come out.) It’s this kind of eccentricity that makes it hard to accept the Oak Room as an upscale dining room. As a coffee shop, however, it would be perfectly OK.
The lunch menu isn’t much different from the dishes served during the dinner hour, except that it offers a variety of sandwiches and a few lighter entrée choices. Our server was gracious but not a bit formal (she called me “sweetie,” which I honestly prefer to “sir”), and the food tried to be creative.
But the world does not need one more “deconstructed” version of a culinary classic. I admire the talents of executive chef Chris Hall, but the grilled chicken breast smothered in “potpie vegetables” was essentially a chicken potpie without a crust. The breast lay under a thick blanket of sunny cream gravy dotted with tiny bits of carrot, celery and finely chopped potatoes. Cynthia’s portobello-mushroom sandwich was actually a wrap — “a breakfast burrito,” she called it — with grilled vegetables and herb creamed cheese served with very good sweet-potato fries.
When I dined with Carol Ann and Bob for dinner on a Monday night, we were the only patrons. Carol Ann and Bob both complained about the ugly brown tablecloths, which Carol Ann said were “cheap-looking.” They also appeared to have been washed too many times in an industrial-strength machine. “We used to use cream tablecloths,” our beautiful waitress explained, “but one of the managers, who isn’t here anymore, didn’t like them.”
I say bring back the cream tablecloths, but drop the cream-colored “Thai chicken flatbread pizza” from the starter menu. This bland and dry creation is the worst Thai pizza in the city. Chef Hall needs to wander across Brush Creek and sample California Pizza Kitchen’s version — or the Classic Cup’s.
It’s obvious that Hall knows how to make a dish look good because the mahogany-colored lobster bisque, flavored with a squiggle of sherry crème, was lovely and rich. But the jumbo lump crab cakes were also colorless, bland and heavy on the breading. And Carol Ann’s petit iceberg salad — another deconstructed innovation — had the lettuce in one corner of the plate, the chopped bacon in another, the avocado over here and the chunk of blue cheese over there, while the oregano-port-wine dressing was the same color as Pepto-Bismol.
The salad selection is the closest thing to vegetarian options on the menu — even the flatbreads are prepared with meat or seafood.
Despite her complaints about the tablecloths, Carol Ann couldn’t stop raving when it came to her actual dinner, the seared Colorado lamb splashed with a supple port-wine mint jus. It was an excellent dish — tender slices of meat with a spray of asparagus and a few root vegetables tucked into a fried potato basket.
Bob, meanwhile, only wanted a starter for dinner and finally found one that pleased him: the spiced chilled prawns served with a punchy horseradish-tomato sauce and a spicy yellow-pepper one.
My own meal was excellent, too. The restaurant’s signature steak is a grilled, 12-ounce sirloin, as flavorful and tender as any I’ve tasted for a while. I had toyed with the idea of ordering the Kansas City strip, served au poivre. But a beware of exotic-sounding dishes involving pepper here.
Looking at the dessert menu during lunch, Cynthia had been intrigued by the idea of vanilla-and-black-pepper ice cream served with warm and flaky phyllo pastry “purses” filled with apple or cherry compote. On the plate that arrived were thumb-sized phyllo packets, but they were filled with chocolate, not apple or cherry compote. And while there was indeed a scoop of ice cream on the plate, it tasted like good old vanilla ice cream to both of us.
Our server seemed confused by this and dashed into the kitchen. Meanwhile, my molten chocolate cake was tasty enough, and the pear ice cream served with it really did taste like fresh pears. The server returned, carrying a shot glass filled with another scoop of ice cream, this one ever-so-slightly green with tiny black flecks, which must have been the pepper. But it still tasted pretty much like vanilla, and the plain vanilla tasted better.
Or maybe it was just my nostalgia taking over. No one would have been silly enough to put pepper in ice cream at the old Pam Pam. But those days are gone forever.