Jun 20, 2010

Bittersweet Experience At the New Majestic

Restaurant: The Majestic
Location: 931 Broadway, downtown KC, MO
Food: Traditional Steakhouse
Service: Traditional Steakhouse
Atmosphere: Traditional Steakhouse + Jazz!
Price: Traditional Steakhouse
Rating: two napkins

Where is the line drawn between wonderfully traditional and sadly stodgy? 931 Broadway, KC, MO. The dining room of The Majestic.

We went there Saturday night and I left with the distinctly uneasy feeling that it was straddling this line between success and failure.

I'd been romanticizing the idea of visiting The Majestic for quite some time. I love steak, I love jazz, and I tend to love old restaurants that have been around so long that walking in their front doors makes you feel like you're stepping back in time. But, as I mention above, there's a fine line between pulling off the feeling of a steadfast, successful establishment and one that sadly hearkens to days of roaring success long since gone by. The Majestic seemed to teeter at that tipping point.

If you have an appreciation for preservation of old architecture, your first reaction to The Majestic's dining room will be a good one. The white tile floor and vast, dark-wood bar is impressive, reportedly imported from New Orleans, fashioned in the 1800's. It's the kind of place where one expects the drinks to be stiff and the bartenders that pleasant balance between witty, humble, helpful and wise. Unfortunately, at 8:30 on Friday, it was completely empty. No patrons to be found taking in the classic ambience.

We made our way downstairs where the live jazz was being played. It's a unique experience, listening to live jazz while eating a steak in a dimly lit restaurant basement. A markedly cool one, in fact. It felt almost like Al Capone or Baby Face Nelson could have been at the table next to us.

The basement at The Majestic is quite narrow, so diners practically sit in the laps of the band members. Everyone has a front row seat. The band kept their volume down to a good level. Talking to your neighbor was a little difficult during most of the songs, but if that was a problem, you shouldn't have chosen the jazz club. The jazz, alone (and another stiff drink or two), would bring me back for another visit.

I wish I was equally excited about the food we had, but there were issues. That may have partly been the fault of our dreary-mooded server, as well, whose expression and tone conveyed "I want to go hoooome," persistently. From seating us to picking up the check on our way out, he was dry, expressionless and unhelpful. He actually made us feel unwelcome. Wish we could have traded him in for the other guy who ended up paying us more attention than our assigned waiter.

But back to the food. To settle into the appropriate mood for a night of jazz, we quickly ordered up a couple cocktails from the short, relatively lackluster $9 cocktail menu (the wine list is far more impressive). I wasn't sure whether to assume the restaurant just didn't take pride in their cocktails, or if the implication was that diners were of the old school sort who didn't stray from the classics like martinis, Manhattans or particular spirits straight up.

Either way, I think the short list was a miss and The Majestic would do well to take a page from restaurants like R Bar (my review) and Justus Drugstore, who make their innovative cocktails a major attraction to their business. My sidecar was refreshing and quite tasty. Elizabeth's Strawberry Bubbly seemed flat and flavorless. Overall, good enough, but give me more choices!

At The Majestic, dinners are served with sides: salad or soup, plus vegetable, and rice or potato - garlic mashed, baked, or fries. As such, the only thing we needed to consider ordering prior to entrees was an appetizer. Starving, we picked out the fried risotto balls, despite their oddly straightforward name. We'd pictured rice given, you know, "risotto". Truly, though, there was none to be found. The cute and appetizing, perfectly round fried balls oozed only bright orange (think nacho) cheese when fractured with the edge of a fork. They were quite tasty, just lacking in rice.

The red sauce in which the risotto balls were served was surprisingly spicy. We can handle pretty spicy foods, so enjoyed the sauce, but I can imagine many diners could find the spice level a bit out of their range. Selfishly, I commend the chef for "going there." Though one might call these some pretty low-brow risotto balls, they were good and I'd easily recommend them.

For dinner, she ordered filet mignon, and I, the Ribeye, often deemed the most flavorful cut of steak. When in Rome, right?

Here, The Majestic earned top marks. The steaks were every bit as expertly cooked, flavorful and juicy as one could expect from a top flight Kansas City steak restaurant. Absolutely superb. The problem is, there are several places in KC, heck, in the midwest and beyond, where one can find a steak of excellent quality anymore. Let's not kid ourselves, good steaks aren't really an art form. They're a simple formula. Good meat, simple preparation methods, large cuts, and you're set to please. So while I commend the heck out of The Majestic for the sinfully delicious hunk of fat-laden beef they set before me, I have to make mention of the after thoughts they call salad, vegetables and potatoes that came with it.

The salads arrived first, straight out of 1987. Leaf lettuce (at least it wasn't iceberg) with a token cherry tomato and waffle-cut carrot wafer. The salad's undoing, though, was the vinaigrette, which came on the side. It was broken, oil on top, acid resting unattainably on the bottom, along with the flecks of dried (c'mon!) basil. To get at them, I had to pour the entire vessel onto the salad, rendering it helplessly oily and overdressed. I almost didn't want to eat it because it was so flavorless and oily.  This kind of side salad no longer deserves the label "classic". It's just unimaginative, uninspired, and weak. Why serve this? Who is enjoying this salad today?

The chef's vegetables alongside the steak were green beans with a little onion and red bell pepper. The beans were haplessly watery, having been steamed to death and then some. The onions and red pepper were helpful, I guess, for the flavor of this side. But overall it gets the same unfavorable reception as the salad. My thought: don't even put it on the plate if you take this little pride in it.

Even the mashed potatoes were sub par. Mine were dry, having that day-after-Thanksgiving reheated quality, but I didn't have any gravy at my disposal to revive them.

I realize this is a lot of griping about the aspects of this restaurant that are the least essential to its overall existence. People aren't going to The Majestic in anticipation of its side salads, steamed vegetables and starches. They're there for the jazz and the steak. And, in so much as they remain focused on those elements, they'll leave quite pleased, indeed. My only plea to The Majestic, since it is a place I find myself rooting for - I'm a fan, I suppose - is that it pay just a little more attention to the details. Don't settle for putting thoughtless, token items on any plates, or in any glasses. A little more effort, a little more savvy, will go a long way with customers. Give us something to brag about on your behalf and we will.

I give The Majestic two napkins. In comparison to other two napkin reviews on this blog, one might find this review to be more critical-sounding in nature, but the reason is that The Majestic had a high bar. It's a relatively pricey place with upscale fare. So it asks to be scrutinized. But it's a rare occasion to have a piece of beef as nice as what they'll serve you at The Majestic, and its air of class and throwback vibe are nearly impossible to replicate. So I commend the owners for reviving this Kansas City institution and keeping the concept of the live jazz steakhouse alive in downtown.

Rating: two napkins

Majestic Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Doesn't sound like a stellar place. Is it possible to go there for just drinks and jazz?

KCNapkins Guy said...

Absolutely it's possible, and I'd highly recommend it. I plan on doing so very soon. Also - I'm sure my review sounds, on the whole, more negative than it should. This is a good restaurant. Just needs some more attention to the small details if it's going to really impress me.

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