Kansas City’s historic Savoy makes a comeback for the ages under Chef Joe West

When the historic Savoy Hotel and Grill was purchased by a Kentucky-based hospitality group in 2017 and plans were announced to convert this Kansas City mainstay into a boutique hotel with a modern fine dining restaurant, a brouhaha erupted. How dare outsiders come in and take away an institution that Kansas Citians had been comfortably ignoring for at least a decade?

Truth is, nobody was talking about The Savoy before a $50 million renovation transformed it into the 21c Museum Hotel Kansas City. The restaurant was christened The Savoy at 21c, and when it opened in July of last year, it featured two disparate dining areas: The former restaurant, which had been open since 1903, became a bar and lounge area. Not much was changed on the interior. The original carved oak bar remained, as did the high-beamed ceilings with crown molding, art deco-era stained glass windows, pioneer murals painted by noted American realist Edward Holslag in the early 1900s and, of course, the famous Booth No. 4, where Harry and Bess Truman sat when they dined at the Savoy. (You can thank a federal historic tax credit for this preservation; because the 21c Museum Hotels used the credit, they were required to leave the original restaurant space as it was.)

The Savoy

The separate dining room was an entirely different story. It was markedly contemporary. Overhead lights glowed neon purple, casting the entire room in a supernatural hue. It was not the kind of setting that encouraged eating, and it’s no surprise that management has decided to phase out this alien space within the last few months. (It’ll be used as a gallery and event space.)

This means that executive chef Joe West had to merge together the two menus that he originally planned — one for the lounge, one for the dining room — when the restaurant reopened. All food has moved back into the original restaurant and bar, and the contemporary dining room is being transformed into a contemporary art gallery.

The Savoy Chef Joe West

These shifts were only part of the reason I ventured back into the new Savoy, nearly a year after its debut, with the purpose of reviewing it. Another key motivation: A year ago, I wondered how long the hot-shot staff — food and beverage director Scott Tipton, beverage director Dominic Petrucci, sous chef Nick Vella and chef West in particular — were going to stick around.

Bold new restaurants can have a high turnover, and West’s recent track record didn’t bode well for his staying power. Before  Savoy, he spent around 10 months as the executive chef at Stock Hill — a job he took following the dissolution of a would-be partnership that would have seen his longtime dream restaurant, Kusshi, come to life.

So when I sat down at The Savoy’s illustrious bar one humid summer afternoon, my first line of inquiry was: Everybody still here? Yes, indeed. Original crew members all accounted for.

Then I glanced at the menu. A few items had gone away and been replaced, but I recognized many from the first time I dined at West’s Savoy a year ago. There were no signs of the roast duck or butter-poached lobster Newberg — entrees that appeared on West’s first menu as a little nostalgic nod to The Savoy’s place in history. The burger was still there, though, and that’s where I started.

The Savoy Burger

A decent burger isn’t hard to come by, but a perfect burger is another story entirely, and The Savoy has this down. The Burger Royale ($16) is a dry-aged double-steak burger, featuring two diner-style patties with melty Wisconsin-made American cheese, Dijon mustard and grilled onions.

Burger perfection, as it is widely acknowledged, comes down to two things: bun-to-meat ratio and meat-to-fat ratio. West understands this. The patties had nice, crisp edges, and the sesame seed bun was just soft enough to squish the whole thing together. This is truly the best bar burger you’ll find at a high-end restaurant. You can pick it up and hold it in your hands without it falling apart. You can take a bite without having to unhinge your jaw and bury your face in grease It comes with four thick wedges that amount to roughly half a potato. These wedges were unbelievably tasty — I just wanted more.

There are a few bar snacks available, like a single bacon-wrapped cherry pepper filled with herbed cream cheese ($2, totally delicious), chicken liver mousse ($7) and the requisite cheese plate ($14). Get the andouille sausage-and-crab rangoons ($13) — this take-out guilty pleasure is transformed into a beautiful (and sinfully good) plate that I will absolutely be serving at my wedding, should that day ever come.

Appetizers — or “introductions,” as they are called on West’s menu — include a smattering of the usual suspects, all given a quirky spin. The steak tartare ($15) was summery and vibrant and served with pickled vegetables, mustard and zesty house chips. A tender octopus scampi ($13) was rich (thank you, shaved lardo) and garnished with crunchy elephant garlic. There are three pasta dishes in this menu section, and what they lacked in size they made up for in flavor. The escargot tortellini ($14) — Burgundy snails sheathed in a soft pasta and floated in a butter sauce — was restrained and delicate. The potato gnocchi ($11) were so soft and pillowy that I’m not sure how West managed to keep them set. But the table favorite, hands down, was the crab bucatini ($13). Squid ink pasta with chunks of melt-in-your-mouth butter-poached crab and a liberal dusting of finger lime made for a fabulously textured dish. Word to the wise: If you’re with a group, order multiples of this to avoid a fight.

The Savoy
Pictured left: escargot tortellini, center: steak tartare, right: octopus scampi

Before our entrees arrived, I thought I had a good handle on what to expect. West is unabashed about showing off his personality in his dishes. His menu descriptions are cheeky, irreverent and playful — like when he not-so-humbly brags about being “the fastest gnocchi maker in Las Vegas” under the description for his gnocchi. Our “introductions” had so far intimated that we would be in for a lively high point.

  I was surprised, then, when our plates appeared looking quite traditional — and decidedly French. The coq au vin and the beef burgundy, in particular, could have been ripped from the pages of a vintage cookbook. I was confused; it seemed like this course was meant for a different restaurant from a bygone era. Was West trying to balance his new world aesthetic with the old school dining The Savoy had always been known for, or was he just following his heart?

“My cooking is well rooted in la cuisine de la maître, a classical cooking style which honors the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients prepared in the manner used for centuries by French chefs,” West says. But he also draws on his multicultural background — he has a Japanese mother and an American father — and Midwestern roots to create something “representing Midwest luxury” that matches “the charm of Kansas City hospitality.”

  Some notes sang over these entrees while others fell flat. I was the only person at our table of four who enjoyed the halibut cheeks ($38). The silky fish matched well with spring peas and an earthy ramp butter broth. However, I could have done without the unappetizing gray half-artichoke that glared from the center of the dish. The dazzlingly green spaghetti verdi ($19) was a hearty and satisfying vegetarian plate, and the beef burgundy ($28) was tender to the touch. But the coq au vin ($26) was the unanimous winner of the entree round. A perfectly cooked Campo Lindo Farms chicken served in a rich red wine sauce with black garlic farro, this dish ate like a love letter to Julia Child.

The Savoy Green Spaghetti Verdi
Pictured: Green Spaghetti Verdi

It may not be a cohesive menu, but there was nothing that was not delicious in some way. Dessert was a triumph. Pastry chef Tia Throckmorton’s superb blueberry mousse ($10) was plated with a bright, perfect basil sorbet and fluffy torn almond sponge cake; it was assembled as carefully as a scene inside a snow globe. And there was nothing not to like about the vanilla-rhubarb cheesecake ($10), easily the prettiest plate of the night.

The Savoy Dessert

Cocktails, courtesy of longtime barmen Tipton and Petrucci, are worth exploring. These gents have a way of stocking a menu with elegant drinks without making a big deal about it. Yeah, they make their own house version of Campari, and they do it with actual beetles just like the original 1860 recipe, but so what? They’re not going to mansplain how you’re drinking bug juice in the very chuggable “Not Your Babe” (unless you really want them to). The wine list is eclectic, suited for whatever route the diner chooses to carve out from the menu, from classic French varietals to interesting new world options. More lists could be like this.

And service is polished. Maybe it’s got something to do with the history of The Savoy or the expectations of the diners (the crowd skews toward the sexagenarian set), but there’s an old school-style deference exhibited by serving staff. When the bartender extended his hand and exchanged names with me, I understood this to be professional courtesy, not a schmoozy move.

The Savoy Bartender

So, in case you haven’t heard, The Savoy is back. This grand old dog has got a few new tricks and a chef who seems like he’s having fun and maybe still figuring it out — and who, hopefully, is not going anywhere anytime soon.

GO: The Savoy at 21c Hotel, 219 W. Ninth St., Kansas City, Mo. 816-443-4260, thesavoykc.com. 7 am-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 7 am-1 am Friday-Saturday. Breakfast and lunch are served on weekdays and brunch is served on weekends.

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