This was the impression I took away from my recent visits to Anton’s Taproom and Restaurant: Some people have ideas, natural entrepreneurs who are even able to make their ideas come into being. And those people with ideas tend to have lots of ideas. This is evident in the new establishment by Anton Kotar at 1610 Main Street. Neighborhood bar, butcher shop, fish farm ecosystem, art gallery, herb farm, steakhouse, trendsetting sustainable green restaurant with practically-off-the-grid heating and cooling? “Steakhouse” and “green” aren’t concepts that occur in tandem with much frequency. Anton’s Taproom is making a bold attempt.
Originally a contractor, Anton Kotar became known in the service industry partnering in the opening of Grinders in the Crossroads. He left there a little over two years ago to open his own restaurant and seemingly fill it with dreams. The building began as the home of the Henry T. Fisher Grocery Store in 1898, and over the decades housed such businesses as The National Biscuit Company (it was actually the headquarters for Nabisco), Irene’s Restaurant and Lounge (known for the three martini lunch), and Daddy’s (a gay bar). Now it seems to have bits and pieces of all of those business personalities rolled up in its current incarnation.
Anton wants you to come into his restaurant. In fact, the first obstacle you may encounter at Anton’s is figuring out which of the three street facing entrances to use. (I am told that issue will resolve itself in the coming days.) Although only open a few months, Anton’s has a well-worn feel that allows you to relax, to quickly unwind after work or a hectic day (like when it was known as Irene’s Restaurant and Lounge). It feels like a neighborhood bar filled with locals, and it has a good energetic buzz (like when it was a grocery store and Nabisco). It’s noisy, but not in an irritating way. From the most northern entrance, you arrive at the open kitchen and butcher shop counter (like when the place was known as Daddy’s—you can pick up the most attractive piece of aged meat you can find and take it home to deal with in whatever manner you see fit). At present, the middle entrance is for deliveries. The southern entrance is to the bar and your best choice for getting the service staff’s attention.
Let me point out that Anton’s is busy. You’ll not be sneaking into the next unheard of destination, feasting on delicacies prepared by an unhurried chef. The neighbors like this place. On several of my visits, I was able to get a seat somewhere—the bar, the lounge area by the front doors, or a perfectly timed vacated bar stool or table. Other visits involved a short wait in the bar sampling one of the seemingly endless variety of beers from all over the globe, hunger averted by a few tempura-fried pickles. (I was afraid of these on my first visit, visions of crinkle cut, commercially produced, overly tart dill pickles in mind—but they turned out to be nicely fried house-made bread-and-butter pickles, crispy, not too salty or vinegary, but with a very short half-life as they began to cool off.) Another diversion, the wings—more standard bar fare served with mildly spicy chili sauce and my favorite part, ribbons of celery with a little ranch dressing—were also nice. The house-made onion rings are also featured as a starter, but that is the last place I would put them on the menu. A generous portion, these easy-to-gobble rings would destroy any healthy appetite, even when shared. If you go to Anton’s to dine, the best thing to do while waiting for a seat is sip a good beer and stoke your appetite.
The taproom’s multiple personalities begin to introduce themselves when you study the menu. There are a few gray areas here, both figuratively and literally, and those present the second obstacle at Anton’s. The red print on the menu denotes what is actually available. The gray print indicates Anton’s aspirations, the kinks that have yet to be worked out. I think of the gray print as a bit of a contract with Anton, a reminder for him of what he set out to do. Few of us would be so brave as to publicize a list of our goals versus accomplishments for the public to scrutinize. Anton did. I give him credit for his accomplishments. He has created a neighborhood bar and restaurant, a butcher shop, art gallery (every wall is littered with works by local artists) and steakhouse. The heating/cooling system that circulates recycled water from the restaurant refrigeration to heat and cool the building even functions as a water feature on the back patio. At the time of writing this review, the house-raised tilapia (still the size of tadpoles in the post-apocalyptic self-sustaining basement hydroponic herb and lettuce garden) and the grass-fed beef are all still dreams. Anton is facing what is still a bit of an obstacle for many restaurants: the sourcing of ideal products. To quote Anton, “It wasn’t until I became a father that the quality of food became so important.” Kudos to him for having that realization. Wanting to put high-quality ingredients on your menu and being able to actually find those items and offer them to customers at a price they will accept are more difficult than most consumers would imagine.
The menu format suggests eating in courses, but I don’t think that is the way to really appreciate this saloon featuring food for hungry people with a certain amount of gustatory selectivity. Before ordering, consider why you’re there. One: Some drinks with friends and a snack or two. Two: A good, simple, satisfying meal. Or three: A dining experience. That should determine your selections.
For drinks with friends, the cheese and charcuterie, onion rings, wings, tempura-fried pickles, Bavarian pretzels, or smoked shrimp cocktail are all an ideal fit, as are a few of the daily changing vegetable sides.
For the good, simple satisfying meal category, the salads with the optional added protein (chicken confit or tenderloin) are perfect, as are any of the sandwiches. The pork burger was quite moist and tasty, with hints of its various porcine components (flavorful ground pork shoulder, with an extra flavor infusion from bacon, prosciutto and country ham), but the steak burger was truly delicious. I hate that name. “Steak burger” sounds like a hamburger with a lack of self-esteem, ashamed to be a hamburger. But here it denotes a burger made with steak trimmings, and it has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, on the evening when we also sampled the short rib sandwich, pork burger, and 14-day aged Kansas City Strip—all highly edible—the truly savory and rich steak burger was the star of the show. As with any of the ground-in-house burgers, you can completely customize your burger with a broad choice of toppings like caramelized onions, cheeses, a fried egg or pickled jalapenos, or dressings like Bacon Island sauce or horseradish aioli. But honestly, that perfect little patty could stand alone with or without a bun and be all that was necessary. The beef knuckle sandwich was tasty but unremarkable. That’s one of the problems with the ever-rising standards of dining out in K.C.—what would have once been considered excellent is becoming the new “expected.” The beef short rib sandwich was everything it suggested—rich, voluptuous, and with depth of flavor, but still “expected.” Another option in my category of “simple satisfying meal” is splitting a steak and a salad or two. Enough said.
Now for my third category, the “dining experience.” Focus on a dry-aged in-house cut-to-order steak, and this is where Anton’s really shines. Everything else on the menu becomes an accompaniment. The only logical “starter” for me in this category is the beef carpaccio, a meltingly tender raw Creekstone Farms filet lightly sprinkled with arugula, fried capers and shavings of cheese. Carnivores could easily consider this a salad. The smoked shrimp cocktail could be another possibility. Everything else listed under “Starters” really falls under my category of “drinks with friends and a snack.” Salads always provide a good counterpoint to a good protein, and Anton’s salads are nicely balanced for just this purpose. When sampling the salads (we tried both the arugula with Manchego, sliced apples, pumpkin seeds and a refreshingly uncloying truffle vinaigrette, and the house mixed greens with celery, pears, goat cheese and tarragon vinaigrette), it occurred to me that these were salads I would prepare at home, nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, but tasty, simple salads. When restaurant food compares to well-prepared home cooking, that’s a pretty good compliment.
Kansas City is a steak town, so if you’re going to offer one, you better do it right, and that’s exactly what Anton’s does. The four cuts (filet, Kansas City strip, rib-eye and bone-in rib-eye) are available at different ages and price ranges, and they’re sold by the ounce. At time of writing, only Creekstone Farms grain-fed beef was available, but local grass-fed beef is scheduled to arrive on the menu (changing the gray print to red) around the end of January. One evening’s special, a 40-something-day aged, smoked rib-eye was, I must admit, one of the best pieces of beef I have ever tasted. Starting with a bone-in rib-eye, my favorite cut of beef (for a steak), aging it for 40-plus days (tenderizing the beef giving it an almost velvety texture and concentrating the flavor of the meat by removing water), hitting it with a little cold smoke, and then gently grilling it to the perfect medium rare, although sounding complicated, left it with the intense but simple flavor of very good beef. In addition to our salads, we selected two of the daily vegetable selections, sautéed mushrooms and roasted young carrots, to accompany our steak. Although lacking in seasoning (something easily corrected with a salt shaker), the sides eased my compunctions about eating my vegetables. Mom would be happy.
Having saved no room for dessert on any of my visits, I was pleased to share a plate of perfectly prepared profiteroles on a visit with a group of friends. Pastry chef Carter Holton did not disappoint. The profiteroles, possibly the most abused dessert of all time, were a thing of beauty. Fresh and lightly crisp, filled with ice cream, glazed with a dark caramel and crunchy pistachio. No fault but calories to be found. Nor should we find fault with Anton’s multiple personalities. Just choose the one you need at that moment and enjoy it.