Providence: 1) The foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth or, 2) the codename given President Eisenhower by the Secret Service. Based on the fact that this New American Kitchen is in the lower level of the Hotel President, I’m going with number two. (Guests staying upstairs at the high-end Hilton property might think that a benevolent force is taking care of them as well.) Either way, between The Reserve at the Ambassador Hotel a few blocks away and this new addition to the historic Hotel President, the bar has just been raised for hotel dining in Kansas City.
To give you a little background: The Hotel President was constructed during the same boom that brought Kansas City many of its great downtown structures, including the nearby Mainstreet Theater, Midland Theatre, and Kansas City Power and Light Building. The hotel was completed in 1926, and in 1928, it served as the headquarters for the Republican National Convention, which nominated Herbert Hoover for president, the first of many presidential associations. The hotel’s Drum Room Lounge attracted entertainers from across the country, including Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Patsy Cline and Benny Goodman. The hotel closed its doors in 1980, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and eventually underwent a massive restoration, reopening in 2005 as the Hilton President Kansas City. And now, after yet another transformation in the lower levels, it houses Providence New American Kitchen, a restaurant befitting the hotel’s grand yet comforting demeanor.
You can enter the restaurant through either the lush hotel lobby or the Art Deco corner entrance to the Drum Room Lounge. Descending a flight of stairs to Providence, you are greeted by a warm, specifically American feel. The room is decorated with reclaimed barn wood and windows from our locale (I know, it’s practically a decorating cliché in our renewable green society—but it really works) and stained-glass light fixtures alluding to our Midwestern Arts and Crafts heritage. Tasteful service stations with seasonal floral displays anchor the dining room.
I love going to a restaurant without any preconceived notions, and that was exactly my state of mind on our first visit, approximately two weeks after Providence New American Kitchen opened. We began with two of their signature handcrafted cocktails inspired by presidential tastes. Ford’s Bramble Tonic (President Ford favored a gin and tonic) is a refreshing mix of Pinckney Bend Gin (distilled in New Haven, Missouri), lemon juice, housemade tonic and fresh blackberries. More of a summer drink, I was fantasizing sipping one of these by the pool, trashy summer novel in hand. But it was delicious and beautifully balanced. The second drink, equally light and refreshing, was a cocktail of sparkling wine mixed with lime juice and a fruit-infused vodka shrub (shrubs: vinegar-based syrups used to add flavor and complexity to cocktails that are one of the darlings of the moment for mixologists). Named “Sassy’s Champagne Cocktail,” for “Sassy” Sarah Vaughan, the great African-American jazz singer who performed for a number of presidents, you could drink one of these and still be able to run a country.
(A touching presidential Sarah Vaughan side note: Miss Vaughan performed for a number of presidents starting in the mid-60s. After her performance at the White House for President Johnson in 1964, she was found crying in her dressing room. When asked if she was all right, she responded, “Twenty years ago when I first came to Washington, I couldn’t even get a hotel room, and tonight I sang for the President of the United States in the White House—and then he asked me to dance with him.”)
Two other president-inspired cocktails remain for future visits, the ”Truman-hattan” (Truman’s favorite drink was Old Grand-Dad bourbon on the rocks), and ”Teddy’s Last Drop” a coffee-infused drink with Benedictine and bourbon referring to Maxwell House Coffee’s slogan which was attributed to Teddy Roosevelt.
On our second visit, I was reminded of an important rule of professional dining—make a reservation. The evening of a performance by a major celebrity at the Sprint Center is probably not the best time to show up at a restaurant in the Power & Light District without a reservation. Fortunately, we bumped into friends with a bar table who were going to said performance and were able to entertain us while we waited for our own table.
The kitchen is under the direction of executive chef Eric Carter, previously the head chef for the Drum Room Lounge. Childhood experiences cooking with grandparents and working in the family garden have obviously informed his palate. Carter’s flavors and the dining room at Providence are a good match, because a room that feels this Midwestern and American could only serve food reflecting our region. Of the appetizers that we tried, I definitely had my favorites. The bison carpaccio is a great way to begin your Midwestern dining experience. I’ll ignore the Italian word and just call it raw, shaved bison to keep those foreign influences away. Sliced paper-thin, the bison has a distinct flavor that I don’t have a flavor reference for. It’s like beef, a little grassy, more gamey, but not offensively so like some wild game can be. The garnishes of spicy wild arugula and aioli add appropriate layers of freshness and richness to the austere main ingredient. My other favorite was the loaded potato pierogi. A gift of Eastern European immigrants to the early-American Midwest, the pierogi is like an exceptionally sturdy ravioli, usually stuffed with potato and various other ingredients. It is first boiled and then baked or fried. At Providence, they treat it like the classic baked potato with accompaniments of scallions, sour cream and crispy thin shards of bacon.
The chef makes good use of our local Boulevard beers in a number of dishes like the Bully Porter-braised short ribs and the Boulevard battered shrimp. The short ribs were as short ribs should be—rich and comforting—with the beer braise adding a subtle complexity. Served with grits from Anson Mills (the source for great grains, especially corn) and roasted vegetables, this dish would satisfy both a diner looking for something simple like a good pot roast or someone looking for something more complicated that would pair beautifully with a good wine (or beer!). I loved the concept and execution of the shrimp dish. The beer-battered shrimp were crunchy and moist, the salt and vinegar fries well made, and the celery slaw light, crisp and refreshing. I wasn’t crazy about the wild Gulf shrimp, but then I frequently find Gulf shrimp have an iodine flavor that I simply don’t like. Just a matter of personal taste.
Any respectable restaurant featuring Heartland fare should have a great burger, and the Kobe-style burger (Wagyu beef ground in-house as it should be) with roasted garlic mayo, Maytag Blue cheese, some greens and a little pickled onion was delicious enough that it needs to be mentioned. I don’t know what else to say about it. The ingredients all speak for themselves. Not a single part of the burger was less than perfect. In the same vein of simple, delicious, and straight off the farm is the pan-roasted Campo Lindo Farm chicken. Most diners prefer a chicken breast, but I prefer the dark meat, such as legs and thighs. Chef Carter used a technique that makes everyone happy. He uses an “airline breast,” a chicken breast removed from the breastbone that still has the wing joint attached. To me, the airline breast seems to stay moister when cooked, makes for a nice presentation, and when used on the happiest chickens from the happiest farmers I know up in Lathrop, Missouri, makes for a very satisfying, reminds-me-of-grandma eating experience. Placed on a nest of nutty autumn farro, a grain similar to barley that soaks up the pan juices beautifully, this could be one of the hardest chicken dishes in K.C. to beat.
I would have loved to try the Vintage Farms “Providence Cut” fillet (the center of the rib eye, protected by its fat when cooked), but on our extremely busy second visit it was already sold out. Maybe next time.
I always like to try a vegetarian dish when preparing a review. It makes me feel better about myself, justified in some of the extreme eating I seem to do with remarkable frequency. I went for the very tasty roasted vegetable tamale. The steamed tamale was stuffed with roasted vegetables and served over a bed of broccolini. My favorite part of the dish was the accompanying tangy tomatillo sauce. The dish brings up several points. The first is that there are a few dishes, like this one, or the Ahi Tuna Tacos and the Sashimi Tuna Salad also on the menu, that don’t seem to fit the restaurant concept. I do understand that restaurants, especially those catering to hotels, need to provide what customers look for or are comfortable with, but I find it tends to dilute the power of the concept. I’m old-fashioned that way. The second thing about the tamale and its sauce that grabbed my attention was how well it went with our wine. On the first visit we drank the San Huberto chardonnay from Argentina. I love chardonnays when they keep them away from oak. The wine was clean with light hints of fruit that make it very food friendly. And it was a great value.
Fortunately for you, we saved room for dessert. A pastry chef in a former life, I am very particular when it comes to dessert. Frequently, I will have a nice after-dinner drink to avoid a potential disappointment. Many chefs tend to think of desserts as just some sweet stuff at the end of a meal that diners have been trained to order. At Providence, this is obviously not the case. What chef Carter realizes is that dessert is the last impression the guest has, and if it is a good one, it will keep the guests coming back for more.
We tried three of the five desserts. The dessert menu at Providence reads like a formula: something chocolate (let me guess, a molten chocolate cake), carrot cake (again, no surprises), tiramisu parfait (American?), Providence apple pie (have to have an apple dessert), and ricotta doughnuts (doughnuts are hot right now).
However, cynicism aside, the execution was a truly pleasant surprise. The carrot cake was moist and carroty, not too sweet, topped with mascarpone frosting and candied carrot confetti. It was accompanied by a smear of autumn spiced chai tea pudding and orange sorbet that made for a lovely combination of flavors and textures. The Providence apple pie was everything it promised, a crispy crust filled with pleasingly spiced apples (that still tasted like apples), with vanilla bean ice cream. A tried-and-true combination that when executed well, as it was here, is hard to beat. The molten chocolate cake was clothed in the trappings of “s’mores flavors,” and the whimsically presented dessert didn’t disappoint. With warm chocolate cake, graham cracker flavored ice cream, some crunch provided by hazelnut brittle and the gooey bruléed marshmallow, all we needed was a campfire under the endless stars of the Great Plains to make the evening complete. On second thought, we didn’t even need that. Seems Providence was with us all along.