EBT keeps its classics but makes room for contemporary dishes

The elegant institution keeps its classics but makes room for contemporary dishes too.

07/15/2012 12:09 AM

05/16/2014 6:55 PM

We are sipping a round ordered off of EBT’s new cocktail menu when strains from the vocalist at the lounge piano catch me off guard. Instead of the smooth jazz standard I expect, she is singing the lyrics to Gotye’s smash summer hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.”

At the ripe age of 33, EBT is the elegant, fairy godmother restaurant that gets reverent nods in reviews for its classic cuisine and the dining room’s salvaged architectural features, including Moorish brick columns and old-fashioned elevator cages from the legendary Emery, Bird and Thayer department store.

But like a wave of the wand, EBT tends to fade quickly from memory. Clearly its location off the beaten path in a UMB building at State Line Road and Interstate 435 does not help. And luring the next generation of diners may be a tall order. As Angela, a bright, bohemian college graduate in her 20s who works to resettle refugees commented: “EBT? What an unfortunate name!”

(These days EBT stands for electronic benefits transfer, and, sadly, the name has been a source of confusion for at least one diner who expected to pay for the meal with food stamps.)

For the 40-plus crowd, EBT has had a reputation as a dependable location to broker a business deal or celebrate an anniversary amid candlelight and roses.

But Adam Horner, the restaurant’s 29-year-old general manager, is eager to get the word out that things are a bit less stuffy. After all, when the restaurant opened, waiters wore tuxes. “We still do the classics, but we’re trying to spice things up,” Horner tells us while on rounds of the dining room one Saturday night.

Horner, who previously worked at several PB&J restaurants and Brio on the Country Club Plaza, eagerly touts the restaurant’s newly updated cocktail list, which is incorporating more fresh-squeezed juices, infusions and house-made syrups.

Our sampling includes a mint julep (refreshing but perhaps a bit too sweet), a cucumber and lemonade Pimm’s “New” Cup (also on the sweet side), a hearty Old Fashioned (elegantly garnished with a plump blackberry and fresh peach “flag” instead of orange slice and cherry) and a Peugeot (better known as a Sidecar) that, despite the sugared rim, is quite delicious.

Back in the kitchen, chef Tate Roberts has been updating the menu, which offers separate sections devoted to contemporary and classic entrees. As you might imagine, the contemporary choices include more pan-roasted and grilled options, while the classics involve beurre blanc and cream sauces.

The effort to cater to the split personality of EBT starts with appetizers: Would you choose warm brie wrapped in puff pastry or gluten-free ricotta flatbread? Polynesian beef and onion skewers or a cheese trio?

When we order the Caesar salad for two, it is prepared tableside, with the subtle sort of flourish few restaurants do anymore. Our young server places Dijon mustard at the bottom of the bowl and, with a fork, deftly works in garlic, anchovies, a coddled egg yolk, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, adding a dash of Tabasco — “to add a bit of life.” The show costs a bit more than ordering a single Caesar, but it’s well worth it.

Yes, retro has its place. If I had to pick a single reason to recommend EBT, it would be the refined service. It’s a pleasure to have servers who are competent, never rushed and in the background, rather than the extremes of hovering or simply slacking off, waiting for their next smoke break.

But service might not impress a younger generation, so it’s worth mentioning this is the first fine dining restaurant in Kansas City to work toward Green Restaurant Association certification under the guidance of Johnson County Community College.

Overall, the contemporary entrees are more enticing than the classic. The arugula salad certainly has a fresh, modern feel, with slices of apples and Asian pears, strawberries precisely arranged next to a pile of pumpernickel croutons and finished with a chive vinaigrette.

The EBT version of the Caprese salad included layers of tomato and fresh sliced mozzarella rising from a Parmesan cheese cup and garnished with grilled endive. However, the cup was difficult to eat, so Roberts has changed the presentation slightly to use a more chewable and less overpowering cracker dough.

According to the menu notes, the pan-roasted Alaskan halibut a la Shanel is named for Tate’s sister. Shanel has good taste, and her brother can execute. A succulent seared fillet sits atop sautéed leeks, baby spinach and buttery Yukon potatoes, all in a fragrant clam broth and, for presentation, surrounded by a ring of open clam shells. There is nothing haphazard or home-style about the plating.

Dan, a weight-watching friend, volunteers to try the grilled vegetable Napoleon, and he is more than satisfied with the portabellas and red bell peppers arranged over a bed of crimson lentils and organic wild rice. The lentils have a creamy, risotto-like quality that is quite tasty, and the addition of roasted asparagus is appealing as well as seasonal.

At $33, the classic peppercorn beef tenderloin medallions is one of the priciest entrees. Two tender 4-ounce fillets are grilled, napped with a peppercorn cream sauce and served with mashed potatoes and an updated side of green beans amandine. Sadly, despite the lightened approach, there is really nothing special about these beans.

The meal our first night ends with another show: bananas Foster for two, a traditional dessert of brown sugar and bananas flambéed with rum at the table. There’s not much you can do wrong with this dish, but again the show is fun and leads to an interesting conversation about singed eyebrows. My friends and I are thrilled with a pampered, if pricey, night to remember.

On my second visit I go for a younger demographic, inviting Angela, who has never dined at EBT — or so she thought — and my teenage daughter. We nestle into a cozy booth on a weeknight for a girls night out and order the duck from the contemporary side and the Parmesan-crusted chicken with artichoke hearts, as well as the sautéed jumbo shrimp and diver’s scallops with beurre blanc, from the classic menu. Green beans and mashed potatoes accompany the classics, but the duck has a delicious sweet potato hash. Angela declares she could eat that all day.

Asked her overall impression of the restaurant, she seems tentative. “Well, they’re certainly not pushing any boundaries, but I would take my aunt or grandparents here for a nice dinner.”

The next morning I receive a follow-up email: “Oh and p.s. I guess I had been there before — my parents celebrated there when they found out they were pregnant. Funny!”

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