It’s 11:55 p.m. on a Monday, and most of Kansas City’s restaurants have been put to bed.
With one big exception: The lights are still on at the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange in the Crossroads Arts District, where 32 of the city’s culinary night owls perch at the bar waiting for an after-hours dinner series known as the Crossroads Social Club to get rolling.
The social club is the brainchild of Rieger chef/owner Howard Hanna. He kicked off the first event six months after opening the restaurant in December 2010. He had quickly gained a reputation for serving offal, “pigskin on everything” and “lots of parts,” and Hanna knew his budding clientele might expect him to up the ante with exotic game.
Instead, he cooked an all-vegetarian dinner.
“Nobody saw that coming,” he says with a laugh.
Hanna envisioned the informal gathering as a way to give chefs, artists and musicians in the burgeoning arts neighborhood a place to be creative outside their day jobs. He chose Monday because it’s a slow day at his restaurant, and many other restaurants are closed that day.
After that first dinner, other chef friends quickly volunteered to forgo sleep to either relax and eat or to work as volunteers. The list of featured chefs has included such familiar names as Alex Pope of Local Pig, Dave Crum of Arrowhead Meats and Patrick Ryan of Port Fonda. One month there was a banquet-style fundraiser for Bread KC, a micro-funding organization for the arts. For the August dinner, ceramics artist Ryan Fletcher created special plates to showcase Hanna’s menu.
The club’s freewheeling yet intimate air means the number of reservations per event varies, and the dinners tend to happen when the busy chefs can pull them together, rather than on a rigid monthly schedule. Diners receive an invitation and RSVP via Facebook, although news is also spreading by word of mouth. The four-course August dinner cost $40 cash at the door.
Hanna strives to mix up the guest list.
“We invited people we thought were cool and would appreciate what we were trying to do,” he says. “If it was up to me, 50 percent of the people would be new and 50 percent would have been to a dinner before. I don’t want it to become the same clique.”
After sipping and chatting at the bar, diners are invited to take a seat at two long wooden tables in a private dining room with plate glass windows overlooking a traffic-less Main Street. Familiar faces in the crowd at last month’s dinner included Tony Glamcevski of Green Dirt Farm in Weston; chef/owner Martin Heuser of the new contemporary German Crossroads restaurant Affäre; green coffee buyer Paul Massard and account executive Eli Rami of the Roasterie; and Kim Cooley, a business partner in Rye, Colby and Megan Garrelts’ newest restaurant venture in Leawood.
Many attendees are first-timers: “I live at 147th and Antioch, so I had to fully commit to be here,” says J.P. Gilmore, owner of Vintegrity, a local fine wine distributor.
“I think people are looking for those unique experiences that are only going to happen once,” says Josh Eans, sous chef at the American Restaurant and the featured chef at the as-yet-to-be-scheduled October social club meeting. “I think people are looking for things that are special.”
So far the events have all been at the Rieger because Hanna has a private dining space. Beyond the odd-hour time commitment, the entrees can be challenging. At least one dish at the August dinner — a tempura-battered rabbit’s heart and liver — is not for the faint of heart. “Rabbit hearts are really delicious,” Hanna tells the diners. “They are dipped in tempura and fried so they are crispy on the outside, but should be bloody in the center.”
Just in case his description has stopped anyone’s heart in the room, Hanna quickly adds that a rabbit’s heart is milder than a chicken liver.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but they were delicious,” Glamcevski says.
Attending social club dinners has given Glamcevski, the behind-the-scenes organizer of special-event chef dinners at Green Dirt Farm, a chance to reverse his role and experience the meal as a diner. “It’s really amazing what (chefs) can come up with when they aren’t doing what they do every day for their restaurant,” he says.
Each of Hanna’s courses for the evening is composed on crumpled-looking white porcelain plates made by Fletcher. The artist/designer is a regular of the restaurant and a Crossroads neighbor who has studio space at the Belger Arts Center. For the past few years, Fletcher has been working on a series of plates to showcase tapas for Carmen Cabia when she was at Lill’s on 17th, Celina Tio of Julian and Doug Flicker of Piccolo in Minneapolis.
“(Hanna) wants to be part of the legacy of Midwest cooking, and so I thought of making something completely new,” Fletcher says.
After several conversations with Hanna, Fletcher decided to create a series of plates that mimic the folds and contours of a sheet of paper. “It’s easy to take a circular plate and put a design on it,” says Fletcher, whose portfolio can be viewed atryanfletcherdesign.com
“There’s a lot of really plain dinnerware out there, but not a lot of things that complement the food.”
For greater functionality in the kitchen, Fletcher color-coded the bottom of each style of plate to let the cooks know whether they are plating an appetizer or entrée, and to let the servers and dishwashers know how to stack them.
“It’s a challenge to plate on something curvy,” Hanna tells the diners. “I actually had a dream about it.”
For the first course, Hanna has imagined the plate as a “bento box,” with one compartment featuring shredded, poached chicken, another sliced baby potatoes and the third coleslaw and a hardboiled quail’s egg. The second course is the rabbit heart dipped in tempura batter and served with eggplant, olive aioli, spinach and beets.
The third course is an interpretation of a dish Fletcher ate growing up known as gramma’s pork chop, with cornbread, braised greens and tomatoes. “I think his gramma’s pork chop wouldn’t have fit on the plate,” Hanna jokes.
“This was almost exactly what I ate when I went to my gramma’s,” Fletcher says. “When I told her Howard was going to make this, she was absolutely speechless.”
By the time diners finish the third course, it’s creeping up on 2 a.m.
Behind the bar, Natasha Goellner, owner of the custom cake shop and bakery Natasha’s Mulberry Mott on the Country Club Plaza and in Leawood, is using a small stainless steel countertop contraption to spin tiny puffs of rose-flavored cotton candy. From a mold, she cut slices from a terrine of white- and pink-striped panna cotta and drapes it on an undulating white plate as if it were a sweet slab of bacon. The fuzzy cotton candy ball garnishes the center, while brilliant yellow citrus rays shoot out from the center.
Goellner is not worried about staying up late. She’ll sleep in late or take a nap. “I can’t use this in the store,” she says, hovering over the spinning sugar strands, “so it’s fun to come here and do things I don’t normally get to do.”
Thomas Carlin, a line cook at the Rieger who volunteered his time, looks tired but insists the experience is well worth it: “Anything Howard is doing, I want to do.”