When Ted Habiger opened Room 39 in 2004, he had no idea how to classify the Kansas City restaurant.
“We struggled with what to call our food forever because there wasn’t a term for it,” Habiger says. “Actually, there was — but we didn’t know the term ‘farm-to-table food.’ ”
Room 39 specializes in American dishes made with fresh, locally grown ingredients. The menu changes daily and is dramatically different depending on the season. So you won’t find Brussels sprouts on the menu in the spring or asparagus in the fall.
Over the past decade, that seasonal approach to cooking and eating has grown in popularity — and so has Room 39. In August 2007, Habiger added a second location in Leawood’s Mission Farms development, which was new at the time.
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Habiger oversees the menus at both restaurants, but the Leawood Room 39 has its own chef, Spencer Wohlford, who drafts new dishes daily based on deliveries from farms such as Wood Mood Gardens in Higginsville, Mo. and Bad Seed Farm in Kansas City.
Some menu items, such as the grilled pork chop and goat cheese gnudi, a house-made gnocchi, are almost always available in one form or another. Others are served one day, then gone the next, which makes each dining experience unique.
When I went to Room 39’s Leawood restaurant on a Saturday evening in October, entrees included a Kansas City strip steak ($34) with creamed greens, crispy potatoes, roasted baby carrots and shishito peppers, Campo Lindo Farms chicken ($26) and a cast iron skillet-seared cauliflower steak ($18) over harissa-seasoned hominy with mustard greens, okra, mango and charred apple chutney.
After we settled into a cozy wooden booth by the bar, my husband ordered the chicken, a half of a bird with crisp golden skin on a bed of braised root vegetables and bright green beans. After finding out that bartender James Sanders had just debuted his new fall/winter drink menu, I decided I was in a cocktail-and-appetizers kind of mood, so I ordered the charcuterie plate ($18) and The Brothers, Annually ($13), an autumnal drink that mixes Dewar’s Blended Scotch Whisky with Applejack, cinnamon, lemon, egg whites and Angostura bitters.
The drink arrived in a coupe glass decorated with an “apple flag” — a pinwheel made with crisp apple slices. It was strong, not too sweet and reminded me of homemade apple pie.
The charcuterie board was dazzling to look at. Picture a white platter loaded with slices of house-cured meats such as lardo, pork loin, bacon and duck speck, which Habiger describes as “kind of like duck bacon.” The flavorful meats were accompanied by chicken liver mousse, various mustards and jams, pickles and crostini.
By the time my husband’s entree arrived, we were ready to split a second cocktail. I couldn’t pass up the Obligatory Pumpkin Cocktail ($14) because I’m one of those people with a thing for pumpkin-flavored anything. After a few sips of the drink, which blends Old Tom gin with pumpkin butter and lemon, my husband and I agreed it was one of the best we’d had in recent memory.
Room 39 is also known for its wine list. Habiger’s favorites come from the Burgundy region of France and the Piedmont region of northern Italy, but he also stocks plenty of California cabernets.
Room 39 regulars are big on the goat cheese beignets ($9), decadent doughnuts served in a pool of caramel sauce with whipped cream. Another customer favorite is the tall, creamy slices of quiche ($9) served at breakfast and brunch. The fillings change daily but always include a vegetarian and a “meat lover’s” option, such as ham, cheddar and scallions.
Habiger says the quiche recipe was developed by former Room 39 chef Howard Hanna, who now owns The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Ça Va, the champagne bar in Westport. Other Room 39 alums include Patrick Ryan of Port Fonda and Katharine Marsh, a chef at The Spotted Pig in New York City.
Over the summer, Room 39’s Leawood location got a makeover that gave it more charm and character. Habiger worked with John O’Brien of Hammer Out Design to add a window between the kitchen and dining room, a 15-foot-wide mirror on the west wall and new lighting with a warmer glow.
They also updated the bar with 120-year-old reclaimed wood and a zinc bar top, which Habier says “is popular in brasseries in Paris.”
Habiger says both Room 39 locations “have definitely developed different personalities.”
And, just like the ingredients on the menu, the restaurants are always in season.
Location: 10561 Mission Road in Leawood
Hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Happy hour: Room 39 recently added happy hour from 5-6 p.m. Monday-Friday. The menu features half-price appetizers, beer and wine by the glass.
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t miss: The charcuterie plate ($18), breakfast quiche ($9), the grilled pork chop ($30) and, for dessert, goat cheese beignets ($9). And if you’re into cocktails, you have to try the Obligatory Pumpkin Cocktail ($14), a strong sipper made with Old Tom gin, pumpkin butter and lemon.
Vegetarian: Try a vegetarian pasta dish such as Butternut Squash and Ricotta Tortellini ($14) with sage brown butter and braised fall vegetables.