city fare
August 07, 2009

New digs offer less elbow room, same fine American dining
by Beck Ireland

Claustrophobes beware.

Although Cafe Trio's new home just east of the Plaza may be three times larger than the bistro's previous compact Midtown location, it retains the same intimate atmosphere. With much of the additional space absorbed by a larger kitchen and mezzanine-level event space, the main dining area, despite a combination of banquettes and chairs chosen for flexible seating arrangements, has difficulty accommodating the restaurant's high-spirited weekend crowd. In addition, the bar, esoterically adorned with black-and-white photos of some of the sirens of the silver screen and named the Starlet Lounge, occupies almost the same square footage as the dining room. The result: alleviating congestion at the door while simultaneously forming a bottleneck of would-be diners.

Needless to say, reservations on the weekend are highly recommended, and patience, as well as a thirst for one of the establishment's signature cocktails, is required because seating times occasionally may be pushed back half an hour or more.

Once seated; however, diners are treated to an upscale yet friendly atmosphere. Bronze and scarlet jewel tones, black lacquer, and lots and lots of mirrors create a feeling of opulence both upscale and casual. On Fridays and Saturdays, jazz pianist Alice Jenkins adds to the mood. When she begins to play one of her sets, all ambient noise hushes. Even so, the dim lights and cozy table nooks encourage conversation, whether heart-to-hearts or with your neighboring diners. The latter is true particularly along the stretch of banquette.

The attentive wait staff — kept on board from the restaurant's former incarnation — help diners navigate the extensive wine list and eclectic contemporary American menu. Recently, Café Trio was included in KC Business Magazine's 2009 Top 10 business list for its exemplary customer service performance — and rightly so.

Seafood Lasagna

To the relief of the regulars, a few of the standards from Chef Leon Bahlmann's menu have been carried over to the new address, such as the pesto-brushed and pine nut-encrusted lamb chop ($29), and tilapia topped with pistachios ($24). Variations on surf-or-turf include praline scallops ($26), steak gorgonzola ($28), potato-encrusted salmon ($24), and 20 oz. rib eye ($32). The absolute decadence of the seafood lasagna ($20), shrimp, scallops, and crab in a buttery béchamel sauce and layered with ricotta and fontina, could only be withstood by cleansing the palette with the fresh sautéed spinach and sweet house marinara with which it's served.

The Mac Daddy

The menu boasts of "Kansas City's Best Mac & Cheese," the Mac Daddy ($16), which arrives looking deceptively like an average baked penne pasta dish with bell peppers and cherry tomatoes, but quickly reveals a melts-in-your-mouth stubborn yet creamy coating of fontina, Romano, and Bel Paese. When asked, the waitress couldn't say who actually voted the Mac Daddy as KC's best: the only question of the night she couldn't answer. However, a quick Internet search disclosed it took top honors in the 2005 Pitch "Best Of KC" in the macaroni and cheese category. Although not as heaping as the original two-pound serving that won the distinction, this iteration of the Mac Daddy is generous enough and can be ordered with or without the bacon.

There are a few desserts listed on the menu: the traditional death by chocolate fare and a crème brulee cheesecake, which is sure to disappoint true fans of that dessert with the absence of a brittle, breakable top coating — without which it's more like a plain caramel cheesecake. It's probably wisest to skip dessert and order an after-dinner drink.

Tuscan Pizza

A trip to Café Trio doesn't have to be saved for date night or special occasions. Happy hour is celebrated weeknights from 4 to 6 p.m. with generous bar discounts. And even better deals might be the evening-long half-price wine (bottle and glass) night on Tuesdays and the martini special on Wednesdays. But don't drink on an empty stomach. The menu also offers a variety of appetizers, small plates and cracker crust pizzas. In its hearty, crisp cornmeal crust, the calamari appetizer poses as the cousin of chicken-fried steak. It's served with three dipping sauces: marinara, aioli and, by far the best, coconut curry. It's the perfect nosh accompaniment to a fruity and floral pinot grigio.

Finally, on fair weather nights, up to 30 fortunate guests can take advantage of the outdoor covered deck, the gem in the crown of the new location, which overlooks the Plaza skyline, J.C. Nichols Fountain, and the goings-on in Mill Creek Park (particularly important for regulars missing the excitement of the Midtown location). Just off the deck, the designated smoking section, which accommodates about another 25 patrons, will come as a pleasant surprise to smokers feeling left out by the city's year-old non-smoking ordinance. At the least, it's probably a guaranteed place to sit.

Beck Ireland can be contacted at

Cafe Trio
4558 Main
Kansas City, MO 64111

Mon.-Thurs., 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

(photo courtesy of Cafe Trio)

Ratings: (out of four stars)

FOOD: ***
PRICE: $$$

Key: $-under $10 • $$-$10 to $20 • $$$-over $20


fork, knife, spoon