The French classics are updated with a Midwestern spin
Eating out for this column isn’t always as easy or as pleasant as one would think, but sometimes it can be everything you dream it would be. The dining room: inviting and comfortable. The service: warm, concise and unobtrusive. The food: thoughtfully prepared, pleasing to the eye and flavorful. That was exactly my experience at one of the most welcoming, delicious and enjoyable dining experiences I’ve had in recent memory, and it took place downtown, tucked away in the Commerce Bank building arcade. Charisse, the French-inspired American bistro between 10th and 11th Streets on Walnut, is the perfect little neighborhood bistro—and just about everything you could want to write about.
Chef/owner Jason Craine has the recipe to make it happen. In the space’s previous incarnation as Aixois Brasserie, Craine was the executive chef under chef Emanuelle Langlade of Aixois in Brookside, but taking ownership of the business seems to have given Craine the impetus to give some classic French dishes his own restorative Midwestern feel. “Old French, new American” is the descriptor on the menu, and I think it perfectly describes the cuisine of Charisse.
The menu speaks for itself. Charisse provides an invigorating take on classic French cuisine. Steak frites, pâté, and beef bourguignon are all on the menu as expected, but fortunately chef Craine isn’t afraid to freely interpret classic dishes, use good local products, and still keep a feeling of quiet modernity at the same time.
We began our visits with a selection of hors d’oeuvres, the first of which was simply listed as pate (aka pâté), plus a few accompaniments. The definition of pâté in its purest form is simply “a cooked ground mixture of meat and fat,” so basically anything goes. We generally expect some type of rich pork, fat and/or goose, chicken or duck liver. At Charisse the pâté arrived on a wooden platter filled with crispy toasts, delicious housemade pickles, coarse mustard, olives, and pale slices of delicately flavored pâté flecked with the freshness of vegetables and chives. In fact, it was so delicately flavored that we dubbed it “pâté with training wheels,” the flavors being rather light and fresh, without any overwhelming livery quality or pronounced spices. An inquiry with our server resolved our dilemma—it was duck. It was surprisingly free of any gaminess or decadent fattiness—a sort of guilt-free pâté. Equally delicate was the escargot, but in a less successful rendition, soundly executed but perhaps not my favorite in town. After all, snails are simply an excuse to eat garlic butter, and this one wasn’t particularly garlicky or buttery, but it did leave you wanting to try more—a good thing if you want to experience a variety of dishes. The smoked trout was equally subtle, allowing the delightful crunch of fried capers, the tanginess of crème fraiche, crispiness of the crostini, and brightness of the grape tomatoes to come through in a balanced combination. Lovers of mollusks will enjoy Charisse’s offering of the three most popular of classic French mussel preparations: mariniere, saffron cream and Roquefort. All are made with Prince Edward Island mussels. For the curious, PEI mussels are a naturally farmed blue mussel grown in the nutrient-rich waters around Prince Edward Island off the Atlantic coast in Canada. They are self-sustained, meaning they aren’t fed anything (so no funky chemicals or other additives that are given to many farmed seafoods). They are a recommended seafood by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which is not an easy designation to obtain, and they travel reasonably well. We decided to go with the lightest of the three choices, the Mussels Mariniere. Surprisingly fresh and steamed open in a flavorful broth of white wine, shallots, butter and tomatoes, the mussels were served with crusty slices of grilled baguette for sopping up the delicious and briny broth.
The salad section of the menu plays more toward Midwestern tastes, with selections like a toasted beet salad, Caesar salad, and a kale salad. I am beginning to grow weary of kale salads, and I am certain they are only minutes from becoming passé, but the Charisse version has granted the trend a reprieve. Their salad of sturdy but not overwhelming kale is balanced by a more delicate and nutritive dose of quinoa, carrots, radish, almonds, pumpkin seeds and spinach. Like so many of the other dishes on this menu, I found chef Craine’s version to be completely unexpected in its lightness. For those wishing to make a light meal from a salad, there is the option of adding chicken, shrimp or organic salmon.
I often enjoy the appetizer courses more than the entrées. Chefs tend to show their creative side in those dishes, and portion sizes with appetizer plates prevent one from becoming bored by massive servings of proteins and sides. Without a doubt, at Charisse, the entrées are the stars.
There is nothing terribly unexpected here: bouillabaisse, steak frites, filet, lamb rack, trout, and beef bourguignon to name just a few of the dishes one would expect to find on a menu inspired by the cuisine of France. The surprising thing was that none of the entrées we sampled were anything but flawlessly executed. Food conscientiously prepared without appearing to be fussed over, food that is correctly seasoned and fresh, with honest flavors and a respect for quality ingredients—this is the food I enjoy most.
The lightest of our entrées was the golden trout, a pan-seared fillet of rainbow trout over green beans, crimini mushrooms and a sauce with toasted almonds—a pairing of ingredients that presents one of those natural affinities that is much greater than the sum of its parts. That the entire dish was served over a piped puree of smashed potatoes, I choose to overlook. Generally speaking, I hate most things that come piped out of a bag, but the French seem to have a predilection for forcing practically any foodstuff through a pastry bag.
The flank steak frites would please any lover of meat and potatoes. Our rare steak, perfectly seared and blanketed in a light robe of Bearnaise sauce (butter emulsified in egg yolks with white wine vinegar and herbs—if you’ve never experienced this classic combo, go and change that right now) was over a mixture of roasted vegetables, and a small mountain of crisply fried potatoes with a hint of truffle. Next time I’m going to order the steak with peppercorn sauce (my other favorite steak companion).
I can find no fault with the rack of lamb either, and I liked the coarsely mashed potatoes (reminds me of Grandma) and the piquant port sauce studded with cherries, which always play well with the flavors of lamb.
The star of our evening was definitely the beef bourguignon. The beef was full flavored, and meltingly tender and not the least bit stringy, an error I find in many braises executed without consideration for temperature and time. The sweetness of the accompanying parsnips, carrots and mushrooms provided a lovely counterpoint to the braising sauce, the acidity of the red wine mellowed and rich. I don’t know if this robust wintery braise will survive spring and summer menu changes, but if it remains on the menu I’m not going to complain. This dish will become one of those hits that the chef will have to live with as guests are going to ask for this one again and again.
The lunch menu is composed of the greatest hits of the dinner menu plus a selection of sandwiches. The sandwich portion of the lunch menu is a little less French and little more American, and I guarantee anyone from either country could find plenty of favorites. The Croque Monsieur is an absolutely delicious, gender flexible, and very French, sandwich. It begins as a sophisticated grilled cheese, with slices of cured ham and oozing gruyere layered between toasted slices of sourdough bread. It is then gratineed under a layer of velvety béchamel sauce. The optional addition of a fried egg on top transforms it from “Monsieur” to “Madame.” It’s delicious either way. The remaining sandwiches on their menu are classics and are definitely some of my favorites, like the turkey or chicken club (which I’ve heard achieves its deliciously crispy exterior by being sautéed in duck fat), a French dip and a burger on a brioche bun. If you work downtown, that’s at least one reason every day to go out to lunch here.
Dessert is no afterthought here, and it doesn’t venture off into any new culinary territory. But when classics like their silky crème brulee with fresh berries or chocolate pot de crème are executed with textbook perfection, why reinvent the wheel? The profiteroles, however, were exceptional in two ways. Profiteroles are either great or greatly disappointing. The simplicity inherent in a dish of choux pastry (pâté à choux—the pastry responsible for such classic desserts as éclairs and St. Honoré cake) and ice cream allows no room for error. Every flaw is exposed to the world. But chef Craine’s little puffs filled with ice cream from Poppy’s (in Lee’s Summit) were still slightly crispy with the slight bit of chew outside. Inside, the vanilla and chocolate-hazelnut ice creams were served at that perfect temperature between hard and melting all over the plate, and the generous drizzle of chocolate sauce and toasted almond slivers on top added depth of flavor and textural contrast. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In addition to being a smart man with a great palate and skills in the kitchen, Craine also knows his way around a bottle of wine. On one of our visits they were out of a bottle we had ordered, and he suggested a delicious replacement that perfectly complemented our food. And wine—did I mention that Wednesday is buy one bottle get a second of equal value? It’s a great deal and an opportunity to try new things.
From my perspective as a lingering late lunch diner, a steady stream of people flowed into the bar at happy hour looking for a little refreshment and a chance to unwind after a long day. Good for them. But unless you’re one of those lucky enough to work in the neighborhood, you’ll have to make a trip downtown to experience this French-inspired Kansas City gem.
In case you were wondering, Charisse is the name of the chef’s wife. Like I said—he, like his food, is smart.
For hours and more information, visit charissekc.com
Happy Hour is from 4-6 pm, Monday through Friday, and all night at the bar.
Jason and Charisse Craine are members of the Kansas City Originals.