It was inevitable, I suppose. As soon as the owner of the Raphael Hotel — the Salina, Kansas-based Lighthouse Properties — hired chef Charles d'Ablaing away from the Webster House last spring, patrons of the restaurant began assuming that Charles was the Chaz of the restaurant's name.
It's an easy thing to figure because d'Ablaing walks through the dining room in his starched white chef's jacket, monogrammed with both his name and the restaurant's, looking confident enough to front his own namesake restaurant. The three-year-old Chaz dining room, which replaced the decades-older Raphael Restaurant, was actually named for Lighthouse's Charlie Walker. But d'Ablaing is the Chaz who counts — the public face and buzz-generating talent of this much improved dining room.
D'Ablaing's profile rose after his culinary talents gave the Webster House — dismissed as a 0x000Aladies-who-lunch venue in its early days — some serious cachet as a first-class dining experience. With the Webster now the restaurant closest to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the place has generated more media attention than ever this past year. Some of d'Ablaing's contemporaries in the hospitality industry thought he was crazy to jump from a very public setting to take over a quiet, intimate space on the lower level of the Raphael Hotel.
The Raphael's dining room has maintained a reputation for excellent continental cuisine, but time had left the place behind. At some point, a friend of mine took to calling the seriously dated space "the Regal Beagle," after the cardboard-paneled pub on the old sitcom Three's Company. It wasn't that bad, but the oddly designed space was never ideal for serving food. In fact, it was originally a beauty salon in the days when 325 Ward Parkway was an apartment building. The kitchen is still ridiculously small.
But d'Ablaing is happy to be here and is preparing to launch his autumn menus, his second set since taking over the kitchen in March. The new dishes, which debut next week, fit neatly into his current repertoire, and d'Ablaing hasn't tinkered with the dishes that proved to be immediate hits. His memorably succulent braised-beef short ribs (possibly the finest in Kansas City) and the prime strip steak remain as he originally envisioned them. So does the chicken breast stuffed with creamy Boursin cheese.
He's determined not to lose any of this restaurant's regulars — who tend to be well-heeled, over 40, well traveled and lovers of good wines — but he clearly means to inject some adventure into the relationship while attracting curious newcomers. He expected that his signature starters, such as braised shrimp and grits and a fine plate of fried green tomatoes (his own recipes, which he first introduced at Webster House), would be popular, and so they have been. But the Chaz crowd hasn't fully embraced his veal cheeks yet, and he's not giving up.
"I think diners believe they're going to be fatty," d'Ablaing says. The version available until last week, slow-braised until the meat was gorgeously tender and then swathed in a dark and satiny demi-glace, was outrageously delicious. But to encourage patrons to even sample the meat, d'Ablaing has begun offering the cheek on brioche buns as a sophisticated slider, with a slice of Emmentaler cheese. No one turns down a slider these days, after all.
The night I swooned over those astounding short ribs, I was dining with my friend Carol Ann, who suddenly became very selfish about sharing her bowl of maize-colored fennel-and-saffron bisque. After taking the single sip she permitted me (which included one tiny fried shrimp), I realized that this insanely rich concoction had given me all I required in a single spoonful. Any more than that would have been a venial sin.
Sin made Carol Ann toy with the idea of ordering d'Ablaing's vaguely Asian preparation of duck breast (with smoked cherries, mango mignonette and bamboo rice), but it's going off the fall menu, so she stuck with the dish that has become, over the last two decades, the best-known menu item here: lamb chops. "You can't ever take lamb off the menu," d'Ablaing says. "It's one of our best-selling dishes and something that this restaurant has built a reputation on."