It's not forbidden anymore, either. The tiny, tart-tasting currant red, black or white became fructus non grata in the United States in 1911 when Congress banned commercial cultivation of the fruit. A plant disease called pine blister rust was jumping from imported white-pine seedlings to black-currant bushes, and timber barons feared the contagious disease would devastate America's pine forests. All currant plants became suspect, and farmers were prohibited from growing them for nearly a century.
New York currant grower Greg Quinn led the charge to overturn that state's archaic ban in 2003; the law had outlasted scientific evidence that currants were still a threat to pine trees. Now Quinn ships currant plants (and bottles of black-currant nectar) all over the United States. "After the ban, currants sort of fell off the radar," Quinn says. "But they're wonderful in cooking. The tart astringency of the berries brings out the flavors of strong meats like game, lamb or duck."
The currant never fell out of favor in France, where it's used in liqueurs, preserves and sauces. The beloved cassis is one of French-born restaurateur Patrick Quillec's favorite fruits and the inspiration for Cassis, a 65-seat bistro he opened two months ago in Leawood's Town Center Plaza. Quillec says he's back to operating smaller venues, after opening and closing several large restaurants over the past few year, including the ill-fated, 145-seat Café Paris (later renamed Hannah Bistro) at 105th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park.
Like his first boîte, the original 67-seat Hannah Bistro in midtown, the cozy Cassis is a stylish combination of the casual and the elegant: uncloaked tables, flickering votive candles, comfortable banquettes and attentive service. The menu is more adventurous (and expensive) than the bistro fare at the old Hannah, where signature dishes included steamed mussels, pommes frites and pistachio-crusted salmon. That may be thanks to the influence of the restaurant's bright young chef de cuisine, Phillip Quillec, Patrick's 23-year-old son.
"We were ready to do something different," the elder Quillec says. "So we created this new menu together."
The whole operation is a family affair. Patrick retains the title of executive chef. His wife, Joanne, manages the dining room, assisted by longtime Quillec friend Lisa Burgess, who works as both general manager and sommelier.
Diners who remember this venue in its previous incarnation as an Italian restaurant called La Dolce Vita will be stunned by the tasteful changes that Quillec has made to the space (taking some design advice from Kim Weinberger, a partner in the venture). Ruby-red paint coats what was an ugly mural; that wall is now the same color as Bar le Duc, the world's most expensive red-currant jam. The tile floors are now carpeted, and there's a long, dimly lighted bar with a glass-topped counter. When I walked in for the first time with friends Ned and Bob, they couldn't believe it was the same venue.
"It's very chic and sophisticated," Ned noted. "But why does it have to be in Johnson County?"
I wish I had a euro for every time I've heard that from some midtown snob, myself included. But Cassis is a perfect fit for this suburban space, which has a pleasant outdoor patio. (Unfortunately, it overlooks a parking lot instead of a Parisian boulevard. You can't have everything.) The room is lovely, and so are a couple of the servers, who definitely have that appel de sexe.
The food has sex appeal, too, starting with a steamy, spicy cup of cappuccino soup. The soups change frequently, but they're always topped by a foamy steamed froth of milk and crème fraiche, flavored with some fresh herb to complement the potage. The night of my first visit, I sipped sumptuously on a roasted-red-pepper bisque adorned with a fluffy cap of mint-flecked foam. Ned raved over a starter called Farmer's Egg: a long porcelain dish with a warm egg-custard flan, baked with blue crab and corn and sided by a small scoop of cold wild-salmon rillettes. Bob, meanwhile, couldn't decide what fascinated him more: the jumble of white endive, slivers of tart golden apple and crunchy jicama called Salad Blanche or the chilled decanter of infused water. "It's the most unusual water I've ever tasted," he said, making a note that he wanted to try the Cassis method of steeping hot water with slices of cucumber and lemon overnight, then serving it ice-cold.
Ned preferred a lusty cabernet, knowing it would complement his dinner order: La Belle Duck Roulade. Both the wine and the duck were fine choices. The slices of pale-pink duck breast were arranged like can-can dancers around a mound of intensely flavored chilled cassoulet made with white beans, leeks and pancetta. Rather than overpowering either, a pool of sweet, subtle black-currant sauce was a soothing accent to the rich meat and beans.
Bob's roast beef tenderloin was the costliest dish on the menu, but it was so superbly tender and delicious that we couldn't quibble. The moist hunk of meat dripped with a fragrant rosemary au jus and came with a ragout of pearl onions and mushrooms.
I had decided to be daring and ordered a dish that sounded vaguely vegetarian: a bowl of handmade purple-potato gnocchi in a hearty porcini mushroom sauce. The fat little dumplings were more orchid than purple, and the sauce, thick with caramelized onion and wild asparagus, was so robustly flavored that I later asked Quillec if it could be considered vegan-friendly. "Oh, no," he said with a laugh. "I use veal stock in the sauce."
Desserts were extraordinary, too: a trio of satiny scoops of mousse made with dark, white and milk chocolate, and a wonderfully rustic version of crème brûlée made with apples sautéed in brown sugar and a splash of rum. Ned settled for an after-dinner glass of grappa. "I'd eat here every night if it weren't so far away," he said.
Paris is far away. But Leawood is an easy commute, so the next night, a friend and I returned to share a few elegant appetizers, including a delicately seasoned rabbit sausage and a plate of "carpaccio" made with fat purple beets that had been poached, roasted in olive oil, thinly sliced and drenched in truffle oil. Another starter looked too pretty to eat, but that didn't stop us from dismantling the three tiny, skinless tomatoes, their hollow centers filled with Boursin cheese and organic basil pesto.
Too full to contemplate ordering full dinners, we decided to split the roasted organic chicken breast. Perhaps the restaurant's most simple entrée, the plump breast was modestly splashed with lemon-thyme au jus and served with buttered tagliatelle.
I wish all sweet endings could be like falling into Phillip Quillec's Cassis Cloud. This airy, fluffy pedestal of ivory-colored, champagne-flavored mousse is what a cloud should taste like, topped with a dark wine-colored compote made with succulent black currants.
Thank God it wasn't illegal.