I love the word brasserie. It sounds brassy, upbeat, cheery — particularly when it's spoken by an actual native of France, like chef Emmanuel Langlade. A co-owner of Brookside's Aixois Bistro, he reminded me recently that brasserie translates as brewery. Unlike a bistro (another word I like), a restaurant calling itself a brasserie traditionally serves beer.
And there's beer at Emmanuel and Megan Langlade's three-month-old Aixois Brasserie. "We have Bud Light, Stella Artois, Kronenberg 1664, Boulevard Wheat, and Tank Seven on tap, and eight bottled beers," Emmanuel Langlade says. That's more beer, he points out, than can be had at the Brookside Bistro.
I'll admit that I'm one of the people who wondered whether the Langlades had drunk too much of their own beer when they decided to open an outpost downtown. Their new space is a former pizza joint inside the Commerce Bank arcade, at 10th Street and Walnut, a spot that hasn't been the most viable for restaurants. The last time a horde of hungry patrons prowled this stretch of Walnut, there was a Myron Green Cafeteria in the 1100 block — and Richard Nixon hadn't yet been elected president.
But someone has to be the pioneer. People called restaurateur Steve Cole crazy for opening an elegant restaurant at 1815 West 39th Street, back in the 1980s. The conventional wisdom was that people who ate on the Plaza would not go to 39th Street. Well, Café Allegro became the anchor of an area we now call "Restaurant Row," a thriving dining district, and Cole was successful there for many years.
The Langlades have heard plenty of similar arguments from naysayers. Downtown Kansas City, particularly north of the Power & Light District, is a long way from Brookside, not just in miles but in style. "I'd be afraid to get out of my car there," a friend complained to me. "There are junkies in the park at 12th and Walnut. I saw someone fall down there when I was driving by."
Maybe my friend saw a businessman trip over a pigeon. I've eaten at Aixois Brasserie four times now — day and night — and I've never even seen anyone in that pocket-sized park (which is two blocks away from the restaurant).
The first time I tripped into the sunny, L-shaped dining room, I was alone for lunch. The service was great, the mood congenial and the food delicious. Dennis Collins, a veteran server from the original Aixois, is one of the managers here. He told me that he was eager to move downtown. "There's a great energy here now," he said. "Our lunch business is great."
Breakfast business, however, was not. The Brasserie threw its all into a
petit dejeuner as lovely as anything you'd find on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris. There was a bubbly, cheese-topped croque monsieur (still on the lunch menu), as well as quiches, omelets and brioche French toast. But after two months of petit business, Emmanuel Langlade sent mornings to the guillotine.
There's no opting out of dinner, though, and that troubles me because evening business at the downtown Aixois hasn't taken hold yet. Of course, many people still don't know that Aixois has raised the tricolor in this once-forlorn neighborhood. To those people, and to the holdouts and skeptics, I'll say this: I'm a longtime fan of the Brookside restaurant, but I honestly prefer the downtown space for dinner. The room is sleeker, more intimate and less chaotic, and at least one of the evening servers, Sean McGuire, is that rare breed of waiter who is both theatrical and unobtrusive. At the end of one meal I ate here, I didn't know if I should tip him or give him a standing ovation.
Langlade is a little concerned himself about the dinner business. "It's been very challenging," he says. "Evenings are up and down. One night we'll do better than Brookside, and the next night will be very slow."
It helps when there's an event at the Sprint Center or the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. But the Langlades have built a solid, steady clientele in Brookside, and now they need the same thing to happen on Walnut. There must be enough loft dwellers and businesspeople and hotel guests to fill the place — if there's time enough for awareness to spread.
The Brasserie's dinner menu isn't dramatically different from the Brookside version. All of Emmanuel Langlade's signature dishes are here: the tender and lemony chicken paillard; steak frites, a succulent, modestly priced, grilled hanger steak that's sliced and sided with wonderful crisp fries, and a choice of silky béarnaise or plucky peppercorn sauce (I greedily asked for both of them); and the comforting oven-roasted chicken, poulet rôti. The only new addition to the menu that I've noticed is a walnut-crusted roasted salmon, soubise salmon rôti, if one likes salmon. I do not like salmon, though, and even if I did, I'd still vote for Langlade's ruby trout. He gives that fish the most simple treatment, pan searing it with a discreet almond sauce, and the result is consistently delicious.
One night a friend and I impulsively ordered the terrine du jour, imagining a dainty plate with a dollop of liver pâté and its various traditional accompaniments. And for $8, what else would you get? But you can never discount Emmanuel Langlade's showmanship. He's quiet to the point of shyness outside the kitchen, but a dish like this does plenty of talking. The terrine was delivered on a long wooden plank, arranged like a Miró painting, taking as its focal point the timbale of pink, rustic pâté: on this occasion, pork belly and chicken liver seasoned with rosemary, juniper and thyme. That was surrounded by slices of house-made cucumber pickles, pale-pink pickled onions, a chorus line of almost microscopic cornichons, and paper-thin slices of toasted bread. It was an eloquent starter and more filling than its price suggested. Throw in a bowl of chopped mushrooms and sautéed escargot in a buttery garlic sauce — more garlic, please — and another basket of the freshly baked bread, and you could stop right there.
I didn't, of course, because I was ravenous for steak. Downtown Kansas City has lost, over the years, the Hereford House, Benton's and the weirdly retro venue formerly known as the Walt Bodine Steakhouse, so I'm always grateful to find another spot — in this case, a Gallic beer hall — serving up a decent slab of beef. (The steak frites is also the best deal on the menu, though the filet mignon is good enough to set aside cost.)
Other than the four meatless salads, those with vegetarian leanings have few options. There's quiche, but the meat-free versions tend to sell out at lunch. But Langlade says he's revising the current dinner menu to add at least one vegetarian-friendly entrée. "I've already added a grilled vegetable sandwich with goat cheese to the lunch menu," he told me last week.
The familiar Brookside Aixois desserts, including crème brûlée and ice-cream-filled profiteroles, are here, and Langlade has added something new: a luscious chocolate pot de crème, crowned with real whipped cream. I think this custard would be better appreciated — by me, anyway — if it were served in a traditional ramekin and not a small water glass. I'm all for creative presentation, but not if trying to eat the dish tests my sanity.
This being a brasserie, though, you could always order a cold beer and a scoop of vanilla ice cream as a finale. And no one at Aixois would tell you that's a bad idea.