The photographic cardboard cutout of chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. in the foyer of Jasper's Restaurant is so lifelike that one night I actually spoke to it. It isn't the only such likeness of the chef in town.
Since Jasper Jr. — friends and family call him J.J. — and his brother, Leonard, opened the current incarnation of the family restaurant in 1998, the award-winning chef has become a media mainstay in Kansas City, hosting his own Saturday radio show on KCMO 710 and teaching cooking classes at Hen House stores (where his cardboard likeness is also displayed; the supermarket sponsors his radio show).
He also travels across the country as a cheese ambassador for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, and he's at work on his third cookbook.
So some diners need to be reminded that the restaurant bearing his name is actually named for the original Jasper: a no-nonsense restaurateur who made local culinary history in 1962 by turning his unassuming neighborhood restaurant in Waldo — a place that served spaghetti dinners, steaks and fried chicken — into a sophisticated fine-dining venue. The newer Jasper's boasted servers in tuxedos and classic dishes such as steak Diane and bananas Foster. It was an expensive restaurant (visiting movie stars loved it), and it captured the zeitgeist of the postwar boom.
Jasper Sr. was a visionary to the end. In the late 1990s, when his family agreed to sell the restaurant property at the corner of 75th Street and Wornall to Walgreens, Jasper père announced to his sons that fine dining was over. Jasper Jr., a young, classically trained chef, refused to believe it.
"Our business was still very good on 75th Street," Mirabile Jr. recalls. "But Dad, who was very ill at the time, sat down with his sons and told us, 'Things are changing. Fine dining will be over in 10 years.'"
Who knew? "Dad did," he continues. "He could see the shift before anyone. He insisted we offer the same service and quality, but at lower prices and without our former dress code. He also told us: 'no tablecloths.'"
Though Mirabile Sr. did not live to see his wife and sons open the door to the second Jasper's Restaurant on 103rd Street 12 years ago, his ideas are all over the dining room. And there are no tablecloths, though other traditions from the fancier Jasper's continue: chilled forks with the salad course, cocktails presented on silver trays, a cart of lush desserts, polished service.
Over the last decade, Mirabile Jr. — who now cooks with Jasper Mirabile III, Leonard's son — has dropped only a few dishes from the 1998 menu: a lobster tail that never sold very well, a veal chop and lamb chops. "The expensive meat dishes aren't as popular as they used to be," Mirabile Jr. says.
But meatless dishes are more popular now. A former starter, eggplant Othello, was ordered so frequently as an entrée that the Mirabiles re-created it as a main course. It's a beautiful dish: thin slices of dark melanzane and sleek sheaths of mozzarella wrapped like crepes around a dollop of fluffy ricotta and simmered for hours in a supple sugo of fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil and a hint of red pepper.
I ate this dish for lunch one afternoon with a hefty bowl of Jasper's best soup, a comforting chicken-risotto concoction loaded with chunks of white breast meat, celery, carrots and rice in a golden broth. No matter what ails you, this soup cures it. There's no shortage of Italian comfort food on the current Jasper's menu — another idea of the late Jasper Sr.
"The old restaurant was a special-occasion place," Mirabile Jr. says. "It was fancy, with lots of showy dishes. Dad wanted the new restaurant to be the kind of place where customers could afford to dine once a month or even once a week."
A showy component is still evident — the dessert cart is the culinary equivalent of the big finale of a Broadway musical — which is why the restaurant is one of the city's more iconic venues (like Stroud's, the Savoy Grill, and Arthur Bryant's) for impressing out-of-towners. So when Joseph and Melissa wanted to take Melissa's mother, Joann, out for a snazzy Kansas City dinner, I invited myself along when I knew that Jasper's was the chosen destination. Hey, I need to be impressed every so often, too.
Although this Jasper's long ago dropped the labor-intensive theatrics of the original restaurant — the tableside Caesar salads and the cherries jubilee prepared flambé on a cart — one newer production number is such a hit that there's frequently a wait for the dish on a busy weekend night.
Mirabile Jr. and Mirabile III take turns wheeling out a cart bearing a large metal bowl heaped with cheese curds, a pitcher of very hot water, a plate of heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and balsamic vinegar. A few years ago, while visiting a restaurant in Naples, Italy, Mirabile Jr. watched servers prepare, at tableside, a succulent hunk of fresh mozzarella. He decided he could do it, too.
Joann, visiting from Cleveland, was delighted with the use of hot water to transform the salted cheese curds into a satiny ball of mozzarella, to be sliced and arranged on a bed of locally grown tomatoes drizzled with a thick balsamic reduction. We ate the cheese with squares of flour-dusted ciabatta while poring over the menu.
It's a big menu, by modern standards. But we ordered well: for Joann, a decadently creamy risotto (after a bite, I coveted the dish for myself); for Joseph, the seafood-laden linguine San Remo (a delicately herb-seasoned tomato-cream sauce smothering noodles, squid, shrimp and scallops); and for Melissa, tender veal slices slathered in a sweet Marsala reduction. Everything looked beautiful, of course, but my own dinner was particularly vivid: the evening's fish special, which was a sautéed hunk of flaky sole in an almost evanescent buttery lemon sauce, sided with fresh sautéed green beans dotted with garlic.
After all that, it seemed sinful to be lured by the siren song of the divine dolce on the dessert cart, but one sin was unavoidable: J.J.'s insanely rich cioccolatta della morta ("death by chocolate"). And it was suicide for my so-called diet. A fudgy layer of cake was topped with a square of creamy chocolate mousse, draped in a thick cocoa sauce and set afloat on a soothing puddle of chilled Grand Marnier zabaglione. I could feel my skin breaking out after the first bite.
Before the waiter rolled the dessert cart away, I looked longingly at my favorite Jasper's pastry: the intoxicating strawberry Borghese cake, layered with thick Chantilly custard and soaked with a head-spinning strawberry liqueur. Would it have been too much, after the cheese, the salads, the dinner and the chocolate morta, to have wanted that, too?
Life is too short, I decided on the drive home, so I returned the next day and ate a thick slice of the vibrantly pink cake. It wasn't exactly a special occasion, but I deserved it.