"I'm sure not," my friend Steve said acidly. He lifted a frosted martini glass filled to the rim with a ruby cosmopolitan. "That's the most convoluted story I've heard since Les Misérables."
Excusing herself, the server ran to the front of the restaurant and returned with a vellum card that promised to explain. While I perused the selection of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres on the menu, Steve read aloud of nineteenth-century settlers who traveled through Lawrence and crossed the Wakarusa River "at a point known as Blue Jacket's Crossing."
That point on the river wasn't anywhere near the 130-year-old limestone building (for years the Kansas Seed House and, more recently, an antique shop) that houses the attractive BleuJacket, but no matter. It's the "feeling of hospitality" associated with the historic "Welcoming Point to Lawrence" that the restaurant's owners want to convey, not a literal link to a long-forgotten prairie trail.
And the place is hospitable, beautifully done up as an iridescent shell of curves, created with translucent gold curtains, and banquettes upholstered in a coppery raspberry fabric. Though the dinner clientele tends to be over thirty, the place feels as young and hip as a modern-art installation.
But this is most assuredly an American-French restaurant, despite the French titles for each dish (with descriptions in English) and the considerable skills of chef Jean Michel Chelain (a native of the French Alps). In France, the word bleu doesn't just refer to a color; it's also a culinary term for a steak "cooked so rare that it's barely warmed through," writes Sharon Tyler Herbst in her Food Lover's Companion. The BleuJacket serves the juicy Midwest variety of steaks (including a fine Kansas City rib eye served with béarnaise) cooked as American diners would expect -- not too rare, s'il vous plait.
BleuJacket's menu has a worldly rather than classic French flavor, and the ambience is elegant, even formal. Although the food is expensive, it's memorable.
The restaurant's signature salad is a plate of cool field greens tossed with candied walnuts and hearts of palm, which came splashed with a tart honey-Dijon mustard vinaigrette. Even better was the Salade de St. Jacques, a pesto-drizzled combination of chilled spinach and slightly bitter radicchio, crispy fried beet chips and hot roasted sea scallops. Appropriately, the fragrant onion soup felt like a beloved country dish, with sweet caramelized onions simmering in a lovely vegetable stock under a thick blanket of croutons and Swiss cheese -- perfect for soaking up chunks of the restaurant's crusty white-flour bread or its nuttier wheat version. (We had to ask for both.)
Two Maryland crab cakes, however, were puffs of crabmeat floating on a spritz of chile-spiced mayonnaise -- tasty enough, I suppose, but gone in half a bite. And though the menu promised that the baked escargot would be prepared à la bourguignonne -- in a buttery sauce flavored with garlic and parsley -- too little garlic and too much parsley bubbled around the tender mollusks.
We faced more seafood choices, including poached Maine lobster, when it came time for dinner. Chef Chelain lightly grills a yellowfin tuna, then sends it out with a sweet mango salsa in a phyllo pastry basket and a dollop of a light, creamy wasabi. There were meatier possibilities as well, such as the Kansas City rib eye or a delicate filet on a swath of decadent sauce made with fresh morel mushrooms and dotted with a half-dozen plump gnocchi pillows. A luscious, double-thick pork chop arrived vertical, like a skyscraper poised over a lake of a head-spinning red wine sauce. Chelain's rich bouillabaisse was flavored with caviar, and even the lowly chicken breast got the glamour treatment -- stuffed with chopped spinach and portabello mushrooms, roasted and brought out with a garlicky pepper sauce.
Accompanying the dinners at one meal was a tiny carrot flan -- a doll-sized version that wasn't too sweet; on another visit, this miniature flan was a zucchini concoction. And Chelain garnishes every dinner with a fragrant branch of fresh, astringent rosemary.
Despite its style, however, the restaurant can't live up to its pretensions. The service -- even after three months -- is as unpolished and rustic as the heavy, primitive wooden columns holding up the ceilings.
"But what do you expect? It's a college town!" friends argued when I griped about various indiscretions I'd witnessed: On one visit we waited interminably for bread and water; on another, a waiter brought out salads and appetizers at the same time; often, young servers gabbed off in dark corners instead of paying attention to their tables. Yes, Lawrence is a college town and savvy servers may be in short supply, but around the corner at PrairieFire, the service is as silken and professional as in any big city -- not half-baked, like a bleu steak. On my visit with Steve, our server never mentioned a word about dinner or salad specials -- only when we overheard another waitress giving a nearby table a detailed explanation of the evening's featured dishes did we realize we had been shortchanged.
When we asked why, our server rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, that mahi special! Yeah, we have that. And I think we have prune tart as a dessert special."
I didn't bother with the prune tart or any of BleuJacket's other fruit tarts, and I wasn't interested in the revolving selection of freshly made sorbets or "la surprise du chef." (Our waitress didn't know what it was and made no attempt to find out.) Because I had always longed to participate in a ménage à trois, however, I was thrilled to sample the trio of white-, dark- and milk-chocolate mousse -- two were firm and airy, but one was as runny as second-rate pudding. Far superior was an actual pudding -- a bavarois (Gallic for Bavarian cream) made of rich chocolate and caramelized banana, brought out in a curvy strip of chocolate ganache with a little brown curl of "caramelized" banana as chewy and tasteless as dried jerky. Steve thought that was hilarious, calling it "a French tribute to the pioneer food of the prairie!"
Sadly, no pioneer ever ate as splendidly, or as extravagantly, as the diners do at the BleuJacket. But even the most humble of Kansas saloon keepers must have taken better care of his patrons.