Kansas Citians have never fully embraced the spicy cuisine of the Louisiana parishes. True, Westport's Kiki's Bonton Maison had a relatively long run, but the list of Creole and Cajun restaurants that have come and gone is lengthy. It includes Copeland's, the Big Easy and the most recent failure, St. Joseph's Boudreaux's Louisiana Seafood & Steaks, which had a brief run in Leawood.
A new restaurant in Leawood has taken on the charge to bring classic Cajun and Creole cuisine to those who crave muffaletta and po' boy sandwiches, boiled crawfish and Southern-fried chicken. Restaurateur Jennifer Coniglio — who formerly worked for the Applebee's and PB&J restaurant chains — has opened an intimate, sophisticated bistro in the Park Place development, hoping to succeed where other Louisiana-style restaurants have been swamped in the bayou.
She may have a very good chance.
There are no Mardi Gras beads or party masks on display, no Zydeco music on the sound system. The Café Roux dining room is as low-key as a living room in a glossy decorating magazine. There's a limestone fireplace, a polished sorghum bar, earth-toned walls and floors and shiny uncloaked tables. And the bar boasts only one TV monitor.
Coniglio has partnered with her brother Marty — a TV meteorologist in Denver — to create a cozy, grown-up venue where the food is the featured attraction. To her credit, Coniglio has done a damn good job. Her first two smart moves were hiring chef Brian Bromwell (he's from Olathe, not Louisiana, but he really gets the cuisine) and, as a menu consultant, talented young chef Jason Czaja, who last showed off his stuff at the old City Tavern.
The menu isn't elaborate, but it's been thought out with great care and a real passion for the spices and traditional ingredients of Louisiana. The Classic Gumbo could be a little heartier — more chunks of Fritz's andouille sausage and a lot more chicken — but it's robustly seasoned and delicious. A Southern-style empanada starter called Natchitoches ("It's pronounced nak-a-dish," my server, India, informed me) has a crumbly but not flaky crust folded around ground beef, pork, chopped onions and peppers. This, too, I initially thought, could be a shade spicier. But the dipping sauce, a head-clearing Creole mustard vinaigrette, changed my mind.
I stopped in one night to taste Café Roux's version of fried chicken. It's not one of the best-selling items here, she told me, "but it does have a cult following." Fans of fried bird are going to have to draw their own conclusions; it can't shake a tail feather against the chicken at Stroud's — the ne plus ultra of local chicken dining — but it has a likable style of its own. Bromwell lets his chicken pieces soak in a bowl of buttermilk, not breading them until an order is placed. After that, it's quickly and briefly deep-fried and baked off in a hot oven.
The breasts and thighs on the most recent menu weren't the meatiest I've tasted, but the coating was light and crunchy and drizzled with a red chili honey. I'd order it again.
On the night I dined with Ann and Tom, we shared a cold-shrimp remoulade as a starter. The creamy sauce was so peppery that I grabbed my water glass immediately. Our server kindly let us split the fried green tomato salad, a clever dish of flash-fried, wonderfully crunchy circles of sliced green tomato tossed with spring greens, toasted almonds and bits of fluffy goat cheese in a mild green onion vinaigrette.
Ann had eaten at Café Roux before and told tales about the pan-roasted trout: "It's fantastic! You'll love it," she assured me. I have to agree; it's a beautiful dish, a flaky hunk of fish slathered in supple balsamic-brown butter and heaped with pan-browned pecans. It comes with a mound of sautéed green beans cooked with enough bacon for a breakfast buffet.
I like spicy dishes, but the fiery red-pepper-and-tomato concoction on the Creole pasta Tom ordered nearly seared my tongue. That distraction didn't keep me from noting that the kitchen had been a shade stingy with the andouille and the shrimp — and too generous with the penne.
Ann's crawfish pie, a sumptuously creamy stew of roasted potatoes, peppers, scallions and crawdad meat tucked under a balloon-light crust, was the evening's headliner. Ann was done in by the decadence, so we all took some, and I wished I had ordered it myself. Of course, it would have put me in a coma before the French-press chicory coffee and the beignets arrived.
I've been to New Orleans only a few times, but no place else have I ever tasted beignets —the city's signature deep-fried yeast pastries — quite like the ones sold in the French Quarter. Bromwell's sugar-dusted creations look like little flying saucers from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and they go just fine with the potent java, but I wish they were yeastier and lighter. Still, I ate two.
This restaurant's bread pudding is tarted up with bananas, peanut butter chips and chocolate chips — a few too many ingredients for my taste — so I settled on the first-rate baked apple ginger crisp, one of the most satisfying spins on the old fashioned Apple Betty creations I've ever tasted. It was wonderful even without a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The servers are young, attractive and attentive, and the background music, mostly jazz, is more soothing than raucous. But not every day in New Orleans is Mardi Gras, so why should restaurants serving that city's legendary cuisine in the heart of America have to put on a lot of faux festivity? Sometimes it's pleasurable enough just to sit down and eat.