"Didn't this space used to be Whistler's Books?" asked my friend Billy on the night I brought him to Tatsu's for dinner.
"No," announced our young server with authority. "It used to be part of the Tivoli Theatre."
Wrong on all counts. Both Whistler's and the Tivoli had been up the block, although it occurred to me, as I unfurled a white linen napkin into my lap, that two decades ago, a very hip vintage clothing store called November Pink the creation of restaurateur turned culinary-mystery novelist Lou Jane Temple had occupied both the Tatsu's dining room and the pizza place.
Billy, Bob and I could have easily spent the whole night talking about the way that Westport has evolved over the past 20 years. But we didn't spend too much time wandering down memory lane because we were too busy trying to analyze an immediate concern: the obvious problems that restaurateur Tatsuya Arai was having with his second namesake restaurant.
It was a balmy Thursday night, and nearly every other restaurant along Westport Road had a decent crowd, but Tatsu's was practically empty. One other table was occupied, by two middle-aged ladies lustily enjoying their meal and a bottle of wine. By the time we left an hour later, just one more table had filled up.
"It's a bad sign," said Bob, who has a visceral reaction to lonely dining rooms.
The omen seemed all the more troubling because Bob, Billy and I are all big fans of the original Tatsu's French Restaurant in Prairie Village. It also started, 26 years ago, in a small, dark and unattractive dining room. But Arai has expanded and tastefully redecorated over the years, and his place is now considered a stylish boîte, particularly by well-heeled Johnson Countians who can't go too long without a fix of his supreme poulet teriyaki (a glam version of teriyaki chicken) or his luscious Grand Marnier soufflé.
The new venue has a slightly different name, Tatsu's Café & Wine Bar, that reflects the more casual nature of the place. There's no poulet teriyaki or Grand Marnier soufflé on its extremely limited dinner menu, a single page of copy paper printed with a list of six items offered as prix fixe meals. It's not a bad deal: For $19.95, the dinner includes coffee, tea or soda; bread and butter; the entrée; and one of several tempting desserts.
It's a quantum leap from Monsieur Arai's original plan for this storefront. When he first leased it, he envisioned the location as the ideal setting for a gourmet sandwich business: Subway with delusions of grandeur. In late 2005, he opened KC Toaster's Sandwich Café, but I didn't think his innovations were all that. Yes, he served his sandwiches on crusty rolls, but the fillings were hardly fancy: ham and Swiss, meatballs and provolone, chicken salad. Arai quickly discovered the same bitter truth that had done in another Westport sandwich vendor (David Rabinovitz, who had an upscale wiener stand called Relish): the Westport crowd is hungrier for something more than meat in a bun.
And that brings us to Tatsu's reincarnation as a Westport wine bar. On the night that I dined with Billy and Bob, the restaurant's liquor license was so new that there wasn't even a wine list. "We're sending customers over to the bar to look at the bottles," said the waiter, pointing to six vintages lined up neatly on the bar counter.
"How creative," said Bill, who had already admired some of the decorative touches around the nine-stool bar, including a brick wall painted a striking shade of silvery gray.
Bob was starving and asked why the menu offered no appetizers. "We could make you something with shrimp," the server said. So they did, and the plate of sautéed shrimp and sliced mushrooms in a buttery herb sauce wasn't bad but it wasn't remarkable, either. Meanwhile, I had a yen for Arai's signature salad dressing, a light and tart vinaigrette of soy sauce, egg, oil and rice vinegar. So even though salads cost extra, we ordered them anyway and enjoyed them while watching people pass by the restaurant, occasionally stopping to read the menu taped to one of the windows, then walking on.
"Is it the prix fixe that scares them off?" Bill asked.
That, I thought, or the unassuming menu. On the nights I dined there, it was the same six items: two fish dishes, one pork plate, two chicken offerings, and a salad nicoise. The food is very good, certainly as exquisitely prepared in this tiny kitchen as it is over in Prairie Village (which has a more elaborate and flexible menu). I enjoyed a nice pink slab of sautéed salmon slathered in a fresh lemon-butter sauce, served with a tiny heap of haricot vert, sliced carrots and potatoes. Bob had a similar citrus-butter sauce on his plump sautéed chicken breast, and Bill thought his lovely hunk of tilapia was nicely accented by a delicate white wine sauce.
"It's nice," Bill said, "but I'm not getting wowed."
Tatsu's saves the wow factor for desserts. We passed on the fruit tarts and the archaic custardy floating island, going instead for a cocoa-dusted cube of chocolate-mousse cake, a silken flan dripping with amber caramel, and tiramisu (a very fine variation on the ubiquitous Venetian pastry, served here in a martini glass).
The memory of those desserts sustained me on my return visit, this time on a Friday night when the place was again nearly empty. Bob sipped a glass of Pinot Grigio and Patrick a cold beer while we argued over who would order what. After all, I had already tasted half the menu.
Patrick was pleased with his decadently rich chicken Normandy, prepared with heavy cream, veal stock, Calvados brandy and something that the menu described, vaguely disturbingly, as "muscle cream." Bob gave thumbs up to slices of tender pork tenderloin draped in a fragrant peppercorn cream sauce, and I much preferred his dinner to my own, a cold salad prepared à la nicoise sort of. It was too stingy on the tuna and the black olives and pretty light on the garlic, too.
I was still hungry by the time our server rattled off the dessert list, this one slightly abbreviated from our earlier visit just the chocolate-mousse cake, a fruit tart and something else. My memory fails me, but the cake was perfection and the fruit tart was delicious.
On our way out the door, Patrick worried about whether Tatsu's Café & Wine Bar would make it.
So did I, so I called Arai a few days later to find out what was going on. He told me that yes, the new restaurant has had a hard time attracting customers. But that had less to do with the prix fixe menu than with the fact that it opened without a liquor license. "It doesn't matter what kind of food you serve or the price when people want a glass of wine," he said.
So now that he has the booze, he has to get the word out. "There are two kinds of people," he says, "people who already know about the Johnson County Tatsu's and love my food and those who don't know about it."
Starting this week, Arai is revamping the menu. He says he's keeping only a few of the prix fixe specials and adding several other dishes as à la carte entrées. But, he says, "I can't expand the menu too much until we start getting more customers."
The restaurant just needs to make its presence known to those two kinds of people.