Once upon a time in the Midwest, however, the catch-all term "continental cuisine" meant one-part classic French, one-part upper-class British (beef Wellington, roast beef), and a smattering of other European culinary traditions (Swedish meatballs, pasta dishes from northern Italy, Belgian pastries). But that EPCOT approach is passé, s'il vous plait.
Today diners can go right to a local German restaurant, such as the Rheinland (208 N. Main Street in Independence) or Berliner Bear (7815 Wornall Road), if they crave gingery sauerbraten, or to Andre's (see review, page 49) for an omelet and a linzer torte.
Yes, there are still French restaurants in town, but they're as different from the late La Bonne Auberge and La Mediterranee as Catherine Deneuve is from Emmanuelle Beart. Le Fou Frog (400 E. 5th Street), the sexy and sometimes raucous River Market bistro, is all about good food and wine, not crystal chandeliers and flambé desserts prepared tableside by a tuxedo-clad waiter. The list of dinner specials can sometimes be as long as a Proust novel, but that's part of the charm of the place, which exudes the lusty energy of its owner, Marseilles-born Mano Rafael, who oversees the bustling kitchen.
On the opposite side of town, there's the more sedate Tatsu's (4603 W. 90th Street in Prairie Village), named for its Japanese-born chef-owner, Tatsuya Arai. For 20 years, this cozy restaurant has served traditional French dishes (garlicky escargot, oxtail braised in red wine, salmon poached in champagne sauce) and a single Oriental-inspired dish: a chicken breast sautéed in a sweet-sour teriyaki sauce that gives the bland bird an almost caramelized flavor. The service is formal to the point of caricature: On a recent visit, a shy, well-dressed waiter with impeccable manners nervously approached the table during our salad course to stammer out: "We've had a terribly unfortunate accident in the kitchen. Chef has dropped your roasted duck breast on the floor. It will take at least 20 more minutes to prepare another one."
Before this news could really sink in, he suddenly smiled broadly and announced: "Perhaps I might suggest another dish? The steak au poivre, perhaps?" It turned out to be a good suggestion. The $21.95 steak, cooked with cognac in a peppercorn cream sauce, was luscious and worth every penny I paid for it. But I couldn't help wondering what had really happened to that poor duck.
Since it's more like a tea room than a restaurant, Café Maison European Market and Eatery (408 E. 63rd) is closer in style to Andre's than to Tatsu's. The menu -- call it European Deli -- is limited (salads, quiche, paté, chicken salad, sandwiches) and the little café tables are scattered around a sunny dining room that's also part retail space. But the new style of continental cuisine sounds a lot like the old style: there's a French dip sandwich made with Italian roast beef, a Romanian sandwich with pastrami, and a version of New York's Reuben sandwich called Tres Bon Rue Bien.