Standing on the sidewalk outside Westport’s Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements, I got a whiff of real wood smoke coming from the kitchen’s Southern Pride cookers. Inside, two servers wore red bandannas wrapped around bleached blond pixie cuts a la Rosie the Riveter. A giant mural of a 1950s backyard barbecue set a familiar scene.
But one look at the menu — dotted with red skulls and crossbones to designate numerous vegetarian options — proves this red-blooded meat emporium is actually more contemporary than old school.
Take the jackfruit sandwich, which visually mimics strands of pulled chicken when piled high on an egg bun. The vinegary bite and toothsomeness of the jackfruit, similar in texture to pineapple, is nicely offset by a terrific, ever-so-lightly dressed kale-Pecorino slaw, served together as choices on the $10 weekend-only “brown bag” lunch special.
There’s also the slightly fancier JackKnife sandwich, which includes jackfruit, avocado, provolone and fried jalapenos.
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Of course, Char Bar is not Kansas City’s only restaurant hopping on the jackfruit bandwagon: Vegan-specific restaurants have long coaxed the fruit to act as a meat stand-in. But Char Bar crafts sandwiches and salads that stand on their own.
It may seem odd to head out for barbecue and wind up recommending the Roots & Fruits Salad, but here I go: the combination of roasted beets, parsnips and charred Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, oranges and pistachios is dressed in a blackberry wine vinaigrette. My only complaint: The kitchen should make sure all the vegetables are cooked until fully caramelized; some were a bit al dente.
There’s also a decadent grilled pimento cheese sandwich on toasted sourdough that gets its heft from fried green tomatoes — breaded discs that also can be ordered as an appetizer. And in another nod designed to please rather than just appease a wide array of tastes, there are sides ranging from carrot-raisin slaw to barbecue pork rinds.
“I think that’s the way barbecue restaurants of the future will have to go,” said my lunch companion, barbecue expert, cookbook author and Chow Town blogger Ardie Davis, as we munched on the fried green tomatoes. “There has to be something for vegetarians.”
On another Friday night, six of us snuggled into a large booth. As with any large party, there were those who wanted to dig into meat and others who preferred a salad or a fish special. To get things going, the starter menu features interesting “snacks” such as smoked duck gumbo and “charred toast,” served with either a smoked trout dip or charred eggplant.
We went with one of the more unusual starters: lobster deviled eggs. The menu boasts of charred lobster, but my crew could detect neither char nor smoke on the pale pieces of this trendy appetizer. I’d be willing to up the price to get a smokier take.
We moved on to the cheesy hush puppies, breaded pingpong ball-size fritters of cheese speckled with coarse flecks of Anson Mills stoneground grits, placed atop a cheesy “beer” blanc and smears of pepper jelly with a fried chive for garnish. This, we all agreed, was a prime example of guilty pleasure food.
The meat side of the menu was vetted by champion competitive barbecuer Mitch Benjamin, best known as Meat Mitch. The smoked meat platters — such as the Whomp! platter of six sliced meats, plus burnt ends and a half slab, and two sides — won’t disappoint those with a purely meat agenda. But if you’re truly omnivorous, order jackfruit as one of your “meats.”
Sides worth mentioning include the smoked corn succotash, and if you want a worthy carb, go for the ultra-crispy Jo-Jo Potatoes, battered wedges fried just to the point that they yield a deliciously fluffy interior. Find these under “crispy stuff” along with beer-battered pickles, sweet potato fries and those pork rinds.
One of my favorite items was neither vegetarian nor strictly barbecue. The CBGB burger was a luxurious mix of house-ground smoked brisket served with a schmear of smoked Gouda, smoked bacon, caramelized onions and Duke’s mayo (a Southern pantry staple) on a soft egg bun. It ranks among my top burgers in town, although I have yet to see it on a lot of foodie listicles that seem to be powering social media these days.
The space, once the Beaumont Club, has been transformed by partners James Westphal and Mark Kelpe of McCoy’s, the Foundry and Beer Kitchen fame. Service is casual and mostly helpful. One waiter was willing to ferry questions he could not answer about preparation to the kitchen, but another time the waiter did not stop me from ordering the Whomp! platter, designed to feed four to six, as my entree.
We finished off an enjoyable evening with three “scratch desserts.” Sadly, there was not much nuance to the dessert menu, but it’s hard to resist ordering the Velvet Elvis on name alone. The banana bread-peanut butter ice cream “sandwich” (although I would describe as more of a sundae) topped with spiced walnuts, hot fudge, whipped cream, Cracker Jacks and a bourbon-soaked cherry was one-note: sweet.
I missed the sweet potato funnel cake with candied bacon that slipped off Char Bar’s earliest menus. It was a clever idea that turned a state fair staple into something fresh and new, and tasty, too. But if you’re needing to cap things off with something a bit sweet, I would recommend the Smoking Gun, a mixture of Bulleit rye, Grand Marnier, Campari, burnt sugar syrup and orange bitters served with an infusion of smoke. It’s showy but also a fine after-dinner drink.
4050 Pennsylvania Ave.
Food: ☆☆☆ The barbecue is solid and, in what may be the wave of the future, the vegetarian menu items give adventurous eaters a reason to try something new.
Service: ☆☆1/2 Cordial and attentive service.
Atmosphere: ☆☆☆ A fun atmosphere and a worthy addition to the booming Westport restaurant scene.
Kitchen hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: For a meat emporium, you’ll find an impressive array of items ranging from jackfruit to kale.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Street or free covered garage.
Kids: Includes typical mac and cheese, chicken tenders and cheeseburgers.
Noise level: When the music is turned up and the dining room is full, the level can be quite boisterous, especially with so many wood and concrete surfaces.
Reservations: Available for parties of eight or more. While you’re waiting, you might play bocce, croquet or table tennis in the outdoor space that opened this spring.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
If the name of your restaurant is Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements, it makes sense to let the smoke waft from the kitchen to the bar. The Smoking Gun (at $16, one of the pricier cocktails around) may seem like a gimmick, but it’s legit. The diner receives a snifter with a cardboard coaster balanced atop. Remove the lid and tendrils of smoke escape, creating a smokiness that plays off the Bulleit rye, Grand Marnier, Campari and bitters.
There’s plenty of craft beer, as well as interesting nonalcoholic refreshers, including mint-infused sweet tea, sassafras root beer and rosemary-infused lemonade.
Roots & Fruits Salad, $10
CBGB Burger, $12
The JackKnife, $11
Kale-Pecorino Slaw, $4/$6/$9
Smoked Corn Succotash, $4/$6/$9
Grilled Pimento Cheese, $8
Cheesy Hushpuppies, $7
Crispy Jo-Jo Potatoes, $5/$7