When it comes to ambiance, few local destinations rival the charms of the 105-year-old Caenen Castle.
The hand-quarried limestone structure, modeled after Chateau Chavaniac in France, was originally built in 1907 as the home of Remigius Achille Caenen, a Belgian immigrant who settled in Johnson County and worked as a dairy farmer. Caenen married Mary Van Hercke. The couple had nine children, so why not build a funky little castle on Johnson Drive?
Unfortunately, Mary died before construction was completed. “Remi” moved in with his children but later built a smaller house north of what the family always referred to as the Big House. He lived on the smaller property until his death in 1949. The castle had other incarnations after Remi’s death, including a nursing home, a nightclub and a haunted house.
In 2003, chef Renée Kelly bought the property and, with the help of her father’s Neighbors Construction Co., renovated the dilapidated interior. The restored space, which is on the Register of Historic Kansas Places, screams special occasion/event space, but last summer the restaurant opened to the public as Renée Kelly’s Harvest, a farm-to-table restaurant.
Dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday nights. Guests typically enter through the back door from the parking lot, which for some reason seemed to surprise our hostess, although I never saw anyone come in through the elegantly carved front door. Steps lead down to a wine cellar reserved for private parties and appointed with a courtly table and chairs that look like they were hijacked from the set of “Game of Thrones.”
The high-ceilinged main dining room features a dramatic central staircase flanked by a long bar and a pair of fireplaces. A second-floor loft dining space looks down on the main room and brings capacity up to 80.
Due to extensive fire damage over the years, including charred floor joists and Plexiglass replacement windows, the stone walls and the leaded glass window above the door are the only original architectural appointments.
Kelly’s decision to highlight a local, seasonal menu is a fortuitous move for Kansas City diners. As at other farm-to-table restaurants, the farmers and other local suppliers are listed on the menu and on a chalkboard hung in the dining room.
The rabbit loin comes from Rare Hare Barn (Leon, Kan.), the pork from Dodge City Beef (Pratt, Kan.) or Windhaven Farms (Kearney, Mo.) and the lettuce and other greens from Two Sisters Farm in Lawrence. Closer to home, the Swiss chard stuffed into the dumpling starter was grown on the property. Twenty-five pounds of chard harvested before the first frost was frozen for use later.
Starting with pristine, locally grown and raised ingredients is almost a given these days, but the chef must determine how much to manipulate and bend the raw materials to reflect her cooking philosophy. Kelly, who is vivacious and outgoing in person, with red tresses and ruby-red patent leather clogs (take that, Mario Batali), rules her kitchen competently yet quietly, never rushing to put too big a flourish on any single dish.
Consider my favorite dish — a superb grilled flat-iron steak rubbed with garlic and daubed with an herbal marinade cooked to a perfect medium rare. On the side was a hash of roasted sweet potatoes, cubes of roasted buttered turnips and flash-cooked arugula, all drizzled with juniper berry cream sauce. The flavors were hearty and true, revealing a restraint likely developed over years of special-event planning in which the food must be supremely competent but never overshadow the reason for the meal.
Every entree I tried hit the mark, including a roasted half chicken, beef tenderloin, a bone-in pork chop and mustard-glazed short ribs. The delicate braised lapin (rabbit) ravioli, served in a sage-mushroom broth, also was well-prepared. My only minor complaint was that when presented alongside the other heartier dishes, the four pillows of ravioli seemed paltry.
The farmhouse theme also shined on several appetizer platters. A cheese plate, with soft sheep’s milk selections from Green Dirt and a hard cow’s milk selections from Shatto, was inviting and included a mixture of dried fruits and nuts.
A pickle platter — colorful, vinegary chunks of squash, carrots and okra — was a lovely study in texture and color. The cinnamon-y beet salad, topped with a stunning lace of microgreens and a crumbling of pancetta, carried on the earthy tribute.
The fish croquettes were some of the best breaded cakes served in town and featured Colorado striped bass, a sustainable fish.
There were a few wobbles: Braised pork belly nuggets — served with toast points, mustard and microgreens — were unpleasantly tough, as though they had not been braised long enough. (Kelly took them off the menu soon after my visit, replacing the dish with a country-style pate). A rabbit loin, wrapped in La Quercia coppa, was dry from overcooking, something Kelly says the kitchen is still working to perfect. Yes, look away and you have toast.
The seasonal petite pie (apple for fall/winter) was a beauty — a personal-size dessert with an intricate latticed top, nestled in a white napkin like a little winter coat. Unfortunately, the pastry was a bit undercooked.
Kelly concedes she is on a steep learning curve but says her passion for food is returning. “I’m dusting off some old cookbooks, and I’m still learning, but it’s more enriching to be a farm-to-table restaurant,” she told me as she was getting ready to write her winter menu, which debuts this month.
Indeed, it will be exciting to see Kelly’s style continue to grow and evolve over the coming months and years, but there’s no reason to wait. Grab a few friends and enjoy a lovely, relaxed meal that doesn’t try too hard to impress.