Living a thousand miles from the nearest ocean tends to limit the nature and quality of the seafood that comes our way. Kansas City has had a long local tradition of restaurants that do seafood well.
But typically, we inlanders build our appetites around turf more than surf, and we settle for fried shrimp feeds and uninspired preparations of Atlantic salmon (farmed in the Pacific Northwest).
Of course, there is catfish, and I’m a sucker for a great big fried one. But 801 Fish, the new seafood palace opened by the Iowa-based 801 Chophouse people, has set the bar much higher. Sure we have the Bristol (two locations here) and the Plaza outpost of the McCormick Schmick chain to satisfy our higher-end seafood desires.
Nevertheless, 801 Fish clearly aims to trump.
The restaurant, tucked away on a side corner in the Park Place development, is a pretty place, with a lot of glass and wood, white tablecloths and a kitchen soffit skinned with patinated copper discs resembling fish scales. Diners can sit in a main room, the bar area, at a raw-bar counter or along the open kitchen counter, which provides a bustling show and running comments from the chefs and wait staff.
“All the women are wearing fur coats,” said the constant companion, She Who Is Not Easily Pleased, on one chilly night’s visit. But don’t let that scare you. The place is generally unstuffy and casual enough to accommodate the likes of me. Though, yes, the bill can add up. One night I watched a giant shellfish platter land at a nearby table of six: In two sizes, these iced-down towers come with crab legs along with an assortment of shrimp, clams and oysters for $75 or $150. And that’s just the appetizers.
The menu changes daily, depending on what’s available. It begins with raw-bar starters, including whatever oysters and clams are in-house for serving on the half shell.
On my first visit we started slowly, a half-dozen clams on the half shell, which turned out to be the biggest and freshest cherrystone clams I’d ever seen. Alas, those were unavailable on subsequent nights, and the clam choice tended to be littlenecks.
Oyster selections come mostly from the East and West Coasts, and they, too, seemed very fresh.
She Who and I were impressed with several other appetizers, including a scallop and oyster dish with a lemon curry foam, a thinly sliced scallop crudo and a big scoop of an ahi tuna ceviche, served in a flared cup that once might’ve held an ice cream sundae. That scallop crudo had an added attraction of a “carrot tagliatelle” on the side, a clump of slightly blanched ribbons of carrot that indeed had the mouthfeel and texture of pasta.
As we were looking over the menu one Saturday night, executive chef Alex Schifman turned around from his traffic-cop spot in the kitchen to say that the Hawaiian tuna in the ceviche “was swimming Friday morning” and had arrived by FedEx just hours before. On another visit, our server assured us that all the seafood on the menu was no more than 24 hours away from the water.
Freshness, indeed, counts when you’re dining on seafood, and at 801 Fish you pay for that privilege. Schifman, a Kansas City native who spent nearly a dozen years in San Francisco restaurants, later said he’s planning some menu changes in the coming weeks, tweaks mostly based on seasonal availability and popularity with diners during the restaurant’s opening months.
The menu designates some dishes as first courses, some as second and then offers a small section of entrees. This might cause some confusion.
The first and second courses seem mostly like an interchangeable assortment of smaller plates, soups and salads, and among the exceptions it’s hard to grasp, for example, how a pound and a half of lobster is a second course rather than an entree. But you might find yourselves doing what I and my fellow diners tended to do, which was to mix and match dishes that sounded good without regard to those categories.
Sous chef Kevin Nicholls’ take on oysters Rockefeller, for instance, was intriguing, given his addition of arugula to the usual spinach and the bracing tinge of Gewurztraminer, a spicy white wine, in the blend.
Nicholls, a veteran of San Francisco kitchens, also is responsible for the cioppino, a traditional Bay Area Italian soup. The broth was a rich and concentrated tomato base, swimming (in a small version) with generous pieces of grouper, a couple of scampi, scallop bits and a spicy Italian sausage.
A terrific grilled Caesar salad comes with a perfectly wobbly soft egg on top, which, when punctured, finishes the dressing that coats the romaine lettuce. We asked for a split salad, and the kitchen complied, serving a still-substantial portion of lettuce with its own egg, and thus another tick up on the bill.
We were less intrigued with a grilled octopus, which, though finished with savory Spanish touches, including olives, came out a little tough.
Among entrees, one night’s oil-poached halibut was velvety, though cooked a little harder than I generally prefer. And a friend praised the pan-seared, day-boat scallops with an “awesome” that seemed like one of those I’ll-have-what-he’s-having moments. Indeed, the scallops were perfectly cooked and came with an especially creamy Meyer lemon risotto.
A whole-roasted branzino served as one of the star entrees, but it lost a little of its charm by coming already fileted from the kitchen. Schifman lamented one night that some diners are turned off by finding bones on their plates, and he was sounding as if it might disappear. Oh, well. The flaky and light white fish came with a filling salad of warm potatoes and caramelized cipollini onions.
Pastry chef Abigail Samulcek’s desserts range from house-made ice creams and sorbets to a silky lemon basil panna cotta and a sumptuous and saucy vanilla sponge cake, served with a ginger buttercream and grapefruit curd.
At $8 to $10 each, dessert is a reminder that 801 Fish is no five-and-dime outlet. Yet it’s possible to think relatively small: I’d look forward to making a meal of a beer and a bowl of steamers at the bar. Then again, I’d also look forward, when possible, to another seafood splurge.801 Fish
11615 Rosewood St. (Park Place), Leawood913-322-3474 801RestaurantGroup.com Star ratings Food
: ★★★ ½ Creative treatments and careful preparation of exceptionally fresh seafood.Service
: ★★★ Friendly, helpful and mostly well-informed.Atmosphere
: ★★★½ A good-looking place, with light, style and a healthy buzz.Hours
: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.Entree average (including nightly specials)
: $$$$Vegetarian options
: Menu items include roasted baby beet salad and several generously portioned sides, such as fried brussels sprouts, celery root and crab slaw and sauteed spinach. Chef will aim to accommodate any dietary need.Handicapped accessible
: Nearby garage (free at night), and valet parking ($6).Kids
: Mac and cheese, chicken fingers, etc.Noise level
: Festive when full, though not off-putting.Reservations
: Recommended on weekends.Star code
: ★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ ExtraordinaryPrice code
: $ Average entree under $10; $$ 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.Recommended Hawaiian ahi tuna ceviche
, $8New England clam chowder,
$9 or $18Diver bay scallop crudo, $10 Oysters Rockefeller
$22 or $30Pan seared scallops
, $35Crispy skin salmon,
$28Grilled hearts of romaine caesar salad,
$10Lemon basil panna cotta
, $9Vanilla sponge cake
, $9What to drink
Like its corporate cousins (801 Chophouse, Pig Finch), 801 Fish has a well-stocked bar, plus a short list of craft cocktails. Its wine list is nicely chosen, though perhaps still in flux given that the price of one bottle I liked went up $10 between visits. I was partial to a couple of white Burgundies — a Nicolas Potel Pouilly Fuisse and another from Clos des Alisiers — both of which had body and crispness worthy of most of the dishes that came our way.