As we wrap up this year’s Mardi Gras season with another Fat Tuesday, I realized how long it has been since I’ve experienced New Orleans — a city I truly love!
I’m not sure I could survive Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) these days, but I’d sure like to give it a try. The music, the pulsing energy, and the food is like nothing else on the planet.
But I’m stuck in Kansas City with a craving for authentic New Orleans-style cuisine. What’s a boy to do? Fortunately, I found some really good options, one new to me and one a longtime favorite, both of which I’d like to share.
First, Beignet, located in the River Market. Chef Brian Merker’s tribute to all things New Orleans is approaching its four-year anniversary, but I just met Merker and sampled his cuisine for the first time this month.
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Shame on me? You bet! Am I late to the party? Without a doubt. But, will I now sing Merker’s and Beignet’s praises to anyone who listen?
“I fell in love with Cajun and Creole food when I was working at the private club at Kauffman Stadium and a New Orleans chef came in to do a special dinner,” Merker told me recently. “Her food was amazing. She said she needed help at her restaurant. I ended up moving to New Orleans and working on Bourbon Street.”
Merker grew up in Kansas City and got his culinary degree at Johnson County Community College. But, his stint in New Orleans had a profound effect on him, and after a run at the eclectic Nica’s 320, named after his wife, on Southwest Boulevard, the Cajun and Creole dishes he cooked and experienced in New Orleans drew him to open Beignet.
“I thought there was a place for authentic New Orleans-style cuisine in Kansas City, and we loved the River Market, so the location and the style of food seemed like a good fit,” Merkerg said. It was.
Merker said there were times early on where he wondered if Beignet would make it, but he now does some 3,000 covers a week. Granted, a lot of those covers are to-go orders, but 3,000 covers a week in Beignet’s tiny corner of the market is impressive regardless of what customers are buying or where they’re eating what they’ve purchased!
Merker said the goal at Beignet, other than serving amazing beignets both sweet and savory, is to provide real food made from scratch that would compare to what you can find in New Orleans at an affordable price.
“What I saw in New Orleans was incredible food at places like Commander’s Palace or Brennan’s, but at equally incredible prices. I like to think we serve comparable food at a fraction of the cost,” Merker said.
I’ve only had the beignets — Bavarian cream, praline and the traditional, and a Muffaletta, but it was all terrific and took me right back to Café du Monde and the Central Grocery in ‘Nawlins. I will return for the gumbo, jambalaya and shrimp and chicken creole for sure!
You’ll find plenty of New Orleans influences in the cuisine at Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar on the Country Club Plaza, especially this time of the year!
I had the chance to watch sous chef Theresia Ota put together a crawfish boil, created especially for Fat Tuesday. While crawfish has never been one of my favorites, this dish was off-the-charts good.
The crawfish boil is one of three specials Ota is offering on Fat Tuesday, each paired with a special drink. The boil is matched to the Emersum Oyster Stout, made in limited quantities for Jax by North Kansas City’s Cinderblock Brewery.
Also available is a Lox Bagel paired with a Restless Spirits Lemon-Lavender Gin Cocktail, and Beignets paired with Cinder Block’s Cherry Cider.
And for those who really want to get into the spirit, pardon the pun, Jax will also offer its own 24-ounce Jax Hurricane, served in a Bourbon Street-inspired souvenir yard cup. The three specials with drink pairings and the Jax Hurricane will be featured all night on Tuesday starting at 4 p.m.
See, who needs to leave Kansas City to get an authentic Fat Tuesday experience?
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.