If you would have told me 25 years ago during my first stint in Kansas City that some of my favorite restaurants in town were going to be seafood-based, I would have never believed you.
But I’m here to tell you that as much as I love the barbecue at Q39, the understated elegance and creativity at Story or the steaks at Anton’s, I am just as likely to forego those choices in favor of a trio (four, actually, since one has multiple locations) of terrific seafood restaurants dishing up amazingly fresh and creative seafood dishes.
Yes, I’m afraid this landlocked city of barbecue and steaks has evolved into a landscape where diners can have some of the best seafood you will find this side of either coast. I’m not sure how this happened. I’m just glad, and so is my cholesterol level, that it did.
I wasn’t the first to discover the seafood creations of Chef Carlos Falcon, but I was an early devotee to his daily fresh fish musings at his Kansas City, Kan., eatery, Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos. Falcon quickly became a favorite of the city’s foodies, but his appeal is much broader than that. Yes, some of his offerings are on the esoteric side (blood clams anyone?), but the bottom line is that Falcon’s dishes are delicious, skillfully prepared and amazingly fresh.
“I spent six months on the phone talking to fishermen, seeing what was out there and trying to convince them to sell to me on a small scale,” Falcon stated. “It wasn’t easy, but I stuck with it and them as we grew. Now I can order amazing shrimp from places like Honduras where the shrimp are harvesting at 6 pm, boxed up at 7pm, and arrive at the restaurant the next day.”
Falcon, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, was trained in classical French cooking techniques. He applies them to his cuisine on a daily basis, but Falcon’s dishes are never fussy or overwrought. In fact, they are the opposite — simply seasoned, artfully cooked and presented to the diner as a snapshot of the daily bounty Falcon has sourced.
“Michael Smith (a James Beard award winner) told me that I had changed the food landscape in Kansas City. I’m not saying I have, but he did, and that’s the highest compliment I’ve ever received.”
In my opinion, you can do no wrong at Jarocho whether you choose the omakase-style meal, which basically means “I’ll leave it to you,” where diners put their meals entirely in Falcon’s hands, or something as simple as a dozen oysters and a grilled whole fresh fish.
The fact that Falcon is a likeable, gregarious, generous person makes the whole experience even better. The bottom line is simply this — if you haven’t tried Jarocho, what the heck are you waiting for? And, if you have, get back in there for a omakase experience right now! Jarocho is approaching its second anniversary. I personally hope it’s here for as long as Falcon wants it to be.
Another terrific, relatively recent, addition to Kansas City’s growing seafood scene is Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar on the Country Club Plaza. At first, I wasn’t sure what a Colorado-based seafood chain was thinking when it opened its first restaurant outside the state in another place that’s as far from the best sources for fresh seafood as Jax’s other restaurants.
But, when Jax founder Dave Query told me that he viewed airports as seaports and that it was easy to fly fresh seafood in from either coast to the middle of the country, the vision started to make sense. Dedicated to seasonality and sustainability, Jax was also the first restaurant in Colorado to be certified by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.
I was hooked from my very first visit and hardly two weeks go by without my wife and me stopping in for a glass or two of rosé, the best calamari I’ve had in a long time, and conversation with the friendliest group of managers and employees I’ve encountered. I wish the happy hour went till 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., but now I’m picking nits. I guess you could say I’m a fan, and I’m not alone. “We have a fun-loving staff and it permeates the room,” Jax’s Director of Operations Adam Reed said. “What it takes to have a great oyster bar is more than great oysters. It’s oyster eaters. Kansas City has embraced that about us and we’re thrilled that they have.”
I can’t finish this article without giving some props to a long-running seafood gem, the Bristol Seafood Grill. I remember the original Bristol on the Plaza when it was known as “the” place for fresh seafood in town. That Bristol opened in 1980, and its focus on seafood was unique in the Midwest.
At the end of its lease in 1995, the Bristol relocated to Leawood. A downtown Power & Light Bristol opened in 2008. Impressively, 26 years after the first Bristol opened, the restaurants deliver a top-notch seafood-themed dining experience as a recent meal there confirmed.
There was a lot of food consumed among my wife, daughter and myself, but three items stood out as “don’t miss” Bristol dishes — crab cakes, char-broiled scallops and a Japanese seven spiced barramundi that I ordered and greedily consumed!
The Bristol has a large menu, so it would seem to be easy to concentrate on specialties and let other items slide. We didn’t find that to be the case as the quality was consistent from my daughter’s Caesar’s salad straight through to the bruschetta, halibut and carrot cake.
It’s consistency that the Bristol credits for its remarkable long-running success. That consistency starts at the top. “Executive Chef Dan Uche has been with The Bristol for the past 30 years and Managing Partner Phil Tumberger has been with The Bristol for 20 years,” Lou Ambrose, senior vice president of operations said. “That kind of tenure among key players is almost unheard of in the restaurant industry.”
And it’s more than that. Ambrose says the restaurants have a special bond with the guests, created and strengthened through the years. “Our culture is more than just fresh fish and the drop biscuits; it’s the emotional connection our guests have made over the years with The Bristol brand and its staff. Our guests use The Bristol for special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, business meetings, out-of-town guests, date nights and more,” Ambrose said.
My friends always seem to ask for a barbecue tour when they come to town and I’m happy to oblige. Next time, though, I might just have to throw in a seafood day. We’ve got some great choices.
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.