Renee Kelly was 23 when she bought Shawnee’s historic Caenen Castle.
The impressive stone structure, built by dairy farmer Remi Caenen in 1907, had been used as a residence, a nightclub, a haunted house and a rest home. But in 2003, Kelly envisioned it as the home of a private dining business unlike anything else in the Kansas City area.
“My original concept was almost like ‘The Great Gatsby’ — you’d have to know somebody who knows somebody to get in,” Kelly says.
After securing a loan, the chef went to work renovating the century-old castle. She converted the kitchen to a bar, framed three oversized fireplaces with hand-carved wood and removed part of the second floor so that the main-level dining room would have two-story ceilings. Kelly also constructed a new addition for her kitchen and, while shoring up the foundation, dug a wine cellar that seats 28 people for private events.
For about five years, Kelly used the castle as she originally intended, for private dinners, wine tastings and other culinary-themed events. But when the recession hit in 2008, she shifted her focus from fine dining to wedding planning.
“Weddings still go on during a recession,” Kelly says. “They might not be as extravagant, but they still go on.”
Caenen Castle, with its picturesque stonework and dramatic staircase, made for a romantic wedding venue. But after a few years of event planning, Kelly craved another change. The chef was pulled back into the kitchen, opening the castle for dinner once a week. Then, she added Sunday brunch. In August 2012, she finally debuted a restaurant, Renee Kelly’s Harvest.
Harvest is all about local, seasonal food. The menu changes about every 10 days along with the food Kelly buys from local farms.
The chef gets free-range chicken from Barham Cattle Company & Family Farm in Kearney; produce from Cultivate KC, lettuce from Two Sisters Farm outside of Lawrence; oyster mushrooms from Trammell Treasures mushroom farm in Warrensburg, Mo., and beef from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kan.
For a delicious start to dinner, there is the chef’s board appetizer ($18), a cutting board loaded with six varieties of local cheese, candied pecans, homemade pickles, toasted bread and artisan cured meats from La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa. I loaded up on the paper-thin prosciutto, which practically melts in your mouth, and the creamy Winstead Reserve Havarti-style cheese from Shatto Milk Co. in Osborn, Mo.
If you prefer a lighter appetizer, go for the apple and candied walnut salad ($8), a sweet and elegantly plated starter dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette.
Standouts on Harvest’s entree menu include a Scotch filet ($30), a juicy cut of prime rib seared and served with sweet potato-mushroom gnocchi, and pressed local duck breast ($28), a vibrant dish served with duck sausage, roasted apple and beets.
I ordered the crispy skin striped bass ($30), seared in a hot skillet and served over nutty red rice in a yolk-colored pool of saffron cream. Kelly steeps saffron in a sauce made with white wine, cream and aromatics such as onions, garlic, white peppercorns and rosemary.
Harvest’s entrees are elegantly plated, and the stone-walled dining room, with its two fireplaces, is over-the-top romantic. But you don’t have to dress like a royal to dine there. A sweater, jeans and boots can feel right at home.
The restaurant is just as comfortable at brunch. Earlier this year, I went with a friend — again, in denim — and we dined like queens on sparkling cocktails (try the $10 Cinderella, which tops dry sparkling wine with Grand Marnier, orange and pineapple juice) and French toast ($13) made with brioche toast and topped with mascarpone cheese.
If you prefer to pop in for a cocktail and a nibble, grab a seat in the cozy bar, which serves beer from local breweries, wine from California and beyond, and cocktails made with locally distilled spirits. Whiskey lovers will enjoy sipping the potent 30 Day Bronx ($11), which bartender Matt Eden makes by barrel-aging local Dark Horse Distillery whiskey with vermouth and orange liqueur until the flavors meld and the drink takes on a woodsy characteristic. Another popular cocktail is the Pear Cinnamon Manhattan ($10), made with pear-infused rye whiskey.
Chef Kelly recently updated the bar menu, which boasts pear-ginger-glazed pork belly, short rib sliders, beer-braised duck wings and a petite version of the chef’s board (all $12).
The next time I visit, I’m ordering the chef-recommended RK burger ($14), a blend of beef tenderloin and prime rib scraps seared to order and topped with pork belly and crispy kale.
Kale on a prime rib burger in a castle? Only at Renee Kelly’s Harvest.
Sarah Gish writes about Johnson County restaurants every first and third week of the month. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @sarah_gish.
Renee Kelly’s Harvest
Location: 12401 Johnson Drive in Shawnee
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t miss: The Scotch filet ($36), a juicy cut of prime rib that’s seared and served with sweet potato gnocchi and butter-braised turnips, the crispy-skin striped bass ($30) over red rice and a pool of buttery saffron cream, and the flavor-packed free-range chicken breast ($22) with risotto.
Vegetarian: Order the swiss chard dumplings ($14 at lunch or $24 at dinner), made with local greens and served with squash, apples and pecans.