There’s something to be said for tradition and consistency. When you do something very well, why tempt fate and tinker with it? Kansas City’s restaurant scene is filled with come-and-go stories of trend-hopping, glitz-chasing and misplaced priorities.
Even chef Tatsu Arai took a stab at contemporaneity a few years ago when he launched what proved to be a short-lived casual sandwich joint in Westport, followed by a short-lived casual bistro.
But day in and day out, for the last 32 years or so, the French-trained chef from Japan has built his reputation on the fine-dining, suburban-storefront hideaway that bears his name. The walls are beige, evening sunlight dapples the lace curtains that obscure the parking lot out front, and sauces on every dish are exquisitely subtle and sumptuous.
In the realm of local French restaurants, Tatsu’s is reliable, comfortable and unwavering in its commitment to a kind of traditional satisfaction, a comfortable spot halfway between steak frites and creative high style. Call it the immovable feast. The restaurant exudes a gentle formality that you don’t find at Aixois or Westport Café Bistro. And with a mostly, ah, let’s say mature, clientele, it stands as the polar opposite of the raucous, exuberant Le Fou Frog.
Time and again, when I asked friends how long it had been since their last meal at Tatsu’s —no, not Tasso’s,
that goofy Greek place, I sometimes had to interject — the answer was “forever.” Same with me. I think the last time I was there was in the ’80s. On a recent Sunday evening, though, we rectified that lapse, and four of us found much to be happy about.
Let me start with dessert: I had a frisson of a sense memory when, after our perfectly cooked, wholly satisfying meal, our server placed a Tatsu’s Delight before us.I remember this
, I think I said as I forked through the stack of flaky pastry squares, which sandwiched dollops of custard and cream.
With a strawberry on top and a sprinkling of chocolate on the plate, the dish might strike some as a little fussy, but it’s essentially simple and irresistible. Which sums up Tatsu’s formula for success.
On this night the main dining room was full and pleasantly abuzz. Before dessert, we liked the refreshing chill of the vichyssoise, and we savored a plate of escargots. Our Kenyan visitor was taken aback when he learned what that word meant, but he enjoyed the classically garlicked, parsleyed and buttered delicacy as much as he liked the poached salmon that came to him next.
The rack of lamb and the magret de canard (duck breast) were succulent and nicely pink in the middle.
I spent the most time with my entree of veau au citron:
Three thinly pounded, milky white discs of tender veal wore a radiant, lemony sauce. She Who Is Not Easily Pleased always expresses her discomfort with the idea of veal — no problem with lamb, I guess — but for an unabashed omnivore this is the kind of dish that you wish would never end. Each bite was a bright and sensory surprise.
Our second meal, on a Saturday night, unfolded in the smaller side dining room with arcaded mirrors and a somewhat crisper finish than the main room. (Tatsu’s also has a couple of tables in the tiny bar area, which looked like it could be a fine and cozy setting to spend the two hours or more that a three-course meal can last here.)
A shrimp appetizer was first rate, a pleasant little essay in texture and buttery delight. A crab soup was delicate and understated; a carrot soup, its deep orange top marbled with an accent of cream, evoked a sweetness not unlike that of the lightly brown-sugared chunks of carrot that accompany virtually every entree.
It’s hard to argue with other classics such as coquilles St. Jacques meuniére (an admirable, though possibly repetitive, scallop answer to the shrimp starter) and rich, tender, red-wine accented short ribs in the boeuf Bourguignon.
An entree of eggplant, softened and lightly tarted up by its Provençal tomato sauce, offered surprising texture and taste. A filet in a shallot and red wine reduction sauce is another dish to linger over.
One could begin to argue, however, as a sense of déja vu creeps in and you wonder why each dish has to have the same trinity of sides — carrots, broccoli, mashed potatoes; they’re perfectly cooked, mind you, but the effect feels less than inspired. More evidence of Tatsu’s stubborn adherence to tradition: A Star critic made a similar complaint, about the very same sides, almost 20 years ago.
Nevertheless, the déja vu dissipated and spirits were buoyed when we got to dessert. We shared a terrific souffle and enjoyed the tableside skills of our server as she deftly spooned the lighter-than-air, egg-white poufs onto plates and drizzled the accents of Grand Marnier, creme anglaise and raspberry puree. Yes, it was old school, but soothingly, successfully so.Tatsu’s French Restaurant
4603 W. 90th St.
* * * 1/2: Unwavering commitment to exquisitely made Continental classics.
* * 1/2: Formal but friendly; occasionally slow.
* * * : Comfortable, pleasant, unhurried.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday.
Eggplant Provençal is the lone vegetarian dish on the menu. Special diets can be accommodated, though advance notice is helpful.
Smaller portions and other accommodations are possible.
A genteel buzz when filled to capacity.
* Fair, * * Good, * * * Excellent, * * * * Extraordinary
$ Average entree under $10; $$ Average entree under $20; $$$ Average entree under $30; $$$$ Average entree 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 reviewer’s meals.Recommended Shrimp meuniére,
Magret de canard
Veau au citron,
Grand Marnier souffle,
$7.25 a personWhat to drink
Tatsu’s has a full bar, a straight-ahead standing list of martinis and cocktails and beer. The wine list offers a nice enough range, but for all the restaurant’s commitment to French food it is surprisingly lacking in French bottles. (By contrast, I was surprised the other day when I looked over the list at the Farmhouse, in the River Market, which is filled with almost nothing but French whites and reds.)
A fine and versatile choice is the Gerard Bertrand Corbieres, an earth-and-spice, south-region blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre ($40 a bottle). A twist-off pinot noir from the same producer is light and innocuous at $28 a bottle.