Restaurant News & Reviews

German flavors infuse a novel menu at Affäre

The oddly named Affäre calls itself a German restaurant and indeed the playful menu is studded with German words. If you don’t happen to have a dictionary at hand, servers are quick to translate the likes of “maultaschen,” “geräucherter Schinken” and “guglhupf.”

There’s apple strudel, spätzle here and there and a recently added Wiener schnitzel. But the more you look at the menu and the more you see the creatively composed, delicately flavored dishes coming your way, you may wonder what’s so German about the place. When a server described a dessert one day as having a “contemporary spin” on a German classic, the lightbulb in my brain finally tripped on. Of course. Welcome to modernity.

The first dishes I tried there were a lovely butter lettuce mimosa — a minimal salad, named for its resemblance to the flower, with a kiss of a sweetened yogurt dressing, and a skewer of roasted seafood atop a layer of orange-fennel salad that bore a seasonal sprinkle of pale violet flower petals. My palate said danke schön and my eyes were duly impressed by the obvious care that went into owner/chef Martin Heuser’s vision of very contemporary, German-inspired food.

Heuser is a native of Germany. He trained in hotel school and apprenticed in restaurants in Bonn and Stockholm. His hotel career took him to Calgary, Alberta, before he came to Kansas City a few years ago to run food operations at the Westin Crown Center. When the hotel was sold last year, he and his wife, Katrina, decided to plant their own restaurant flag in Kansas City, which they had grown to appreciate.

“Kansas City gives us a great chance to open a great restaurant with a smaller budget,” Heuser said on the phone the other day.

Affäre opened in May, and it seems to be building a growing fan base of diners who like Heuser’s strategy of turning fresh and seasonal ingredients into dishes made — delicately composed, I’d say — from scratch. That yogurt-based salad dressing was his grandmother’s recipe, and almost everything else on the menu represents Heuser’s improvisations and interpretations of modern cuisine and German classics.

Consider the pretzel. You’ll find very nice pretzel breadsticks in the basket that comes your way, but more significant, you’ll want a bowl of Heuser’s pretzelknödel. It’s a compact dumpling the size of a handball — or about the size and density of my mother’s classic matzo balls — swimming alongside silky chanterelle mushrooms in a brandy cream sauce. The deep ochre-colored sauce is more savory and restrained than richly sweet, and when it came to the end I didn’t hesitate to swipe the last of it with a bit of bread.

A measure of Heuser’s inventive spirit can be found in the lollo rosso salad, a mix of oak leaf and frisee greens, bits of asparagus, radish and flower petals along with a scoop of “edible soil.” When that came to the table the night I dined with a trio of newspaper interns, one confessed that the whole array reminded him of the time he got in trouble for eating his grandmother’s potpourri.

No trouble ensued here, except in trying to figure out just what that soil was. Heuser explained it to me later: portabella mushroom, ground and dried, mixed with brown sugar, almonds, cocoa powder and walnut oil, and ground again to dust.

Among his other little marvels: a ricotta ravioli with carrot puree and balsamico foam; a creamy lemon risotto cradling assorted bites of seafood; roasted elkloin with a tinge of juniper berries in a bing cherry sauce; a perfectly cooked, tender halibut; and a spring lamb tagine served with a couscous punctuated by cauliflower and raisins.

Others have mentioned to me the odd misstep, but I encountered very little I didn’t enjoy.

Some dishes are more “small-plates” than others, and those with heartier appetites might find the tab mounting as your group, say, wants to taste and share more and more. I kind of shocked myself at a solo lunch one day when entree, dessert and coffee, plus tax and tip, hit a cool $40. So, eat-it-and-beat-it this ain’t.

The restaurant’s large open dining room, once home to the lively Bar Natasha and a moribund jazz club, offers a cool, gray-toned elegance, a combination of industrial brick-and-concrete-block rawness and shabby chic. The walls sport a mixed and unmatched array of paintings, photographs and wildly colored murals, though it strikes me some of the artworks fail to speak with the same level of skill and confidence as Heuser’s kitchen.

Draped lengths of white fabric stripe the ceiling, helping to diffuse overhead lights and to make the towering space more intimate.

Affäre has a somewhat difficult location in the middle of its block — a sign lists parking lots on Walnut Street (one-way northbound) to the east and valet parking is now available Thursday to Saturday. (Urbanists, take note: There is a MAX stop right outside and a BikeKC rental rack in the next block.)

Nevertheless, it also represents one point of a powerhouse triangle of Main Street restaurants. Along with the Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange (across the street to the south) and Michael Smith (across and north), Affäre makes a strong case for its own superstardom. Yes, one must bring money, but also bring a sense of culinary wonder.

After hearing about the place, my usual dining companion She Who Is Not Easily Pleased was heartbroken to learn she’d missed out. All I could say was we’d make it there soon, my liebchen.