Kansas City is fortunate to be home to a number of good French restaurants. It should come as no surprise then that I recently discovered a beef bourguignon even Julia Child would approve.
Tucked away in the downtown Commerce Bank Building on Walnut Street, Charisse, which opened at the end of 2014, touts its food as a blend of “old French, modern American.”
The Charisse space is a former outpost of Aixois Brasserie, where chef and owner Jason Craine headed the kitchen before buying the restaurant with his wife, Charisse. In its latest reincarnation, there is still a good amount of French flowing through the restaurant. Classic dishes such as beef bourguignon and cassoulet share space on an extensive menu with newer American-style flourishes, including Asian-inspired duck wontons and a gluten-free quinoa salad.
Both the food and atmosphere at Charisse are designed to impress, whether it’s the setting for a business dinner, romantic evening or drinks with friends. The interior skews toward the modern, with a handsome bar of glowing whiskeys and other spirits, and a dining room that evokes a sophisticated vibe that is both intimate and inviting.
At night, when the lights are low, beach ball-sized orbs descending from the ceiling at varying levels give a soft glow to both rooms. The music never overpowers, and though it gets lively when the restaurant is full, the acoustics never limit one’s ability to converse.
The service can be a bit slow at times but is generally helpful, well-informed and enthusiastic. Two different servers recommended dishes they described as “the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” and on both occasions the suggestions proved very good.
Ultimately, it is Charisse’s blend of classic and contemporary dishes that seals the deal.
Although considered traditional French fare, escargot is not as common on menus as it once was, but Charisse offers a winning version.
Succulent bits of escargot still tender with the lightest bit of bounce are combined with cremini mushrooms, then bathed in a velvety garlic-parsley butter. For a modern American spin, the dish is served in a warm Mason jar and accompanied by thin bread crisps to soak up every last drop. Two of my dining companions had never eaten escargot before, but they quickly became fans.
Meanwhile, even an old standby like Caesar salad has received a facelift with the substitution of traditional dressing components such as egg and anchovy, their clever re-imagining highlighted by a fried egg, white anchovy filet and strips of crunchy, smoke-heavy bacon. The salad is topped with finely shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano that resembles a fine dusting of powdery snow.
The fried egg oozes yolk when cut, creating its own dressing, and the white anchovy brings a nice saltiness to the dish, although I could have used more than the single small fillet on mine.
Another standout brought from old-school French cooking is a fantastic take on beef bourguignon, a classic dish of beef braised in red wine. Chef Craine’s luscious version starts as a sizable chunk of meat that is braised for hours until fork-tender and served with a piped potato puree.
Long, paper-thin shavings of carrot are curled into a pile atop the dish, making it an homage to the original but with a touch of renewed elegance. Most dishes at Charisse are nicely thought out, then bolstered with strong execution and clever use of textures and ingredients.
For instance, the well-prepared ruby trout mixes in modern Asian flavors; the crispy, smoky seared fish skin is complemented by the savory flavors of miso soy jus and porcini, with a nice pop from the crunchy cashews and edamame.
The duck wonton appetizer is another example where Asian flavors come together to make a nice bite that is not so much French as fusion. The flavor of the ground duck tucked into fried wonton skins served with a nice ponzu and port wine reduction drizzled over it is subtle.
The wontons and the escargot are also featured on the happy hour menu, which is served all night in the bar area and features some very good values. Charisse also serves adorable mini versions of the croque monsieur sandwich — a very rich mix of ham, Gruyere cheese and béchamel — with the normal-sized sandwich showing up for lunch.
The lunch menu is focused on sandwiches and salads, with standouts like the burger, steak frites and even quiche. But the French dip served at lunch only is worth the trip alone.
Shaved slices of rib-eye sit atop a grilled baguette with savory notes coming from grilled onions, jalapeno and smoked Gouda. It is a massive sandwich, but it is hard to put down. Dipping the sandwich into the au jus helps soften the aggressively grilled baguette, creating an ideal textural contrast. The jalapeno is an unexpected touch, adding a vegetal depth of flavor and a slight heat.
There are some really good versions of the French dip out there, and this is one of the best I’ve had. The frites — French fries — are fried nicely, but I’m not much for the truffle oil they are tossed in.
The lunch salads are the same as those on the dinner menu, including such options as the quinoa salad flecked with kale, radish, carrot and pumpkin seeds. The beet salad, available only at dinner, has Roquefort cheese, pear and candied pecans, offering a sweetness that plays off the root vegetable.
On a dinner visit, the kitchen switched gears and we were served a very nice amuse bouche — a little profiterole with salmon mousse and cornichons. The small bite was a welcome gesture that speaks to an attention to detail that echoes throughout a meal at Charisse.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef and freelance restaurant critic: tfoxfood@gmail, @theshortandlong
1006 Walnut, Suite 202
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner is 5 p.m.-close Monday through Friday, 5:30 p.m.-close Saturday. Closed on Sunday.
Entrée range: $19-$32
Vegetarian options: Soups, salads such as the quinoa, A seared leek entrée.
Kids: No separate kids menu, but there are a number of starter options such as pomme frites, duck wontons and soups that would appeal to children.
Parking: Street parking on Walnut, plus a parking garage with validated parking.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Noise level: Medium. The room can get lively when full, with a nice selection of music that never feels overly loud. In the bar seating area other conversations can be heard but never to the point of interfering with conversations at the table.
Food: ☆☆☆ A very nice mix of classic French dishes like beef bourguignon or escargot with more modern ingredients and dishes, including duck wontons, quinoa salad and ruby trout.
Service: ☆☆ 1/2 Service is polite and fairly polished without being overbearing. Timing can be slower at peak dinner service, but it makes for a nice laid-back dinner. Lunch service runs faster.
Atmosphere: ☆☆☆ Both the dining room and the bar area have a sleek, modern vibe, with large orb lights descending from the ceiling. Combined with good music, it makes for an intimate, hip bistro vibe.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Exceptional
What to drink
Charisse has a full bar with a very large wine list with something for just about every taste. it also has classic and craft cocktails, as well as a nice selection of local craft beers and an impressive variety of whiskeys. Happy hour goes all night in the bar area, with discounted food and deals on house wines, well drinks and select beers.
Caesar salad, $7
French dip (lunch only), $16
Beef bourguignon, $24
Ruby trout, $21