It’s been a long time since I worked downtown. So recently, when I found myself called for jury duty, I was excited to see if some new eateries were within walking distance from the Jackson County Courthouse.
During my first lunch break, I started off walking north on Oak, then west. Spinning my head left and right, I was really getting disappointed. A Jimmy John’s here, a Subway there; down the street a KFC. Now, I know those places are fine, it’s just not what I was looking for.
I really wanted to experience a new place, since I normally don’t get to downtown for lunch during the week. And of course, I was aware of the fact that my whopping $6 a day and 7 cents a mile for jury pay were not going to go very far, no matter what I unearthed. But that’s OK. I’m taking this one for the Chow Town readers. What a trooper, huh?
I navigated the urban canyons for what seemed like 20 minutes, not finding exactly what I was looking for. Then finally, when I rounded Walnut and squinted down the street, I saw it: Charisse (1006 Walnut). I knew that name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. From my dusty memory banks, I recalled a time at the bar of The Rieger, when I met chef Jason Crane. I think his place was named Charisse. I wasn’t sure. No matter. Today I’m going to Charisse.
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As I walk into the airy, modern and compact space, I’m immediately surprised by how busy the place is. The energy level is high, but not frenetic or chaotic. I was promptly greeted and asked about my seating preference. Instead of taking up a table, I opted for the bar. As you know, my wife and I love sitting at the bar anyway, because you can always find out interesting tidbits from the bartender.
Before I had a chance to look over the menu, I met bartender and front of house manager Dennis Maas. I mentioned to Maas that I was serving jury duty and had a limited amount of time (due to how much I’d already wandered). “Then you should get the special today,” says Maas. “Great, I’ll take it,” I said, before I even give the guy a chance to tell me what it is.
No sooner had I taken my third sip of water when a huge bowl of lobster bisque appears before me. It looks beautiful, with colossal chunks of lobster meat nestled on top and garnished with sage. Next to that was a ham and cheese Panini, as well as some nicely dressed greens, which added a perfect bit of acid to balance the rich creaminess of the bisque and the sandwich proteins.
At first glance, the special reminded me of a “grown up” version of my favorite childhood comfort food of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I guess that’s why Charisse describes their cuisine as a combination of Old French & New American. This lunch was delicious and I couldn’t have been happier with my new find. Excellent quality food in a timely fashion. Just what I needed.
When I got back into the jury room, I have to admit that I felt a bit smug as I heard all the complaints of my fellow prospective jurors. Most were not very happy with their lunch options. That’s when I thought to myself, “You know? I hope the selection process goes on for another day. I could have a chance to go back to Charisse and not be as rushed.” As luck would have it, justice prevailed, and I was back for another day of grilling (the lawyer kind, not my normal outdoor kind).
Day two. I was diligently listening to the judge’s instructions. And then my mind drifted, wondering what chef Crane had whipped up for today’s special. Lunch break came and I knew where I was going. No wandering around this time.
I’m not in Charisse’s door more than 2 seconds when I hear a laugh. “Back again? Good to see you. I think you’ll like what I have for today’s special,” said chef Crane. I guess Crane recognized me as the-guy-at-the-bar-that-needs-to-eat-in-a-hurry. Well, I have more time this day, so I won’t be as rushed.
Sitting in the same place, I allow Maas to at least start to describe today’s special to me. “Diver Scallops and …” Immediately my mind is made up. I swear I didn’t hear anything else he said.
Beautiful scallops came to the table, artfully placed on top of a ratatouille. I was skeptical at first, because generally, I’m not a big fan of ratatouille. But I kept an open mind.
Wow. That describes my lunch. First off, the scallops were seared perfectly, keeping the creamy interior intact. Instead of just some filler carb to round out the plate, what’s there? Buttery, silky mashed potatoes finished with lobster meat.
And the ratatouille? I gobbled it up. It had a different flavor profile than I’ve had before. Crane puts his own spin on this traditional French vegetable dish (usually containing tomato, onion, zucchini, eggplant and bell pepper). He cooks the vegetables in a bit of sesame oil, then deglazes the pan with red wine and butter, finishing with a bit of ponzu glaze. “I always season most of my dishes with a little crushed chili flake and herbes de Provence,” said Crane.
Oh, and remember, this was just the lunch special for today.
Thoroughly impressed, I feel I have to say something. So as I’m leaving, I stop by the pass (the window where the food comes out of the kitchen), and compliment chef Crane on one of the best lunches I’ve had in quite a while. I think he might have blushed just a bit, because that’s the kind of guy he is.
“Juror 72,” says the defense lawyer, “Do you feel that you’d be able to objectively review the facts and render an impartial verdict?” Stoically, I replied “Yes.” “Thank you. You may be seated.”
And now my mind wanders back to those incredible lunches I just had over the last two days. However, this time I don’t feel smug. I feel a bit sorry for the thousands of people that work downtown that I bet don’t even know about this French / American restaurant oasis that’s right in the middle of their Kansas City landscape. And that’s too bad.
What a great way to break the monotony of brown bag lunches, greasy joints, or footlong sandwiches. Sure, you probably won’t eat lunch at Charisse every day, but you can certainly treat yourself to pleasant meal every once in awhile. Why not? Reward yourself for that agonizing commute you put in every day.
Now the good news is that you don’t have to work downtown or get called for jury duty to experience this fine place. Charisse not only serves extraordinary lunches, but also serves dinner six nights a week. You should take the time, make a reservation, get out of the suburbs and venture to downtown Kansas City so you can personally experience what Old French & New American cuisine tastes like. And I feel confident that it will only take one trip to render your own verdict: Charisse is GUILTY! Of having a great chef, concept, and cuisine.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS barbecue judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.