I never imagined that in one year I would be reviewing two—not one, but two—new seafood restaurants in Kansas City. We are, after all,about as far as you can get from the ocean. Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on the Country Club Plaza has set out to “bring the coasts to the coast-less,” and by golly, I think they’ve done it.
Jax is located on the ground floor of the Polsinelli building in the West Plaza. The tastefully austere glass storefront is punctuated by a small, blue awning-covered door. The interior, too, is understated, with a few abstract references to the sea and fishing and, naturally, the obligatory fish tank. The bar is comfortable and casual, the dining room a bit more refined. For the curious, the kitchen is mostly open, and chef de cuisine Bobby Bowman, a veteran of Lidia’s and Webster House, can be seen guiding and working alongside his cooks on a daily basis.
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Before discussing the dishes themselves, a little must be said about the vision guiding Jax Fish House. The seafood we all love is not an unlimited resource. Scientists have known this for a while, but chefs have begun to realize that the raw ingredients, their primary medium for culinary expression are rapidly dwindling. But it doesn’t have to continue in that direction, and Jax Fish House (a concept originating in land-locked Colorado) is doing its part to see that it doesn’t. Partnering with Seafood Watch, The Blue Ocean Institute,Sea to Table and Fish Choice enables Jax to source and use responsible and sustainable seafood. In fact, a manager there told me that one-hundred percent of the seafood on the menu is considered a good choice or alternative by the fastidious organizations listed above.
From experience, I can tell you that working with responsibly gathered seafood is not an easy task for several reasons. Generally speaking, this type of seafood is expensive. That fact is reflected in the prices here, but don’t let that deter you. Just realize that you’re paying to have very fresh, high-quality seafood that meets the highest environmental standards possible. Second, it takes quite a bit of research to actually ensure that the seafood you’re looking for or using meets these standards. Last but not least, it takes no small amount of effort to educate customers about fish with unfamiliar names, to explain how they can be delicious even though they’ve never heard of it, or why the halibut they love so much is only available at certain times of the year. Consider this a consciousness-raising.
A fun way to raise your consciousness at Jax is happy hour, an excellent time to sample many of the dishes offered here and at substantially reduced prices. From four until six o’clock each evening (and all night on Monday!), happy hour at Jax is a good reason to leave work a little early (and maybe go in a little late on Tuesday).
We began our exploration with fried calamari, a common item on countless restaurant and bar menus, one that I frequently use as a litmus test for a dining establishment. It tells me if the chef is going to go to a little extra trouble for his guests, make his own breading, perhaps marinating the squid beforehand, or if the chef is going to just pull any old heavily pre-battered and seasoned factory calamari rings out of the freezer and drop them into the deep fryer. Believe me, it can forecast your entire dining experience. At Jax, the calamari were simply plated and unassuming in appearance, served with only a lemon wedge and a smear of lime aioli. This meltingly tender squid is hands down the best fried squid I have ever had in Kansas City, and I’ve tried a lot of them. Hailing from Judith Point, one of the prime fishing locations for squid in the United States, the rings and tentacles are delicately battered allowing the succulent squid to be the star,not some heavy fried crunchy crust, showing a great respect for allowing high-quality ingredients to speak for themselves.
Another dish that surprised me was the peel-and-eat shrimp. Rolling your eyes yet? It’s one of those dishes that conjures images of an all-you-can-eat buffet line, possibly at a casino, with mountains of tough, cooked-to-death shrimp of questionable origin, spilling over the rim of a tired old plastic bowl into the ornamental kale leaves and chipped ice. Not so these! The crunchy (not rubbery) shrimp were dusted in a zesty little spice blend (I don’t remember specifics on the spices, but I do remember licking my fingers), accompanied with a swirl-your-own cocktail sauce, tangy mustard and lemon. The lemon must have been intended for cleaning your hands, because the shrimp needed absolutely nothing. Intrigued by the sustainable nature of the menu, a manager with whom I spoke said that responsible shrimp is one of the more difficult items to keep on the menu. It takes considerable sourcing from around the U.S. coasts to keep them coming year round.
Lovers of steamed mussels have two choices: finished with roasted tomato and chorizo, or my favorite, dressed in the richness and perfume of coconut and the complexity of zesty panang curry, a classic combination if ever there was one.If you’re looking for a crab cake at happy hour, you’re out of luck. They do have a lump blue crab cake on the dinner menu. What they do have at happy hour is a respectable little fish cake called the Griddled Fish Cake Dynamite. I loved the texture of these little delights, savory crispy on the outside, a dollop of fiery Sriracha mayo on top. (Note to the chef: a larger version of this would make a great seafood burger that would put every fish sandwich to shame.)
At the suggestion of our bartender, we ordered the cured salmon lox with pumpernickel, cucumber, roe and dill crema. Spoiler alert—the pumpernickel is actually a waffle, a few very cute triangles of waffle. The combination of flavors is classic and delicious. Wish I had thought of the waffle.
The drinks featured at happy hour are a great value, and the bar is a comfortable and welcoming place with a tireless and friendly staff. The Lemon Press, made with house-infused cucumber vodka, lemonade and a splash of soda offers a reminder of summer and pairs well with many of the seafood dishes. And you can’t really complain about a five-dollar glass of Stemmari pinot grigio (on tap) or a 17-dollar carafe, or about the prices of any of the happy-hour drafts or cocktails. Our bartender, Brock Schulte, was very knowledgeable about the food. He had some great suggestions—including a tasty variety of oysters to try, their proprietary Emersum oyster (say it slowly, as in “em-er-some” good oysters)—and the delicious Spanish octopus. Jax features a cold salad of pristine and tender sliced octopus with pickled onion, buttery-briny olives, shavings of Serrano ham, sweet and crunchy pistachio bits, and a bite of spicy, but not too spicy, chile. Don’t miss it.
Grilled greens have grown in popularity recently, an old-world combination of savory char and bitterness combined with crisp lettuce and acidity. Jax has an excellent grilled romaine salad, something like a deconstructed Caesar. The greens, crunchy garlic brioche croutons, shreds of milky grana padano cheese are pulled together by a vibrant whole-grain mustard dressing. And speaking of greens, am I the only person tired of seeing kale everywhere? It seems every restaurant now has a kale salad? At least at Jax the on-trend ingredient doesn’t disappoint. The kale was fresh, not leathery tough, and balanced by a generous quantity of raw shaved radish, smoky almonds, sweet golden raisins, mellow goat cheese and a tangy verjus (unripe grapes turned into a rather intense and fruity vinegar) vinaigrette. I think there was an apple “ball” or two in there as well. Despite my prejudice, I would order it again, feeling better about my healthful self, even as I cave to annoyingly popular foodie trends.
My absolute favorite dish happened to be from the “Jax Favorites” section of the menu: Neah Bay (northwest Washington coast) Sablefish. Sablefish, also known as black cod, has a very high fat content, that when properly cooked results in a rich but mild flavor. The crisply seared fillet sat atop a creamy potato puree, broccoli rabe, savory black-trumpet mushrooms, and a refreshing drizzle of a pesto-like anchovy persillade (finely chopped parsley, garlic and olive oil). The potato puree provides a “sauce” for the fish, uniting all the elements on the plate.
If you think that’s where you should stop, you’re wrong. Save a little room for dessert. We were served a surprising roulade, the Tres Leche Swiss Roll, a multicultural combination of a thin layer of cake rolled around a mascarpone filling, resting in a vanilla bean sauce with toasty coconut shavings and a brown sugar crisp. The pastry chef, Kelly Conwell, formerly pastry sous chef at Bluestem and American Culinary Federation’s National Student Chef of the Year 2009 (not a bad start to your culinary career), is someone to keep your eye on.
Jax Fish House promises to deliver the fresh flavors of the sea, and as a bonus, you can dine with a clean conscience. I guarantee you’ll be pleased with your choice because of the flavors. The endangered fish and marine habitats will be glad, too.
Jax opens daily at 4 p.m., remaining open until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and until 9 p.m. on Sunday. 816-467-7940, jaxfishhouse.com
PARKING: Limited parking is available on the surrounding streets, and free parking is available in the Polsinelli parking garage (entrance on Belleview). Five-dollar valet parking is available next door in front of the Hotel Sorella.