Last week, I got a call from a friend wondering where to have a “first rate” dinner in the Kansas suburbs over the holidays. There were caveats, though: “It can’t be trendy. It can’t be loud. It has to be fancy and take reservations.” His request might have been a puzzler; despite all of the growth in Johnson County’s dining business over the past two decades, there isn’t exactly an abundance of what I’d call fancy restaurants there. Nonetheless, it was easy to make a recommendation.
Tatsu’s French Restaurant is and has always been that kind of restaurant, regardless of its location (a strip center in Prairie Village) and the national trend toward casual dining. Today, a fancy restaurant is the kind of place where customers still dress up to dine, even though there’s no dress code — the tenor of the dining room simply commands a certain decorum. Tatsu’s evokes the glamour of the city’s long-vanished and expensive restaurants, such as La Tour en Rond, Le Jardin, Le Bonne Auberge and Top of the Crown.
Some of those places served traditional French dishes. Others specialized in continental fare: part French and part Italian, with a splash of Spanish. The last holdout was the Plaza’s La Mediterranee, where waiters in starched tuxedo shirts prepared flaming steak au poivre or steak Diane tableside. But it was a sign of the times (and dramatically changing tastes) when La Mediterranee left the Plaza in 1994 to take up residence in a distinctly unfashionable Overland Park strip mall. The restaurant dropped its dress code, got a little sloppy on details and lost much of its cachet. By the start of the millennium, it was au revoir, La Mediterranee.
But Tatsu’s has maintained its distinctive joie de vivre for 23 years by not changing. Yes, it has expanded several times and redecorated once, but its ambience is firmly fixed. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked the place so much. It prefers to think of itself as the Catherine Deneuve of the dining world rather than something younger and sexier, like Audrey Tautou or Juliette Binoche. The restaurant’s chef-owner, Tatsuya “Tatsu” Arai, was trained at French restaurants in Tokyo in the classic Escoffier style: elegant but not too rich. “The richer the cooking is,” Escoffier wrote, “the more speedily do the stomach and palate tire of it.”
But who could tire of the braised oxtail or coquilles Saint Jacques at Tatsu’s? There’s a reason the restaurant has expanded over the years from a pastry shop and luncheonette to a bustling dining room serving dinner seven nights a week. The food is delicious, the service is friendly and attentive, and the décor is formal, but in a kind of inexpensively mounted, grandmotherly fashion. White tablecloths, for example, are draped over slightly shabby vinyl covers. The curtains are lace, the floral arrangements are fake and there’s not always music on the sound system.
It’s genteel, which is why it lures the stuffy Mission Hills crowd, including a particularly snobby doyenne who pretended not to see the saucy divorcée I was dining with one night. After we finished, my friend brazenly went over to say hello. The wealthy matron gritted her teeth, pasted on a smile and said, “Why, Loretta, I didn’t even see you! Where were you sitting?”
At the very next table, actually, which made the comment even more hilarious. The tables at Tatsu’s are squeezed so close together that it’s possible to eavesdrop on three separate conversations at once. That’s not always a pleasure, as I discovered on the night I had to endure the nonstop proselytizing of one loudmouthed reactionary, who announced to his companions, “The Internet is nothing but a left-wing conspiracy to put pornography in schools!”
I would have thrown my fork at him, but I was using it to spear a few plump escargot dripping with jade-green parsley butter. My friend Bob wished our appetizer of unclad snails and sliced mushrooms had been served with cocktail forks and noted that the dish was one of the least garlicky versions he’d ever tasted. “But look at the crowd,” he whispered. “We’re the youngest people in the room.”
Except for our beautiful young waitress, Charlotte, who hurried out with a steaming crock of French onion soup. Its top bubbled with cheese, and the robust brew was thick with long-simmered onions. And as an appetite stimulant, no salad works quite as well as the icy collection of greens tossed in Arai’s punchy house dressing, a tart vinaigrette of soy, egg, oil and rice vinegar.
When I first dined at Tatsu’s twenty years ago, I fell madly in love with his signature supreme de poulet teriyaki, a juicy hunk of sautéed chicken glazed with a slightly crispy, caramelized crust. Over the years, Arai gave in to the anti-fat contingent and replaced the succulent dark meat, cooked in its skin, with three pallid medallions of skinless breast barely splattered with sweet sauce. I found it to be a cruel sacrifice for good health. Bob indulged himself with a perfectly grilled slab of beef tenderloin drenched in a shallot-and-red-wine reduction — it’s one of the best steak deals in town, better (and less expensive) than the same cut at one legendary local steakhouse.
A few nights later we returned with jazz singer Queen Bey in tow. She had never eaten at Tatsu’s, but the idea of a French restaurant owned by a Japanese-born chef appealed to her, particularly when she heard that Arai had once worked at Maxim’s (OK, it was the Chicago Maxim’s) and knew his way around an oxtail.
“Honey, I can’t tell you the last time I had a good, meaty oxtail,” Queen said, giving the crowd the once-over. “I’m glad I dressed up. Everyone here looks good.”
That night, a beautiful young couple sat among the wrinkle set; it was as if a spotlight were shining on their table. Queen buttered a piece of baguette and informed our server that she’d have the potage de crab au sherry. “And not too heavy on the sherry, dear.”
It was a luscious soup, silken in color and texture, with a mound of fresh crabmeat floating in the center. Bob and I shared an order of golden sautéed oysters, then delighted in our salads until dinner arrived. Queen’s oxtail was the pièce de résistance of the night, a glossy shank of beef, braised and baked until the meat all but tumbled off the bone. “Honey, I’m having an orgasm, it’s so good,” she said.
The biddy at the next table cringed, so I was more discreet in raving about my sliced, roasted duck breast, tender and pink and dripping with a creamy peppercorn sauce. Bob chose another longtime Tatsu’s favorite, supreme de poulet sauté aux herbes, plump chicken-breast medallions doused in a lemony butter sauce.
He considered the dish, served with steamed broccoli, carrots and potatoes, light enough that he could indulge in the restaurant’s most extravagant and expensive dessert, the Grand Marnier Soufflé. Our server brought the gorgeously light puff of sugar and stiffly beaten eggs to the table directly from the oven while it still stood proud, then expertly divided the frothy cloud and poured a ribbon of orange-flavored liqueur over each portion. Because Arai started his restaurant career as a pastry chef, I gave in to temptation and also ordered his chocolate mousse torte, a tidy little square of ganache and satiny mousse dusted in cocoa and served with wedges of pink grapefruit, orange slices and circles of fresh kiwi. In a word, divine.
The French might say it differently, calling Arai’s food améliorez que le sexe. But in any language, it’s beautiful.