Uptown Bird: Story, Cafe Europa and Aixois lead my search for fancy-ish fried chicken

You can call Kansas City a barbecue town, a meat-and-potatoes city, even a loose-meat metropolis. But this old riverside trading post’s longest culinary relationship is a love affair with fried chicken. Here’s a dish that, at least until recent times, was cheap, easy to fry and good hot or cold. And regardless of era, a well-made thigh, drumstick or breast delivers a singular thrill: crunch, salt, juice, heft.

“Kansas City had the stockyards, but has had just as many iconic chicken restaurants as steakhouses,” says chef Jasper Mirabile Jr., whose late father, the namesake of the long-running Jasper’s Restaurant, opened his Italian restaurant in Waldo in 1954 with both spaghetti and fried chicken on the menu. “Think of the great local dining rooms that only served fried chicken: the Green Parrot, the Wishbone, Stroud’s, Mrs. Peters. People still talk about those places.”

Mirabile, who will host a series of Saturday-only events in July for “Fried Chicken Month” at area Hen House supermarkets, plans to showcase the differences among Southern fried chicken, Maryland fried chicken and the Kansas City version.

“Kansas City chicken is an old classic. It’s soaked in buttermilk before frying, and the preparation is incredibly simple,” he says. “The bird is dredged in flour, salt and pepper. It needs to be cooked in a cast-iron pan with only a half-inch or so of oil. Any more oil than that and it soaks into the meat.”

Of course, what sounds simple still takes something extra to become divine. And chefs around here, including at least one James Beard Award winner, can’t seem to resist the desire to perfect fried chicken in their own ways.

Take, for example, Colby Garrelts and Carl Thorne-Thomsen — the former of Bluestem and Rye and a Beard winner, the latter of Prairie Village’s Story. Both prefer deep-fryers over cast-iron, and Rye’s popularity suggests that they’re onto something. Fried chicken is served there every day, and it’s the restaurant’s signature draw. At the sleek Story, Thorne-Thomsen serves fried chicken only once a week, from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays. The $19 meal includes four pieces of exceptionally delicious, crispy fried chicken, perched atop a slab of savory bread pudding, Parmesan gravy and a green vegetable (often Brussels sprouts, but more recently English green peas).

“We start with a dry rub for our chicken,” Thorne-Thomsen says, “and soak it in buttermilk for an hour before frying. The buttermilk tenderizes the chicken and adds moisture and a hint of acidity. Our seasonings are salt, pepper and a tiny bit of sugar.

“I did not grow up eating fried chicken,” he adds. “It’s a taste I acquired later in my life. I believe in keeping the preparation simple and clean. Lately, we’ve experimented with adding a bit of moisture — chicken stock — to the flour to add an even crunchier crust to the exterior of the chicken.”

Thorne-Thomsen says the weekly fried chicken dinners have attracted some diners who might have been too intimidated by the regular Story menu. “It’s not an expensive dish at all,” he says, “but very comforting and generous. People seem to love it.”

He adds that it’s even more lovable with sparkling wine — especially a sparkling rose from the Sonoma-based Gloria Ferrer. “It’s a bright, refreshing wine that cuts through the heaviness of fried foods,” he says.

On the Missouri side of State Line Road, Emmanuel Langlade, the chef and co-owner of Aixois restaurant in Crestwood, began offering fried-chicken dinners every Tuesday night in April, after winning rave reviews for his battered bird at parties.

“I was encouraged to start offering it once a month as a special,” Langlade says. “I’m actually a little shocked at the response. Every Tuesday night has been busier than the one before, and we sell out of the chicken quickly.”

Langlade, who says it’s rare to find fried chicken in France (“Unless it’s one of the American chains,” he says), uses a deep-fryer instead of an iron pan for his bird, which he fries for 10 minutes and then finishes in the oven for a light, memorably crispy crust.

The dinner, which includes a half-chicken, buttery mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans, is priced at $26. Langlade also suggests wine: “You don’t want anything too heavy or a wine that will compete with the taste of the chicken,” he says. “Pinot noir would always be my choice.”

Just down the street from Aixois, Café Europa has been offering Sunday-night fried chicken dinners for several years, serving the all-inclusive $23 meal from 5:30 to 8 p.m. The meal features a house salad, two pieces of fried chicken — deep-fried after an overnight marinade in buttermilk — with green beans cooked with bacon and onions, mashed potatoes, scratch chicken gravy and the restaurant’s signature lemon cake.

If it sounds like I’ve seen a lot of leg lately, well, I have. Such is the search for a Sunday-dinner kind of comfort on nights when everybody else has moved busily into the work week. Next week, I’ll tell you about a couple more stops on my chicken odyssey. First, though, I have to put my leftovers away and lie down.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews