If there was one thing missing from the culinary scene in Westport—and if you didn’t want to travel all the way north to 39th Street or all the way south to the Plaza—it was barbecue. The void has now been filled, thanks to Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements. In the space formerly occupied by the Beaumont Club and its mechanical bull, managing partners Mark Kelpe and James Westphal have combined all of their beer-centric experience in Westport (McCoy’s Public House, The Foundry and Beer Kitchen), the barbecue-linary talents of award winning pit master Mitch Benjamin, chef consultant Michael Peterson and executive chef Jeremy Tawney, to craft a smoking joint tailored to the needs of the neighborhood.
The dramatically remodeled space is open yet comfortable, with multiple dining areas. Modern surfaces like concrete and metal are mixed with pieces of midcentury Americana and give the Char Bar a casual and contemporary feel with a dollop of nostalgia. In case your own nostalgia for the Beaumont’s volleyball court, line dancing, live bands and the bull needs a little assuaging, the soon-to-open enormous fire pit and gigantic tire swings are just a few of the “Other Amusements” hinted at in the restaurant title. It was a little too cold during our visits to sample the outdoor amusements, but the extremely friendly and personable service staff kept us amused. The bartenders were especially enthusiastic and well informed about the huge selection of beers (I counted around 75) that come from all over the United States.
The combination of great beer with Kansas City’s barbecue fetish and a big handful of Southern-comfort classics seems so obvious, I’m surprised there’s not one of these places on every street corner in Westport. After all, a good foundation of smoked meat, unctuous fat, and sustaining starch is the perfect way to prevent or help cure a hangover.
The Southern focus helps delineate what could have been any other beer-centric bar-food menu and defines Char Bar as more of a Southern gastropub with barbecue, not just another BBQ establishment in the city. We began our first visit with a platter of Cheesy Hushpuppies, a dangerously filling but tasty way to start. Made from stone-ground grits, the fritters were so surprisingly light they could have passed for good Italian arancini (fried rice balls). The buttery “beer” blanc and jalapeno jam all played well together on the plate, and who knew you could deep-fry a few cilantro stems and use them as a delicate little garnish. I am a big fan of fried green tomatoes, and those at Char Bar had the requisite crunchy fried exterior and the warm piquant tang of the immature tomatoes inside. The accompanying chow-chow, a Southern condiment similar to pickle relish, was a bit bland, but then I like chow-chow to be sweet and spicy, with a fiery little kick that plays off the richness of fried foods or even cheeses. Fortunately, Char Bar features a number of table sauces like the Jalapeno Kick and the Veggie Inferno if you need to turn up the heat. Of the other Southern-influenced starters, the smoked chicken wings earned points for presentation. These weren’t the neat little pile of wings cut at the joints to look like miniature chicken legs. These were the whole wing, including the oft-discarded wingtip, lacquered from end to end, glistening like barbecue-glazed pterodactyl wings. They require a true carnivore’s commitment to biting and tearing and dunking in a creamy poblano-buttermilk dressing, but the rewards (more smoky/savory surface area) are worth it.
Although I loved the concept, my least favorite of the starters was the smoked trout dip. I kept asking myself where the smoked trout was (overwhelmed by the cheese?), but I loved the refreshing quality of the smoked corn succotash, a very light and modern execution of a classic Southern side dish. The blistered grapes were affable as well, but I’m not sure what purpose they fulfilled on the plate. The charred romaine salad, an on-trend dish that I heartily endorse, was dressed in a respectable Caesar dressing, topped with shaved pecorino, sourdough croutons, and what they called smoked trout “anchovies” that were actually crunchy little bits of tasty leftover trout skin, which added a wonderful savory crunch to the salad. It was topped with a lovely coddled egg, making a large version of this salad a great light lunch or supper.
As for their smoked meats, instead of wading in, we dove in headfirst and ordered the Whomp! Platter. I’m sure Meat Mitch’s Whomp! sauce has something to do with the name of the dish, but I think it has more to do with the sound of the platter hitting your table. When it arrived, I asked our server if this normally served four or five people. “I think that was how it was intended, but most of the time two people split it.” Wow. On our visit this seriously super-colossal sampling of meats included burnt ends, a half slab, sliced turkey breast, smoked jackfruit, Black Angus brisket, hand-cranked sausage, a bucket of fries, a jar o’ pickles and our choice of two sides. We picked standard sides for the sake of comparison. Although chilled, the potato salad did not taste of refrigerator, nor did it have that weird starchy quality that potatoes pick up when cooled for any length of time, implying that it was either extremely fresh, or they have a really great recipe. The cabbage slaw was crunchy and rough-cut, not the finely shredded stuff one frequently sees, and thankfully it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, making it a nice foil for the rich meats. As for the meats, they were pleasantly smoky, but I found a few of them a bit on the dry side. I’m sure there are those who will disagree heartily with me, but the smoked jackfruit on the platter was one of the more interesting “meats.” Unfamiliar with jackfruit and curious, I ordered it and was pleasantly surprised. Apparently, when jackfruit (a starchy Asian fruit that can grow to an intimidating size) is young, it has a low sugar content and an almost savory quality, something used by many vegetarians who are looking for a meat substitute. When cooked, it shreds like pork or chicken and has a very similar texture. It was pleasingly moist—the most moist “meat” on the platter—and a great vehicle for the sauce. I can imagine that it would perform even better inside a sandwich—which is one of the choices from the sandwich menu that I might sample on a future visit.
The sandwich category, contained in the section “Meat & Bread,” has options to satisfy most any appetite. Char Bar has it covered, from burgers and a brisket cheesesteak, to nods to the South like the Turducken Muffaletta (smoked turkey, Broadway Butcher’s duck prosciutto, pulled chicken, mortadella, provolone and relish on a hoagie) and the lobster Po’Boy (tempura-battered lobster, sliced tomato, shredded lettuce, and okra remoulade) and even two vegetarian options. (There are, by the way, a great number of vegetarian dishes here, something to set this apart from any other barbecue-related spot in town.) At the recommendation of our server one evening, we ordered the Sweet Caroline, a hoagie bun filled with Charleston-style pulled chicken, oozing melted Tillamook cheddar and smoked bacon. I think the “Charleston” part refers to an unreservedly sweet and slightly tangy sauce. I wasn’t as excited by it, but many styles of barbecue, especially some of the more Southern styles, tend toward a honey-like sweetness. The sweet style has millions of fans. I’m just not one of them.
On the other hand, the CBGB burger had my attention from the first bite. It’s composed of equal parts aged brisket and chopped smoked brisket, ground in-house and formed into a thick patty, topped with a gouda schmear, slices of smoky bacon, lightly caramelized onions, with mayo dripping down the sides of the rich egg bun. Yum. Just when you think you’ve had all the variations on a good burger…
Desserts at Char Bar are made in house—and are not for the faint of heart. While curious about the sweet-potato funnel cake with spiced sugar, praline ice cream, and candied bacon, our server warned us that it would be taken off the menu in a day or two, so I decided on the Velvet Elvis, if for no other reason than the name. A bit like Elvis towards the end, it was literally a hot but tasty mess. They had me with the banana bread-peanut butter ice cream sandwich, but I was never sure where it was. Buried under the hot fudge, bananas, whipped cream, spiced walnuts and Cracker Jacks, the ice cream sandwich—and yours truly—almost, almost overwhelmed me.
Char Bar has my attention. Their smoky, Southern-inspired dishes pique my interest. With options like smoked duck gumbo, lobster deviled eggs, fried chicken and waffle and shrimp and catfish, who wouldn’t want to savor their new takes on these hearty classics? My next Sunday brunch availability is certain to include their “Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner” (fried chicken, whipped potatoes, pan gravy and buttermilk biscuit), and I think it should be the next dance on your brunch card, too.
Even if Char Bar doesn’t wish to be categorized as a barbecue restaurant, inevitably it will be. And in Kansas City, everyone has “their” spot (or spots) for “their” perfect barbecue. People seldom agree. Dishes from area barbecue joints are endlessly compared; smoke rings and sauces are analyzed with the scrutiny normally reserved for thousand-dollar bottles of wine. Char Bar is not my favorite Kansas City barbecue yet, but they have nothing to be ashamed of. How could any brand-spanking new joint in a city with 100-plus years of smoking scrutiny even hope to compare to our well-established destinations. Give them time, I say. Let them find their stride. Do you think Joe’s Kansas City or the legendary LC’s figured it all out in the first few months? Char Bar’s Southern-inspired dishes will entertain you. And if you need a little smoke, barbecue and amusement, give ‘em a visit. Just don’t expect to ride a bull. You might even find a new barbecue favorite.
charbarkc.com, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave., 816-389-8600