In the not-so-distant past, eating and drinking in the heart of Westport was not intended for adults. It may have had its culinary heyday in the ’80s, but since then, it’s been a 20-somethings zone of self-destruction. It seems only yesterday—two decades, actually, since my college days—that we would end up in Westport, overindulge in everything, only to exercise our amazing youthful recuperative abilities the following day. The quality of our indulgence wasn’t necessarily as important as the quantity. There was definitely a great meal or two to be had (I’m thinking of the original Classic Cup on Pennsylvania). And 10 years ago the Garrelts’ Bluestem opened on the western edge of the district. But finally the heart of the area is maturing thanks to a few brave souls like Aaron Confessori and his French bistro-inspired Westport Café and Bar.
Owner Aaron Confessori was greatly influenced by the bistros and brasseries from his time in New York City, working at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market and studying at the French Culinary Institute. Since opening in 2010,WCB has firmly established itself in the fabric of Westport, and this is evident by the number of people from the neighborhood dropping by during happy hour. Of the many great happy hours in Kansas City, I would rank it in my top tier, right there with Extra Virgin, Bluestem, and Voltaire. The honest yet modern home-style French cooking and the dazzling cocktails make WCB the perfect way to erase a bad day at work.
Our first visit was on a chilly Wednesday afternoon. I had glanced over the menu online, so I had an idea of what to expect. But it wasn’t until we were sitting there, transported to another time and place, that I could truly appreciate the experience. We began with the elegantly balanced Parkdale Orchard, composed of Laird’s applejack (an American apple brandy), Clear Creek pear brandy, ginger syrup, lime and cardamom bitters. Not too sweet, beautiful fruit notes, with acidity providing a backbone, and complexity added by the bitters. Actually, those descriptors apply to each of the cocktails we sampled. The Little Red Rooster (Broker’s gin, Aperol, cinnamon syrup, grapefruit, lemon, old-fashioned bitters) with its Negroni-esqe flavors was similarly balanced. To my surprise, I fell in love with the Charlie Sour. It reads a little like a trendy cocktail crafted by a “mixologist:” Earl Grey infused Four Roses bourbon, St. Germain liqueur, lemon and orange oleo-saccharum. (I had to look up the last ingredient. Oleo-saccharum, although it sounds like a spell that Harry Potter might use, was a staple in 19th-century bartending, a way to provide an elegant citrusy flavor and aroma to alcoholic beverages. The zest of a few lemons, or in this case oranges, is muddled violently with sugar until the oils are released from the peel. It is then allowed to sit for about an hour until you have peels resting in a bowl in a pool of sweet citrus oil. The applications could only be limited by one’s imagination.) I found the cocktail cast a spell of its own, transporting me to a warm and sunny Southern France.
We began our late afternoon binge with a generous dish of warm baked ricotta, goat cheese and truffled honey, accompanied by crunchy toasts. Although the encounter between truffle and honey was perhaps too brief for me to appreciate, this dish would make a not-too-sweet, almost cheesecake-like dessert.
Any respectable bistro should have mussels, and Westport Café and Bar has three different versions. We sampled the mussels with shaved fennel and roasted tomatoes. The mussels were fresh (always a good start), the flavors enhanced by the tang of the tomato and clean notes of fennel. The zesty broth required the repeated dunkings of a baguette. It was good enough to make me want to try their other versions on another visit. Fortunately, we did. The mussels with sweet corn, cilantro and coconut curry were out of this world. After devouring the mussels, I looked for the server to get more bread for dunking. When I looked back, my greedy dining companion was actually drinking the broth from the bowl.
Meat- and potato-loving Midwesterners should be thrilled with the steak frites. The light char of the grilled beef, served with voluptuously silky Béarnaise sauce—a match made in heaven if ever there was one—and crisp little shoestring fries, housemade mayonnaise and ketchup, fits into one of my fantasies. (In my fantasy, I work a normal, 9 to 5 job, escaping afterwards to a relaxing happy hour with my brilliant and entertaining friends. I drink a delicious specialty house cocktail while I unwind, then enjoy steak frites with a nice glass of red wine—there are plenty to choose from on theWCB list—providing my perfect early supper. Since I had gone to my imaginary gym before going to my imaginary job, there would be no guilt.)
The choices outside of happy hour can be even more enticing. One night we began with what must have been an eight-ounce burger-sized tartare of Angus beef. Best to share, although their tartare could easily make a light meal for one with a few slices of charred toast and a glass of wine.
My experiences with pasta in French restaurants have been generally underwhelming, as it was with the spring-pea ravioli with lemon brown butter. However, the pasta au poivre was one of my favorites of all the dishes I sampled. In fact, I “sampled” it on two different occasions, although the second tasting wasn’t quite as stunning as the first. I suggest splitting it as a pasta course, although I can understand not wanting to share any of the silky, yet resilient noodles, dressed in the biting black pepper and sage, topped with a fried egg that when penetrated, glazed the pasta in unctuous gold. When we split the dish on my one visit, the kitchen was gracious enough to give each of us an egg, so no one would miss out on the experience.
If you’re incapable of a good grilled cheese sandwich at home, Westport Café and Bar might be the place to have it. They serve a classic croque-monsieur, a fancy warm ham and Gruyere cheese sandwich with spicy mustard, and creamy béchamel (that’s the part you would never do at home), topped with more cheese and broiled until golden, bubbly and crisp. Perfect on a cold snowy evening like ours. Another too-involved-for-most-people-at-home dish is the crispy chicken confit over celery root puree. Only the most serious, hands-on foodie cooks confit anything at home, and the chicken at WCB, while not a confitted duck, was nonetheless moist and dressed with a tasty sauce Meurette (a classic of French Burgundian country cooking composed of concentrated red wine with onions, carrots, celery, prosciutto and herbs).
At the suggestion of our server, we sampled two of their desserts. A fan of rice desserts, I was intrigued by their Gateau de Riz. Any culture that grows rice and has an animal to milk has some form of this home-style sweet. Normally creamy but with a bite, scented by spices like cinnamon, cloves or vanilla, this is a dessert that should hug you from the inside. Ours tried to, but it was served cold, which destroys the texture, and with out of season strawberries. The most popular dessert at WCB, the profiteroles, made up for the rice cake. Honestly, only one in a thousand profiteroles served in restaurants is fresh, and I generally avoid them. Glad I followed our friendly server’s suggestion on this item. It was perfectly crisp, filled with vanilla ice cream, and served with more than enough chocolate sauce in a pitcher on the side. After finishing the profiteroles, we finished the chocolate sauce, pouring it into our empty spoons.
I have not had the chance to experience brunch at Westport Café and Bar (again, my real life and fantasy life clashing), but I have heard great reviews from informed foodie friends. A peek at their brunch menu—items like crisp apple fritters, lemon-ricotta pancakes, brioche French toast, confit chicken hash—should be enough to convince anyone. I just need the opportunity. You, too, should find your own opportunity to revisit a more sophisticated Westport. The charm and flavors of this piece of the 19th Century, a little bit Paris and a little bit Kansas City, will be your reward.