L'Amour Fou for the Frog
Why Le Fou Frog is one of Kansas City’s finest restaurants. Period.
lobster tails with Champagne-vanilla butter sauce
This is not an objective or even semi-objective review. How can one possibly be objective about something one loves?
And like all great loves, this one is not entirely rational. Nor would I want to critically dissect the object of my ardent affection, which is the kiss of death. Besides, my sweetheart has no flaws. Instead, I will just resort to all the clichés in the book and say that Le Fou Frog, the romantic and slightly raffish French bistro tucked in the River Market, has a certain je ne sais quois that made me swoon on my first visit, decades ago.
And the love affair continues. To transpose a quote from the 18th-century essayist Samuel Johnson, to be weary of Le Fou Frog, which is the quintessence of a Parisian bistro, is to be weary of life. Either that or you are the worst kind of Spartan, pleasure-denying ascetic. There is a reason this enchanting eatery, tucked in an obscure part of Fifth Street in a unassuming block-like former tavern, has retained its fiercely loyal and growing following since it opened in 1996. To be sure, one of those reasons is the food, which is quite simply magnificent. (More on that later.) The other reason is the convivial atmosphere and warm hospitality.
To step into this little establishment is to transport oneself back to turn-of-the-century, bohemian Parisian city life — perhaps at Montmartre or on the Left Bank. One almost expects to see the Parisian demimonde, including painter Edgar Degas and his Can-Can girls reveling at the bar with glasses of green absinthe. Though this is not the case, Le Fou Frog does host regular entertainments like French cabaret singers in its intimate one-room, 120-seat restaurant. And every Bastille Day the restaurant throws an exuberant multi-day fête, complete with lots of Champagne uncorking and the staff dressed in thematic costumes — one year it was Marie Antoinette; this year, French liquor bottles. Co-owner and KC native Barbara Rafael is a graduate of the Lee Strasberg school of method acting, so she can definitely get into character. Her husband is “le fou frog,” for which the restaurant is named. ‘Frog’ is a common slang term for a Frenchman and likewise, chef Mano Rafael is a native of Marseilles. The couple met in NYC while Barbara was trying to support her fledgling Broadway career by bartending at the restaurant where Mano was owner and chef.
chef de cuisine fatmir paplekej (left) and head chef/owner mano rafael (right)
Perhaps it is their mom-and-pop ownership of Le Fou that imparts such an irrepressible feel of bonhomie to the place. Barbara can be found nearly every night manning the front of the house and the bar and catering to the diners, while her husband creates culinary marvels in the kitchen. Their staff, which is gallant and often Gallic, is like family; they stay with them for years. And patrons become family too —your names and your favorite table remembered when you return to the restaurant, if only for special occasions. Those lucky enough to reside close to the River Market area return much more frequently than that, creating a fun frisson of special occasion revelers and neighborhood residents dropping by for a casual bite on the shaded side terrace or a nightcap at the seductive, candlelit bar.
The décor in the dining room is a French flea market hodge-podge with an array of drawings, prints, photos and vintage wine posters papering the walls and, endearingly, has probably not changed for decades. The tabletops are covered with efficient sheets of white butcher paper, bistro-style. Lights dim and candles flicker as the night progresses and becomes more boisterous. More corks are popped. Bottles chill tableside in buckets of ice. Staffers break out into impromptu performances, and the amuse-bouches begin to arrive before you have even placed an order — everything from pristine pieces of sushi to a thimble-sized shot of boozy, fruited red sangria.
Neither of these amuses are French, but the kitchen likes to have fun and so will you. On the other hand, the main menu is full of stalwart French bistro classics to warm Julia Child’s heart, and after eating my way through much of le carte over the years, I can attest there is not a mis-order on the menu. Meanwhile, the daily changing chalkboard menu is admirably ambitious. True connoisseurs should order from this staggering menu of 20 or so daily specials. For every trout amandine, veal sweetbreads with mushrooms and Madeira or entrecôte Bordelaise, there is a cut of elk, pheasant, exotic fish, kangaroo, or, on my most recent visit, yak strip with cranberry compote and Jamaican pepper! The chalkboard menu also diverges deliciously at times from the classic French bistro canon into slightly Asian or tropical fusions, such as soft-shell crab with mango, pineapple, cilantro. Diners seeking the most esoteric gastronomic experiences can dine as happily here as the most staunch French classicists set on their garlicky escargot and filet Rossini. However, for the purpose of this article, I sampled solely from the classic menu so that interested readers can re-create my emulation-worthy dining experience.
A word of advice: by all means, don’t neglect the French wine list, offering everything from earthy Côte du Rhones to sweet, crisp Vouvrays by the glass and bottle. For summer the restaurant has a “La Vie en Rose” menu of rosés festively printed on pink paper. It includes an effervescent little sparkling rosé by the glass (Charles Bove Méthode Traditionelle) that is dry, crisp and structured but also a little bit flirty.
steak au poivre
You will be tempted to ask for a refill on the obligatory basket of French bread with that refined, unsalted French butter. But save room for what is to come. First up: a satisfying bowl of lobster bisque the color of dark coral, flambéed with Cognac, enriched with a little bit of cream and a meaty morsel of lobster meat, and spiced with just enough cayenne to bring out all the depth of flavors. The crock of French onion soup is likewise subtly sweetened, this time with port instead of cognac, and topped with a cap of melting Gruyere and Parmesan. It is so unlike the imposter-like, overly salty or sweet, soggy bread-logged “French onion soup” so often served at American restaurants as to not be from the same DNA chain. And the classic preparation of Coquilles St. Jacques could easily be a meal in itself, the plump little scallops tucked into a happy blanket of melted cheese, leeks, mushrooms and white-wine-infused cream sauce.
Perhaps the most festive presentation was the arrival of the seared Hudson Valley foie gras. The silky, meltingly rich lobes are piled high atop thick slices of grilled bread and festooned jauntily with a pair of tall, thin crisps like two antennae. All of this is set in a swirl of caramelly demi-glace with a swipe of red (raspberry, perhaps?) sauce and a yellow dollop of lemony gel. We soaked up every bit of sauce with the remaining bread, once the foie gras had slid happily down our throats (entirely unforced, mind you.)
hudson valley seared foie gras
Did we end our indulgences there? Oh no, there were entrees to be had. The steak au poivre with pommes frites is one of those Ur-French-bistro dishes, and this one is faultless. The generously sized KC strip is enrobed in Madagascar green and black peppers and set ablaze with a cognac-cream-veal-stock sauce. It is dressed with a mixed field greens salad in vinaigrette to undercut the steak’s richness and comes with a hefty side of house-made, hand-cut, golden fries: neither too skinny nor too fat. Just right.
The braised lamb shank in rosemary lamb jus was a journey to Provence and the French Mediterranean with peppery ratatouille and fluffy, Cumin-scented cous-cous as accompaniments. The meat was served on the bone but was fall-off-the-bone tender. In fact, the bone was the only thing left to take home to the dog. Last but not least, for all the mention of meat and game, chef Rafael has true finesse when it comes to exquisite seafood and expertly prepared fish dishes — sometimes delicate, sometimes wonderfully brazen. The sautéed loup de mer (Chilean sea bass) with saffron-chorizo-tomato beurre blanc is not only a beauty to behold but also to taste. The nicely seared fish floats in the most gorgeous, persimmon pool of sauce amid a bed of the creamiest risotto imaginable and tender-crisp haricot verts and Brussels sprouts for contrast. Their signature dish of twin lobster tails with a Champagne-vanilla-butter sauce is equally rave-worthy. And I once had a golden, vanilla-saffron-sauced fish at Le Fou that was so heavenly it still haunts me like Proust’s madeleine.
loup de mer with saffron, chorizo and tomato beurre blanc
French pastry is an art form in itself, and while most of Le Fou’s desserts stick to simple classics — an apple tarte tatin, vanilla creme brulee, chocolate mousse or a seasonal peach Melba — the results are lovely in a quiet, homespun way. It is no coincidence that some well-known KC pastry chefs started at Le Fou. I was sorry to miss the summery strawberry Napolean, which sold out, but consoled myself with perfect chocolate profiteroles — the vanilla ice cream wearing the cutest little choux pastry party hats and drizzles of chocolate sauce and festive almond slivers. Classic. However, even if you skip dessert, your courtly server will deliver a gratis tray of chilled dark chocolate truffles dusted in a bittersweet cocoa powder that are so decadent they should be speared on golden rather than wooden toothpicks.
It is these charming, luxurious, personable and unpretentious touches that define this — in my humble opinion — five-star dining experience. There is a reason Kansas Citians rely on Le Fou Frog for all their special occasion dining — but then every meal is an occasion with this supremely gifted chef and this generous, good-humored, quirky establishment.
Like the fairytale, I kissed a frog long ago, and he turned into a prince.
chilled chocolate truffles
Le Fou Frog, 400 E. Fifth Street, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 474-6060, lefoufrog.com. Reservations recommended via phone or opentable.com. Open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday with a happy hour Tuesday through Friday, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.