801 Fish Lures a Big Catch

With Bluestem, Michelin two-star Vegas restaurants and Alinea on his resume, rising chef Joe West returns to KC to showcase his finesse with fish.



John Dory with Calvados sauce

   He’s only 28 but Executive Chef Joe West of 801 Fish has quite the list of culinary heavy hitters on his resumé: 40 Sardines, Bluestem (where he served several years as sous chef), a stage at Chicago’s Alinea (one of the world’s most famous and experimental restaurants) and work at chef Alessandro Stratta’s Michelin two-star restaurants at Wynn Las Vegas. Most recently, he served as executive chef of the AAA Four Diamond-ranked The Cincinnatian Hotel & Palace Restaurant.  So what brings this peripatetic chef back to Kansas City? Perhaps the allure of his hometown and the chance to create his chef legacy on his own home turf.  

     Long entrenched in the KC food scene, West is happy to be back and looks forward to reconnecting with his culinary cohorts and their restaurants.

     “Obviously I love Port Fonda, Bluestem and Rye, and The Rieger. I love Howard [Hanna]. We used to work together at 40 Sardines. And I still need to go to Novel…”

     Many in KC still miss the closing of West’s first executive chef venture — at the tender age of 22 — Delaware Café. The ambitious menu regularly included such things as foie gras pierogi with huckleberry “paint.”  The Pitch food critic Charles Ferruzza wrote memorably about the palpable buzz surrounding West’s “carbonated grapes,” an accessory to his duck paté. A little bit older and wiser, West says he now feels he doesn’t have to throw all his show-off chef tricks, ingredients and techniques into a single dish. It’s a lesson in restraint he says he first learned in the James Beard Award-winning kitchen of Bluestem.

executive chef joe west

 

     “Colby Garrelts had a big influence on me. I worked with him three times. He taught me a lot about the business, and about restraint and creativity on the plate.”

     West is currently at work putting his inimitable stamp on the main menus at 801 Fish. The Des Moines-based 801 team operates the handsome and upscale 801 Chophouse and Pig & Finch Gastropub in addition to 801 Fish. All three are located at Park Place in Leawood. They also own many franchise locations of 801 Chophouse and Pig & Finch in other cities and have charged West with creating and perfecting the core menu for 801 Fish so they can then export this restaurant concept as well. Future locations are planned for St. Louis and Denver. 

   West had only been back in KC for two weeks at the time of our interview, and he had already tweaked at least two thirds of the 801 Fish menu. Among his seasonal new offerings:  fresh peekytoe crab salad with compressed Granny Smith apple, fresh celery and crème fraiche; a pan-seared foie gras with Macademia nuts, coffee crumble and passion fruit; lobster fried rice with cucumber radish salad and sweet chili vinaigrette and a decadent hand-cut pasta with Parmigiano, bacon lardon, black truffle and poached egg. Then there’s the big steak and lobster plates and all the serious fish entrees that are 801 Fish’s bread and butter, so to speak.

new Bedford scallops

 

     The butter-basted Skuna Bay salmon with celery root puree, shaved fennel and citrus and pomegranate agre doux is just one of West’s signature new dishes. A second-course offering of steak tartare with young greens, truffled Dijon, crispy salad and nitro bêrnaise also has West’s name written all over it. The nitro bearnaise is a perfect example of his melding of classical fine cooking with a bit of 21st-century molecular gastronomy in the nitro technique.

   But don’t call him a molecular gastronomist — West cringes at the term though he spent some time in Alinea’s futuristic cooking lab.  

   He  says, to this day, when he catches the scent of lavender, he vividly recalls making and stuffing ‘lavender vapor pillows’ in Alinea’s kitchen. The persevering young West, then 18, “sent about 30 letters requesting a staging position,” he said, before getting a positive response from chef Grant Achatz. West learned a lot about technique and chemicals during this “life-changing” experience. However, the more important takeaway lessons were about how to be a professional chef, he said. And later in Las Vegas, working under Chef Alessandro Stratta, West says he observed “a certain soulfulness in the kitchen that is hard to describe but I will never forget. I try to re-create that same atmosphere as a chef wherever I go.”

     So, yes, West loves his molecular gastronomy techniques but no more than the classic cooking techniques he learned in those venerable kitchens.

     “I don’t like to use the word molecular gastronomy. I just call it modern techniques. I don’t do them because they are modern. I just take what’s best and try to use the right techniques at the right time.”

     No food snob, West has followed his food instincts, or rather obsessions, wherever they have lead him, including working at a Korean taco food truck with a cult following on his off days from the Michelin-starred Vegas restaurant. Travel in Tuscany and various countries such as Japan (his mother is Japanese) has also informed his culinary outlook.

scallop crudo, lemon oil, chive

 

     With his Japanese roots, West is no stranger to sushi and its Italian cousin crudo. He says the most important thing about seafood is sourcing and seasonality. He will oversee both of these aspects at 801 Fish, as well as issues of sustainability. 801 Fish’s tagline of “jet fresh fish” flown in daily from around the globe means that West has a bounty of seafood to inspire. A recent tasting of a few of his new menu additions showcased West’s refined modern-classical approach, respect for ingredients and, yes, restraint, but there were also glimpses of the wild creativity and playfulness of his early youth. (In fact, he cites the inventive and playful French Laundry chef, Thomas Keller, as his icon).

     A starter crudo of New Bedford scallops looked deceptively simple on its pretty scallop shell, set on a mound of crushed ice. The entire dish had an ethereal colorlessness, but for a fine dusting of green chives. The dish may have looked pale and shy, however, the slightly coarse chop —to convey the flavor and texture of the raw scallops —bore an intense flavoring from the chives and a fiery kick of red Espelette pepper. This heat was, in turn, balanced by cooling lemon oil. Crudo, at its essence, requires few ingredients; the fresh seafood should speak for itself. Here, West’s dish does just that: a delicate balance of bold flavor and restraint.

     Next up, West brought out an entree of New Zealand-sourced John Dory with sunchoke (i.e. Jerusalem artichoke) chips, Yukon Gold potatoes, Granny Smith apple and Calvados sauce. The fish was perfectly cooked with a nice sear on top that made for a deliciously golden and crunchy outer crust. I did not notice any “chips,” but the slightly creamy and tangy sunchoke sauce with a hint of tarragon was a nice and sophisticated compliment to the fish. The perfect Yukon potato spheres and butter-basted Brussels sprouts were tender and delicious in that same pool of tarragon-flavored sauce.

     Lastly, West brought out a beautiful Miró-like composition of bronzed, New Bedford pan-seared day boat scallops, surrounded by pop art-like circles of sunny, yellow-colored “gel” and vivid orange sweet potato spheres on a pure white plate. A smear of sweet potato purée may have looked like an artistic afterthought, but was magically infused with an intense smoked bacon flavor. The sweetness of the apricot-like sauce complemented the meaty scallops and the combination of all the autumnal ingredients gave the dish a satisfyingly fall sensibility.

     West has already racked up a prestigious resumé but with the prospects of a long career ahead of him, we suggest you pop by the polished 801 Fish soon so you can enjoy the future bragging rights of saying, “you knew him when…” With a gorgeous raw seafood bar, popular $1 oyster happy hour and intimate chef’s counter, in addition to white tablecloth dining and a serious wine list, every type of diner can enjoy the “go West” experience. 

     In the future, West says he would like to open “a small counter restaurant focused on high-quality ingredients and service.” But for now, West ist thoroughly energized by his fancy 801 Fish kitchen.

   In January he tweeted some of his highfalutin plans for the special Kansas City Restaurant Week menu: “Just got the circulator going for octopus and about to smoke ice cream for a dessert.” 

     801 Fish serves dinner nightly starting at 4p.m. at Park Place, 11615 Rosewood St., Leawood, Kan., (913)322-3474, 801restaurantgroup.com.