A New Classic
In the River Market, Brown & Loe gives an old tune a few new notes.
Stepping into Brown & Loe feels a bit like coming out the other end of a time machine. Suddenly, you find yourself transported back into an era where men didn’t leave the house without a tie and where phrases like “You’re the bee’s knees!” were still in use. Indeed, though it opened in early August, it seems as though Brown & Loe has always resided in the River Market — at the corner of Fifth and Walnut streets, just off the historic City Market — serving generations of patrons throughout innumerable years and fads. There’s a certain air of timelessness here.
This is thanks, in part, to the history of the Brown & Loe building, officially known as the Merchant’s Bank building, which is what it started as when it was constructed in 1920. The bank closed in the 1940s, at which point a pair of produce brokers with the last names Brown and Loe converted the second floor into their offices. For a brief period in the ’80s, there was an Asian fish market in the building.
It’s easy to find the remnants of the Merchant’s Bank in the dining room at Brown & Loe, with the long, impressive marble bar (featuring 20 plush seats), the gray-and-black checkered marble floor, and the cream-colored coffered ceilings. Behind the bar — which presumably once served as the barrier between bank tellers and bank patrons — an aged vault door is propped open, offering glimpses of flurried kitchen activity. The bar staff, uniformed in crisp white Oxfords and black ties, looks a natural part of the picture Brown & Loe is determined to paint.
For owners Harry Murphy and Kate McGlaughlin — the father-daughter team of Harry’s Country Club fame — keeping Brown & Loe classic meant that the cuisine would settle comfortably on familiar favorites. Lunch and dinner menus share flatbreads and mussels and pretty-sounding salads; entrees include a KC strip steak, pan-roasted chicken, grilled short ribs.
Aside from a few updated frills — a root beer jus with the ribs, a goat cheese gratin with the steak — the Brown & Loe menu, at a glance, rather feels like it could have been lifted from a sophisticated midcentury restaurant. That’s not a dig; it’s a testament to Brown & Loe’s commitment to a certain time period.
On a warm, late summer evening, a group of friends and me bypassed Brown & Loe’s striking dining room in favor of its northern patio, overlooking the empty lot that is occupied most weekends by a produce and flea market. Django Reinhardt wafted out from the speakers overhead, a spirited gypsy jazz that gave our party a romantic flair: We might as well be in Paris, we laughed to ourselves, our good moods highlighted by the setting sun and a bottle of bubbles.
Executive chef James Paul — formerly of Shawnee’s Hereford House — along with sous chef Aaron Salinas have done their part to liven up Brown & Loe’s very American menu. His pierogi ($6) — a Polish version of dumplings, similar in size to a Mexican empanada — are filled with whipped potatoes and cheddar, enclosed in a flaky dough. There are two of them to an order, and they rest atop a mild apple butter, garnished with crispy shallots and a slippery creme fraiche. It’s an elegant plate, and it was quickly disassembled by the several forks that divvied it up.
Our watercress salad ($6) offered up a bright spring palate: Kelly green leaves, tiger-colored cubes of butternut squash, tawny pistachios, flecks of ghost-white goat cheese and a few imperial slivers of electric-pink watermelon radish. Paul seems to understand that diners eat first with their eyes, and his plates tend to impress even before they are consumed. I understood this salad before my first bite.
The ricotta and spinach dumplings ($14) — listed as an entree — made a shareable starter for our four-person entourage. Six round, golf-ball sized dumplings sit proudly in a bowl large enough to make the serving size seem dainty (it’s not), sauteed crimini and shiitake mushrooms spooned liberally overtop, interspersed with shavings of Grana Padano (a hard Italian cheese similar to Parmesan). This would have been enough to complete the dish, and the thick, red tomato ragout that sat at the bottom of the bowl was unnecessary; for a few bites, it didn’t even ring as complementary.
Our entrees were received with mixed emotions. I adored the Wild Isle salmon ($24), the grilled fillet nestled up against three golden arancini balls — rice and farm cheese mixed together, coated in crusty bread crumbs and deep-fried — and sitting in a coconut milk broth with peas, leeks and chunks of tomato. I sent a silent thank-you to Paul for giving this staple restaurant dish — the salmon entree that seems a requirement at every new spot, from steakhouses to tapas joints — an exciting upgrade.
Likewise, the local Missouri trout ($16) — a lighter entree — was a treasure. The fillet was covered with just a hint of blue corn flour before it was pan roasted. How I wished a more liberal hand had been in charge of batter that evening, but it was enough to be echoed successfully with the creamed sweet corn. Each mouthful of this dish yielded additional sweetness from the thin peppadew jam. Tiny, bright orange nasturtium flowers smiled up at us from between twisted strands of a wilted arugula salad.
The grilled pork chop ($26) should be reserved for big appetites. It’s a hulking thing, easily topping eight ounces, and the sides, too, are generous. A heaping helping of baked red peas pooled beneath the chop, marrying with a gooey spiced honey butter. Pale green shards of an apple fennel slaw finished the plate. This is a dish meant for the hungry, not the trendy, and in that respect, it succeeds utterly in that regard.
All would have been well were it not for the Lisbon stew ($30), which fell horribly flat. In its native Portugal, this dish presents as a hearty stew featuring a mishmash of seafood and potatoes, usually in a tomato broth. Brown & Loe got the ingredients right, but hearty this bowl was not. I dislike being the guest who qualifies a dish by its portion size — wonderful things often come in small packages — but as I surveyed the mix of shrimp (two pieces), clams (three), mussels (three), cod (one small, lonely bite), linguica sausage (I’m sure it was there, somewhere), and Yukon potatoes (liberal, to compensate), I couldn’t help feeling a bit cheated.
Even more unforgivable were the flavors: a splash of thin, oily tomato broth did nothing to boost the woefully under-seasoned seafood. The final offense was the grilled sourdough bread resting on the edge of the bowl, which somehow managed to be both soggy and stale. We hardly touched this dish, all lamenting that the most expensive menu item turned out to be the least impressive.
Our dessert redeemed Brown & Loe of the seafood stew transgression. Pastry chef Trish Minton has two star desserts — a Dixie pie ($6) and a lemon saison dream cake ($5) — plus an assortment of house-made ice cream and sorbet. We opted for the pie, and what a finale: bourbon ganache locked around toasted pecans, set in a buttery miniature pie crust. A scoop of Minton’s vanilla bean ice cream and decadent bourbon cherry compote finish it off. The moving parts — warm, oozy chocolate, sweet and grainy ice cream, candy-like cherry halves — were utterly simpatico. When our plates were at last clear, we shuffled out happily, willfully remembering only the best menu moments we’d enjoyed.
Brown & Loe is not a fancy-dinner-only place, though. Its hours are long — 11 a.m. to close, seven days a week — and it makes a convincing case for lunch, happy hour, and, on the weekends, brunch. On a weekday, a friend and I sidled up to the bar and committed ourselves to studying the lunch menu.
Many lunch items are repeats from the dinner menu, with a few exceptions; shrimp and grits and chicken carbonara are lunch-only, as well as most of the sandwiches. There’s a lamb dip with a mint pesto that sounds divine, but I had to have the cheeseburger.
The burger ($10) at Brown & Loe isn’t designed to awe. It’s a simple thing: a quarter-pound patty topped with American cheese, raw red onion and lettuce, plus a light slather of house-made aioli, set between two halves of a thick sesame seed bun with a generous side of fries. It is exactly the burger you picture in your mind when someone around you utters the word “cheeseburger,” and it tastes exactly as it should. Brown & Loe encourages guests to upgrade their burgers — a fried egg for $1 or thick-cut bacon for $2.50 — but I appreciate the wholesomeness of this straightforward presentation.
The buttermilk chicken sandwich ($9) is perhaps one of the most Missourian items at Brown & Loe. A thick chicken breast — breaded and fried to a beautiful golden brown — is layered with smoked Gouda and sweet pickles, the same tart, crisp apple-fennel slaw that I enjoyed on the pork chop making an encore appearance here. A whisper of ancho tomato jam finds a place on the potato bun. It’s a high-brow take on a low-brow sandwich, and each bite offers a satisfying crunch, releasing just enough tender, super moist juices.
A single scoop of blackberry mojito sorbet ($3) completed our lunch, and we fought to the bitter end for the final drops of sticky-sweet purple runs. While we congratulated ourselves on our remarkable restraint for not further indulging in Minton’s other flavors — avocado-mint-chocolate chip ice cream, apple-ginger sorbet — the missed opportunity still haunts me.
Also haunting: several of Brown & Loe’s brunch items, in particular the sweet potato waffles ($6) innocently finished with a bourbon marshmallow fluff and graham cracker streusel. Brunch is weekends-only, but I tell you this dish alone is well worth the City Market crowd. Also excellent: the massive bowl of Greek yogurt ($8), topped with pistachio granola and hot, fat slices of plantains.
Unsurprisingly, cocktails at Brown & Loe keep to the classics, but most of the 15 listed are plucked from obscure pages in bygone bar guides. Take, for example, the Sloe Gin Fizz ($9), a cocktail which gained popularity in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sloe gin — a high-proof gin infused with sloe berries and sugar — is not a common stock for the modern American bar, but Brown & Loe has it at the ready to mix with Plymouth gin, citrus and an egg white. The end result is a drink that’s lighter than cotton candy — and a good deal more gratifying.
The Claret Punch ($9) is another old-fashioned drink that hasn’t gotten much play since the turn of the 19th century. Essentially the English counterpart to sangria, the recipe usually called for red wine (“claret” was a general term used by the British to describe red wines from Bordeaux), lemon, sugar and carbonated water. Brown & Loe goes by the book on that, adding in some orange liqueur and serving its punch in a snifter without ice. Its room-temp serving is disconcerting at first, but each leisurely sip allows me to prolong my Downton Abbey daydream.
Murphy and McGlaughlin are not new to the restaurant business; the longstanding success of Harry’s Country Club is proof enough of their prowess. Brown & Loe was never meant to reinvent the wheel in any category — what with its old-school menus and its plucked-from-the-pages-of-history decor — but there is an understated elegance in the details that save this restaurant from the faddish, kitschy gutter that will inevitably claim others of its ilk. The entire premise of this restaurant seems to be that many things fade with time, but there will be some that never change. Brown & Loe certainly intends on longevity — and there is little to suggest it will not prosper.
Brown & Loe is at 429 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call (816) 472-0622 or visit brownandloe.com.