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Ichthyology in Kansas City Restaurants

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day . . . wrote Maimonides, Jewish scholar of the 1100s.  You know the rest. He had a larger point in mind but right now, I’m just interested in the fish.  To be precise, eating that fish in Kansas City.  Here we are, in the beef and pork-chompin’ mid-belly of the country and I’m suggesting we all could easily eat, and enjoy, more fish. You don’t need to be an ichthyologist to appreciate these wonders of the seas and lakes.  

I probably need to begin with a bit of educating.  Let’s start off with why NOT to eat fish.  This is otherwise known as Fish Myths 101.  
1.  By the time fish gets to K.C., it’s already too old
Truth: We can get fish here within 24 hours of it being caught.   
2. Seafood is too high in cholesterol, especially shrimp. 
Truth: Seafood in general contains a high level of cholesterol; however it is low in saturated fats. Thus it has little effect on the blood cholesterol in most people.
3.  Always buy fish that has never been frozen. 
Truth: This is not valid, though dry scallops are better than “wet” (previously frozen).  Fish kept in pristine conditions may mean freezing.  Modern blast freezers onboard can do a better job of maintaining purity than throwing them in refrigeration. What matters is how the fish was handled from the moment it was caught.
4.  Do not eat oysters in months without an R
Truth:  In some places, oysters spawn in the warmer months of the year, which gave rise to this idea.  However, two great inventions mute this point: refrigeration and farming.
5.  Farmed fish isn’t as good as wild caught fish and is often produced under terrible conditions and is full of antibiotics and dyes and assorted unmentionables. 
Truth: Taste tests seem to show that most people cannot tell the difference.  There are now sustainable fish farms  responsible to tighter regulations which are providing excellent fish – but since their methodologies are typically more expensive, you need to be willing to pay the price.
6.  Unopened mussels should not be eaten.
Truth: Most mussels are now farmed and if they don’t open, they haven’t been cooked long enough.
7.  Fish is loaded with mercury. 
Truth: As long as a fish contains more selenium than mercury (which the vast majority of ocean fish do), and as long as background selenium intake is sufficient (which it is in most industrialized nations), then there is no reason to limit consumption of ocean fish.
8.  Never buy or order fish on Monday.  
Truth: This Anthony Bourdain popularized theory is inaccurate in today’s marketplace. Fishing is more dependent on weather conditions than on the day of week.  
Trout at Pierpont’s 

Now that we’ve cleared away the foggy myths, the next real question is, “Why eat more fish?” even if there isn’t a billboard promoting that.

Here are four simple reasons:  
1.  Fish have more healthy benefits, including lower heart disease risks.  One reason is that it is high in omega-3.  Two meals of fatty fish a week meet the suggested daily quota of omega-3 (500 milligrams).  Experts point to the Japanese who eat 100 grams of fish per day and have half as many heart attacks.  If that’s not enough, fish may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and kidney cancer and is essential for fetal brain development. Fish is also a great source of protein, low in saturated fat, and high in vitamins and minerals. Ounce per ounce, it’s lower in calories than beef. The experts all agree, it is healthier to eat fish than to not.

2.  Fish can be easy to cook quickly.  You can steam a piece in a few minutes and even a whole baked fish takes less than a half hour.

3.  You can be as creative or as simple as you want.  You can sauté a fish filet in a few minutes or make it look fancy “en papillote” like Chef Brandon Winn of Webster House makes which enthralled an entire class recently – which only took a few minutes more of prep.

4.  Fish tastes good. And that’s why there are entire restaurants devoted to it and chefs who swear by it.
Halibut at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar

The term “fishmonger” dates back to the 1400s at least, and though Shakespeare used it as a derisive term for pimp, it’s probably the one most appropriate for the methodology and process restauranteurs go through to get fish delivered to their restaurants.  A fishmonger is simply one who sells raw seafood and can be a retailer or wholesaler.  Although the role can include selecting, purchasing, and selling, at the fish end it includes handling, gutting, boning, filleting, displaying, merchandising, and then selling.  

So intermediaries are most often the go-to resources in Kansas City like Fabulous Fish Company which only sells to many restaurants here and a few grocery stores (McGonigle’s, Marsh’s Sunfresh, some Price Choppers).  Seattle Fish Company will receive and process more than three million pounds of seafood in Kansas City for customers throughout the Midwest. They do all this out of their own new facility in Riverside.  People also use outside of K.C. distributors like Foley’s in Boston.  There are several alternatives  from which restaurants here order.

Jon Thomas, Account Manager, of Fabulous Fish Company, one of the most popular in Kansas City, says the hardest part of selling fresh fish in Kansas City is, “. . . sourcing stable, fresh and affordable product so far away from the coasts.” That part is not easy, but the best thing about selling fish in Kansas City is “. . . getting to see the innovative and fun things chefs do to the fish we sell them, working with them to get the product that’s exactly right for their vision of a plate.”  And that’s what we get to eat.
Cioppino from 801 FISH

Reflecting those facts that fish is healthy, obtainable here, and delicious, we have several restaurants who have always been all about fish, even before it was trendy.  Going beyond Red Lobster and Captain D’s Fish and Chips, The Bristol was a Plaza fixture from 1980 until 1995 and now has locations both in Power & Light and southern Overland Park. The Savoy, downtown since 1888, was later renowned for its lobster (and table-made Caesar salad).  

I remember when sushi, perhaps the ultimate for fish devotees,  meant basically Jun’s Japanese Restaurant in Prairie Village, or at least that’s the only one I ever heard about.  But now, there are so many more:   Bo Lings on the Plaza, Drunken Fish, Saki, Nara, just to mention a few who consider sushi a mainstay.  This is a complete article all on its own I know and I can’t even begin to do this cult justice in these few pages. So I won’t even try and instead move to the more mainstream fish efforts in town.

Today we have so many choices at both true seafood restaurants and then almost everywhere else who also have fish on the menu.  Every great steakhouse must be able to do at least one, and probably three, great fish dishes.  Sullivan’s Steakhouse orders fresh fish daily, even getting stone crab claws which are heavily allocated from October through almost May or large Maine lobsters in the summer.  801 Chophouse’s seafood selections change seasonally of course and their Maine lobster and oysters Rockefeller are very popular.  Hereford House’s oysters come grilled or on the half shell. 

Known for serving all kinds of meat, Em Chamas Brazilian Grill in North Kansas City always has salmon and serves a seafood “upgrade” to their churrascaria with shrimp, salmon, and scallops. Out south, Espirito do Sul usually has sea bass and salmon and their Harvest Table serves several fish specialties like mango shrimp salad or coconut fish.  Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse dishes up a wild Chilean sea bass with salt and pepper only or with a spicy mango sauce served with fruit on top and a bed of asparagus which is widely appreciated in this Plaza establishment.  By the way, this fish is seldom known by its real moniker, toothfish, and it’s no longer on the “take a pass” list according to Seafood Watch.

Our best barbeque places also have a fish dish usually delectably house smoked like in one of five Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecues.  Their cedar planked salmon or barbecue shrimp or trout served whole or fileted or grilled is always loved, even by meat eaters.  The Smokehouse’s three locations offer  grilled salmon or shrimp, too.  
When I want a true fish fix, I love to go to 801 Fish in Leawood where their saffron tomato shellfish cioppino is my first love among so many of their excellent choices.  They utilize two purveyors, pride themselves on dock to their door within 24 hours, and practically always have at least four east coast and four west coast oysters on hand.  Their menu changes reflect the fish that are flown in daily.  Their Thursday Happy Hour features $1.50 oysters at the bar for bivalve fanciers and several other fishy or shelly dishes as well.  

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on the Plaza is also proud of being the only Missouri partner of Monterray Bay Seafood Watch.  Oysters are probably their most popular item but their crab cake is fabulous, too.  Their pan-seared scallops, benne-crusted ahi tuna, and lobster roll sandwich are also crowd pleasers.  I also like that they have specials every day of the week and one of the best happy hours in town Sunday through Thursday.  

But if we’re speaking of happy hours, I have to mention McCormick and Schmick’s, in town the longest of the three and widely known for its tiered $3 and up Happy Hour. Their menu changes twice a day and of course is seasonally directed.  Their lump crab tower is the perfect lunch to me, but you can order any of their fresh fish broiled, grilled, or pan seared . They’ve been doing these and all their fish dishes expertly since the year 2000 in the heart of the Plaza.

One of the newest fish-centric restaurants is perched in Prairiefire. That’s Paul Khoury’s latest creation, Newport Grill, which highlights its fish expertise and freshness daily. Try any of their ten fish entrees -- but Cory’s coconut chicken is on this menu as well as steaks and chops for the non-piscaterians.

Swimming away from what are commonly regarded as seafood restaurants, there is still an abundance of “fruits de mer” to satisfy all.  Pierpont’s at Union Station has three of seven appetizers and four of 12 entrées devoted to seafood. Chef-owner Carl Thorne-Thomsen of Story Restaurant is praised for his deft touch with fish on his menu and perhaps even idolized for his soft shell crab treatment.  Also in Prairie Village, Café Provence serves Dover sole, a rarity here, and mussels, and coquilles St. Jacques (scallops).  
Like many of its cohorts and butchering its own fish, Café Trio always has tilapia, seafood lasagna, scallops, and salmon roulade on their menu as well as a seasonal fish. The owner and executive chef of Charisse, Jason Craine, points out that he loves the potential creativity of fish, “People are excited when they see a familiar product but with a different preparation.”  

At JJ’s where G.M. Matt Nichols smokes the salmon for their salmon salad, their horseradish stuffed and bacony Paco shrimp has attained star status amid their four out of seven appetizers and their grilled salmon, ahi tuna, and lobster tail entrées are ordered frequently. Le Fou Frog uses four different purveyors to provide up to eight seafood dishes an evening, noting that bouillabaisse and branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) are best sellers.  Chef Mano Rafael points that Kansas Citians have become much more seafood savvy over the past years and he loves to be creative with the fish that comes in fresh every three or four days.  
Mussels from McCormick & Schmick’s

You’ll find seafood dishes at the historic Independence Square restaurants like Ophelia’s;  in the pub menu of Pig and Finch in Leawood where salmon in parchment and cast iron Idaho trout are two of the best sellers on the menu;  and Andre’s on Fridays, where it’s an expected staple.  Even Grünauer, a place you might not automatically think “fish” about, can satisfy the urge – they smoke their own salmon for a favorite appetizer and a Dijon and herb encrusted trout is usually on the menu. 

By now you’ve probably gathered that fish is available all over Kansas City.  And that you should be eating it – it’s healthy, tasty, fresh and safe right here in the Midwest.  I feel fortunate that we have so many chefs creating both traditional and unusual dishes to please even the most knowledgeable ichthyologist’s taste buds.   


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