December 28, 2007
Steady and predictable excellence
by Mike Taylor
My wife Emily showed some apprehension when we pulled into the dimly lit parking lot the first evening we visited to Tatsu’s French Restaurant, 4601 W. 90th St., Prairie Village, KS. But the rows of cars gave her some relief. Tatsu’s sits in a little commercial pocket on a lightly traveled stretch of Roe Boulevard, not near any major thoroughfares. A canopied entryway obscures the lighted sign from the west.
Emily relaxed more when she saw the menu posted in the pink and white lobby with its multi-paned windows opening into the dining rooms dotted with artificial greenery. The windows, covered in gold swag drapes over gauze curtains, furthered the ambience. Large French paintings hang on the walls over the white-clothed tables. As with the soy sauce in the vinaigrette and the teriyaki chicken on the menu, the low-backed oriental chairs around the tables add a touch of incongruity in homage to Tatsu Arai’s native Japan.
“French cooking is very popular in Japan,” said maitre d’ Hiroko Keightly in a phone interview after I asked about Arai’s training in French cuisine. “He didn’t have formal training, he learned working in French restaurants in Tokyo,” she added.
Arai also worked in French restaurants in Chicago for three years before opening his pastry/lunch shop in 1980.
During another phone call, I asked Arai why he opened in such an off-the-beaten-path location. He told me, “I didn’t have much money to open with. I got this place for $600 a month, everything included.”
His business took off after an article appeared in Star Magazine’s “Getting Started” section. Arai expanded the menu and the dinner hours to accommodate customer demands. In nod to his repeat customers, Arai doesn’t change the menu very often because “many older customers who dine there often always want the same thing.”
Nor does the menu contain many unusually exotic dishes or ingredients — veal sweetbreads and oxtail as far out as it gets. Shrimp, scallops and salmon along with a fresh fish special nightly comprise the seafood part of the menu. Chicken and duck breasts in a variety of sauces as well as a couple of beef and veal dishes complete the offerings. Dinners come with a salad and are accompanied by tasty mashed potatoes and lightly steamed green beans.
We tried all of the appetizers but the escargot during our two visits. Both the shrimp ($8.95) and scallops ($14.95) are served Meuniere-style, sautéed with mushrooms and served with a lemon/butter sauce. They were worthy starters, the brininess of the shrimp and the sweetness of the scallops nicely accented by the tart, rich sauce. The crab cake proved the star though.
“Look at all the crabmeat!” my friend Karen the caterer gushed as four of us admired the puck-sized cake. Served with a lightly seasoned aioli and some field greens dressed with raspberry vinaigrette, the delicious crab cake had only enough breading to hold it together.
I wish I could cook chicken breasts the way they do in Tatsu’s kitchen. After being pounded thin, they are sautéed just enough to be moist and tender before being covered with various sauces. Karen had the one with a rich, smooth Calvados cream sauce ($19.95), while Brian had a Teriyaki breast ($16.95). Tatsu’s teriyaki has a sharp bite to counter the sweetness, much to my approval.
On our first visit, Emily chose salmon poached with a tickled champagne sauce ($21.95) that tickled my tongue and enhanced the flaky bites of salmon. My slices of duck breast came under a peppercorn cream sauce. The sauce wasn’t that peppery, I suppose in deference to Tatsu’s older clientele. I still sopped up as much of it as I could with fork-fulls of mashed potatoes.
The second time we went, Emily tried the Eggplant Provencal ($16.95), while I had beef tenderloin ($30.95) in a shallot/red wine reduction sauce. “There’s really not much to this,” Emily said of the bland eggplant blanketed with a chunky tomato sauce. As for me, I enjoyed every bite of the tender, pink steak in its tart syrupy sauce.
It was Tatsu’s pastries that first attracted customers, so the dessert menu remains notable. We tried three in our two visits.
“This is nothing but air,” Brian said after a bite of the Grand Marnier Soufflé ($6.95 each for two or more).
Ah, but what wonderful air. It was surrounded by fluffy baked egg whites laced with the orange liqueur and drizzled with raspberry and caramel sauces. We weren’t as impressed with the Tiramisu ($6.50), which tasted overly sweet and different than what we expected.
“This is wonderful, it’s so light but still flavorful,” Emily said as we enjoyed Tatsu’s Delight ($4.50), three layers of paper-thin pastry filled with vanilla custard and garnished with chocolate shavings and a strawberry.
Despite their formal attire, our servers acted rather casual. And on our second visit, when we were the only customers in the bar, we felt neglected. Other glitches also distracted from our dinners. Several of the entrees were served over rice while still accompanied by the mashed potatoes — quite a lot of starch on a plate. The two bowls of the crab and sherry soup tasted decidedly different. One tasted like a broth, compared to the rich creaminess of the other. And Emily had a difficult time with the unshelled avocado in her crabmeat/avocado salad.
Those minor missteps aside, our experiences at Tatsu’s proved why the restaurant continues draws such a loyal clientele and be highly ranked annually on the Zagat survey. Our dinners there also proved that location isn’t always the primary asset for a restaurant. After all, Tatsu’s has been off the beaten path for the past twenty-seven years.
Mike Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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