Soirée brings Creole and soul food to the Jazz District
Soirée Steak and Oyster House is not your typical steakhouse. In fact, despite its name, it is not really a steakhouse at all.
Oh, sure, you’ll find steaks on the menu, along with a quaint assortment of oysters. These things are done well. But these are not the things Soirée does best, nor are they what chef and owner Anita Moore considers her forte.
Moore is a Kansas City native, though as a child she spent time with her grandmother in Louisiana and has family roots in Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia. She grew up eating Southern food—braised beef tongue, gumbo, roast duck. “I’d ask my grandma to make ‘those little hairy things,’” Moore says. “That was okra to me.”
With Soirée, Moore’s goal is to elevate her childhood favorites and give them a spotlight in Kansas City. There’s no beef tongue on the menu (yet—Moore says she’s working on it), but her gumbo is sublime: The foundational roux is thick with flavor, its fat content perfectly measured, and that dark mahogany liquid reveals tender chunks of chicken and andouille sausage. Spoonful after spoonful will warm and soothe you until you feel pangs of nostalgia for a place you’ve never visited in a time long gone—a rowdy New Orleans Mardi Gras party during its golden years, perhaps, or a backyard shindig under the hot Georgia sun.
Other creole dishes populate Moore’s menu: red beans and rice, blackened chicken and shrimp, bread pudding. There is soul food, too, like fried catfish and hush puppies, black-eyed peas and sweet potato cheesecake. In all, Soirée is more like a Southern dining room than a Midwestern steakhouse. And it’s better for it.
Kansas City has been influenced by Southern cooking forever, but there is less to be said for Cajun flavors. For a proper introduction, look to Soirée’s trout pontchartrain. This classic dish has been popular in high-end NOLA restaurants for decades. Pontchartrain is the name for the sauce, a creamy mushroom gravy spread over whatever whitefish you can get your hands on. Moore ladles it generously over a lovely pecan-crusted trout, but she could slather it on soggy cardboard and it would still impress.
A thin and sweet bourbon-brown sugar sauce is used on both the fourteen-ounce Tomahawk pork chop and the salmon filet, the latter of which also gets treated with mustard. I enjoyed both of these dishes, though I found the chop a tad tough for the medium sear I had ordered. The Creole chicken, an airline breast dusted with house seasoning, was not particularly memorable.
Soirée’s steaks are handled simply. They receive a day-long marinade in olive oil, thyme and basil, then are cooked to temp and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I tried both the twelve-ounce jazz district strip and the six-ounce tenderloin, and both were good—a little underseasoned, but they tasted like steak, no funny stuff. I might think more highly of Soirée’s cuts if they were not so outshone by the powerful flavors found elsewhere on the menu.
Each entree, including the steaks, comes with a generous portion of buttery garlic potatoes mashed with sour cream. (There’s an option to get those “loaded” with bacon, chives and cheddar or lobster, which is perhaps Soirée’s biggest steakhouse nod.) Entrees are also served with a green vegetable. There are wonderfully crisp green beans tossed with bacon and Brussels sprouts and cooked with that same life-giving bourbon-brown butter sauce. If ever a vegetable could be mistaken for candy, it would be this.
Soirée’s pasta section warrants attention, though you should not expect the precious small plates of hand-cranked noodles found at today’s trendiest restaurants. In the soul food tradition, Moore cooks her noodles well past al dente and, in the case of the seafood ravioli and seafood mac and cheese, thoroughly douses them in a luxurious velvet sauce made from asiago, parmesan, white cheddar and whiskey. It is almost indecently rich, and it has been insanely popular.
There was plenty to like in terms of appetizers. I didn’t mind the mess on my fingers from the barbecue shrimp, especially when the sauce covering these plump babies is perfectly finger-lick-worthy. The jumbo wings come five to a plate, nicely smoked but not spicy. There are thick-cut fried tomatoes stacked prettily one on top of another, with a tangy goat cheese serving as the paste, and covered in an excellent roasted red pepper and crawfish remoulade and blue cheese crumbles.
At fifteen dollars, the fried crab cakes are a steal: You receive two six-ounce patties held together with the daintiest whisper of breadcrumbs and coated in the Soirée house batter—a lightly spiced flour and cornmeal combination—and served with a tangy mustard-caper sauce.
The fried deviled eggs were in demand at Soirée’s first location in Smithville, where it operated for a year and a half until Moore relocated to the Jazz District in May of last year. This occasional appetizer, available during happy hour and on Tuesdays, hasn’t quite caught on in Kansas City. Its only vaguely reminiscent of deviled eggs, but it’s a worthy adventure. Moore scoops out the hard-boiled yolk, lightly breads and fries the whites and substitutes pimento cheese for the filling.
I was surprised to find a very different menu when I popped into Soirée on a Tuesday evening. It was taco night, and guests were ordering catfish tacos, smothered nachos and Southern-fried Mexican street corn. The oxtail enchiladas were a revelation. Tenderly braised oxtail chunks are folded into corn tortillas, covered with cheese and salsa and served with an inspiring mix of black-eyed peas and dirty rice.
Thanks to a childhood spent on the Texas Gulf Coast, I have a weakness for fried catfish, and Moore’s stirs up fond memories. Her house batter—that same lightly spiced blend of flour and cornmeal she uses on her tomatoes and deviled eggs—is best appreciated when it lightly clings to the piping hot filet. At lunch, you’ll find her fried seafood platter served with zesty hushpuppies, fried okra and a golden pile of fries, a formidable entree even for the hungriest patron.
As the name promises, Soirée has oysters, usually a rotation between Chesapeake Bay, Gulf Coast and East Coast Blue Point oysters. They’re fine raw, but they’re better fried and finished with a squirt of lemon, and they are best when they are chargrilled over open fire with melted parmesan, asiago and garlic butter.
Ordering dessert at a restaurant is one of the truest tests of the kitchen. It’s not the thing you came for, but it’s the last thing you’ll taste before paying the bill. A lackluster dessert is a perfunctory offering, like the cheap toothbrush your dentist gives you. A good dessert, though, will send you out the door feeling only pleasure.
I am happy to report that all of Moore’s desserts are very good. The chocolate bread pudding is warm; a delicious bourbon maple ice cream melts satisfyingly into a peach cobbler; I could eat the caramel dipping sauce that accompanies the hot beignets with a spoon.
But the sweet potato cheesecake, a recipe that Moore has labored for years to perfect, transcends space and time. The filling is feather-light and sits atop a graham cracker crust that is at least half melted butter. I recommend changing the name of the restaurant to Soirée Sweet Potato Cheesecake House.
So the food is excellent. But just as you should not expect a typical steakhouse menu in this restaurant that calls itself a steakhouse, you must also adjust your expectations when it comes to service—and occasionally execution. Soirée has been open now for nearly a year, and yet on a Friday night the server for my table of four seemed overwhelmed. Our appetizers took nearly an hour to arrive at the table and one of them was forgotten entirely. Drinks arrived staggered, taking more than fifteen minutes to reach us. But it was a swinging night: There was live music on the stage in the dining room, every table was full, the bar was backed up. The kitchen isn’t always at the top of its game, either. On a relaxed Thursday evening, my lobster bisque was delivered ice cold, as though it had just come out of the fridge.
The size of the restaurant is a factor. Soirée has 6,300 square feet and can seat up to 210 people, though staff is not prepared for half that number. They don’t try to be. The space, which was previously home to soul food joint Peachtree Restaurant, focuses on seating its main dining room and wrap-around bar area. There is an overflow dining area to the right of the bar, which features dark exposed brick walls—an odd juxtaposition with the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows and colorful paintings.
What Soirée lacks in polish, it makes up for with heart. Moore, the sole owner, always dreamed of setting up shop in the Jazz District. “If you want to marry food and music together,” she says, “where else would you go?”
Indeed, Soirée’s live music program focuses on local jazz musicians—there is usually an artist booked on Friday and Saturday night—and features gospel singers during Sunday brunch.
But Soirée’s move to 18th and Vine is significant in other ways. It’s the first space you see as you’re driving east on 18th Street and entering the District, occupying a vast corner and a large patio (opening, Moore hopes, by June). Before Soirée moved in, the building was vacant for five years. City officials sought Moore out, inviting her to take over the address in an effort to redevelop and rebuild the historic neighborhood.
Restoring the Jazz District to its former glory has been slow going. From the 1920s to the ’40s, the neighborhood was a cultural anchor in Kansas City. Decline began mid-century, and businesses slowly emptied out. For the last few decades, there has been a civic focus on repopulating the area and honoring its cultural significance. Soirée is located down the street from the American Jazz Museum and its Blue Room, the Gem Theater and the Mutual Musicians Foundation. It emerges as a crucial puzzle piece in the new narrative of the Jazz District, one focused on both paying homage to the neighborhood’s rich history and giving it a promising future.
Start with the fried crab cakes ($15) and the chargrilled oysters ($12 for a half dozen, $22 for a dozen). You must have the seafood mac and cheese ($22) and the trout pontchartrain ($26). Don’t forget a side of gumbo ($4 for a cup, $8 for a bowl). And for the love of all things holy, get that sweet potato cheesecake ($8).
For $25 on Sundays, you can partake in an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet, which includes a prime rib carving station, low country seafood boil and omelets made to order.