Seven appetizers are listed on Chaz 325's laminated menu, but it's apparently all about the onion rings.
"They're hand-battered and served with our own Cajun sauce," my server told me one evening. "Everyone is crazy about them." I pictured every man, woman and child in Platte City, where this restaurant opened three months ago, waving an onion ring happily in the air, forgoing the calamari and the mozzarella sticks and the chicken wings.
I have learned the hard way that when a new restaurant claims to have a dish about which the locals have gone nuts, I am all but certain to keep my disappointed wits about me. But I do like onion rings, and I don't get to Platte City much.
The 132-year-old town famously tossed bank robber Bonnie Parker, the Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde, in the clink after a 1933 shootout. I don't remember how she got out of the Platte City jail, but she could have hacked her way through the bars with the onion rings I was served on that first visit to Chaz 325. What was in the plastic basket was not hand-battered and had spent so much time in the fryer that the onions were fused together like a chain — a chain strong enough to pull a freight car.
The server saw me wrestling with one of the rings and hurried over.
"I have to apologize," she said. "Those are not our onion rings. We were really busy earlier in the day — it was graduation day here in Platte City — and we sold out of our hand-breaded rings. We had to use these instead."
"They're from a bag from the supermarket?" I asked.
"Oh, probably," she said. "But you'll have to come back to try the real onion rings."
I was remembering why I don't get to Platte City much. In fact, I hadn't dined on downtown's main drag since its best-known restaurant, the relatively upscale Shields Manor Bistro, closed last year. Shields was a little snooty and genteel for this small town, perhaps, but it lasted more than a dozen years.
By contrast, the new Chaz 325 is unabashedly down-to-earth. But I'm not sure what the future holds for this place. The drawing card for the restaurant is chef and co-owner Charles Shurn, a longtime veteran of Kansas City restaurants, including the Classic Cup. Platte City seems an unlikely destination for his talents, but it's his fiancée's hometown, and he told me that he has been welcomed "with open arms."
I thought about the nature of hometown dining as I tried one more bite of onion ring, dipped in a supposedly Cajun remoulade. It had a nice sage note but was too watery.
I was still thinking about the nature of hometown dining when I drove back to Platte City and tried Chaz 325 again. Still no onion rings. Or baked ziti. Or chili. Well, that's part of the hometown thing. This is not a corporate restaurant with a hard-wired supply chain and redundancies to ensure consistency and order. It's a small-town dinette with a big bar and an array of small-town, dinette-style dishes. Too ambitious an array, I think.
"It's comfort food," Shurn told me later, "but I put a fresh spin on everything."
Fresh is a good idea, but a cheeseburger is pretty much just a cheeseburger at chef Shurn's restaurant. (It's fine.) And his version of chicken Marsala is a lot closer to my mom's Ladies' Home Journal version than the kind served at most Kansas City restaurants; that is, the wine sauce is really more of a thick cream gravy. (Still, I more or less approve.) There are mashed potatoes. The dinner rolls are chewy.
I doubt that hungry Kansas Citians are going to make the trek to charmless Platte City the way they have turned Smithville into a foodie pilgrimage. That burg is equally charmless, but it boasts the highly praised Justus Drugstore. Justus Drugstore this isn't, but the locals seem to love it. That's why Shurn says he opened his restaurant. And, really, what does he need with me?
Besides, for economy-minded diners, Shurn offers a lot of wow for the wallet. A recent dinner special was a 6-ounce rib-eye (very tender, perfectly grilled) with three large fried shrimp and a moist, delicious potato pancake. It was very good and cost less than $20. Even a modestly priced sirloin steak — cooked better than I expected, and far juicier than I anticipated — was a good deal, served with a salad and a spud for about $13.
The place gets by largely on its likability, something for which Shurn's fiancée and business partner, Pamela Haecker, can take some credit. She's a charming hostess, and she and the rest of the front of the house don't pretend that the restaurant is anything more than it is: a congenial café with generous portions of solid American dishes.
I mean, how's this for honest: "You'll love the tuxedo cake," a server advised me. She fetched a pretty square of a chocolate-mousse concoction.
"Do you make this here?" I asked.
"Oh, no," she said, laughing. "It's from Costco."
I wasn't crazy about it, but someone else is bound to be.