Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Chez Hooray

J.B. Bremser makes a name for himself at Chez B.

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Recently my friend Steve gave me a copy of the hard-to-find The Interiors Book of Restaurants. The book of black-and-white photography was very modern and up-to-date when it was published in 1960, but now its most interesting interiors -- like those in the Playbill Restaurant in New York City's Hotel Manhattan (with celebrity murals by Al Hirschfeld) and Bretton's Restaurant in downtown Kansas City -- are long gone.

What was fresh and glamorous in 1960 would have looked dated and dowdy by the 1980s, so it's not surprising that most of the room designs featured in this textbook had been ripped out or replaced by 2004. The ideas expressed in the book still carry some weight, though, such as: "Even in those places which seem to depend almost wholly upon the personality of the host and the excellence of the food, the physical surroundings are important."

I was reminded of this recently as I walked into the building at 118 Southwest Boulevard in the Crossroads. There, the restaurant Chez B occupies a strictly unglamorous corner in the space dominated by High Cotton Home Furnishings' expensive upholstered furniture and accessories. With its odd collection of mismatched tables and chairs, its concrete floor and a loud, clattering kitchen, Chez B comes off as the raggedy stepsister hiding behind her more sophisticated sibling's skirts. The authors of The Interiors Book of Restaurants, William Wilson Atkin and Joan Adler, would have been scandalized by the dining room's thrown-together informality.

My acidic friend Ned certainly was. "There's no magic to it," he snarled after we had placed our lunch order at the counter and settled at a table. "It's cold and dumpy."

Another friend, Jan, joined us later and was much more forgiving. "It has its own character," she said, looking around at the assortment of diners at other tables: a gorgeous young couple, two groups of female office workers, a model-handsome young man dining solo and two construction workers demolishing their turkey club sandwiches.

Ned continued to grumble until he took his first spoonful of chef-owner J.B. Bremser's soup of the day, a silken cream of mushroom. "It's wonderful," he said begrudgingly. By the time he finished his chef salad -- its thick strips of turkey and cheese, crumbles of hard-boiled egg and tissue-thin cucumber slices arranged as beautifully as a bouquet -- he had softened considerably. "The place is totally devoid of style, but the food is delicious," he admitted.

If Bremser has done any redecorating since taking over this space from its previous tenants, Miguel Sanchez and Susan Welling-Sanchez of Honeymom's, it's not immediately apparent. Like Honeymom's, the place is an unpretentious but busy luncheonette by day; on weekend evenings, it's dinner only. But it gets a modest makeover during those Friday and Saturday dinner hours, with white linens draped over the tables and cloth napkins and real glassware instead of the lunch hour's casual plastic tumblers.

As its name implies, Chez B is un restaurant Français, although Bremser plays down the French angle during lunch (when the menu changes weekly), offering salads and sandwiches more universal than Gallic. Thus the distinctly American chef salad my friend John ordered one day, or the remarkably tender brisket sandwich that I practically inhaled on that same visit. And the robust chili with chunks of roast pork, topped with puffy cubes of fried queso blanco.

The weekend dinner menu is more unabashedly French. That's not surprising if you know that J.B. Bremser's father and restaurant co-owner Jeff Bremser, the senior vice president at Bernstein-Rein Advertising, is a longtime Francophile. A former restaurant critic himself (for Kansas City Magazine), Jeff Bremser was part of the original restaurant-critics panel on KCUR 89.3's Walt Bodine Show, where he didn't mind being a snob. In fact, he quite enjoyed it. If a caller posed the question "Where is your favorite restaurant?" Jeff would name some boîte in Paris instead of a familiar Kansas City joint.

Thirty-six-year-old J.B. Bremser hasn't been to France, but he did grow up sharing his parents' passion for good food: His mother, Suzanne, was the original chef at the first Classic Cup Restaurant.

"J.B. is self-taught," his father says proudly. "He learned French cuisine by cooking his way through the Richard Olney cookbooks."

No matter how J.B. Bremser picked up his skills, he's pretty savvy in that confoundingly noisy kitchen. Unlike the chef, I have been to France several times, and J.B. Bremser's provincial French cuisine tastes gorgeously authentic to me. And you don't have to be a Francophile to get all passionnant about it. To prove that theory, I brought KKFI 90.1 blues jockey Connie "Crash" Humiston, a no-nonsense Kansas girl, along with me. I also invited Carmen, a Guatemalan beauty who had just returned from a trip to Paris. And I brought my friend Bob, who loves all things French, particularly pommes frites, the fried potatoes that we call french fries. Sometimes they're the same thing (the American name derives from the way the potatoes are "frenched," or cut into lengthwise strips), but in J.B. Bremser's version, the hot, dark-amber fries arrive wrapped in newspaper -- as they might be on the streets of Paris -- and stuffed into a drinking glass.

When Connie went outside for a cigarette with one of the chefs, she returned with news. "The potatoes are organic," she announced. We all thought the crunchy frites first-rate and alternated them with pieces of soft baguette to scoop up Brie and Roquefort cheeses from an appetizer plate. Before we could get too full on these finger foods, our wise server, Bill, hurried out with a large bowl of jade-colored cream of asparagus soup for me and salads for everyone else. Carmen and Bob had the Chez B Salade, a jumble of greens, chevre croutons and sprouts tossed in a piquant Dijon-shallot dressing. Connie ordered -- and loved -- the spinach salad, its dark-green leaves, bacon and mushrooms glazed in a slightly sweet vinaigrette.

Only a few tables in the room were occupied that night. Besides our quartet, there was a disturbingly quiet trio off in a corner and, at a very long table, Daddy Bremser, holding court with his Friday night dinner group. Its members have been eating and drinking together for the past twenty years and clearly haven't grown bored with one another.

Chez B doesn't have a liquor license yet, but somehow a corkscrew materializes if a customer happens to have a stray bottle of Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 1999. I preferred iced tea with my roasted pork loin, which wasn't as juicy as I had hoped but nonetheless was tasty and fragrant with rosemary. It just wasn't a vision of perfection, like Connie's sumptuous, perfectly cooked rib-eye steak -- surprisingly inexpensive considering it was one of the thickest hunks of beef I'd seen in some time.

Equally marvelous were Bob's scallops; lightly browned and puffy, they'd been simply prepared in white wine, butter and garlic. Carmen's supple slab of salmon brushed with thyme, parsley and dill was exquisite, too. "I like my dinner very much, but not the ambience of the restaurant," she said. "I wish it was a charming little bistro instead of this loud space where they wait until 9:30 to dim the lights and the music sounds like hillbilly songs!"

"I think it's John Prine," Connie whispered before leaving to have another cigarette.

By this time, though, I was oblivious to the interior design, the music, the lighting or anything else. Instead, I was digging into a dense wedge of cocoa-dusted chocolate cake piled with a softball-sized scoop of Foo's Frozen Custard -- another Bremser family business. All of which reminded me of one more rule from the Interiors Book of Restaurants: "A poorly designed restaurant serving good food will succeed to the extent that the owner can project his personality."

At Chez B, J.B. Bremser does that through his cooking. It's more than enough.

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