Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Grease Is the Word

Most dishes at The Jumpin' Catfish seem to have been swimming in the fryer too long.

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My pretty friend Loretta is always getting crabs. She claims to be a vegetarian, but once in a while she gets a yen for those long, smooth-shell snow-crab legs, freshly steamed, with drawn butter, and a cocktail sauce that's not skimpy on the horseradish. If she's really hungry, she can polish off a couple of plates, so she's fond of restaurants that offer all-you-can-eat specials. Loretta had a birthday recently, and her boyfriend took her to The Jumpin' Catfish in the Northland.

"It was really, really good," she told me. "First, before you even order, they bring you big bowls of cole slaw and these cooked navy beans. I think the beans had pork in them, but I didn't even care because they tasted so good. Then they bring a basket of hush puppies and this huge cluster of crab legs. They were delicious! I love crab legs but I could barely finish that first plate."

I've heard great things about The Jumpin' Catfish for years, but I've never really been motivated to go and eat in one of David Hampton's three restaurants — he also owns the original 20-year-old location in Olathe and a second venue in Lee's Summit — because I also heard tales of customers waiting patiently, sometimes as long as an hour, for a table. I don't like catfish enough to wait in line for it.

But Loretta's testimonial turned my head, and I decided it was time for me to jump on over there. My friend Rick tried to talk me out of it, insisting that I would hate the place. "It makes Red Lobster look like McCormick & Schmick's," he said. "It's filled with dead animals and photographs of dead animals and female customers with permed hair that looks so bad that it might as well be a dead animal."

I told Rick that he was a terrible culinary snob and that if he'd been a lifelong Midwesterner (like me, for example), he'd understand that catfish is one of the few truly fresh fish we can eat in the heartland. Besides, I've never known a catfish joint to be fancy.

So my expectations weren't that high when I hopped in my car, crossed the Missouri River and swung off the Northeast Antioch Road exit from Interstate 35. I somehow caught a quick glimpse of the restaurant sign in time to make a dizzying hairpin turn onto a surprisingly narrow road that leads up a hill to The Jumpin' Catfish parking lot. The building wasn't unfamiliar. It once housed a second-rate Chinese restaurant named after a cheap 1960s men's cologne. But when Hampton turned it into his third Jumpin' Catfish in 2000, he gave the place a rustic makeover, so now it looks like a cabin — the Disneyland version of a cabin, anyway. There's a big deck at the front and, inside the front door, an elaborate tableau of taxidermy, including mounted bears, deer, raccoons and squirrels in a forestlike setting.

"The owner of this restaurant is a big hunter," announced the nice white-haired lady at the hostess station, who noticed me wincing when I saw the stuffed baby doe. "The little deer died of natural causes," she explained. Natural, she said, as in hit by a trailer. "Some of the smaller animals were roadkill," she added, completely straight-faced.

"I'll bet that puts your heart at ease," said my friend Bob, who had come along for the adventure. We were escorted past a tiny salad bar — displayed in a dinghy — to a booth in the nonsmoking dining room that was tastefully decorated with framed color photographs of hunters with dead game birds or fishermen smiling in front of piles of fresh catches. The waitresses also took part in the hunting motif, wearing multipocketed fishing vests as part of their uniforms.

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