French fare, full bar, nightly specials, happy hour, singing servers
There’s a little stretch of 5th street, just outside the River Market’s commercial area, where a non-descript pink-bricked building hides one of the best kept secrets in Kansas City: Le Fou Frog. Opened in 1996 by Frenchman Mano Raphael and his wife, Barbara, Le Fou Frog is the oldest French restaurant on the Missouri side of Kansas City. If you’re a self-described foodie, then you probably tell people about this unassuming bistro reigning as the River Market’s go-to spot for birthdays, anniversaries, showing a date you have good taste and the money to pay for it , or simply treating yourself because you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh darnit people like you.
Le Fou Frog’s reputation as one of Kansas City’s finest restaurants is well earned. The food coming out of Mano Rafael’s kitchen rivals anything you’ll find across the metro area, but it’s the pure magic of the dining room and bar that make Le Fou Frog so special.
Memories of Le Fou Frog might involve a chilled, foggy evening, the type of night that necessitates a pea coat, scarf, and wind-blown red cheeks. You step to the entrance—complete with security bars—and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Open the door, step through a red-velvet curtain and it’s like you’ve arrived 30 seconds after a magical French grandmother has sprinkled fairy dust throughout the dining room. Everything is accented red. Red tablecloths, red chairs, and red lights that paint the ceiling as red as a communist’s bed sheets. Old space heaters hang from the ceiling. Silly, crazy frogs pop up in the most surprising places, creating a fun drinking game of “Where’s Froggie?”
Once you’ve regained enough focus, read your table’s individual chalkboard with the night’s hand-written specials, peruse the drink menu, and the printed food menu. I suggest you try a champagne martini, which comes served in a massive martini glass, and for an appetizer the Brandade du Morue. The pre-dinner treat will give you enough time to let the ambiance seep into your skin and decide from the plethora of entrée choices. The alcohol will enhance the dining room’s soft lighting and wrap you in a sparkly haze of wonderment at the enchanted dining room full of people in French surroundings. I half expect Woody Allen to yell “cut” after a particularly good take from the actors playing Camus and Sartre.
Le Fou Frog gets better when people pack the dining room and bar. The collective conversation becomes the night’s soundtrack, until at least one of the attractive servers breaks out in song. Perhaps some people are annoyed to have their dinner conversation interrupted by spontaneous bursts of vocal revelry, but not this diner. The dining room falls to a hush. Heads swivel toward the soaring words. It’s an exciting moment, something I can’t imagine happening anywhere else in the city. The spur-of-the-moment song lets the patrons take a collective moment to appreciate beauty and art, an impeccable match to the striking food coming out of the kitchen.
Happy hour diners can fill up on a heaping bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels in a white wine broth complimented with mustard, bay leaf, and cream. The cheese and meat plate lets the uninitiated palate explore head cheese, rilette, pate, various cheeses, and house-made sausages. The house-cured spicy lamb sausage with caramelized onions on baguette is a personal favorite.
The dinner entrées range from out of the ordinary – Kangaroo, Kobe filet – to the expected – Chilean sea bass, scallops,Kansas City strip, roasted chicken, and braised lamb shank. I enjoyed the lamb shank in a rosemary lamb jus with cumin scented cous cous and ratatouille. I yearn for a day when I can blow my life savings trying each of Chef Mano’s creative dishes. It goes without saying, but SAVE ROOM FOR DESSERT!
Le Fou Frog is fun. Think about that for a second. Fun. At a restaurant. We normally determine fun at a restaurant by the people we spend dinner with, whether we enjoyed the conversation or not, but Le Fou Frog supplies the fun. Whether it’s watching Mano kick a customer out or attempt to set up a group of three single men with a separate group of three single women, the Chef’s personality is ever present in the food and the dining area. The Bastille Day celebration and the monthly Night of Song events are two more reasons you should be eating at Le Fou Frog. It’s the type of experience you want to share with others, brag to your friends about, and steal quarters out of a blind man’s jar to afford.