In recent years I’ve enjoyed following the emergence of Germany as an international culinary destination. The contemporary German emphases on regional ingredients and modern interpretations of traditional dishes are very compelling. At the same time, there is a gulf between New German Cuisine’s fame and its absence in the United States. Germany has a cumulative sum of 300+ Michelin stars between its restaurants, and yet it has no real presence in this country. In light of this, when scanning the list of James Beard nominees for the Midwest, it was naturally of great interest to notice a Beard-nominated restaurant that claimed to serve contemporary German cuisine in Kansas City. Chef Martin Heuser opened Affare in spring of 2012, so the restaurant’s acclaim followed immediately after opening. My brother and I had a non-blog dinner there on a recent Friday night, then revisited for lunch the following week; this post documents the latter meal.
Dining at Affare the week before lunching had a major effect on my perception of the dining room. As the picture at the top shows, the dining room was entirely empty. If I hadn’t eaten at Affare before, I would have thought that the restaurant was unpopular and its mission simply wasn’t endorsed by Kansas City. Yet, at night Affare is a major “scene” restaurant and reservations are difficult to secure. Instead of signifying unpopularity, the empty setting instead resonated as though it were hung-over from what was no doubt a lively evening the night before.
I think Affare’s interior design supports its nighttime environment. The open design, punk mural, and large black-and-white photography make the space a hybrid between a nightclub and art gallery. The white tablecloths and black chairs add a touch of gravity, although the formality of the dining area is not so stuffy as to clash with the bar area, always a danger with restaurants that don’t separate their bar from dining room. One curious touch is that there are two large televisions in the bar area that screen obscure film noir classics. It was surprising to see esoteric films from the 1940s screened, but I actually feel as though for a dining room filled with so much black and white, showing black and white films makes the movies aesthetically relevant to the interior design. I usually don’t like televisions in restaurants because they implicitly suggest that the restaurant itself doesn’t offer enough visual appeal, but in this case I found the setting very tasteful.
Affare’s menu has four sections: Affare in the Garden, Affare under Water, Affare in the Barn, and Traditional Affare. Instead of an appetizer-main course design, Affare serves small plates of roughly equal portion. Because this was lunch, there was also a 3-course prix fixe with a more traditional structure, priced at just $15. Two aspects of the menu stood out: the first was the novel ingredients; one does not find white asparagus, (domestic) Wagyu, wild boar, elk loin, and skate on many Kansas City menus. The other noticeable aspect was the ornate rhetorical flourishes in the menu titles, which I could have done without. I wonder how Kansas Citians feel about seeing baroque ingredient descriptions like “edible dirt,” “seafood in liaison with lemon risotto,” and “artisan leaves and flower petal.” One could make the argument that these descriptions are “artistic” and therefore commensurate with the art gallery feel of the décor. However, the flowery descriptions were really gratuitous considering that the menu also featured traditional dishes like sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel. As it stands, the menu descriptions are awkwardly situated between showy artistic titles and traditional German ones. I understand that a central aspect of New German Cuisine involves modernizing native German dishes, but one can accomplish this without resorting to baroque rhetoric. I selected the 3-course prix fixe and added on a foie gras-morel mushroom dish as a supplement. My brother ordered maultaschen and wild boar goulash.
Bread service consisted of house-made pretzels. There were two types offered: caraway seed and sea salted. Both were very nice.
My first course was roasted tomato and fennel soup, with crème fraiche. It was nice but pretty standard.
The maultaschen were more interesting and delicious, and my brother also enjoyed them during our dinner.
The morel-foie gras dish was picture perfect; the broth was a brandy cream sauce that did a great job in foregrounding the superb main ingredients. Morels are among my favorite foods, and this was on the short list of the most delicious dishes I’ve had all year. Chef Heuser started with an ingredient that was in the height of its season and showcased it in ideal form. This course also really demonstrated how his culinary style is more ingredient-driven than technique-focused, which I see as separating him from the New German style. Where the contemporary German chefs combine pristine sourcing with avant-garde technique, Heuser really doesn’t experiment too much with texture, ingredient combinations, etc.
My brother’s wild boar goulash was served with house-made noodles and tempura fried sweet cherries. This was another dish that really wasn’t very “New German” but made great use of terrific ingredients. The sweet cherries were an unusual touch and a good example of how Affare’s cuisine does have a layer of ambition separating it from other Kansas City eateries.
The second course of the prix fixe was broiled salmon split, filled with spinach, and served with pea puree. Roasted new potatoes were served on the side. This course was a mild disappointment for me; this was because the limp texture of the salmon possessed an unfortunate airline/banquet hall quality. The preparation tasted fine enough, but the texture alienated me. I did find the edible flowers interesting—the seemingly harmless garnish almost resonated like a compensatory gesture attempting to make up for an otherwise uninspired dish.
Affare’s pastry program has around a half-dozen offerings, but unlike the savory department, all of the choices are very traditional. I wonder if this is because Chef Hauser is more invested in savories, but I would love to see him come up with some more contemporary desserts. My brother selected a quark cheesecake served with blackberries. I forgot to take a photo of it and so the photo below was taken from their Facebook page. He enjoyed it very much.
The dessert included in my prix fixe was a peach melba; it was decent but nothing one couldn’t prepare just as well at home.
Usually, I’m satisfied with how I order at restaurants, but I erred in selecting the prix fixe. Just from looking at the composition of the salmon dish, I think one can get a sense of the lagging effort that went into the prix fixe contra the regular menu. At our dinner at Affare, we really enjoyed the Iowa wagyu and elk loin, and I should have either revisited these dishes or explored some of the seafood choices. Fortunately, the morel mushroom dish was remarkable and a dish that one simply will not find anywhere else in Kansas City. In sticking to the menu proper, my brother’s meal was far more successful and his three courses were uniformly delicious. I definitely ordered poorly but then, restaurants shouldn’t give the customer room to order poorly. I’d be curious to see whether their lunchtime prix fixe is typically more impressive.
In many respects, Chef Heuser has succeeded with Affare. During our first meal our server explained that they were worried that Kansas City would not support a modern German supported by the city, and despite the emptiness of the dining room during our lunch, Affare is certainly very popular . Yet, I still feel like there is an unresolved tension between the precious course descriptions and the simplicity of the cuisine. Chef Heuser’s skill lies in his superb sourcing and adept skill in the kitchen. His plating and cooking styles are fairly simple and far more ingredient-centric than technique-driven, so I don’t see why he goes with the overwrought course titles. Even though Affare shares the emphasis on top-level ingredients, I don’t think it’s really fair to say that the restaurant quite manages to qualify as New German Cuisine since the restaurant is neither as revisionist nor as technique-focused. I would love to see the restaurant either move upward and become more complex in its plating style, or (more appropriately) scale down and lose the fancy menu descriptions. The menu is bloated but this may be necessary in order to appeal to the heterogeneous dining demographic of Kansas City. Still, the restaurant is one of the more ambitious in the city and so I think it’s fair to critique it on the grounds I have discussed in this post. Even if it does not change, the restaurant benefits from the novelty of taking an ingredient-focused approach to German cuisine, and for this reason it would be hard to have a disappointing meal at Affare.