As a young teenager in Tokyo, Japan in the late 60's who has just taken his first job ever as a dishwasher/busboy at the city's largest French Restaurant he did not know that experience would shape his life, career and become his total passion. That is Tatsu Arai, who is the owner and chef of his own award winning, critically acclaimed namesake restaurant Tatsu's French Restaurant in Prairie Village. Hidden away in a small shopping center, Tatsu's has maintained a steady and extremely loyal cadre of guests for over 30 years, attracted in part by the simple but consistently and classically prepared French cuisine and the shyly quiet but warm & engaging omni-presence of Tatsu himself.
Tatsu learned his craft, not just on the job [without formal education] but from the bottom up, tackling every job in the Tokyo restaurant, both front and back of house. He served a virtual internship in everything restaurant and everything French that built not only his skills and reputation but fueled his passion to learn even more. In the mid-70's he moved to Chicago, IL to another French restaurant that he saw as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal at the time, to get to Paris where he could seriously train in classic techniques. But that was not to be, and he found himself with an opportunity to move to Kansas City in 1977 to work first, in a Japanese Steak House; and then in 1980, to open his own French Bakery and lunch counter.
Chef Tatsu still loves to make pastries and his day begins very early baking breads and prepping his exquisite desserts. However, his bakery and lunch guests in those early years kept pestering him to offer dinner and as he more frequently gave in to their entreaties he found that a full dinner service made more economic sense than the simpler bakery concept. With that, Tatsu's French Restaurant launched in Spring of 1985, building out from the original bakery and expanding into more of the shopping center space. Tatsu's today has a dining room that accommodates around 100, a small but well stocked bar, a private dining room that seats 30+, and of course, the pastry case to hold his special creations.
Now, while there have been some changes to the space, what is at the core of the Tatsu's experience has remained essentially the same. The menu contains most of the items that could be found when they opened. It is populated with classic French offerings with such starters as Escargot or sauteed Shrimp or Scallops Meunier [with mushrooms in lemon butter sauce]. The Crab with Sherry or Carrot cream soups vie for favorite status among regulars [we vote for the Crab]. Entrees run the gamut from Beef and Veal, Lamb and Chicken, Duck, and of course Salmon and other Seafood with a variety of classic French sauces characterizing each preparation. Many swear by the Teriyaki Chicken - a nod to his Japanese origins, but made with the same French attention to details.
We asked Chef Tatsu what makes his restaurant so popular with locals and what also keeps those who have moved away & travelers making Tatsu's a must visit whenever they return to Kansas City. Chef is quick to answer. "It is the freshness of the preparations'" he says. "All the sauces, stocks, dressing, and desserts are made from scratch every day." Selections of meats, seafood, and produce are also purchased in smaller quantities as often as possible to maintain maximum freshness. Clearly, his formula works, for those who are privy to the secret of this French food oasis in the heartland of America keep on returning.
Yet our sense is that the real secret of success at Tatsu's is the chef himself. He appears shy and reserved, but when he speaks he smiles and laughs easily. When asked about what keeps him working so hard and for so long, he points out that he is always hoping for the positive response to his efforts. And when he is not in the kitchen he makes regular passes through the dining room, greeting guests, at the same time watching and listening for the sights and sounds of contented diners, and happy customers. Our guess is that he is seldom disappointed on that score. Visit Tatsu's French Restaurant, hidden away off 90th St. in Prairie Village, and discover this delicious secret for yourself!