When Schane Gross announced her plan to open Fork & Fennel, a French bistro-style restaurant at 3425 E. Douglas, some doubted she would succeed.
At the time, Gross had just opened her high-end butcher shop, Douglas Avenue Chop Shop, next door to her bar, The Anchor, at 1109 E. Douglas. When the old Taco Tico building near her College Hill home – which had held a string of unsuccessful restaurants over the years – came open, Gross impulsively took the space. She imagined a neighborhood eatery with a European-style menu, a locally-sourced kitchen and a biker-friendly atmosphere.
Last summer, she dived into the project, which included a DIY remodel using up-cycled materials, all the while juggling her other two businesses.
In October, she opened Fork & Fennel’s doors to a bit of a rocky start. The first few weeks, it was frequently out of food. The second time I visited, the kitchen was practically cleaned out by 7 p.m. on a Saturday, and Gross frantically dashed to the Chop Shop just to grab a few steaks to serve. I decided to give it a few months before I returned.
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What a difference those few months made.
I recently returned to Fork & Fennel, where I enjoyed a couple of simple but satisfying meals with a French bistro flair. The menu, which has been adjusted since its opening weeks, is small but contains several uncommon ingredients. The “small plates” menu offers roasted marrow bones, split down the center so diners can scoop up the rich fatty middle with bread. Entree options include a dish of veal liver and onions. The scallops are served with pork belly. A salad is topped with grilled fennel. Octopus is on the lunch menu. And regionally sourced meats from the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop, including its Creekstone Farms rib eye and Red Wattle pork chops, star in several other dishes.
On a recent Friday night visit, some friends and I loved our meals so much, I wondered whether I was having an elusive four-star experience.
We started with two appetizers: whipped goat cheese and tuna tartare. The former was made up of a bowl of light and fluffy, roasted red-pepper-flavored (and -colored) goat cheese that could be spread with a knife on to vertically sliced pieces of fresh, salted baguette. The high-quality goat cheese was full of flavor and had a creamy texture, and the noticeable salt on the bread added a taste dimension. The tuna appetizer had diced pieces of raw tuna formed into a disc and placed in a bowl with a tiny dollop of avocado cream and a hint of hot sauce. As I scooped up the tuna with the fried wonton chips served on the side, it had a pleasing texture but was bland. Then my dining companion pointed out the sauce on the other side of the dish. I tried it on my next bite and loved the way the hot sauce played off the mild, chilled fish.
We also decided to share the grilled fennel salad. None of us had ever tried a fennel bulb before. We stuck our forks right into that fennel and were impressed by its onionlike texture but mild flavor that was more celery than onion. It paired nicely with the salad’s peppery arugula greens and the tomato confit flavored with basil.
Two of our three entrees were served atop pan sauces so layered with fat and flavor, they tasted like they’d been simmering on a stovetop in Provence for a year. One was the base for my sea scallops and pork belly, a serving of three large sea scallops with a nice sear on the outside placed next to a piece of pork belly, which tastes like a fattier pork shoulder with a caramelized, chewy coating. The dish was topped with a vinaigrette-coated pile of arugula.
The coq au vin (chicken in wine) also had been simmered in its own juices. They beautifully clung to the carrot slices, broccolini, pearl onions and bits of wild mushroom served with the chicken. This dish also was sprinkled with bits of sauteed pork belly, boosting its already deep flavors.
And my, my, my – that rib eye. I have paid embarrassing amounts of money at Gross’ Chop Shop for her massive, high-quality rib eyes. This was that rib eye, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and braised with bone marrow butter. It’s the kind of steak that makes a Kansas girl want to cry.
The night we were there, the restaurant was out of its bread pudding but had one other dessert: a wine-poached pear served on top of a bowl of lavender-flavored cream. Lavender is a wonderful, earthy flavor for a dessert, and I loved its pale purple color. The dessert was the perfect, not-to-sweet stomach coater at the end of a rich meal.
I have just a few minor quibbles with Fork & Fennel. It still can’t seem to keep its menu fully available. On two recent visits, the marinated mozzarella appetizer, the bread pudding and a glass of sparkling wine were unavailable. Also, the menu is so small that I managed to travel almost completely though it pretty quickly, though that will be helped by the recent addition of several sandwiches to the lunch menu, including a lamb-wich, a chicken salad sandwich and a house grinder made with mortadela, sopresetta, salami and other Italian meats.
Two final things I enjoyed about Fork & Fennel: The first was the Bramble, a cocktail on its inventive list of house-made cocktails. It was a fizzy, light pink combination of gin, sparkling wine, fresh lemon and blackberries. It went down smooth and took the edge off the gin without being sweet.
And despite her limited budget, Gross did a great job with the dining room. It glows with the light from dozens of hanging, exposed bulbs at night. By day, it’s awash in sunlight that feeds the planters full of fresh herbs and plant life inside the restaurant.
Once the patio opens, you will find me there with a Bramble and a rib eye.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
Fork & Fennel
☆☆☆1/2 out of four
Where: 3425 E. Douglas; 316-440-0948
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays
Type of food: French bistro-style small plates, sandwiches, entrees and cocktails
Cost: Burgers and sandwiches are $8-$13. Salads are $8-$13. Entrees are $15-$25
Alcohol: Full bar