Kansas City Dining
How do you get the feel for the culinary and cultural identity of a city in sixty-four hours? Try eating at over twenty restaurants, hanging out at a few live-music joints, cocktailing at several watering holes and throwing in a couple of museums along the way. Having a local guide helps too.
And so it was for my recent whirlwind culinary exploration of Kansas City. To most people, the city that straddles the state line between Missouri and Kansas is associated with barbecue and the blues. My mission was to determine whether the local diet consisted of more than just brisket, ribs and burnt ends. Of course, I also wanted to find the best brisket, ribs and burnt ends. To this end, I enlisted an old friend from my law-school days in St. Louis, Missouri, to act as my tour guide. Now a government-relations lawyer at one of the country’s power firms, Adam P. Sachs, born and raised in Kansas City, volunteered not only to serve as my guide and chauffeur but also as the over-zealous photographer for this piece.
What better way to start our culinary adventures than with barbecue?Memphis and the Carolinas may be the home of pork and Texas may be the brisket state, but the tradition of Kansas City barbecue lies in dry rubbed spices, slow-smoking over a pit of hickory wood for upwards of eighteen hours, a sweet and tangy sauce, and the willingness to cook almost anything that moves. Credited with being the city’s first barbecue in the early 1900s, Henry Perry’s old trolley barn served as a training pit for future local barbecue legends, including brothers Charlie and Arthur Bryant.
Presidents, movie stars, professional athletes, and chow hounds of all ethnic and economic classes and cultures have made the trek to Arthur Bryant’s on Brooklyn to stand in line for a taste of what New Yorker writer and Kansas City native Calvin Trillin called “the single best restaurant in the world.” The Formica tables and linoleum floors probably haven’t changed much in the last fifty years (apparently the place is cleaner!) and Timmy Brown’s been working the pit for over twenty-three years. This place is an institution, and the barbecue didn’t disappoint. In order to be able to compare our “pit” stops fairly, we ordered the same items everywhere … beef sandwich with fries, short-end ribs (the last seven or eight ribs in a slab of spare ribs) and burnt ends (the charred pieces of brisket ends that cannot be sliced). The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and the piled-high sandwich with the handprint evidence that it was pressed down hard (in the old days, the handprint was sauce-stained, but today’s line workers wear gloves) was chin-drippin’ tasty. But as much as Bryant’s is about great food, it’s about the experience and no trip to Kansas City is complete without it.
Other barbecue stops worth the visit include Snead’s, a fair way out on Highway 58, but the melt-in-your-mouth burnt end was well worth the drive. Go for the succulently tender ribs (whether beef, pork or lamb) and smoky hickory pit beans at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue. Rosedale’s shredded, as opposed to sliced, beef sandwich with the incredibly tasty sauce is a must, and Gates & Sons delivers consistency in a more corporate-like atmosphere not unlike McDowell’s in the Eddie Murphy flick Coming to America.
But Kansas City is about more than just barbecue. It also boasts the best freakin’ donuts I have ever tasted. The slogan for Lamar’s Donuts is “Simply a Better Donut,” and it absolutely is. Impossibly yummy cake with chocolate and coconut, long john filled with lusciously textured chocolate cream, apple cake with cinnamon, and the simple glazed all suggest the influence of a higher power. If you could get same-day-express service to north of the 49th, it would be worth the expense.
Fine dining in a modern sense appears to be a relatively new phenomenon here, but there are a couple of spots that are justifiably wowing the locals. 1924 Main in the Crossroads Art district is a modern, upscale room with a buzz. The “spontaneous” menu changes weekly and provides outstanding value with a $30 ($15 at lunch) three-course prix fixe menu and tantalizes with such items as grilled escarole salad with dates, almonds, parsnips and duck confit; caramelized onion beef stew with horseradish crème fraîche; and balsamic-glazed sirloin with potato–ricotta gnocchi, gorgonzola cream and arugula. The elegantly cool lounge downstairs is a fabulous room to meet-and-greet over cocktails, sparkling wine and appetizers.
One of the hottest and most talked about rooms in the Midwest is Bluestem. Chef-owners Colby and Megan Garrelts have indeed brought “big city” dining to this meat-and-potatoes town. An elegantly simple room lets the food be the star. This husband & wife team possess a sixth sense for seamlessly combining a myriad of flavours to create memorably innovative dishes. The $75 seven-course tasting menu is a bargain, delighting diners with palate-pleasuring creations like crab wrapped in Asian pear with orange segments, yogurt and Riesling ice (one of the best appetizers I’ve experienced in the last year); the stellar purée of lentil soup, braised duckbreast with cipollini onions; and the equally stunning seared tuna with piquillo pepper confit. Kansas City folk would be remiss in not recognizing and embracing these up-and-coming culinary stars.
Along with 1924 Main and Bluestem, the Blue Bird Bistro is a twenty-first-century oasis in a culinary culture that can sometimes feel stuck in the 1970s. Owner Jane Zieha is refreshingly adamant about organic and sustainable farming practices and personally knows the source for all the ingredients lovingly incorporated in the heart-warming dishes. Don’t miss the knee-weakening Ciabatta French toast dipped in a vanilla–egg batter and served with maple syrup and pecan butter, or the fantastic eggs Benedict. The menu contains so many mouth-watering items, I am compelled to make a trip back just to try them all. Zieha knows that she’s fighting an uphill battle with her natural “granola” philosophy, but she is the future and KC desperately needs to catch up with her.
For great perfectly-cooked-to-order meat (and it doesn’t matter if it’s lamb, pork or beef), a great wine list and a glimpse of the city’s mucky-mucks, check out local power room, JJ’s. Skip the appetizers and desserts: these guys know how to do meat. Quench your thirst with over sixty-five different beers and eighty whiskies at cowboy-boot-stompin’ Harry’s Country Club. Mexican-food lovers should explore the many local spots on Southwest Boulevard and, for a flavour of eclectic independents, stroll down 39th Street. Relish is a hot-dog haven for a quick bite, and the twenty-seat funky hole in the wall YJ’s Snack Bar serves up a breakfast sandwich of fried eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon and home fries on a poppy-seed bun that is the perfect morning-after-the-night-before pick-me-up. And if you want the insider’s scoop as to what’s going on in town, chat with YJ’s owner David Ford.
No visit to Kansas City is complete without checking out the jazz-and-blues music scene. There is a multitude of live-music venues, but the coolest is the Mutual Musicians Foundation in the historic 18th and Vine district. Opening only after all the other clubs have closed (quite literally … we stood outside in the freezing cold until someone showed up to unlock the door at just after 1 AM), this sparse forty-seat box is a throwback along the lines of Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Players jam until the wee hours as diehard locals nod in agreement to the soulful beat.
Kansas City is far from being a culinary mecca, but highlights like Bluestem, the BlueBird, 1925 Main, Arthur Bryant’s and even Lamar’s provide locals with a glimpse of what could and should be. The “revitalization” theme is commonly used to refer to ongoing development in the city.It seems apropos to describe the food scene as well.
Kansas City Must-Go Spots
Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue
Bella Napoli (the only decent espresso in KC)
6229 Brookside Blvd
Blue Bird Bistro
900 Westport Road