October 30, 2011

Eating Kansas City

by Gurvinder Bhatia

Tidings Magazine, May/June 2006 Issue

How do you get the feel for the culinary and cultural identity of a city in 64 hours?  Try eating at over 20 restaurants, hanging at a few local 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, Missouri and Kansas straddling KC is identified by barbecue and 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 tour guide and chauffeur, but over-zealous photographer.
What better to start our culinary adventures with than barbecue. Memphis and the Carolinas may be home to pork barbecue and Texas may be the brisket capital, but the tradition of Kansas City barbecue lies in dry rubbed spices, slow-smoking over a pit of hickory wood for upwards of 18 hours, a sweet, 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 columnist 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 50 years (apparently it’s cleaner??) and Timmy Brown’s been working the pit for over 23 years.  This place is an institution and the barbecue didn’t disappoint.  To make a fair comparison amongst all the “pit” stops on our tour, we ordered the same items everywhere...beef sandwich with fries, short end ribs (the last 7 or 8 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 hand print to press it down (in the old days, the hand print was sauce stained, but today the line workers wear gloves) was chin-dribbin’ 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 ways out on Highway 58, but the melt in your mouth burnt end are well worth the drive.  Go for the succulently tender ribs, whether they be beef, pork or lamb, and smoky hickory pit beans at Fiorella’s Jack Stack BarbecueRosedale’s shredded, as opposed to sliced, beef sandwich with their 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.  They also boast 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 north of the 49th, it’s 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 creme fraiche; 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.  The 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 puree of lentil soup, braised duck breast with cipolline onions; and the equally stunning seared tuna with piquillo pepper confit.  Kansas Citians would be remis in not recognizing and embracing these up and coming culinary stars.
Along with 1924 Main and Bluestem, the Blue Bird Bistro is a 21st century oasis in a culinary culture seemingly 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, but these guys know how to do meat.   Quench your thirst with over 65 beers and 80 whiskys 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 local, eclectic independents stroll down 39th Street.  Relish is a hot dog haven for a quick bite, and the 20 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 1:00am), this sparse 40 seat box is a throw-back along the lines of Preservation Hall in New Orleans.  Players jam until the wee hours as diehard locals nod in agreement with the soulful beat.
Kansas City is far from being a culinary mecca, but highlights like Bluestem, the Blue Bird, 1925 Main, Arthur Bryant’s, and even Lamar’s provide locals a glimpse of what could and should be.  Revitalization is a common theme when referring to development in the city.  It seems apropos to describe the food scene as well.