MICHAEL SMITH, KANSAS CITY: THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN MENU
OK, boys and girls, let’s play a little game shall we?
Let’s create our very own menu for a mid range to high end “American” restaurant.
Ahi Tuna? Check.
Alaskan Halibut? You betcha
Chilean Sea Bass? You want it, we got it
Strip Steak? New York or Kansas?
Fingerling potatoes and heirloom tomatoes? What do you think?
Some dessert with peanut butter involved? Of course.
And there, dear reader, you have on the plate the fixings for just about every menu you will encounter in decent end dining across the USA.
Sure, they will add in the occasional twist in the cooking and the odd name of a farm to show that the provenance is local, but otherwise eating in a mid range American restaurant can be a bit of a dispiriting event. Particularly if they have spent more time describing it than cooking it.
It is, of course, no different in the UK where we have our own particular breed of Identikit menu, primarily borrowing from decent gastro pubs and the brilliance of Fergus Henderson.
I am in Kansas City MO on the latest stage of EAT MY GLOBE and, in about twenty four hours I shall be up to my eyes in butt (pork that is) which is ironic given that many would argue I spent the last twenty odd years kissing it (corporate that is) and, as a thank you to the poor unfortunate who is putting a roof over my head, I offered to take him to dinner.
His choice? Michael Smith’s eponymous new restaurant.
Now, in the UK the name of Michael Smith may not mean a lot, but in the US and particularly in the Midwest, it means a heck of a lot. He was the first winner (I think) of a James Beard award from this region and his previous places, The American Restaurant and 40 Sardines have acquired almost legendary status.
His new place has taken over the site from a previous restaurant called ZIN which ticked all the boxes above, gave a decent meal that disappeared from the memory as quickly as it did from the colon and, when I checked up online for the menu of the new place, that pale shadow of dread came over me as the new occupant appeared to do the same.
However, we carried on regardless and when we arrived for our 8p reservation the place was buzzing as any new restaurant ( open for just over two months ) by a well regarded chef should be.
First surprise, the menu had entirely changed the evening before as their intention to follow seasonal trends brought them to the Autumn/Winter portion of the calendar.
Still, just in case you were a little bit worried for me, there were still plenty of the usual suspects on there so as not to scare the locals. Ahi Tuna, Sea bass etc etc.
The difference here being twofold.
One, there are enough things on the new menu that, while not raising much of an eyebrow in Europe may prompt a few questions in the world of plaid shirts, chinos and tasselled loafers such as sweetbreads, braised rabbit and red deer scallopino and, secondly, local sourcing is not used as an artifice but seems to be worn as a badge of pride and followed through as much as Kansas’ location and climate will allow.
Unsurprisingly, we chose some of the more unusual dishes and first courses, appearing in a bit of a hurry, showed the real difference in this restaurant to so many of its contemporaries. This chef can cook. Michael Smith, who as all chefs who have the level of chutzpah to put their name above the door should be, was in the kitchen and you could tell by the attention given to three generous chunks of God’s good veal thymus cooked perfectly and served with a “chickpea panisse, raisin and olive vinaigrette and a salad of small radicchio leaves”
Equally impressive was a starter of braised rabbit which came with some powerful chanterelles and potato gnocchi and had the meat falling of the bone in pleasing shreds.
Main courses, which also appeared a little to quickly were slightly less impressive but still worth the effort. The Scallopino, which was expensive ( let us not forget it was a little deer – see what I did there? Please yourselves) lacked any discernable gaminess but was tasty enough and set off well by a barley “risotto”
Better was an ‘eight hour pork roast” which still retained some bite and a sliver of crispy fat as it sat on a mound of pleasingly crunchy green onion risotto.
Desserts, made by the gloriously named Mike Bump, were trumpeted but, in reality, brought us back to identikit land. A chocolate tart topped with bananas and, there you go, some peanut butter only being saved from complete indifference by the clever addition of some candied jabanero chilli and a short bread of blackberries taking more time to dissect than to eat.
The wine list deserves special mention both for its content ( long on new world) and its pricing ( bottles from $18) which allowed us to try a half bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot from Tasmania, both of which did the job for which they were made, for under $50.
With a tip for service the bill came to $200 which is expensive by local standards but well below average for a meal of this quality back in London.
Smith may be a common name and there may be some common ingredients involved, but a man of Michael Smith’s background makes sure that this is not a by the numbers restaurant.
It is unlikely if many of the people reading this blog will ever find themselves in Kansas. But, if you do, Michael Smith’s is definitely worth a try