Dining » Restaurant Reviews

A changing city changes the perspective on Michael Smith

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Chef Michael Smith's namesake restaurant has been open well over a year now, but it has taken me this long to write about it. Can't say why, exactly. I had a nice lunch there last winter and loved the rabbit gnocchi and the vastly improved interior décor in the former Zin dining room. Smith had wisely hired designer Eric Negrete to bring warmth and intimacy to the room that, in the Zin era, had been as stark and cold as a recital hall. Negrete painted it a summery sage green, swathed the windows with tobacco-colored sheers, and created a faux foyer at the entrance out of bookshelves stocked with wine.

But I came into the restaurant — unfairly, I confess — with a plateful of assumptions: The menu was pretentious, it was too expensive, the clientele was snooty. After that first lunch at Michael Smith, I wrote in my journal: "Not as noisy or self-important as 40 Sardines" — the now-shuttered Johnson County restaurant that Smith and his former wife, Debbie Gold, opened in 2002 — "but still kind of stiff and formal."

It was, oddly enough, a few of the newer restaurants in the Power & Light District that forced me to re-evaluate my opinion of Michael Smith (the restaurant, not the chef — I've always found him to be personable and engaging). After nearly gagging over the indignity of paying three-star prices for several third-rate meals in the Cordish culinary courtyard, I was almost giddy at the $140 dinner tab for three people at Michael Smith. It's not the kind of bill I want to pay every time I dine out, but this was a case when I definitely felt that the exchange was more than fair: a delicious and memorable meal in return for my hard-earned bucks.

My friend Addison, who has been a tough critic of Michael Smith — both chef and restaurant — over the past year, told me that it was a good thing I waited before writing about the restaurant. "This place has just now hit its stride," he said, buttering a crusty mini-ciabatta during one lunch in the sunny, attractive room. "I've been eating here since it first opened, and it's just now reached the point that it's almost perfect."

He looked around the room, which had only a couple of occupied tables. "It could be busier."

Our server told us that the lunch business has been inconsistent lately — extremely busy one day, nearly empty the next — and weeknight dinner business waxes and wanes (one of the reasons that Bar Natasha, across the street, has finally thrown in the towel).

I suppose you could blame some of this on all of the new bars and restaurants in the Power & Light District, which has lured a lot of patrons from venues in the Crossroads and midtown.

But those operations, mostly chains, should prove the point that Michael Smith is a more special restaurant. I'm no food snob, but I do equate dining out with enjoying an art form. And if the choice is between an elegant, dramatic experience with a meal prepared by a James Beard Award-winning chef or a comparably priced "upscale casual" meal prepared with a minimum of creativity and served by an automaton in a tourist trap — guess which one I'd pick?

Michael Smith, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Nancy, doesn't skimp on the showy details, such as tables padded and cloaked with white linens and heavy flatware. Many of his dishes are, I've decided, a theatrical spin on traditional American comfort food.

The night I dined with Bob and Peggy, we each indulged in decadent spoonfuls of an exorbitantly rich cream-of-mushroom soup. And I relished every bite of a great old-fashioned pork roast — as good as my grandmother's but with more imagination. Like my late grandmother, Smith simmers a pork shoulder for more than eight hours until the meat is luscious and tender, fragrant with rosemary and slightly crispy on the exterior. Unlike my grandmother's version, this hunk of pork arrives with fresh orange segments, tempura-battered zucchini sticks, and a creamy green-onion risotto that's addictive.

Instead of ordinary roast chicken and mashed potatoes, Smith slices his plump, golden Campo Lindo chicken breast into thick pieces, drizzles them with a lemony pan sauce, and lays them on a silky parmesan-potato purée with a "slaw" of sweet sliced peaches and crunchy celery. Peggy agreed it was like a Sunday chicken dinner — with sex appeal.

Bob, a traditionalist when it comes to steak, wasn't sure what to make of Smith's rococo ribeye: slices of extra grilled beef splashed with classic, slightly spicy Catalan romesco sauce of tomatoes, bell peppers, onion, garlic and almonds, perched atop a grilled bruschetta dotted with shrimp and chopped olives. The bruschetta was perfect for sopping up the sauce, but Bob didn't understand the point of the crispy poached egg on the plate. He ate it anyway. He likes novelty foods.

Another chef might have offered a dessert of late-summer peach pie, but Smith bakes the supple fruit into a crostata — kind of a folded-over peasant tart — served with a wonderful almond ice cream. Also fine were a pair of tiny berry cobblers: blackberry crisp baked with a touch of lime and raspberry delicately flavored with grated orange. I was much more interested in a dessert that the menu called "rustic Italian doughnuts" but are better known in Italy, our server said, as zeppole — a sensual fried fritter made with a ricotta batter and served with sweet cherries and almond crema. Beignets they weren't, but I like novelty desserts.

A week later, I returned for that lunch with Addison. He immediately launched into a fierce debate over which of us had ordered the better meal: Was it my braised lamb ravioli or his long plate of braised rabbit with homemade gnocchi? I loved both dishes. Smith braises the rabbit meat in rabbit stock and serves it with chanterelles and excellent potato dumplings. (He also sells a lot more of this dish in downtown Kansas City than he ever did in the suburbs.) The ravioli — big round pillows stuffed with succulent lamb — is awkward to eat in the pretty, shallow covered bowl that's brought to the table with great pomp. But I did a pretty good job figuring out how to maneuver them from bowl to mouth.

Then we ordered a chocolate cake that wasn't really a cake in any traditional sense. The pasilla chile chocolate cake was a warm, soft puck of dense fudge positioned on a plate painted, Jackson Pollock-style, with bold strokes of bright-orange chile sauce. The combination of creamy chocolate and punchy Capsicum annuum was both arresting and sexy. Not unlike the attractive couple who run this appealing urban restaurant.

I wish I hadn't waited so long to figure out I was wrong.

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