You know that nerd from high school, the one that grew up to be Bill Gates or Jennifer Garner? That’s how I feel about Kansas City. When I lived there, its culinary scene was, well, ordinary. Great steaks, great barbecue, but nothing you’d make a special trip for.
Somewhere between “graduation” and “high school reunion,” Kansas City grew up and let me just say: Va-va-va-voom. Not only are James Beard winners all over the dance floor, but they’re sashaying next to small craft breweries (KC Bier just racked up three medals at the Great International Beer & Cider Competition), inspiring butcher shops (Local Pig even has private chef dinners), underground dinner clubs, and pop-ups celebrating food, fun, and fellowship.
Here are three stunners I danced with last week at “the reunion”:
Gram & Dun can get by on its patio alone, with hands down the best (as far as view, atmosphere, and location) in Kansas City. So thank you, executive chef Nathan Nichols, for going that mile. The Smoking Dun, one of two signature cocktails on a menu of dozens of remarkable libations, is concocted with Templeton rye, cherry, rosemary, lemon and hickory-smoked ice cubes that, as they melt, release a smoky flavor and aroma that gives the drink a whole new kick. I’m also rather fond of the Jungleland with blackstrap rum, madeira wine, fresh pineapple, lime, and vanilla. The food (specially curated to go with the drinks) is equally creative and inspiring: burnt end mac and cheese, Asian pig wings, three types of homemade catsup, French onion dumplings, and what is described as a house-made Snickers bar. Chocolate mousse, ganache, salted caramel, and peanut butter ice cream are all involved. This buzzing gastropub fills early, so make reservations.
Railroad baron John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan would have felt right at home in his namesake restaurant in historic Union Station. Although his Cuban cigars wouldn’t have been allowed (a 2008 smoking ban put an end to that), he’d have loved the 30-foot-tall mahogany bar, private wine cellars, ornate ceilings, jeweled archways, and sparkling chandeliers. And while the aged steaks (I recommend the coffee and ancho chile-rubbed KC strip) are always popular, the historic tycoon, who loved sailing and all things ocean, would have likely ordered the scallops, wild salmon, ahi tuna, lobster, or other seafood flown in fresh daily. Even better? Happy hour lasts until 7 p.m. on Fridays and all day Monday through Thursday.
Our prediction? You will never set foot in a Chipotle again. Once you try this quirky restaurant’s sumo burrito (it weighs ten pounds and takes two hands to carry), you’ll be as smitten as Joe DiMaggio for Marilyn Monroe. Whether or not you send roses every week (as DiMaggio did to Monroe’s grave) is up to you, but not that far-fetched. Just make sure you try the other amazing dishes like lima bean hummus, lingonberry pancakes, slow-roasted pork hash, and the vegan sink (lima bean hummus scrambled with succotash, roasted peppers, onions, and portabella mushrooms). The fresh-squeezed and cleverly-named juices (“Sexy Beast,” for example) are revered, the vibe is hipster incarnate (tables from a bowling alley, aqua dinner stools, and a wooden monkey named Little Buddy) and if you could ever manage to save room, there’s an eight-layer rainbow cake that you have to see to believe.