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It was never hard to find an excellent steak in Kansas City. What's changed in the past few years, however, is that talented homegrown chefs are actually returning here, once they've finished traveling and cooking abroad, to interpret KC's heart-of-the-country honesty in refreshing new ways.

For more than 25 years, the city could boast one outstanding special-occasion restaurant: The American Restaurant (200 E. 25th St., Kansas City, Missouri; tel. 816/545-8001; www.theamericankc.com), in Hallmark Cards' centerpiece-of-downtown headquarters, Crown Center, has an impressive wine cellar and a regional-fare menu originally developed by James Beard and Joe Baum. The American not only has a stunning glass-walled skyline view, it has kept its prix-fixe menu worthy of that view, with dishes such as olive-oil poached halibut, lamb T-bone, or crispy veal breast complemented by seasonal sides like heirloom tomatoes, micro-greens, artichoke puree, or locally made prosciutto or foie gras. But talk about soap operas! When chef Debbie Gold left with her husband, Michael Smith, to open a vibrant new place called 40 Sardines, the American was given worthy competition at last. The couple divorced in 2007, and 40 Sardines closed. Now Gold is back cooking up a storm at The American -- while her ex, Michael Smith, competes with his own upscale bistro in the Crossroads arts district, Michael Smith (1900 Main St., Kansas City, Missouri; tel. 816-842-2202; http://michaelsmithkc.com). Smith's keynote rustic style goes for hearty, more casual food with chunky textures and deep flavors, like his "8-hour" pork roast with green onion risotto or his homemade boudin blanc sausage. Meanwhile, in 2004 a third expensive fine-dining option opened south of downtown in Westport -- casually elegant Bluestem (900 Westport Rd., Kansas City, Missouri; tel. 816/561-1101; www.kansascitymenus.com/bluestem), where chef Colby Garrelts -- a Kansas City native who trained all over the country -- spins out marvelous prix-fixe multicourse New American menus. From the Wagyu beef tartare to the brown-butter gnocchi to the pork loin with lentils, spiced plums, golden raisin, and pecans, Garrelts's cooking is imaginative indeed.

You'd hardly expect a French bistro in Kansas City to be as authentic as Le Fou Frog (400 E. 5th St, Kansas City, Missouri; tel. 816/474-6060; www.lefoufrog.com); it makes sense, however, when you learn that chef Mano Rafael (the crazy frog himself) hails from Marseilles. From the steak au poivre to the bouillabaisse to the escargots, it's a Gallic flashback -- but it's also one of the liveliest and most fun restaurants downtown, with friendly service and a gorgeous 1920s-vintage front bar. Kansas Citians hungry for the next best thing have also been traveling out of town lately, 20 miles (32km) north to Smithville, to sample the locavore cooking of Jonathan Justus at his chic minimalist diner Justus Drugstore (106 W. Main St., Smithville, Missouri; tel. 816/532-2300; www.drugstorerestaurant.com). Justus's passion for local sources inspires dishes such as goat cheese piped into squash blossoms, heritage pork rib-eye, or roast Campo Lindo chicken sprinkled with fennel pollen from his own garden. (He won't ship in seafood, though freshwater fish do make it onto the menu.)

Kansas City dining has another side, however -- wood-smoked and slathered with sauce. The most famous barbecue joint in town, Arthur Bryant's (1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City, Missouri; tel. 816/231-1123; www.arthurbryantsbbq.com) still occupies the same no-frills brick storefront it has been in since the 1950s. Loads of tangy, sweet sauce is what makes Kansas City barbecue different from spice-rubbed Memphis barbecue, and Bryant's offers three different kinds to spread over your luscious beef brisket, pulled pork, turkey, or slab of pork ribs. But if you're over in Kansas, compare it with upstart Oklahoma Joe's ( 3002 W. 47th Ave., Kansas City, Kansas; tel. 913/722-3366; www.oklahomajoesbbq.com), founded in 1996 -- a bright and busy coffee-shop-style joint set in an old gas station. They serve incredibly tender Carolina-style brisket, pulled pork, chicken, turkey, and ribs.

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