|Surveying the scene: Chef/ owner Michael Smith relaxes in his airy new dining room in KC.|
There’s much to be learned about how best to navigate in the contemporary full-service restaurant scene by visiting Michael Smith in Kansas City. And note that we mean Michael Smith, the restaurant—not Michael Smith, the person, although you’ll likely find the personable chef on duty in the kitchen—which opened in July. It’s the 47-year-old Smith’s first shot as a standalone chef/owner, just about the only role he’s yet to play in a distinguished culinary career that stretches across two decades.
Someone with a track record like his could have gone anywhere and done anything. But Smith chose to stay in his adopted home town and open not one but two restaurants (more about that second venture later) in a trendy part of the city. Granted, Smith already had a great rep in KC. But everything about his eponymous restaurant—its real estate, hours and days of operation, décor, menu and pricing—reflects careful choices based on his vast culinary experience and his hard-won knowledge of restaurant reality in a no-frills Midwestern town. If you’re looking for someone to emulate for your next venture, this could be your guy.
|Cornered: Smith’s savvy choice of locations blends hipness with high visibility.|
About Smith’s track record: His culinary career began in earnest in 1985, when Smith headed for the South of France, returning after a two-year sojourn there to become sous chef at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Two years later, he returned to France for a job as executive chef at L’Albion in Nice. Next, he came back to the states to serve as co-chef at Carlos’ in Highland Park, IL, and then as executive chef at Gordon in Chicago, a post that has also been held by such notables as Michael Kornick and Cory Schreiber.
From there, Smith and then-wife Debbie Gold were recruited to be co-executive chefs at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, where they made a big splash by transforming a formal and fussy restaurant (whose original culinary concept had been created by none other than James Beard and Joe Baum) into a contemporary standout. They did such a good job that in 1999 the pair earned a “Best Chefs-Midwest” award from the James Beard Foundation, a first for the Kansas City restaurant world.
In 2002, Smith and Gold struck out on their own, choosing a strip mall in suburban Overland Park, KS, as their location. Here they went the bistro route, serving imaginative food in comfortable surroundings and selling it at modest price points. The place, 40 Sardines, was chosen an Esquire “Best New Restaurant” in 2002. It’s still going strong today, with Gold the sole chef after she and Smith finalized their divorce earlier this year.
Which left Smith a man without a kitchen. But not for long, as he headed back to Kansas City proper to set up shop in the city’s downtown Crossroads Arts District—a redeveloping area with a fertile mix of hip retail stores, independent restaurants, art galleries and classic brick buildings converted into condos and lofts. He chose a space that had previously been a good restaurant, Zin, and softened up its formerly austere space. Now the 2,700 sq. ft. dining room seats 72, plus 20 more in the bar.
|In the mix: Michael Smith’s refined culinary skills translate well to the polished casual format he chose for his new restaurant.|
Smith has served lunch right from opening day. The menu offers imaginative food, but reasonable prices. At lunch, appetizers range from $5 to $9, entrees cost between $8 and $12. Smith serves it from Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner goes from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, giving Smith two days off per week.
The menu reflects Smith’s well-honed style: unpretentious yet elegant dishes that reflect the changing seasons and are made from pristine local and artisanal ingredients. That means starters like Braised Rabbit with house-made potato gnocchi ($12); Seared Bigeye Tuna ($13); and Meatball Threesome, presented three ways with red sauce, Oaxacan mole and wild mushroom glaze (($11). Dinner entrees include Eight-Hour Pork Roast with green onion risotto, Jaliscan pico de gallo and natural pan sauce ($29).
Pastry chef Michael Bump’s desserts (Peach Three Ways: caramel-peach upside down cake, fresh peaches and Vietnamese cinnamon-dusted peach ice cream; Blackberry- Key Lime Napoleon—key lime custard, fresh blackberries, blackberry coulis and citrus shortbread) go for $7. The 170-bottle wine list, chosen by Smith’s wife, general manger Nancy Smith, and wine director Jamie Routeledge, starts at $18 per bottle.
Michael Smith isn’t the only iron this chef has in the fire. Later this fall, he’ll open up Extra Virgin, an Italian/Spanish tapas spot located next door to his new restaurant. He also has a hand in SPIN, an upscale Neapolitan pizza operation in suburban Leawood, KS.
The lesson here: Even someone at Smith’s level of skill and achievement needs multiple venues if they want to really prosper. When even the Beard Award winners know it’s time to diversify out of fine dining, the message to other operators is clear.