While Chef Michael Smith has all the credentials and experience one would expect “to rank among the nation’s most recognized and respected chefs” as his suitably magniloquent bio asserts, he is in reality a restaurateur who spent a lot of time cooking in good and great commercial kitchens before returning to his family roots. His semi-detached Kansas City restaurants make a great first impression in a town still pretty much unfairly known solely as a barbeque and beef mecca. Once inside the communal door you can turn left and enter an eponymous tasting menu temple or right for a small plates paradise.
Both spaces are expertly decorated, as one might expect from the winner of the 2002 James Beard Award for best restaurant graphics. MICHAELSMITH is awash in understated elegance with stark black and white table arrangements giving way to soft shades of beige dominating the walls, ceiling, and curtains but saved from monotony by just the right splashes of primary colors in the wall art. extravirgin, on the hand, is a riot of color, wrought iron, and brushed bronze dominated by a huge central bar that makes table-seated patrons feel like they are dining in a colonized asteroid belt orbiting a gas giant planet.
Indeed the best moment of a meal at either establishment occurs upon arrival at a time when reservations are not required and one can savor the moment of decision: all caps or lower case? Regardless of the mood that determines venue, however, it is all-downhill from then on. The problem is the food.
Telephone: (816) 842-2202
Hours of operation: Mon.-Sat.: 11:30AM-2PM, 5PM-10PM; Closed Sundays.
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Rostra rating: 3
MagoGuide has dined at both establishments, most recently at extravirgin, which is reviewed in detail below. MICHAELSMITH serves fly-over haute cuisine: a blend of classical French technique applied to North American ingredients that are for the most part non-locally sourced. The food reads better on the menu than it tastes on the buds. The overly generous portions on the three tasting menus are really more of a fine dining all-you-can-eat special than a true degustation. Under seasoning is a common theme on both the tasting and a la carte menus. While there is some claim to VFM on the satiety level, MagoGuide came away with the feeling that a diner is paying for food that plays at best a supporting role. Given Chef Smith’s impressive CV that includes two long apprenticeships in the south of France and a stint as sous chef for the gastronomic infant terrible Charlie Trotter at the height of his genius, the problem with MICHAELSMITH may well be that there is no real competition in Kansas City so that his flaghip’s position as the area’s default fine dining locale dampens any tendency toward innovation and stretch.
Telephone: (816) 842-2205
Hours of operation: Mon.-Fri; 11:30AM-10PM; Sat.: 5PM-11PM; Sun.; Closed
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Rostra rating: 3
If MICHAELSMITH’s cuisine is an ode to complacency, then extravirgin’s food is a cautionary tale of culinary schizophrenia. When you remove the modern American outliers, the menu is a dysfunctional marriage of Spanish tapas and Italian antipasti. Chef Smith forces diners into a rather unpleasant gastronomic “Beatles vs. The Stones” challenge, which his offerings do little to resolve.
To begin with, the menu is too large by half containing some 59 separate plates, not including dessert. Small plate dining sinks or swims on the quality of ingredients and consistent execution. If your Serrano and prosciutto, manchego and buffula, etc. take twice as long to reorder due to competition, however, even the best of such products get stale before they can be replaced. And if your cooks are jacks of all trades in the kitchen because of so many offerings, then they can be masters of none. The results of a recent meal confirm this general diagnosis:
- Duck tongue tacos with spicy pickled onions and queso fresco: great idea marred by execution. The duck tongues were shredded and sautéed over-long, resulting in an insipid texture that detracted from their rich flavor. Crispy taco shells were employed to overcome this basic flaw, but this fix made them more difficult to eat than a traditional soft taco and did not really solve the problem. The pickled onions added a bit of contrast to the one-dimensional tongues, which the queso fresco basically undid by tastelessly reinforcing the dish’s unpleasant mushiness. There was a distinct lack of heat and not nearly enough cumin in the duck tongues. The only saving grace appeared in the guise of tiny slices of lime that, when squeezed on the tacos, brought a desperately needed hit of acid to the preparation.
- Stuffed Piquilla peppers with morcilla sausage and pecorino cheese: This should have worked, but turned out a bit bland. Ingredients are everything is this type of dish. The key is the blood sausage, which has to be fresh in order to establish a dominant flavor profile. Fresh means you got to make it or have a very good butcher near at hand as well as a religiously policed notion of shelf-life for this product. As far as Team Mago could tell, the morcilla was made long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Despite the presence of pecorino, the dish needed salt—another sign of old ingredients. Finally, the peppers did not impart near enough heat to the preparation.
- Grilled octopus with Italian sausage, olive salad, and gigante beans: This was the best dish of the meal. The previously frozen octopus works well in this type of preparation and the sausage was fresh and flavorful. The beans were correctly cooked while the olive salad added a nice hit of acid. Here is the template that extravirgin usually violates: a traditional dish prepared correctly.
- Wood fired Brussels sprouts accompanied by ham hock, walnuts, and orange zest: This should have been a no brainer. Unfortunately, MagoGuide had recently sampled Chef Art Smith’s version of this increasingly ubiquitous side at his Table 52 in Chicago and the other Chef Smith’s approach paled in comparison. Table 52 cooked their Brussels sprouts longer and at higher heat, then finished the dish with bacon, olive oil, and butter. Extravirgin’s take could not hold a candle to it.
- Empanadas: Are one of those ethnic standbys that a kitchen should put in the time to make well or not make at all, because street food usually belongs outside and suffers from importation inside a restaurant. extravirgin’s Seranno ham and cheese Empanadas proved to be a bit too soft and surprisingly light on cheese in the stuffing.
- Patatas bravas: Need only two things to shine, perfectly fried small chunks of potatoes and aioli spiked with a vinegary hot sauce. The bravas at extravirgin were the wrong shape, thin circular disks as opposed to the traditional 2 centimeter irregular shapes. This actually makes a big difference in terms of how the sauce adheres and plays hob with the crispy-surface-to-soft-interior ratio of the spuds. The sauce was built around chipotle peppers in adobo sauce giving the whole dish a Latin American accent instead of the classic Spanish olive oil aioli that is enlivened with red pepper, paprika, chili, and vinegar.
- A dish of beef heart and gizzard skewers served with a chimichurri sauce and frizzled potatoes: This was the final disappointment of the evening. The gizzards were overcooked and the hearts just the opposite, rare when they should have been medium rare. The chimichurri was decent, but the parsley overwhelmed all the other ingredients. In particular it could have done with more (some?) fresh coriander and more acid. The best part of the dish were the frizzled potatoes which turned out to be perfectly executed shoe string potatoes that were not allowed to languish but came to the table right out of the fryolater.
Unfortunately, extravirgin’s problems do not stop with the food. Michael Smith’s restaurants have been blessed with the Wine Spectator’s 2013 Award of Excellence. In MagoGuide’s experience, any attention from the Wine Spectator paradoxically turns out to be a curse in disguise (see A Nola Dust-Up). Having decided on a zinfandel to start, Team Mago sought our waitresses’ advice on choosing amongst the multiple offerings of this varietal. She departed and talked to the sommelier, who could not be bothered to come chat with us, but suggested a 2011 Bedrock Saitone Ranch Vineyard (Russian River). It took over 20 minutes for the wine to reach the table (evidently it was the last bottle they had) and it was ice cold. Our waitress informed us that this was their normal cellar temperature. Well if it is, then it is calibrated for pre-World War II grand cru Bordeaux, rather than every wine on extravirgin’s list, which have no chance of maturing at that temperature.
The wine tasted OK in its simi-frozen condition straight out of the bottle with what seemed to promise jammy and peppery raspberry fruit, but once it finally warmed up its rock hard tannins took over and overwhelmed the promising fruit. Our second bottle, a 2012 Abbot’s Table from Owen Roe went far better with the food, a nice fruit forward quaffing wine that arrived just as cold as the first bottle (it also seems that this was the last bottle they had of Abbot’s Table).
Here are some more shots inside the restaurant:
Mago Tip: Choose extravirgin over MICHAELSMITH, go for happy hour, and have fun at the bar. Unless you are desperate for a high-end evening out, the VFM at extravirigin is a major tie-breaker at the point of choosing between heading left or right after you enter. extravirgin’s happy hour from 11:30 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday is a great deal with some 31 dishes on the menu going for half price. The big central bar is a great place to while away an afternoon or eat an early supper.