On my first visit to Magnolias Contemporary Southern Bistro, two stately matriarchs wearing wide-brimmed hats are seated in the corner enjoying a leisurely late-afternoon lunch.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
I scan the menu and immediately a few items stand out: Gouda pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, candied yams, red velvet waffles Evangeline and sweet potato pie. I simply must bring Miss Jackie here for lunch. OK, I dont really call her Miss Jackie, but folks in the South do.
Jackie is a modern Southern belle who is fashionable and genteel. Spend too much time with her, and it is hard not to let a tiny drawl creep into your own speech. She has lived in Atlanta, Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., with fond memories of eating pimento cheese sandwiches and bowls full of grits. I was raised in Colorado, where peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bags full of gorp were our rocket fuel.
Magnolias is a tiny, hideaway gem of a restaurant in a low-slung tan brick building on Cherry Street, a few blocks south of Hospital Hill. Its on a diverse block, with a garage nearby and a Montessori school across the street.
The intimate, living room-sized dining room is painted a buttery yellow and simply appointed. Tables are covered in white linen, although the napkins are paper. My one complaint is that the plastic folding chairs make me feel as if Im in a recliner. Word is new chairs are on the way.
Bud vases with fresh flowers on each table are nice touches. A large chalkboard with the restaurants name in purple chalk takes up one wall. A red-matted framed print of baseball legend Buck ONeil decorates another. A painting of a farm family and a plaque bearing a newspaper article featuring Shanita McAfee, Magnolias 32-year-old African-American chef/owner, embellish the main dining room.
On my second visit, Jackie orders sweet tea, and a few minutes later our young server places a tiny saucer of smoked Gouda pimento cheese spread before us. I use a knife to spread the orange dip alternately onto tiny rounds of crispy grit crackers and fresh stalks of celery, although I make a mental note that Jackie slips her cracker directly into the cheese, as if it were chips and dip.
Yet make no mistake: At Magnolias, the dishes are controlled, dainty and precise even if the dining is leisurely. Over the course of two lunches and a dinner, I found the food fresh, creative and flavorful.
One of my favorite dishes: the shrimp and grits. Instead of seafood set atop a creamy pool of yellow grits, the fresh, plump shrimp are carefully arranged around a stone-ground grits cake gently baked in a water bath so it soufflés up. The cake is napped with a white wine cream sauce instead of a more traditional tomato sauce. The dish is elegant and a far cry from the sloppy, gloppy version I was served at a diner in Charleston, S.C., last fall.
Jackie samples a few spoonfuls of the thickly pureed sweet potato soup of the day. As the puree coats her tongue, she detects a hint of heat and grabs for her water glass. She attributes it to the New Orleans influence. At her invitation, I dip my spoon in it, and I think I detect a hint of maple syrup. But when I ask the server to confirm or deny our findings, she shrugs her shoulders and smiles.
Shes just an alchemist, throwing things in a pot, she says of McAfee.
McAfee got her culinary start in childhood, serving apple pies to her siblings. She grew up in Kansas City and trained at Johnson County Community College. She worked at Yia Yias, the Kansas City Club, Dean & DeLuca and the Lodge at the Four Seasons. On her blog she lists her favorite chef as Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born chef raised in Sweden who lives in New York and operates Rooster, a Southern-inspired restaurant in Harlem. I think hes the one who made me feel more confident to mix various influences, she says.
McAfee knows she stands out in Kansas City as one of the few African-American, female chef/owners of a bistro.
Its sad but its exciting, she says. Sad because African-Americans spend so much time in the kitchen.
McAfee points to accomplished predecessors who never rose in the hospitality industry because they did not add professional culinary credentials to their resumes. Her goal is to start a culinary scholarship fund.
Jackie and I finish our meal by sharing a white chocolate blueberry bread pudding served in a ramekin. The bread pudding is one of the best I have ever eaten, and Ive probably consumed too many. Part of its charm is the unusual combination of white chocolate and blueberries, but the Farm to Market bread is also sparingly coated with the milk-and-egg mixture, creating a crusty rather than mushy center.
When I return to Magnolias for dinner, I invite Richard and Ida Beth, both transplanted New Yorkers. Ida Beth is a neonatal nurse at Truman Medical Center Hospital Hill. She doesnt have time for a leisurely lunch during her 12-hour shifts, but she is delighted to learn about buried treasure in her own workplace backyard.
For starters, I order two plates of deviled eggs, since they come three to a plate in three flavors: traditional, Creole and smoked salmon. The deviled eggs are a bit expensive at $5.25 a plate, but theyre satisfying and a good conversation starter. One bite and my husband is discussing Ida Beths own recipe for curried deviled eggs, which she served at her daughters graduation party.
I also order collard greens, which are listed under Nibbles. This doesnt strike me as odd at first, but when the saucer arrives at the table I realize how hard it is to share collard greens. The dish would make more sense as a side. That said, the collards were cooked al dente with smoked turkey, a new-South way to handle a much-maligned vegetable.
The Gouda mac and cheese is technically a side dish, yet it seems our server thought we wanted it to arrive with the collards, before the salads. Despite these timing hiccups, the mac and cheese is indeed uber creamy in every way. I would recommend this place! Ida Beth cries as our forks fly.
Next we try three of the four salads, skipping a shredded romaine. The entrée-size salads are $10, and while the menu doesnt mention a smaller option, our server offered a half-size salad to precede our entrees.
The salads are well-dressed and seasoned yes, with salt and pepper a simple task that is often lacking at other restaurants. The Nicoise salad is a tangle of greens topped with standard vegetarian components such as green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and hard-cooked eggs plus pickled beets and a peach vinaigrette. Add chicken or salmon for an extra charge.
The deconstructed shrimp and corn chowder salade is fresh and simple, containing roasted potatoes, bacon, shaved red onions and prawns tossed in a maple-bourbon vinaigrette. The golden beet salad edges out all the others, but McAfee has had a hard time securing a steady supply of the beets. So one night, thick ruby slices of beet are paired with slices of tart green apples, blue cheese, spiced pecans and salad greens and dressed with a maple-bourbon vinaigrette. The salad is also simple but satisfying, offering tart, tangy, sweet and earthy flavors.
Magnolias menu offers just four entrees, including shrimp and grits. The one I most had a hankering for cast-iron seared scallops atop sweet potato risotto and creamy collard greens was unavailable the night we dined. The salt-and-pepper salmon, like its name, is simple but well-prepared, but the highlight turned out to be rib-eye steak and eggs served with a sweet potato hash.
For dessert, sweet potato pie is nice by the slice and always on the menu but the seasonal peach cobbler is too tempting to pass up. It is served in a square ramekin, bubbling and browned in the corners and topped with vanilla ice cream.
Its hard to know what time of day to eat at Magnolias, because of a final menu item worthy of note: the red velvet waffles Evangeline. The waffles are tinted red, but there isnt really any discernible cocoa flavor. Theyre just delicious, paired with the same sweet potato hash that went over so well with the steak, as well as two eggs and some mighty fine bacon. The dish is considered a small plate so it is available for weekend brunch, lunch or dinner.
But theres also a weekend-only brunch menu that looks quite tempting, and though I do love a good hat, PJs are probably more my style.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday (breakfast til 3 p.m.); 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, serving brunch menu that includes biscuits and gravy, Nutter Butter French toast, sweet potato pancakes, bacon and eggs.
Entree average: $$
Vegetarian options: There are not many vegan options, but the cream sauce is made with vegetarian broth and the biscuits and gravy uses herb gravy, no sausage. Other dishes that work for vegetarians include vegetable Napoleon minus shrimp, golden beet salad, shredded romaine salad, Nicoise salad minus protein additions, smoked Gouda pimento cheese, traditional or Creole deviled eggs,
Handicap accessible: Beware of uneven pavement as you enter the front door, but the restaurant accommodates wheelchairs.
Kids: The chef has three of her own, ages 10, 12 and 15. There is no kids menu because hers have grown up eating off the regular menu. High chairs and boosters are on order.
Noise level: Very intimate. Perfect for conversation, although tables are close.
Reservations: Not required but because of space limitations they are highly recommended for parties of more than five.
Star code:★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ Average entree under $20; $$$ Average entree under $30; $$$$ Average entree over $30
Shrimp and grits, $16.50
Golden beet salad, $10
Uber creamy smoked Gouda mac & cheese, $3.50
Red velvet waffle Evangeline, $7.75 or $9.50
White chocolate and blueberry bread pudding, $5.75
What to drink
Sweet tea, lemonade and Southern limeade are on the menu. Mocktails include a basil and cucumber cooler, a nonalcoholic Mimosa, nonalcoholic sangria and Georgia peach Bellinis. You can also bring your own bottle of wine; corkage fee is $10.