Living the sweet life at Extra Virgin

Leave the Midwest behind at chef Michael Smith's rustic -- and cheeky -- taverna.

08/13/2009 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:27 PM

With Extra Virgin, chef Michael Smith has finally brought not only the flavors but the feel of his beloved southern European trattorias and tavernas to Kansas City.

From the vibrant colors -- tomato red polished Venetian plaster walls and burnt-brick-stained wood tables -- to the original, wall-sized billboard ad for "La Dolce Vita" with a larger-than-life Anita Ekberg spilling out of a strapless gown and Marcello Mastroianni dangling a smoldering cigarette from his lips, this is a dining room that quickens your pulse. And your appetite.

Abstracted "vines" by local metal artist Jesse Small cloak the bar. A bundle of globe lamps float overhead like soap bubbles. It’s all as fanciful and light as the soundtrack to Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece. The sweet life, indeed.

So you sink down onto a generously proportioned bentwood chair and, because it’s only Monday but it was a particularly long one, you lean into the rounded back and find some unexpected give there, and you feel your muscles start to unclench, and you know you’re going to be feeling better soon.

Monday is $8 pizza and half-price-wine-bottles day, a fact well-known to downtown office workers. I once got a text from a friend on a Monday afternoon that read simply "EV@6."

I texted back: "I’m not sure if I can make it by six but I will do my best to drop by." Abbreviations and phonetic spellings pain me.

I did make it that day, so on this Monday, when Angie, our waiter, mentions as she hands us the menu that tonight’s pizza is sausage and feta cheese, I know enough to say, "We’ll have one of those right away," before she can even go grab the silverware.

When she brings the wine, my husband the European notices that Angie pours in the Old World fashion unbeknownst to many local servers: first a sip to the person who ordered it, then to each of the ladies at the table and then the gentlemen. I don’t place a lot of importance in gender-driven protocol, but it tells me we’re in good hands.

We like Angie even more when my husband makes a comment about the restaurant not requiring servers to wear name tags.

She retorts, "No, but they make us wear these burnt orange T-shirts, which don’t work at all with my complexion."

Anita Ekberg would approve.

Normally I’m not a fan of tapas restaurants as a dinner destination. In Portugal and Spain, tapas are small plates of often salty foods such as sardines, olives, almonds or smoked meats offered in bars as light accompaniments to beer or wine -- a few nibbles to tide you over until dinner at 10 p.m.

When the concept was brought stateside, something was lost. Sharing a dozen small plates among four people (three items a person is a good guide to how much to order if you won’t be dining again before midnight) leaves you with that same vaguely unsatisfied feeling you get at food- or wine-tasting events. A dozen bites or sips of different things is no match for a normal serving of a single delicious dish or drink. And it can cost more.

But tapas-as-dinner works at Extra Virgin because each dish is so well-conceived and well-executed. Smith, executive chef/co-owner, has found his calling with this concept. Smith and ex-wife Debbie Gold won a James Beard Award for best chef-Midwest when they were at the American Restaurant. He has longed for years to open an upscale rustic taverna as a sidekick to a formal dining room, along the lines of Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago.

Smith has accomplished his dream at the corner of 19th and Main streets, where guests walk in through a single set of glass doors and turn left into the curtained, subdued, elegant world of Michael Smith (the restaurant) or veer right for a playful romp on the wild side at Extra Virgin.

The menu is a bit of a maze. Dishes are not grouped into the customary starters, entrées, salads, desserts and so on, but under headings such as "Bites," "Wood-fired oven," "Cold" and "Hot." "Italian meat slicer" refers to the provenance of the slicer; the selection of artisanal dried hams and sausages is international and excellent. The best is a wild boar cacciatorini, a small salami.

The desserts (perhaps in a nod to the billboard?) are listed under "Dolce" (sweet). And for people who prefer a cheese course as dessert, "Fromaggi" offers many rewards. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The place to start on the menu -- and it makes sense to order food in rounds rather than all at once -- is the "For the adventurous" category. This is where Smith excels: Translating exotic and unusual ingredients into dishes that diners who really are not all that adventurous will enjoy.

From that list, the spicy halibut cheeks served in a bright broth with sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes was so delicious as to be entirely unadventurous. Anyone who likes halibut would adore halibut cheeks. The only thing off-putting is the word "cheeks," perhaps, if you weren’t raised in our house, where my husband routinely cooks whole trout and has taught our kids that the cheek meat is worth fighting over.

Similarly, the braised pork cheeks with white beans, already a hit on the "adventurous" section, would be just as well-received were it listed as simply "braised pork and white beans." What’s not to love about melt-in-your-mouth tender chunks of pork?

A more adventurous choice is the cabrito tacos, especially after we learned from Angie that cabrito is goat. Hmmm. My dining companions and I take a quick silent vote based on eyebrow movements and lip angles, in the manner lifelong friends are able to communicate, and decide: We’re in. Bring on the goat. And thank goodness -- it was one of our favorite dishes of the evening. The meat had the texture of shredded skirt steak and waves of smoky mild-chili flavors.

All the flavors are bold (but none fiery) on the ambitious menu. Ahi tuna ceviche tacos, black bean and cheese empanadas, green bean and mortadella salad with quince vinaigrette -- none of this tastes like traditional Midwestern food, which is what makes an evening at Extra Virgin so worth the trip.


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