The Farmer’s Platter served at Justus Drugstore in Smithville may not be the most visually stunning appetizer I’ve ever eaten, but it is one of the most quintessentially Midwestern.
Wild persimmon seeds are sowed into a spiced rabbit terrine set alongside rounds of house-made sausage, house-smoked Berkshire bacon that has been shaved as thin as prosciutto, a frothy bone marrow mousse with grilled brioche toast fingers for dipping and an assortment of pucker-inducing pickled vegetables.
For the last five years, while most American, Midwestern and, yes, even Kansas City, chefs working in fine dining restaurants have been concentrating their creative energies on the complicated foams, gels and orbs of molecular gastronomy, Jonathan Justus has been tramping through Smithville’s nearby woods, fields and streams looking for good things to eat.
The sort of good things I’d wager most of us citified diners never knew we would wind up eating or drinking.
Behind the bar, award-winning Chris Conatser, a soft-spoken botanist-turned-bartender, works his complementary alchemy. One look at the rows of apothecary jars and it’s clear there are some serious infusions in the works, from the cucumber-rhubarb Peruvian pisco to the wild elderberry-infused tequila.
No fewer than 31 farmers are listed on the menu. The rest is foraged by chefs and bartenders.
A few years ago I took a West Coast critic to Justus. He was less impressed with Justus’ quest for pure locavorism.
“Maybe he’s a better shopper than a chef?” he asked.
True, chefs are only as good as their ingredients. But this is not the sort of food you can buy off the shelf. Sometimes the fig falls from the tree, but it might take GPS technology to locate the ripened fruit. Skill in the kitchen turns it into a flaky turnover with grape blossom infused sabayon.
(And I didn’t even know figs grew in Missouri.)
Justus grew up in Smithville. He and wife and restaurant co-owner Camille Eklof returned to the Midwest after short stints working in San Francisco and France and opened their restaurant in 2007. Since then the dining destination has attracted enough locavore fans to earn it the No. 1 spot in the local section of the Zagat Survey of Best American Restaurants, and there is at least one limousine parked out front most Saturday nights.
The restaurant is set in a former drugstore, although not the sort of drugstore with the high ceilings and patina of an old-timey soda fountain a first-time diner accompanying me on one visit envisioned.
Justus and Eklof partitioned the rather ordinary modular space into an open kitchen, a small bar and a comfortable dining room. Over time the decor has gone from vaguely minimalist to more comfortably lived-in. A series of pressed botanical leaves mounted by a local artist have been added to the walls next to Justus’ own paintings.
Eklof and servers have an encyclopedic knowledge of the ingredients and techniques listed on the menu. Since the meal is the show, Justus delivers entrees to the table and fields curious diners’ questions. As the night goes on, he often sits down with customers with a glass of wine to talk philosophically about the joys, triumphs and limitations of the local food.
Although the menu is seasonal (and changes subtly throughout the year), there are a few dishes that have become important touchstones.
The Newman Farm Pork 2 Ways has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. I recently tasted iteration No. 15, a lustrous citrus-juniper brined pork rib eye and a tender shoulder braised in a concoction of house-made sweet vermouth and sumac-infused bourbon with toasty notes.
“It’s a simple sauce — with 14 ingredients,” Justus says, then laughs at the irony of his comment.
The idea, Justus says, came from butcher Mario Fantasma of Paradise Locker Meats a few miles north of Smithville in Trimble. Chefs on both coasts have been going gaga for Fantasma’s pork, which is raised in Missouri.
The “Nested Egg” Salad is built on a bed of greens — this time of year a base of astringent curly endive — and topped with a soft-boiled egg made crispy with a shaggy beard of breadcrumbs. When pierced, the rich, golden yolk pools and mingles with a grainy mustard vinaigrette. Bits of fatty goose confit and diced potatoes strike a delicious balance.
The most expensive entree on the menu is the $39 Majinola American Kobe Rib Eye. The tender cut, raised on a family farm in Iowa, was featured at a dinner at Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant in New York City in September. The beef is garnished with a horseradish-Dijon-parsley sauce and accompanied by housemade pennycress (an edible weed)-stuffed pasta, Chinese broccoli and shiitake mushrooms.
Still, it’s best not to fixate on any one dish, since it is impossible to be static and ecstatic.
A case in point: Justus recently revived a mushroom soup that received rave reviews last year. When the mushrooms were back in season, customers were notified the soup was back on the menu via the restaurant’s Facebook page. Even though Justus had followed his own detailed, three-page recipe, some of the soup’s fans expressed a sense of letdown.
“Expectations are the death of pure experience,” Justus says with a shrug.
Certainly there’s reason for high expectations when dining at Justus.
Always a night of pure delight.