Chow Town

Kansas City barbecue goes gourmet

Combo platter from Jon Russell’s Barbecue
Combo platter from Jon Russell’s Barbecue Jon Russell’s Barbecue

Check out the picture that I shared for this article: Burnt Ends, Spare Ribs and Sausage — a combo platter from Jon Russell’s Barbecue. Pretty standard, right?

Maybe at first glance. But, consider this — the sausage is a special, secret recipe that’s won multiple blue ribbons. At the edge of the plate, there is seasonal coleslaw — yes, they change their slaw seasonally at JRB.

Then, in the very back, there’s barbecue sauce, one of six the owners specially craft. Jon Russell’s is even known to do sauce “flights.” Standard, well-smoked meats? Yes. But a standard barbecue joint? Hardly.

Like it or not, the face of barbecue is changing in our fair city. Kansas City barbecue, or at least a segment of it, is going upscale — some might even say gourmet.

I think it was my fourth visit to the new and exciting Q39 that the light bulb finally went on over my apparently dimly lit head. The gourmet barbecue bonanza isn’t an across-the-board movement, and the number of cafeteria-style barbecue joints still and always will outnumber the sit-down restaurants with table-side service and legitimate beer, wine and spirits lists.

But something was happening to Kansas City barbeque and Q39 was at the leading edge. This restaurant hasn’t just raised the bar for barbecue in this town, it’s changed the game.

The reason for that is Rob Magee, Q39’s chef, pitmaster and owner. Before opening up Q39, Magee headed up the Munchin’ Hogs competition barbecue team, which was highly competitive and wildly successful. But Magee is more than just a brilliant smoker, he’s a serious chef — a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

“The idea to open a restaurant of my own has been in my mind since I graduated from the CIA 30 years ago,” Magee said. “My roots in Kansas City have grown and so has my love for barbecue.”

With Q39, Magee marries his restaurant dream with his passion for the pit. Will this marriage last? I have no idea. I’m not an expert on how and why some restaurants succeed while others fail, but this much I will say, the early reviews have been universally positive and the crowds consistently good. What’s more, Q39’s is by far the most creative menu I’ve seen at a barbecue restaurant.

Magee said Q39 won’t just feature his award-winning competition barbecue, but “will embrace many barbeque techniques while adding wood-fire grilling.”

What’s more, Magee flashes his CIA pedigree with dishes like smoked and grilled pork belly served over white bean cassoulet with onion straws, and tallgrass cheese fondue with white cheddar, warm soft house-made pretzels and apples.

Clearly Magee is pushing the barbecue envelope. I had both items at a recent visit and they were both amazing.

The pork belly was thinner, crispier. and leaner than your standard pork belly. Plus, the white bean cassoulet was a perfect complement. The pretzels, meantime, were warm, soft, and delicious and the cheese sauce had a nice zing to it.

The more standard barbecue items: ribs, brisket, chicken, pork and sausage were all way above average, but what really made my jaw drop were Magee’s brisket burgers. They’re oak-wood grilled ground brisket, Black Angus beef on some of the tastiest buns in town.

I had the burnt end burger, which is served with sliced burnt ends piled atop the burger along with what the menu calls a “classic sauce” — basically coleslaw. I removed the slaw, which I’ve never cared for. The rest of the combination was fantastic. I’m pretty boring when it comes to burgers — medium rare, sharp cheddar, nice toasted bun, but the burnt ends added a real depth to the burger and the ground brisket was really unique. Everyone at the table agreed the burnt end burger and Q39 were winners.

What’s more, as a wine and craft beer guy, I really appreciate the time and attention that went into assembling the beverage list at Q39. There’s a nice selection of wines by the glass and bottle and beers on draft and in bottles.

Q39 didn’t start the upscale barbecue revolution, merely amped it up. The restaurant that first raised the quality of KC ’que in my opinion is Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, which is celebrating 40 years at its Martin City restaurant. From the beginning, the original Jack Stack thought outside the pit, or at least outside the standard items on that pit. Famous for their sandwiches, Jack Stack also smoked up lamb ribs and grilled a killer lamb burger. Gourmet? Perhaps not. But, progressive? Absolutely.

Through the years, Jack Stack continued to mix in grilling with smoking seafood, steaks, amazing sides and appetizers with all the typical smoked goodies — burnt ends, brisket, chicken.

Their crown prime beef rib, a cut you will only find at Jack Stack, is a sumptuous and unique experience. The newly added jumbo barbecue shrimp, grilled over hickory and topped with a barbecue-butter sauce is borderline amazing. Be careful or you will sop up every last drop of the sauce with the bread and your appetite will be stolen before the meal barely begins.

Off the menu, I’ve also hosted two wine dinners at the Jack Stack’s Freighthouse location, and both times Chef James Hull outdid himself, crafting not only great grilled and smoked items, but terrific, creative courses across the board.

Imagine smoked salmon served two ways paired with a single vineyard Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc or a grilled and sliced strip loin in a red wine reduction sauce matched to an outstanding California Meritage.

Jack Stack, long a favorite of mine, continues to push the upscale barbecue envelope with wonderful cuisine and top notch service in very comfortable environments.

Jon Russell’s Barbecue is another barbecue restaurant where the pitmaster wears a chef’s coat. That would be Russell Muehlberger who opened Jon Russell’s with childhood friend Jon Niederbremer after years of competition leading the Y Barbecue team.

“I was a foodie, first and foremost,” Muehlberger said. “I ate, slept and breathed food. We cooked the barbecue, and Jon would come and drink our beer.”

Niederbremer did not appear to take offense, nor did he contradict his middle school pal. Niederbremer’s background is construction and the two best buds have built quite the barbecue business — three restaurants with an eye for more and a taste for something special.

“We try and do our barbecue as close to competition as possible, and that’s our core,” Muehlberger said. “But, as a chef, (a graduate of the excellent Johnson County Community College’s culinary school), I’m always experimenting. I like to mess around on the edges of the menu.”

Hence, the aforementioned seasonal coleslaw and six different barbecue sauces. But, there’s more. Muehlberger loves to play around with salmon, lamb and duck, among other proteins, and he’ll custom smoke his patron’s meats.

Jon Russell’s is old-school in terms of service. It’s cafeteria-style, but Muehlberger and Niederbremer are toying with a full-service operation down the road and Muehlberger told me he’s just starting to introduce wine to his barbecue-crazed customers.

“The chef’s coat tends to separate us from the country-style barbecue joints around town,” he said. “We want to continue to experiment, continue to push the envelope.”

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.