It’ll be a few months yet before Kansas City diners can get reservations at chef Jonathan Justus’ 5,000-square-foot Black Dirt at 5070 Main St., with decor that includes a chandelier made out of the root of a huge hackberry tree.
At the new restaurant, Justus is aiming for the sort of dishes that have made his first restaurant a destination dining experience. But the jump to a space with 143 seats inside and 28 on patio (compared to the Drugstore’s total of 92 seats) has required racheting down some of the complexity, but not the quality of ingredients.
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“In some ways, it’s been much harder doing what we do up north than if we were in midtown or the Crossroads,” Justus said, because some farmers and local purveyors couldn’t justify making the trip for just one restaurant.
At Justus Drugstore, I started with a Missouri “Caesar” ($14). The salad was built from tender romaine hearts that have been laid on a rack over a sheet pan and charred with a food-grade blowtorch. “It’s more accurate and gets the same char flavor,” Justus said. Then the slightly caramelized lettuce is paired with cubes of Louisiana catfish dredged in coarse cornmeal and lightly fried to take the place of croutons.
The salad was garnished with thick slivers of aged “Lilly” — a type of white cheddar that looks like Parmesan — from Shatto Farms. It was dressed like a traditional Caesar with egg yolk, lemon juice, garlic and bits of cured farmed trout from Westover Farms that tasted remarkably like anchovy. It was a clever salad with more interest than the bulk of dry and careless Caesars being tossed together around town.
The frito misto ($7) is a case study in how Justus reduces food waste: Bits of leftover vegetables, including cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, mushrooms and hearty greens like kale contrast with daintier arugula or frisee. My vegetable catch of the day included cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and frisee breaded in the herbed fried chicken flour and served with a soy-ginger-sesame dipping sauce.
The odd beauty of using delicate greens this way is frisee’s “bitterness turns to a completely different flavor,” and arugula tastes like fried morels. Though I can’t vouch for the arugula, the roar of overly bitter frisee was transformed using this method.
The Campo Lindo chicken gizzard salad ($10) illustrates Justus’ nose-to-tail philosophy of serving offal, often discarded as a waste product. Not a fan of gizzards? That’s what my young adult dining companions thought, until they proceeded to pop them faster than you could say chicken nuggets, leaving me with a pile of fresh lettuce greens, tufts of frisee, half moons of seeded cucumber, radish slices, shredded carrot and parsley napped in a house-made peppercorn buttermilk dressing.
“I’ve converted a lot of people on those gizzards,” Justus said when he stopped by our table to survey our progress.
Gizzards can be tough, but these were luxurious. They were confited in duck fat to make them incredibly tender and add what Justus accurately described as “a certain lushness.” And he could have stopped there — “but of course, we bread and fry them because we are in the Midwest,” he said with a laugh.
The herb breading on the gizzards is the same breading he’ll use on Black Dirt’s fried chicken served with chive mashed potatoes, sage gravy and kale ($18). And Justus shared an idea he’s still hatching: Chances are Black Dirt diners will have a choice between two types of chicken: Amish chicken and a Lathrop, Mo.-raised Campo Lindo chicken.
The idea is to offer a side-by-side comparison to help diners better understand the ways in which genetics and feed affect flavor, sort of like ordering identical cuts of USDA prime Angus, American wagyu or Japanese kobe. “There will be a difference in texture and flavor” between the two types of chickens, he saids, as well as varying prices.
“It’s something I’ve never seen before,” he said.
Justus is also looking to source the beef in his hamburger from a single animal, processed every few weeks at Paradise Locker Meats, the Trimble, Mo., heritage meat purveyor he has relied on since he opened Justus Drugstore.
His house-ground beef burger ($10.50) will come with a cap of house-made “Drugstore” cheese. The current texture is reminiscent of processed cheese, but without the additives. Justus is still tinkering because he finds it “too melty.” I agree, but the consistency might be just right for the mac and cheese still in progress.
The medium-rare burger came with thick slabs of heirloom tomatoes with the seeds removed, a side of hand-cut fries that take three days to make and a thick house-made ketchup about as far removed from the sweetened and smooth Heinz variety as you can get.
Justus is especially proud of his steak loaf ($20) made from chopped ground beef trimmings with bits of mushroom and onion and shaped in a loaf pan. It’s cooked until medium rare and then sliced off to serve. It was paired with a gratin featuring potatoes cooked in a 2:1 mixture of Tank 7 and Boulevard Pils. The process creates a richness that mimics Emmentaler or Gruyere — for a subtle “richness that is beyond its calorie count.”
The steak loaf was served with a house-made steak sauce that contains sorghum, dried cherries, orange marmalade and vinegar cultured from oatmeal stout. It was a tasty combination that, as the name implies, is a cross between steak and meatloaf. But my personal favorite was the Louisiana blackened catfish ($20).
Appetizer-size catfish bites have long been a favorite at Justus Drugstore. The new entree dish is inspired by Justus’ grandmother, who was from New Orleans, and featured slightly hotter pasilla peppers instead of the traditional bell peppers. It was paired with risotto rather than rice. The flavor of the lean, clean-tasting, unbreaded fish contrasted with the richness of the risotto. Add a side of collard greens and it’s the perfect culinary bridge from the South to the Midwest.
Diners can try all these dishes and more until the end of October, when the restaurant is scheduled to close and employees will transfer for a few weeks to get Black Dirt off the ground. Black Dirt is scheduled to open in November.
The Justus Drugstore patio opens at 4:30 p.m Wednesday through Sunday.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @kcstarfood.