Jonathan Justus grows his legacy with Black Dirt

The Missouri Ceasar features a trout dressing over bruléed romaine topped with aged Shatto Lilly cheese and catfish bites.
The Missouri Ceasar features a trout dressing over bruléed romaine topped with aged Shatto Lilly cheese and catfish bites.

Chef Jonathan Justus and co-owner Camille Eklof are serious about food. This may be an obvious statement, given the current mood in the culinary scene, but Justus has long taken culinary art and incorporated science—both chemistry and biology. Their established Kansas City-area restaurant, Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Mo., is known for its extreme farm-to-table cuisine. In fact, the farm is sometimes just outside on the patio where they cultivate herbs, or a few blocks down where they may forage for wild greens. With the opening of their second restaurant, Black Dirt, located at 50th and Main, Justus takes the same commitment but injects it with a more casual vibe and regional flare.

Black Dirt has been a long time coming—Justus mentions that he’s been working on a second concept for nigh unto seven years. Kansas City foodies rejoiced at the opportunity to have a crack at his signature whimsical cuisine without having to book weeks in advance or make the trek to Smithville. With its urban location and open, airy dining room, Black Dirt is doing its best to open its arms wide to the casual foodie and the hardcore alike. And it’s working.

The décor manages to blend rustic natural elements with sleek modern lines. The space is beautifully subtle, and unlike so many eateries opening now, it’s a reasonable place to hold a conversation. Booths and tables are adequately sized for the small plates menu but not huge. It’s casual enough for those in jeans to feel comfortable but sophisticated enough to encourage date night.

The menu somehow does the same. As the name implies, the menu at Black Dirt focuses on farm-to-table cuisine with an emphasis on regional fare, but it’s not so focused that it doesn’t allow for creativity and fusion. And for those with dietary restrictions, the menu is inclusive—there are multiple options for vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free diners.

The menu is broken down into small plates, hot and cold, as well as large entrees, so diners aren’t pigeonholed into a sharing dynamic unless so inclined. The small plates aren’t tiny, either. You’ll have more than a bite or two if sharing with a partner. Large dishes feature a starch and vegetable as well.

The wonderful thing about Justus’ menu is its sense of humor. Example A: the Missouri Caesar Salad. We’ve all had a Caesar salad, with either sad, limp leaves doused in overly heavy dressing or perhaps a tableside preparation that elevates it to an art form. This version is the latter, although it comes composed on a plate. The romaine is bruléed and arranged in a loose rosette on the dish. Shatto Lilly cheese is shaved in generous portions on the top. Instead of croutons, Justus subs in cornmeal-coated catfish bites, perfectly seasoned and crisp. And the whole affair floats on a pool of “Caesar” dressing that uses house-cured trout instead of anchovy. The result is an intensely savory, creamy dressing that blows all other Caesars away. It’s hard to believe that a starter salad can have so much impact. Oh, and Dear Jonathan, can we please have an entrée of those catfish bites? They are intoxicating!

Next, the duck confit fritters caught my eye. One of the more beautiful dishes that we tried, these fritters hit every note. The crispy outer coating shielded meltingly soft duck confit with Missouri rice. The bed of butternut squash and malted barely puree was more than mere decoration. I admit that I made sure none was left when plates were whisked away. Topped with lightly pickled red cabbage and a poblano chive aioli, this could be the perfect starter for any day. And that squash puree? I could easily see it as ravioli filling.

It may seem counterintuitive to eat with your hands at a fine-dining restaurant, but that’s what you have to do with the crispy pig tail plate. Served on a bed of lime juice-tossed mung beans, shaved jalapeño, toasted garlic, and cilantro, these bite-sized pieces are the bourgeois answer to chicken wings. And the tangy barbecue vinaigrette cuts through the fattiness of the tails perfectly. Not to worry though; giant wet wipes were presented after we finished the plate. They’ve thought of everything.

The larger plates menu features some things you’d expect and some surprises. Expected? Fried chicken, Berkshire pork loin, steak, and catfish. Unexpected? Barley and Alliums. The vegan and vegetarians are genuinely included on this menu.

Being an omnivore, I had to go back for the blackened catfish. Justus sources his catfish from Seattle Fish and chooses a top-feeding variety that eliminates the unpleasant muddiness that many object to with freshwater fish. Justus admits that he diverges from the traditional accouterments on this dish, serving it with a Missouri rice risotto, Creole sauce, and proper collards with house bacon. While risotto may not find itself on many southern menus, the authenticity of the collards more than makes up for it. Savory, perfectly cooked with a bit of tooth and not too salty, my Arkansas grandmother would approve.

For those looking for a quick bite to eat, there’s a separate bar menu available with a different assortment of small plates including freshly-made ricotta and bread, brandade, chicken livers or gizzards, hummus or tapenades. Did I mention that most are under $8? With such accessible price points, the bar is sure to be a happening spot.

One of the only entrees on the bar menu is the house burger and three-day fries. Do not miss this burger. I know that the artisan burger craze has come and gone. This is not a gimmick burger. It’s just a solid, easy-to-eat (no need to dislocate your jaw to take a bite) burger that’s perfectly cooked. Justus starts with a blend of Barham Family Farm beef mixed with local suet for an increased umami flavor, which is almost smoky when all is said and done. The patty is cooked on a flat top and the grill for maximum juiciness and just a bit of crust. Topped with Jason Wiebe Dairy raw cheddar, house- cured and smoked bacon, fresh onion, butter lettuce and nestled on a house-made bun, this is by far the best burger that I’ve had in K.C. in months.

If you want a lesson on chemistry and the perfect fry, ask how the fries are made. It’s a three-day process that involves breaking down the starches to reach maximum fluffiness with the perfect crunch. And dusted with a blend of North African spices and dipped in a house-made curry aioli, they are the perfect match for this meal.

Dessert is spearheaded by pastry chef Randi Stafne, and also offers a variety of options, most on the lighter side in an unspoken acknowledgment of how noshable the rest of the menu is. House-made ice cream with toffee sauce, coconut cream Napoleons, and flourless chocolate tortes couldn’t dissuade me from the lime pot de crème. The silky cream was topped with pineapple chutney, toasted meringue, and speared with a pecan oatmeal crisp. Dairy-free and gluten-free, it almost seemed virtuous. Almost.

Of course, no meal is complete without a cocktail or tipple of wine. The cocktail menu is directed by Justin Richardson and formed by a committee of their seasoned bar staff. The Heels in Paris is a great starter—pear brandy, vanilla-infused Dolin Blanc, Angostura bitters, Calvados, and J. Roget champagne are a lovely riff on the French 75 and a palate cleanser for the meal to come. A well-developed but not overwhelming wine and beer list offer plenty of options as well.

Black Dirt is the perfect olive branch—it’s close, affordable, and has an atmosphere that invites conversation and lingering. Justus Drugstore will reopen soon, and Justus and Eklof will have to start the balancing act of handling two intensive menus, but they are more than equal to the task. In the meantime, Kansas City will be enjoying this menu and all its future iterations, including lunch and brunch. It’s a delicious time to get dirty.

Sunday–Thursday, open at 4 p.m., seating until 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday, open at 4 p.m., seating until 11 p.m.