Michael Smith’s new Italian-centered menu shakes things up

Chef Michael Smith in the kitchen.

Ten years. A decade in the restaurant world is a lifetime, or at least enough to be considered an institution. So when you’re a James Beard award-winning chef, and you’re approaching “institution” status, what’s your next move? If you’re Michael Smith or his eponymous eatery located at 1900 Main Street, it’s time to shake things up a little. For a restaurant that has spent ten years doing beautiful contemporary American cuisine, that means narrowing the focus to a genre that resonates with Smith personally—Italian.

Michael Smith, the restaurant, not the man, is small enough, he says, to focus on making small batches of the best stuff on earth, namely handmade pasta. With over 50 dies available, he’s letting his creativity take over and banishing boredom by switching things up often. The resulting menu, titled “Finding Guido”, is ever-changing, with at least two regular themed nights (Tuesday Pork and Pasta and the semi-regular Big Night offering), and a variety of new dishes all the time.

It’s important to note that in a town that allegedly created chicken spiedini, Smith has gone decidedly old world with his menu. The menu is broken up into antipasti, pasta fatti a mano e en casa (pasta made by hand in-house), secondi di Pesce e Carne (seasonal fish and meat), and contorni (side dishes). A cheese course and dessert are, of course, also available. What’s missing is an oversized portion of red sauce with meatballs. This is not Olive Garden.

Instead, Smith focuses on purity of flavors. Most dishes feature a maximum of four to five ingredients. This is Italian at its finest, with the spotlight on artisanal products being used judicially for the highest impact.

It was tempting to start with the Iberico black-footed ham with toasted rosemary bread since the leg itself was on display in the restaurant, but I was drawn to another cured meat, the one more commonly expected—prosciutto di Parma. Although I can be perfectly content with just a plate of shaved prosciutto, this brought elements of a classic summer dish—prosciutto and melon—into the fall by replacing melon with a Missouri native fruit, persimmon. It’s something that you don’t see often enough on menus, but it offered the subtle sweetness that beautifully contrasted the saltiness of the ham. On their own, the ham and persimmon would have been delicious. Added to the light and crispy ricotta fritters and generous shavings of Parmesan cheese, each bite sang with textural complexity.

On a menu like this, the pasta should be the star. And while it’s not surprising, it is shocking how good these pasta offerings really are. There were nine options at the time of writing, all diverse and focused on seasonal flavors. Portions are smaller than your typical Italian-American joint and meant to be either combined with another pasta for an entrée portion or ordered within a coursed meal of antipasti and a protein course. That being said, they are also not minuscule portions either, especially considering the rich ingredients used.

The offerings on the pasta menu vary wildly. The two that I sampled fell on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both satisfied different cravings. The saffron torchio was a bright, citrusy punch in the middle of the winter. The beautiful floral-shaped pasta is infused with the delicate flavor of saffron and combined with generous chunks of king crab meat and flavored with chili and lemon. It was light but rich with sweet crab intermingling with the fresh lemon flavor. I could see it being at home on a spring menu just as easily.

My favorite dish of the evening was the rabbit gnocchi. This is one of the few dishes that has remained constant on the menu, and thank goodness. I’ll dream about the rich umami flavors created by the combination of shiitake mushrooms, leeks, and perfectly succulent rabbit. Topped with lavish curls of Grana Padano, the pillowy gnocchi somehow manages to be light and hearty simultaneously. There’s little worse than gummy, heavy gnocchi. Conversely, there’s little better than light, soft gnocchi that dissolves in your mouth. This falls squarely into column B.

If you can bear to move on from the pasta menu, you’re in for a treat. The protein options are just as diverse as the pasta offerings. There are a few favorites—Campo Lindo chicken piccata, veal Osso bucco—but there are also some surprises like the Pekin duck breast with braised red cabbage, parsnips, and kumquats. It takes technique (perfectly seared duck breast) and adds a bit of creativity (kumquats and cabbage, who knew?) to create a beautifully composed dish.

I had to go with the standard though—eight-hour pork roast on scallion risotto with pan jus and housemade tomato jam. It’s one of the offerings available on the Tuesday night Pork and Pasta (each available for $19) promotion, and if you’re smart and available on a Tuesday, you’ll indulge. It’s telling when there is no steak knife brought to the table before the meat course. In this case, if it had been, it would have been entirely superfluous. The roast is fork-tender and topped with two tempura-battered spears of zucchini. Once again, Smith nails the combination of textures between tender pork, crispy veg, and soft, ever-so-tender risotto. There’s a reason that this is a crowd favorite.

If you are ambitious enough to tackle dessert, you have several options including housemade ice creams and sorbets, a version of sticky toffee pudding, or our choice, lemon semifreddo with huckleberry compote. Or if you crave a savory ending, a cheese course is an excellent option paired with one of Nancy Smith’s port selections.

It seems remiss to speak about Michael Smith and not mention his wife and business partner, Nancy Smith. Not only does she curate the wine list, which is now heavy with Italian options, but she was also visible on the floor, touching tables and laughing with regulars. It’s clear that the standard of impeccable service is set from the top down from both Michael and Nancy.

Looking at a new menu from a chef that Kansas City has come to know and love can be daunting. So many options and not enough appetite can be disappointing, to say the least. For those that want to take a more personalized tour of the menu, there are several tasting menu options such as the five or six-course tasting menu, or for the hardcore carb lovers, the five-course pasta tasting menu. All tasting menus are chef’s choice, so you may have a little more insight into the mind of the man himself or one of his talented colleagues like chef de cuisine David Padberg or pasta chef Jack Berko.

Michael Smith has made a name for himself as a chef focused on innovation and quality. For ten years, he aimed his menus at American contemporary cuisine, the kind of food where tweezers are used, where the eyes may feast more than the stomach. In his second act, he’s feeding more than the eyes—he’s feeding the soul and finding Guido in the process.

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