Main Street can be a long stretch of what seems like a dining desert. Sure, there are your old standards—Gates, Lufti’s Fried Fish, Lamar’s Donuts—but if you’re interested in something a bit more refined, Café Trio bookends the south until you get to the Crossroads and the promised land of The Rieger, Affare and Michael Smith/Extra Virgin. At least that was the case until five months ago and the opening of a fast-casual concept with serious style—The Russell on Main.
Located in an old flower shop, The Russell is the brainchild of former commercial photographer-turned-chef Amante Domingo and cupcake queen Heather White. The space, while small, is beautifully decorated in a blend of rustic touches like plush wingback chairs next to a woodpile (yes, a woodpile. We’ll get to that.) and industrial details. The resulting room is open and airy when the garage and front doors are open and cozy when closed.
One of the first things you’ll notice when parking at The Russell is the aroma. While the smell of barbecue smoke may be ubiquitous in Kansas City, this scent is different. Domingo utilizes a fire table in the open kitchen to add depth and dimension to the restaurant’s proteins as well as its house-smoked salmon for the impeccable salmon and avocado open-faced sandwich. Breads are grilled for some sandwiches as well.
The fire component is integral to the overall culinary aesthetic at The Russell. The menu is small right now, and Domingo says they are working on specials that will ultimately take their rightful place on the menu, which will evolve seasonally.
While the lunch menu is a bit more standardized, the brunch menu changes from week to week. The standards, like the excellent biscuit and Italian sausage gravy, are there, and Domingo says that his sous chefs play with riffs on classics like eggs Benedict. Smoked salmon figures prominently on the menu, so on the Saturday that we visited, a bagel and lox was available, as was the salmon and avocado sandwich.
Even the cocktails have a kiss of fire. The Bloody Mary was a good bet with a slightly spicy base jazzed up with the expected celery and topped with capicola, a grilled lemon and olive. Mimosa choices included orange, mango and prickly pear. Specialty cocktails, wine and beer are also available every day of the week.
On this particular Saturday, a croque madame was the stand out. Far from being a ladylike nibble, this version was served on two generously thick slices of rustic bread and topped with fire-grilled ham and Gruyere cheese. Dark cherry mustard acted as a counterpoint to the richness of the cheese and béchamel. Topped with a fried egg, it was a mammoth task to finish with a side salad as an accompaniment. I’m pleased to report that it warmed up well the next day, with no soggy bread.
The runner-up was the steak and eggs. It’s not often that you can go into a fast-casual concept and expect to receive a plate as beautifully composed as this one. The perfectly medium beef tenderloin was topped with a vivid chimichurri and presented on a bed of soft scrambled eggs with sweet potato hash, and finished with a delicate fennel frond. Although it needed a touch more salt, it was nigh unto perfect.
For lunch, I had to go for the salmon and avocado sandwich. I already own a house, so the cliché of not being able to afford one because of indulgences such as this doesn’t work. I inhaled this dish with gusto and no remorse. The grilled bread was a great base for this knife-and-fork, open-faced sandwich. The herb-smoked salmon was what set it apart. It was soft and tender with just a hint of savory herbs. With a drizzle of lemon herb yogurt and a hefty pile of dressed arugula, it was a great blend of texture and flavor.
My dining partner enjoyed the chicken brioche sandwich. Served on soft grilled brioche bread, this makes dry chicken sandwiches pale in comparison. The accouterments are nothing to sneeze at—spicy bacon jam, arugula, pepper jack cheese and a garlic aioli—but what sets this apart is the chicken itself. The fire-grilled chicken was so moist, tender and perfectly seasoned that everything else took a back seat.
At The Russell, sandwiches come with a choice of chips, salad or the daily soup. I tried the tomato artichoke bisque and could happily eat gallons of it. If you’re a fan of the tomato bisque at Eden Alley or the tomato artichoke soup at Harry’s Bar and Tables, you’ll be more than happy here. It was chunky and fresh with just a touch of cream to make it more decadent. Mission accomplished.
The menu also features four salads, all of which can be topped with fire-grilled steak, chicken or salmon. Two entrée plates offer either sumac tenderloin with sides of potatoes and Brussels sprouts or a half chicken with grilled avocado, lime and flatbread. Even with these more substantial offerings, nothing on the menu at The Russell exceeds $15. And with counter service, self-serve drinks (try the jalapeno lemonade) and table delivery, lunch or brunch can be as quick or as languorous as you wish.
Of course, there’s no way to go to the Russell and leave without something sweet. Heather White, the co-owner and baking mind, was known for her cupcakes in her former home in Canada, and she’s brought her reputation here. In addition to cupcakes, she offers a variety of changeable baked goods such as beautiful and dainty lemon meringue tarts, banana cake with homemade marshmallow icing, and The Russell’s standard, the olive oil dark chocolate chip cookie. The cookie was so good that three days later, when I remembered that I had brought one home, it was still moist and soft.
There’s a misconception that good food must be time-consuming, unhealthy or expensive. The Russell turns that assumption on its ear with each beautiful plate that comes out. As they work on expanding their hours to include Mondays and contemplate whether to add dinner service, they are building a loyal clientele of gourmets that know that sometimes you just need to follow your nose. After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire and that’s The Russell’s sweet spot.
Monday–Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturday brunch 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.