Michael Smith's Restaurant Re-Invents Itself with Finding Guido

A decade in, Michael Smith’s Crossroads restaurant re-invents itself.



 

Much ado was made when, early this summer, Michael Smith announced a reinvention of sorts for his 10-year-old eponymous restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District. The transition period — and corresponding menu — would be called “Finding Guido.”

   It’s not a rebranding, exactly, and there will be no dining room remodel — Smith thinks of it as more of a movement, an evolution from one era to another. Smith describes this as a “year-long sabbatical,” one that would allow his internationally influenced New American menu to swing itself heavily in the direction of Italy.

   When the new Finding Guido menu debuted last August, there was indeed a host of Italian-inspired dishes to be found. Courses have been reorganized according to the Italian nomenclature: appetizers are antipasti, entrees are secondi di pesce e carne, seasonal side dishes are contorni and there is an entire section devoted to pasta fatti a mano e en casa — pastas made by hand in house.

   In truth, many of the dishes that fill out these categories have been familiar to Michael Smith Restaurant regulars for some time. The rabbit gnocchi has been on the menu since opening night, and Smith maintains that it will never leave; other entrees, like the veal chop, eight-hour pork roast and halibut, are staples with seasonally changing sides.

   But if Michael Smith, a decorated James Beard Award-winning chef, now wishes to distinguish himself as Kansas City’s own neo-Italian nonna, he’s well on his way.

   Let’s start with the antipasti. There are some splendid-sounding items here, and one or two that could be puzzling, like the summer corn sformato. In Italian, sformato is a savory custard dish served cold or warm. Smith’s lukewarm sformato has the consistency of a fine flan, and the sweet corn makes for a bright pairing with roasted red and orange bell peppers and fatty serrano ham.

   Hamachi crudo has been a popular Western appetizer for decades now — so long that it’s easy to forget that the crudo has Italian roots. Smith pays homage to his adopted motherland with a rendition that emphasizes bold, simple flavors: juicy plums with flesh the color of an Amalfi sunset, cheerful dots of white horseradish cream and sprigs of watercress, wafer-thin slices of radishes with the cleanest hamachi in cold-pressed Sicilian extra virgin olive oil.

   If you ever have the opportunity — and if you’re dining in Smith’s restaurant, you will, since the chef makes a point to touch tables in the dining room at some point during service — ask him for his thoughts on quail. Hopefully, you’ll be regaled with a wonderfully off-the-cuff dig at traditional preparations of the bird: “I love serving quail, but I hate the fact that it’s a dish that looks like it should be in porn,” Smith said to me recently, referring to the rather suggestive popular plating that features two slender legs sticking straight up in the air. At his restaurant, Smith remedies this by stuffing his quail with mushroom and ground pork and swaddling it in pancetta. I’m not convinced that the addition of bacon makes this dish any less pornographic, but it does add a rich layer of flavor that plays nicely with the apricot jus bath the bird gets.

 

pasta

pasta

 

   Calamari can be a difficult dish to do elegantly: So many of us are accustomed these days to having the tiny squid tentacles masked by a fried breading and served with tartar sauce. Smith keeps it simple: a quick sauté in olive oil, some fresh herbs and a dash of red Spanish chiles is enough to summon memories — real or imagined — of warm Mediterranean nights.

   Whatever you do, don’t skip the prosciutto di parma. Smith makes sgabei, a delicate fried donut the size of a Barbie’s pillow and stuffed with ricotta, and he tops it with paper-thin shavings of prosciutto and a snowy mountain of fresh grated parmesan. What could be more delightful than this simple pleasure?

   I’ll tell you what: pasta.

   Smith has nine pastas on his menu. I tried six of them, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about each one since. The famed rabbit gnocchi with shiitake mushrooms and thick ribbons of grana padano cheese is just as good today as I imagine it was a decade ago, when, to Smith’s surprise, the dish that he thought would last a month sold so well it’s stuck through every iteration of his menu.

 

Rabbit Gnocchi

gnocchi

 

   I’m a sucker for most arrabiata preparations, and Smith’s duck egg tagliatelle was an exemplary example of the genre classic. Arrabiata may translate to “angry,” but I felt nothing but joy as I curled those long, rich noodles around my fork and dotted up every speck of tomato-chili sauce with a square of bread. Similar emotions were brought on by the house-made orecchiette, a dark, ear-shaped pasta prepared with flour from Puglia, in the southern heel of Italy’s boot.

   “Three or 400 years ago, the wheat fields would be harvested and farmers would burn the fields and till it under, so that it would help fortify the lands for next year’s crop,” Smith tells me. “But before they tilled it, the poor would grab the burnt wheat and they would mill it, and it would be their flour — and they’re famous for that now in this region, for burnt flour. You can buy bags of it, and that’s what we use for the orecchiette.”

   Smith’s orecchiette is enhanced by a complex lamb sugo that had our utensils battling for portions -- as did the radiatori neri. Squid ink pasta can be counted on to make for a pretty plate, but it can often err on the side of thick and slimy — not unlike its star ingredient. Smith’s radiatori neri threw the spotlight on bouncy black squiggles that absorbed just the right amount of chili and garlic, and provided the perfect dancing partners for citrus-christened shrimp.

 

squid ink pasta

squid ink pasta

 

   The pistachio spaccatelli tasted like — well, like pistachio pasta. With sweetbreads and chanterelle mushrooms mixed in, it was certainly one of the most inventive of all the pasta dishes, but if I had my choice, I would favor the spaghetti alla norma over it. This Sicilian inspiration, combining eggplant, tomatoes and ricotta, has thick, earthy noodles made from farro; it doesn’t have to work for your love.

   If you can manage to save room for entrees after the pasta course — and I heartily recommend you do so — you will not be disappointed. Smith, like the nonnas before him, is not overburdened by a desire to control his portions, and dishes that are meant for one — the gorgeous roasted veal chop, with plump and juicy tomatoes provencal, for example — can easily be split by two.

   If the veal is for two, the porterhouse, dry-aged for 21 days, is for three or four. This enormous cut weighs in at a whopping 24 ounces, and it arrives topped with lightly dressed arugula and perfect onion rings, looking very much like it has outgrown its plate. The kitchen pre-cuts the steak into more manageable two-ounce pieces, and each bite melts just the way you want it to.

   There is nothing that fills the belly and warms the heart quite like a good stew, and Smith offers two: a hearty lamb stew and cioppino, a fish stew born in San Francisco in the 1800s from Genoese immigrants. The lamb is slow-braised for several hours with rosemary and onions, giving it a homey richness that wouldn’t be out of place at, say, a Tuscan countryside inn. Smith’s cioppino uses shrimp and crab shells for its base, making for a thick and sultry broth that only deepens with the addition of tomatoes, mussels, clams, swordfish and halibut. What was once considered a poor man’s dinner is elevated here to a seafood valentine fit for fine dining.

   Ten years in, and it would be easy for a Kansas City stalwart such as Michael Smith to feel comfortable — and when comfort sets in, complacency follows, and standards can fall. Not everything at Michael Smith Restaurant is perfect. On one Saturday night, the music in the dining room was shut off — either accidentally or on purpose — around 9:30 p.m., and it didn’t come back on, despite the remaining tables. This in itself might not have been enough to stifle the ambiance, but our server’s prolonged absence toward the end of our meal — and her rather lackadaisical attention throughout it — did not match the caliber of the food we were feasting on.

 

Veal

 

   These are small grumbles in the greater context of Smith’s achievement. As a chef, Smith is far from comfortable. He’s constantly inspired — lately by the entire country of Italy. His dishes show a commitment to the myriad cuisines found throughout Italy’s various regions; he has become a pasta scholar and a believer in cult olive oils. Touring his menu is like taking a tour of Italy itself.

   When Smith tells the story of how he arrived at the concept of “Finding Guido,” he recalls a 2014 dinner at the one Michelin-starred Pollenza Guido in Piedmont. He had an epiphany there, he says, somewhere between the incredible food and the show-stopping wine, where he realized that the food he wanted to cook and serve at his restaurant no longer fit under the “New American” banner. Modern Italian cooking was what Smith wanted to be doing, and Finding Guido is just the jumping-off point.

   Has Smith found Guido in his new menu? Well, technically, he found it several years ago. Has he found the next phase of his career and a new era for his restaurant? I hope so, because what he’s doing right now is terrific. Has he tapped into his inner nonna? Absolutely — and here’s hoping he never gets tired of feeding us.

   1900 Main Street, Kansas City. Open Tuesday - Saturday, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m. www.michaelsmithkc.com