Black Dirt

Everything you need to know about Black Dirt from chef Jonathan Justus.



Salmon a la nage, shrimp stock, dashi, Crum heirloom spring vegetables

Photos: Zach Bauman

 

The Mastermind

 Jonathan Justus Has A Larger Than Life Presence. You’ll Know Him Right Away: He’s A Bearded, Bespectacled Cross Between Santa Claus And Your Dad’s Favorite Fishing Buddy. He’s A Fairly Jolly Guy, Too, But Make No Mistake: Justus Is Dead Serious About His Craft. In 2016, He Received His Second Nomination For A James Beard Award, This Time In The Best Chef: Midwest Category. This Came After Nine Years Operating Justus Drugstore In Smithville, Missouri, Where The Cuisine Was All About The Midwest — Specifically, The Animals And Plants That Were Indigenous To The Surrounding Region. (Justus Had A Strict No-Seafood Policy — After All, He Reasoned, Missouri Is Landlocked.)

For The Last Few Years, Justus Has Been Working With His Wife And Business Partner, Camille Eklof, Toward A New Restaurant, One More Centrally Located Within The Kansas City Metro. The Vision For This New Spot Retains The Locavore Principles So Intrinsic To Justus’s Perspective But Dials Back The Upscale Vibe (And Prices) Of Justus Drugstore. Finally, In January, After Various Starts, Stops And Delays, Black Dirt Opened At 51 Main Street, In The South Plaza Neighborhood.

 

Dirt Meets Roots

Cavernous. That’s One Way To Describe The Feeling Inside Black Dirt. Unlike Most Restaurants, With One Vast, Main Dining Area, Black Dirt Has Five Alcoves Where Up To 135 Guests May Be Seated, Spreading Out Over 5,000 Square Feet. Ceilings Swoop In And Out At Different Heights, And The Décor Is Cast In Shades Of Black And Slate Gray, With Accents Here And There Of Green And Brown. At First, This Can Be A Little Disconcerting, This Mix Of Sleek And Modern Elements Against Focal Points That Are Clearly Inspired By Nature (Wait Until You Hear About The Tree Stump) But There Is Something About The Environment That Draws You In, As Though Warm Roots Are Inviting You Closer.

Speaking Of Roots: It’s Hard To Miss The Chandelier In One Of The Larger Dining Areas. Extending From The Ceiling Is A Gnarled Elm Stump, Which Justus Himself Harvested From The Dirt Before Charring It To A Spooky Black. The Whole Thing Weighs Over 700 Pounds, And It Lends An Earthly Beauty To The Room.


Farm To Table

Farm-To-Table Food Is Still Justus’s Calling Card, But Unlike Justus Drugstore — Where Dinner Is A Detailed, Coursed-Out Affair With Complicated Techniques And Ingredients — Black Dirt Emphasizes A Simple, Approachable Menu. There’s An Assortment Of Hot And Cold Small Plates, Large Plates, Dessert And Bar-Only Snacks. Black Dirt Even Has A Few Seafood Dishes, Including A Lovely Octopus Plate With Cured Trout And A Housemade Green Goddess Dressing. And There Are Quite A Few Menu Items Designed To Appeal To A More Herbivorous Set: The Pecan Pear Salad, With Ginger-Pickled Carrots And Compressed Pear, Is Vegan (And Gluten-Free).

For The Most Part, You’ll Be Able To Find Dishes At Black Dirt That, At First, Will Seem Like The Standard American Fare: Some Salads, A Housemade Fettuccine, A Fried Chicken Entree. But Even Though He’s Removed Himself — At Least For The Moment — From The Experimental Laboratory That Justus Drugstore Is, He Hasn’t Taken Off His Mad Scientist Hat. You’ll Want To Try The Crispy Pig Tail Dish, Plated Like A Salad With A Barbecue Vinaigrette; Few Chefs Find A Place For That Part Of The Animal On Their Menu, And Justus Is Giving It The Star Treatment.

Prices At Black Dirt Are Designed To Be Approachable, Too: The Most Expensive Item On The Menu Is The Blackened Catfish Entree For $28 — Unless You Count The Two “Largest Plates,” Designed For Sharing Between At Least Two People. (A Roast Duck And A Whole Striped Bass Both Ring In At $70.) Sure, It’s Easy To Rack Up A Bill — All Those $10 Small Plates Start To Add Up— But For The Budget-Conscious, Justus Makes It Easy To Keep The Cost Down, Too.

MISSOURI CAESAR SALAD

The Salad You Need In Your Life

If You Go To Justus And Only Get One Thing, Let It Be The Missouri Caesar Salad. Yes, We Know — It Sounds So Passé, So Very Ordinary. It’s An Easy Menu Item To Skip Over Anywhere, But Particularly At Black Dirt, Where Things Like Duck Confit Fritters Sound Far More Tempting (And You Should Absolutely Order Those, Too). But Trust Us On This: You’re Gonna Love This Salad.

First, There’s The Romaine Hearts — Hand-Chosen And Lovingly Torched Until Each Leaf Has Exactly The Right Degree Of Char. Slivers Of Shatto Farms’ “Lilly,” A Sharp, Aged Cow’s Milk Cheese, Mingle With Flecks Of Cured Missouri Trout (No Anchovies). The Tangy, Creamy Dressing — Whipped Up From Egg Yolk, Garlic And Lemon Juice — Is Splashed With A Deft Hand Across The Elements. To Finish, There Are “Croutons”; But We’re Not Talking About Mere Breadcrumbs, Friends. Cornmeal-Breaded Little Squares Of Louisiana Catfish Are Flash-Fried, Adding Not Just Crunch, But A Boost Of Protein And Savory Flavor. One Bite Of This Ensemble, And You’ll Forget Every Nasty Thing You’ve Ever Had To Say About Salads. n

 

Black Dirt, 5070 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 816.214.5947. www.Blackdirtkc.Com