The real reason that I travel so much, as I confessed to my dinner companions last night, is to be able to eat my way around the world. They contributed to my journey by taking me to Room 39 in Kansas City, where there is a focus on seasonal, local food and a great wine list.
Room 39’s frequently-changing menu has a nice twist: it starts with a “featured farmer” – currently Green Dirt Farm of Weston, Missouri – including a loving description of the farmers, the farm and how Room 39 uses what the farm produces. This is followed by a list of the 10 other farms that are featured on today’s menu, before any description of the food begins: a great commitment to putting the local producers first, literally.
The chef started us with an amuse-bouche of devilled quail eggs, which has to be one the cutest things I have ever eaten, although I was struck by the idea of how fiddly it must have been to prepare them. Each was topped with a tiny sprig of dill that enhanced the devilled egg flavour without overpowering it.
Having spent sufficient time in French restaurants, I’m accustomed to seeing a cheese course at the end of the meal (either before dessert or instead of it), but here in the Midwest, dairy farms are a way of life and cheese comes first. I can live with that, especially when we start with a sample of each of the four cheeses that they have on the menu: a Montasio cow’s milk cheese from Friuli, Italy; a Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese from Humboldt County, California; and two delightful sheep cheeses from Green Dirt Farm, the Dirt Lover and the Bossa. I fully intended to snap a photo of the cheese plate, beautifully adorned with clover flowers and honey, but we fell on it like starved animals, and I didn’t think of it until only a few scraps were left. It was awesome, with the Green Dirt cheeses very reminiscent of those that I have tasted from Fifth Town.
We all decided on the four course tasting menu, which allows you to select one each of a soup or salad, an appetizer or pasta, an entrée, and a dessert; these are smaller portions than when ordered separately, but gave a great opportunity to try out more of what the chefs had to offer. Also, at $39, a steal. They provided wine pairings with each course, some different for each of us even when we ordered the same dish, all nicely paired. I have to confess that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the wines since the food was so great, but I have tried to reconstruct what I was served based on their by-the-glass menu.
First up (for me) were local spicy greens with prosciutto, strawberries, shaved grana padano, almonds & balsamic vinaigrette. The greens were very spicy, with a bit of bitter thrown in, making a nice contrast with the sweetness of the cheese and fruit. One of the greens was raspy in texture, possibly a mustard leaf of some type, which had a bit of a weird mouth-feel. This was served with a lovely chilled rosé, but I couldn’t find one on their wine list so I have no idea what it was.
For the appetizer course, I had mussels steamed in white wine with sopressata, lemon and shallots, served with grilled ciabatta. The mussels were plump and tasty, and the broth wonderful: I absorbed as much as I could with the ciabatta, and wished that I had had a spoon since it was much too early in the dinner to be drinking directly from the bowl. The sopressata could have stood to be diced a bit finer; I found the chunks too big to match the dish, somehow, although the flavour was well-suited. This was well-paired with a white Côtes du Rhône (I always think of Côtes du Rhône as red, so this was new to me), presumably the 2010 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc that is on the wine list.
The main course was a huge decision for me: after pondering the crispy veal sweetbreads, I settled on the grilled Berkshire pork chop with Rancho Gordo good mother stallard beans, pancetta, roasted tomato, preserved lemon, sautéed local greens and hazelnut romesco. The pork was perfectly pink, although a bit fatty as tends to occur with the heritage breeds, with the wonderful taste that I have come to associate with Berkshire pork. After cheese, salad and mussels, I was happy to see that the entrée course was, as promised, a smaller version of a main. The sides were really good, especially the beans, and the roasted tomato puree on the plate was a good contrast to the sweetness of the pork. This was accompanied by the 2009 Ridge “Three Valley” Zinfandel, which struck me as an odd pairing for pork, but went really nicely with the Berkshire and its assertively-flavoured sides.
I haven’t been eating a lot of desserts lately and have lost some of my taste for sweets, making the savory cheese panna cotta (from Green Dirt sheep cheese, of course) with a black pepper tuille a good choice. However, I found the panna cotta a bit too firm and cold; both the texture and flavour would have been greatly improved from sitting at room temperature for a bit longer before serving, although since dessert orders were not taken until after the entrées were finished, that was scarcely possible. The black pepper tuille was delightful, and a nice contrast to the creamy, almost cheesecake taste of the panna cotta. I had a glass of ruby port with this, although I don’t think that it was the 2003 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Ruby Port that was on the menu due to some discussion about various things being out of stock; also served a bit too chilled.
Except for a few minor points, this was an outstanding meal, served in a lovely older building in Kansas City’s funky and historic 39th Street district. I really liked the focus on the local ingredients, especially at this time of year when nearly everything can be local if chefs make an effort. In addition to the amazing deal on the tasting menu, wines by the bottle (plus the tasting menu pairings) are half-price on Mondays. Expecting to eat nothing but barbecue while in Kansas City this week, Room 39 was a delightful surprise.