By Jill Wendholt Silva
The beggar’s purse is back.
If you missed the first incarnation of the chive-tied crepe bundle filled with caviar and crème, head to the Tuesday opening of Farina for James Beard award-winning chef Michael Smith’s nod to this iconic ‘80s dish.
That is if you can grab a table anytime soon at the highly-anticipated new downtown restaurant.
The $38 Instagram-worthy bite is served on striking 6- to 8-inch pedestals shaped like octopus or squid and contains an ounce of caviar.
“We’re just trying to get some visuals,” Smith said, making a playful culinary reference to NYC’s The Quilted Giraffe, a hip hang-out known for good food.
Smith is eager to make Farina Kansas City’s next new hip hangout.
The casual-elegant Italian restaurant and oyster bar at 19 W. 19th St. is an outgrowth of the already popular “Italian Nights” he held at his previous place next door, Michael Smith.
The Farina menu showcases oysters, caviar and other raw bar options, and, of course, pasta. Tried-and-true items from his past, such as his mashed potatoes and fresh sardines, also made the cut.
When he sums up his goals for Farina, Smith is direct: “I want to get more love on the plate.”
That kind of love starts with Smith’s house-made pastas ($14-$16) which are divided between classics and “atipicas.”
His classics can be found under the heading “Four Kings of Rome” and include spaghetti cacio e pepe, rigatoni alla amatriciana, tagliatelle Bolognese and bucatini carbonara.
The “atipicas” rotate seasonally and include more adventurous ingredients, combining potato gnocchi with braised rabbit, leeks and shiitake; gemelli lamb Bolognese with carrot, mint and feta cheese and sagnarelli with sweetbreads, black trumpet mushrooms and snails.
Entrees include grilled veal chop pizziola ($42), braised short ribs with polenta ($30) and crab-butter broiled Mediterranean branzino ($27).
Specials include Tuesday’s Spaghetti Sunday Sauce ($19) and Thursday’s The Monteverde ($45), a nod to hearty grandma fare with a heaping portion of pasta, meatballs, sausage and red sauce.
A wooden cart Smith made by hand is tucked in the corner by the oyster bar. He plans to roll it out to prepare tableside dishes, perhaps cacio de pepe or Caesar salad, providing a platform to interact with customers.
“Who’s better at that than me and Jasper?” the outgoing chef laughs while making a reference to friend/well-known Italian chef and personality Jasper Mirabile.
The 5,500-square-foot space designed by Helix Architecture + Design seats 90 in an airy and bright dining room with lots of natural light.
Couch seating curves through the center of the room while cozy banquettes hug walls adorned with modern artwork by local Kansas City artist Robert Quackenbush.
There is a wine room with a back-door entrance and private dining space. Michael’s wife, Nancy Smith, is general manager and focuses on the restaurant’s hospitality and wine service.
Smith, who had worked as a sous chef for the legendary Charlie Trotter, moved to Kansas City in the mid-1990s to take over the helm of The American Restaurant.
He quickly put the Kansas City dining scene on the national culinary radar when he and his former wife, chef Debbie Gold, won a James Beard award for Best Chef Midwest in 1999.
Smith’s culinary talents then shifted to a Leawood shopping center when he opened 40 Sardines.
In 2007, he returned downtown.
Michael and Nancy opened adjoining restaurants: the fine dining Michael Smith (where Mick Jagger once ducked in during a Rolling Stones tour to eat a plate of pasta) followed a year later by Extra Virgin, a high-energy Spanish tapas bar.
Since then, the Crossroads has become a hotspot for chef-driven dining thanks to neighbors Howard Hanna at The Rieger, Martin Heuser at Affäre and Michael Corvino at Corvino Supper Club.
When he first arrived, the Crossroads neighborhood and downtown in general were still in the very early stage of its current revival.
“I didn’t know anything,” Smith says with a shrug when asked why he settled on the location, “but I had enough people that I was asking to be investors who knew enough about the infrastructure of downtown.
“They said, ‘Yeah, they’re going to build The Kauffman (Center). They’re going to build the Sprint Center and Power & Light, and they’re going to do all these things, and put in hotels eventually.”
After enduring street car construction and nervously eyeing his bank account at 6 a.m. throughout the recession, Smith says “we’re getting close to this threshold where we can always be busy.”
Farina is opening a few months after Lazia, the new Crossroads Hotel by chef Remy Ayesh, and it is in sight of Lidia’s Kansas City, an even earlier Crossroads settler.
Despite the growing number of Italian options, Smith says destination dining is good for everyone.
“My thinking is that I should be aware of what the competition is — and stay in my lane,” he says.
“Focus, and do the best I can do every day. If I do that, it should be good enough.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is an award-winning former food editor and restaurant critic who spent 30 years at The Kansas City Star. She freelances and owns her own consulting firm, Jill Silva Food. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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