Well, we made it up to Justus Drugstore
Some might be put off by the distance from the city, and at about 1/2 hour you sort of feel like you're driving out into the sticks. But really, the trip through rural Missouri is the perfect aesthetic preparation for a meal at Justus, in food and service. Which is not to say your at a mom-and-pop diner in the Ozarks. It's not that kind of country-style service. It's more old-fashioned, in the sense of, come, sit with us, take your time, enjoy your meal. This was as breezily paced 3+ hour meal as I'd ever eaten. It was just so comfortable.
The space was warm and contemporary, despite the old-style (nearly empty) Main Street setting. The service and the patrons both provided an eclectic mix of savvy restaurant adventurers from the city, and the older, likely more local type of crowd you might find in a rural southern meat-and-three. Amazingly, the room seemed to be working for everyone, and offered a refreshing combination of traditional and modern.
We started with cocktails, a sazerac and a manhattan for me, neither quite traditional (the latter a perfect manhattan with Maker's), very good if a little on the sweet side. My wife had the terrific Silver Elder Fizz...gin (Tanqueray), vanilla-infused vodka, lemon juice, lime juice, elderflower syrup, and an egg white. This thing was the best textured cocktail I've tasted. The thing gets a good long shake, and was just a wonderful original summer cocktail.
We ordered some cheese and crackers, all made in-house, the cheese a soft spreadable mix of goat and cow milk, lingering over these while finishing our cocktails.
Between the two of us we split a couple of crawdad cakes (not sure where these were sourced from) and a Maytag blue cheese salad. The crawdad cakes had some creative remoulade, pretty good, but I'd be tempted by another appetizer if I were going tonight. The salad, reading the name, you know, it sounds kind of boring, but it wasn't.
Sliced beats and a blue cheese dressing were very good if not particularly inventive. There were some cold cubes of apple gelee, though, and a thin round wafer of praline pecan (or something) that were wonderful, simple additions that, again, added a bit of a contemporary touch to a familiar flavor combination. Nice salad.
The crawdad cakes were rather large, and we were filling up a bit, but had both ordered rather hearty, meaty entrees, one brisket (Akaushi) and one pork ribeye (Berkshire). The brisket had sweet flavors in the braise...sasparilla, root beer, vanilla. The pork was served with polenta, green beans and blueberry gastrique--a perfect tart, blueberry counterpoint to the meat.
Sauces...in addition to their great flavor, they were generously proportioned. Now, I hate things drowning in sauce. "Generously proportioned" would typically be a pejorative statement. But I hate going to a frou-frou 3 star place and getting a faint drizzle of a nice sauce that is barely enough to accent your food. There were no sauce pools, but enough on the plate to get a tasteable dab for each bite of pork, and I really appreciated that.
The wines (recommended with dishes) were quite nice, and the wine list is also very friendly. Most selections between $25 and $35 for a bottle, generous pours, and the offerings of 1/2 glasses (or glasses) on nearly every bottle, presumably to encourage people to pair wines to each course and to drive the long drive back to the city safely.
Dessert was probably my favorite whimsical modern creation to date, P B & J. I didn't ask if this was an intentional reference to Alinea's signature dish, and the execution surely bore little resemblance (though given Justus' affection for Thomas Keller, at least, it would be a strange accident).
There were two components...the "sandwich" and the "side". The sandwich was some kind of graham or nut cookie topped by an intensely flavored concord grape mousse, topped by a peanut butter mousse. The grape was perhaps a touch too flavorful and a touch too much like grape jelly. It put me off initially, but this may be the first time the "fun" factor of a food contributed significantly to my taste-sensory enjoyment of the dish. The "side" just tasted delicious. The homemade marshmallow ice cream was wonderful and the garnish of a thin, crisp potato chip was a surprising and inspired complement.
(Oh, there was also an excellent amuse
, a small round of potato, baked, topped with pork rillette and a celery horseradish or some such.)
All in all the food was excellent, certainly on par with the best we've had in town. It doesn't blow away top 2/3 star-type competition in Chicago, but it doesn't suffer in comparison either; if this were in Chicago, it would be a shoo-in GNR. I've never been to Vie, but in my imagination, this is a 2 or 2 1/2 star version to Vie's 3; and I mean that in the best possible way, like Avec to Blackbird.
I didn't eat or too much or too little. We only had four/five courses over nearly 3 1/2 hours, yet it never seemed like things were moving too slow. While service was not slick or highly polished, it's difficult for me to imagine a more comfortable restaurant experience. I told my wife if I won the lottery, I'd start figuring out how much it would take to move Justus into the old Melbee's space (a very short for KS ten-minute walk from our house). In a moment of well-placed understatement, my wife declared that Justus was everything we wanted MelBee's but wasn't.
As I was signing the credit card receipt, our waitress brought out a couple glasses of dessert wine on the house, forestalling our departure another pleasant few minutes. The timing was perfect, the sort of happy departure where you've spent enough time but haven't overstayed your welcome, you've had your fill and your ready to return.
Justus Drugstore, A Restaurant
106 W Main St
Smithville, MO 64089