This is a restaurant review, which isn’t going to be terribly common in my blog, but my experience at Justus Drugstore in Smithville, MO was simply too amazing to not write about! Justus Drugstore is a warmly modern (think late ’50′s or early ’60′s modern style, but without the “retro” aspect) open space with seating for about 50 people, a nice bar on one side and with a completely open kitchen that takes up the back side of the room. The open kitchen is a joy, and the cooking is done cleanly, calmly and where everyone in the restaurant can see every step.
Justus Drugstore’s executive chef is Jonathan Justus, a native of Smithville who has spent the last 20+ years away from Missouri in France and California learning both design and cooking. His wife, Camille Eklof, is co-owner.
The unusual name for the restaurant comes from the fact that the space, at 106 W. Main, was a pharmacy owned by Jonathan’s parents. The family drugstore included a soda fountain and a small kitchen to make meals for patrons. The Justus family sold the business in 2000 but kept the building, which was vacated by the last tenant in 2006.
The restaurant opened in May 2006 and has been gaining national critical acclaim for being what most critics consider to be the top restaurant in the Kansas City area, if not in the region.
Chef Justus’ vision for the restaurant is based on using nothing but local, in-season ingredients. The restaurant sources everything locally, even going out to pick wild mushrooms for dishes like their signature mushroom soup (which, unfortunately, was not in-season in January, necessitating another trip for us in April. How terrible! lol). The restaurant makes their own crackers, bread, cheese, cured and smoked meats, etc.
Our meal started off with an amuse-bouche, one-bite snack that is complimentary. Ours was pork of some sort over an arugula leaf that was stacked on top of a flat homemade barbecue potato chip. From that taste forward I knew we were in for an experience. I would have been satisfied eating a plateful of those little appetizers!
Before eating we started with a couple of cocktails. I had a Negroni, the classic cocktail made from Campari, vermouth and gin. Justus Drugstore’s version is top-shelf, using homemade sweet vermouth, Campari and Hendrick’s gin. My companion had a concoction of pear vodka and some other stuff I can’t remember. It was slightly sweet, but not cloying like so many fruity drinks can be. Kudos to the bartender.
Following our amuse-bouche we shared an appetizer of Crawdad Cakes ($12) between us. They looked a lot like crabcakes and were served with an orange-ginger pickled fennel remoulade, roasted red pepper couli and smoked tomato water. They were wonderful!
Our next course was a couple of Goat Cheese Salads ($9 ea). A nice pile of fresh local greens dressed with what tasted to me like a balsamic vinaigrette (very sour in such a good way) was served next to locally made goat cheese wrapped in maple-smoked Berkshire bacon. The goat cheese was extremely mild and pleasant, without the pungency that it often comes with. Wrapped in bacon and cooked lightly it was warm and squishy and was an amazing bundle of joy with the greens.
For a main dish my companion had the Flat Iron Steak ($26) with Maytag blue cheese créme anglaise and two kinds of gnocchi: fingerling potato and ricotta beet. The gnocchi were delicate and light and, best of all, lightly deep-fried. Such a delicious twist on the often-boring Italian staple, and the additional texture was a great accompaniment to the rest of the plate.
I had the Pork 2 Ways ($25), one of Justus Drugstore’s signature dishes. It is a smoked pork shoulder that is lightly breaded and deep fried served with a medium (still pink) Berkshire pork ribeye over it. The accompanying sauce was an apple chantilly and there was the most amazing braised cabbage and bacon on the plate, as well as a sweet corn flan.
The Pork 2 Ways was simply amazing. This was, without a doubt, the best food I have ever eaten in my entire life. We finished the night with a flight of 6 mini-scoops of homemade ice cream and sorbet that was delightful.
The food was simply transcendental, the room was inviting and fun, the cocktails expertly made and the wait staff was perfect. All in all, the $160 I spent at Justus Drugstore was well worth the food and the experience. We will be back in April for that mushroom soup, you can count on it!