Kansas City vs. NYC: Hold Your Foodie Head High


KC’s own “Grill Mayor” brings his fresh perspective on food back from New York City.

Top: Ahi tuna at celebrity Chef Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York. Above: The James Beard House, NYC.

“Look straight ahead, walk fast, don’t dawdle and whatever you do, don’t smile at anyone.” That was my advice to my wife, Gay, when we were on the plane heading to New York City this summer.

Story by Craig Jones. Photos by Gay and Craig Jones.

Part of winning the title of Food Network/McCormick’s “Grill Mayor” last year was a trip to attend the Big Apple BBQ Festival. I lived in New York in the late 1970s and early 80s. It was a tough, dirty city back then. So, I felt it was my duty to tell Gay how to conduct herself while we were there, because she’s a small town girl who’s notoriously too nice and naïve in many ways. I only had three hours to toughen her up, so we wouldn’t look like tourists or an easy mark for muggers.

But, in a way, we were tourists, or more like foodie tourists. Yeah, I know, I hate the word too, but you know what I mean, right?  Anyway, that’s what we’ve become. We love to try just about any restaurant “from no stars to four stars.”

As much as Kansas City has to offer, we figured that by traveling to New York their food scene would blow us away. It has to be 10 times better, right? Many people consider New York City a culinary Mecca. Scores of the world’s best chefs––including several of Kansas City’s talented chefs––have ties and history there. And of course, The James Beard House is there.

We collected recommendations on where to go from friends, other foodies and local Kansas City chefs. The list was overwhelming. So, to organize our target destinations, I made a spreadsheet to map out each day, time of day and place we would visit. Yes, a spreadsheet. I’m a geek that way.

The “Yes, Chef” cocktail at Red Rooster in Harlem takes its name from Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir.

Here are the places we hit in just seven days:  The Big Apple BBQ Festival, Ray’s Pizza, Forge, Katz’s Deli, Russ & Daughters, The Dutch, Lenny’s Bagels, Mesa Grill, Sundaes & Cones, two diners, Jeepney, South Brooklyn Pizza, Locanda Verde, Eataly, Red Rooster, The Spotted Pig, Dominique Ansel Bakery, Ssam Noodles, Milk, Decibel Sake Bar, a street festival in Murray Hill and SD26. That’s a lot for seven days, but hey, we wanted to make the most of our time in NYC.

Ssam noodles at Momofuku, New York City.

Here are some observations from our week of exploration. New York seemed very friendly. We witnessed an older gentleman whose heavy bags had split and all of his groceries scattered all over the place. Then to my amazement, a stranger came out of nowhere, scooped up the groceries and helped the poor guy get on his way.

Ingredients spill outside the lines on a slice from South Brooklyn Pizza, NYC.

Another time when we were dining at Loconda Verde, one of the other diners came right over to our table and started giving us her suggestions of menu items as well as other restaurants to check out. This was unheard of when I lived in NY back in the late ’70s.  Even the wait staff at all of the places we went to were so friendly. There was the guy who stayed after his shift to give us his restaurant suggestions and our Filipina waitress at Jeepney who turned our 30-minute lunch into a 3-hour meal, telling us stories of the Filipino flavors, culture and her family’s history.

One day we were standing in an Oklahoma Joe’s type line for two hours to get the latest pastry craze “The Cronut” (hybrid croissantdoughnut) and getting to know all of our fellow line mates. And finally, the hostess got us to the front of a two-hour waiting line “just because we were from Kansas City.”  It felt so much like Midwestern hospitality.  This was not the New York that I left.

A longga dog (Filipino sausage) available at Jeepney, NYC.

And then there was the food.

We had the nine-course tasting menu at Iron Chef Marc Forgione’s restaurant, Forge, which was elegant and flavorful. We were treated to some incredible sheep’s milk ricotta and lumache pasta with duck sausage at Locanda Verde. The gnudi [a type of gnocchi] at the Spotted Pig is a must-have, not to mention the Monday night chicken special at The Dutch. Our first time having Filipino food at Jeepney was an experience that we’ll never forget. Dining at the elegant SD26 and devouring the uvov ravioli – ravioli stuffed with ricotta and a single soft-cooked egg yolk–was, to say the least, astounding. Even the deli food at Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Deli was to die for.

I had a lot of time to reflect on our amazing experiences on the plane ride home. And I came to this realization:  New York City is not the New York City that I left in 1981. And Kansas City is not the Kansas City I came back to in 1981.

The gnudi entree from The Spotted Pig, New York.

It’s like the two cities have converged. New York seems to be a friendlier and cleaner place, almost Kansas City-like. And Kansas City now has more of the creative and interesting restaurants on par with NYC. We’ve come a long way from the days of Putsch’s Cafeteria, and when Herford House was the place to take out-of-town guests. We’ve got lots of culinary talent here and we should recognize and embrace that luxury.

Yes, we had great meals in New York. But in almost every instance, we could name a place in Kansas City that could turn out something equally as good.

Hold your head high, Kansas City. We have a lot to offer and can certainly hold our own.

Kansas City Cuisine vs. New York City: The Bottom Line

How do several New York restaurants compare to their “counterparts” in KC? Craig Jones gives us the scoop.
• Mark Forgione’s restaurant reminded us a lot of Bluestem. In fact, we had a 10-course meal at Bluestem [900 Westport Road] four days before our meal at Forge. Honestly, outside of the first course (hamachi), Bluestem was a better meal course for course. Chef de Cuisine Joe West is an incredible cook.• Compared to The Dutch’s, to be honest, the chicken was better at Rye [10551 Mission Road, Mission Farms, Leawood]. Rye’s fried chicken was featured on the August/September cover of Saveur.• Spotted Pig was very similar to The Rieger [1924 Main]. I’m assuming because they come from similar backgrounds. Chef Katharine Marsh of Spotted Pig and Chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger both formerly worked at Room 39 [Room 39, 1719 W. 39th St.; 10561 Mission Road, Mission Farms, Leawood].• SD26 is a little higher end than Jasper’s [1201 W. 103 St., KC], but Jasper’s could hold its own against this place.

• I would love to find a place that has pizza like Ray’s in NY. I’ve heard there’s a place off the Plaza that’s good, but I haven’t been there yet. By the way, here’s how to properly eat pizza in New York – 1) Fold the slice 2) Siphon the grease onto the paper plate 3) Devour. Jones says, “It was fun to watch the other tourists trying to eat the huge slices without folding.”