I started feeling it one bite into the semifreddo. As the toasty miso-butterscotch mousse slid down my throat, I noticed pressure building behind my eyes. My nose started to run. I put down my spoon and locked eyes with my dining partner, whose face had also frozen. Our reaction was not allergic; it was emotional.
Probably, I’d been building to tears since I sat down two hours earlier at The Town Company, the stylish new restaurant in the also-new Hotel Kansas City. Back in April, this was the first reservation I had made at a new restaurant since lockdown. It was my first multi-course, sit-down meal since vaccination and the first full dining room I’d seen in over a year. I leafed through a menu book printed on creamy cardstock. I experienced a surge of unexpected joy as I recognized a friend at a nearby table, someone I hadn’t seen since quarantine began.
As I prepared to write my first restaurant review since the pandemic, I thought about my teary dessert. Was Town Company really that good, or did I just miss fine dining?
I’ve been back two more times. I’ve had the entire menu (it’s not that big). And while I only cried once, each time I left, I thought: Oh, right. This is what it’s supposed to feel like.
Chef Johnny Leach, who moved here from his native Portland the week before lockdown, has built his hyper-local menu around the open kitchen’s wood-fired hearth. Each dish is baptized by fire—but not quite in the ways you might expect. It would have been easy to focus on steakhouse entrees and barbecue, and you’ll find a lovely sirloin and pork chop on the menu. But Leach will also do things like roast carrots over the fire for an entire day, then cook them down with sherry vinegar and Moroccan spices and turn the root vegetable into a gorgeous and earthy dip.
A dish that will surprise and delight: a small plate listed as smoked egg and trout roe. A soft-boiled chicken egg absorbs a whisper of char from a bath in smoked water, then is placed on a nest of softened local purple cabbage and frothy whipped parsnips with crispy potato matchsticks and a sunburst of trout roe. You break the egg with a spoon and release the silky yolk, then scoop out decadent bites.
The beverage program is a major flex. Each signature drink features house-made ingredients—root beer cordial, celery shrub—and herbs dried over the hearth. The Genevieve is excellent, with blanco tequila, fino sherry and burnt coriander making a refreshing and lightly savory sipper. Smoked verjus goes into the zero-proof “Nah-groni.” And then there is the wine list, a beautiful thing filled with options very different from the banal ones you might expect at a hotel restaurant. General manager Kelsey Alt orders the wine, and she has an eye for interesting producers. You’ll find a blooming chenin blanc from a boutique South African winery and a small-batch Malbec from Argentina’s lesser-known Uco Valley on the glass list.
The menu cascades from light to heavy plates, and everything is designed to share. I fell in love with the halibut, plated in a deceptively simple color-block: golden-brown fillet next to curly emerald-green spigarello leaves next to a bundle of penny-hued oyster mushrooms. In an aching demonstration of patience, Leach smokes mushroom scraps over the hearth for a full week before they become a worthy seasoning salt for the halibut. This dish is why we have the word umami.
The pork chop is a large-format dish meant to serve two or more people. It’s brined and marinated with a complex rub of local dried chiles, sharp annatto seeds and citrus, then smoked slowly over the hearth, caramelizing the crust and locking in all things juicy and fatty and good. The cornbread on the side is reason enough to order it. Made with Kansas corn, it’s more of an airy cake that arrives glistening with butter and worth its weight in gold.
It’s hard to oversell the brilliance of Helen Jo Leach, pastry chef, Chicago native and Johnny’s wife (the pair met working at Del Posto in New York). Each of her four dishes have footprints back to the hearth. That visceral semifreddo is arranged with petite cubes of carrot cake, which uses the same charred carrots her husband claims for his bread dip. Toasted coriander is folded into meringue and piped into crispy kisses around a tropical whipped panna cotta. For her parfait, Helen Jo slathers house-made butter onto local sweet potatoes and waits until grill marks appear before transforming them into something close to a custard, then layers that with a springy off-white cream she creates out of—no joke—hearth-roasted Missouri wild rice. And I’ve never had anything quite like her chocolate steam bun, swaddled in a dark ganache made with hearth-toasted milk and topped with smoked acorn dust.
If the devil is in the details, Town Company has many angels orchestrating the experience.
Never mind an under-the-table hook: Your purse will receive its own folding pedestal.
The playlist (everything from Dwight Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic” to the entire Thin Lizzy catalog) has been lovingly assembled by Johnny. Before you order dinner, you will be served a complimentary palate cleanser—a shot of house-made kombucha—and your bill will be dropped off with a crunchy farewell treat, compliments of Helen Jo.
And if you walk out of Town Company after your meal not quite sure you’re ready to break the spell and rejoin the world, don’t worry. You don’t have to. Drape yourself across one of those plush couches in the lounge and order a nightcap from the Hotel Bar. Sip it slowly while you watch the parade of other jubilant Town Company patrons arrive and depart. Still not ready to go? Well, it’s a hotel, after all.