I’ll tell you what: The old guy still has it.
Michael Smith has been in the restaurant business for a very long time. His resume includes stints running fine dining kitchens in France and working under lauded chefs like Chicago’s Charlie Trotter.
In 1999, Smith was awarded the title of best chef in the Midwest by the James Beard Foundation while at Kansas City’s iconic American Restaurant. In 2002, he won a second Beard award while working at 40 Sardines, in Leawood. In 2007, Smith opened his namesake fine dining restaurant in the Crossroads.
Given his loyal clientele and longtime staff, his eponymous restaurant could have carried him into retirement. But in January, after nearly 12 years, Smith shuttered the space so that he could launch a modern Italian restaurant next door called Farina.
The Italian angle is not new. Two years ago, Michael Smith Restaurant celebrated its 10th anniversary by refreshing the menu with lots of pasta. But the size and ambition of Farina is still striking. It’s a dedicated Italian spot with 90 seats, 10 pastas, a meat-curing operation and a raw bar in a space designed by Helix Architecture + Design.
For months, it’s seemed like Farina has been all anyone could talk about.
Could it possibly live up to the hype?
In fact, yes.
At Farina, Smith is not pandering to the red sauce crowd, nor is he aiming to compete with the homestyle comfort of Lidia’s or even his neighbors at the ultra-hip Lazia. Instead, Smith is offering diners a chance to enjoy the things he loves best about Italian food: delicate cured meats, Mediterranean seafood and, of course, handmade noodles.
Pasta is sprawled out across the menu. Smith seems determined that it should be the centerpiece of the meal, and on the two occasions I dined there, those were the plates that seemed to fly out of the kitchen with greatest frequency. Smith’s varied pastas are each brilliant in subtle ways.
Long have I avoided the fashionable squid ink spaghetti, having been disappointed more than once by chefs who have rendered it grainy, slimy and flavorless. I found redemption in Smith’s toothsome midnight-blue noodles, studded with morsels of saffron-dusted swordfish and rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes.
I gave a little gasp of delight when I tasted one of the candy wrapper-shaped caramelle pastas stuffed with ricotta and aged crescenza cheese, and I felt a familiar surge of affection for the tender potato gnocchi with rabbit ragu, which appeared on the menu at Michael Smith Restaurant the first day it opened. (Smith credits Carl Thorne-Thomsen of Story in Prairie Village with this recipe and insists that he will never retire it).
None of these pastas are particularly heavy on the butter — they don’t need it — except for the sagnarelli, where black trumpet mushrooms and snails go to heaven in a glorious garlic butter bath with a sweetbread ragu.
Cacio e pepe, rigatoni, carbonara and Bolognese are highlighted on the menu as the “Four Kings of Rome” and will be a permanent fixture as Smith’s way of putting a traditional Italian stamp on his otherwise modern menu.
The cacio e pepe is made without cream or butter. Relying on the ultra-orthodox combination of pecorino, Parmesan and crescenza cheeses in this elegantly simple dish is perfect, as is the fresh snap of pepper in every bite. Worth trying, too, is the tagliatelle Bolognese, which Smith makes using the trim from his dry-aged steaks.
It’s possible to ignore the rest of his menu — particularly if you come equipped with stretchy pants and a disdain for the keto fad. But Smith has so much more to offer, especially with seafood.
Farina’s raw bar is a thing of beauty: Some dozen seats face a small work station where staff plate crudo and shuck oysters flown in daily.
The raw bar menu shifts frequently, but get the octopus if it’s available. It’s not technically raw — Smith marinates and slow-cooks it at a low temperature for five hours, ensuring that it retains its tenderness. The octopus is thinly sliced, tossed with a charred scallion vinaigrette and bite-sized pieces of broccolini, then finished with a heaping spoonful of salmon roe. The end result is a vividly green dish full of tangy flavor that eats like ceviche.
The kanpachi is closer to a true crudo, and though this Pacific fish was plenty fatty and rich, I found it also had a high salinity — something that the avocado puree and citrus vinaigrette that accompanied it didn’t temper.
You could also easily make a meal from the small plates of antipasti.
After having the bruschetta at Farina — warm, fluffy, toasted chunks of bread topped with olive oil, white beans, torn basil and plump knuckles of crab — I feel as though any other preparation will be a disappointment. If you are one of those people who think you probably don’t like sardines, I dare you to try them freshly grilled at Farina; they couldn’t be lovelier if you were enjoying them from a terrace overlooking the Sicilian coast. And then there’s the tennis ball-sized serving of burrata, dressed simply with olive oil and Osetra caviar. You will be tempted to spoon this oozy delicacy onto the focaccia bread your server greeted you with. Do not do this. You will be disrupting something pure and balanced.
There are salads, if you wish to make some nod toward clean eating at a restaurant that invites you to indulge. Local lettuces are served in a fresh Italian dressing; the dish is fine but not memorable. The roasted baby carrots benefit hugely from a citrusy beet puree and fried sage. If you insist on getting a vegetable at Farina, let it be this.
Meats and cheeses are also listed on the raw bar menu, though they do not come out of the same station. Smith cures the peppercorn salami, capicola, mortadella, cotechino and bresaola in house and imports the prosciutto di Parma. Of these, I heartily recommend the 3-month-aged, plum-colored bresaolo: moist, delicate shavings of salted beef that carry just a whisper of juniper and allspice.
Smith has installed a wood-burning grill in his kitchen to capture the business dinner crowd, and he makes good use of it on entrees.
A gorgeous veal chop is topped with crispy onion rings and served on top of a robust pizzaiola red sauce. Excellent, too, is the broiled branzino, packed with fresh herbs and served on a bed of roasted potatoes and fennel. There are also steaks, pork roast, scallops and the requisite chicken dish.
Pastry chef Ali Woody is new to fine dining, and her desserts are not quite as refined as the rest of the menu. They’re still worth exploring, though. The Sicilian nut crisp is a tasty Mediterranean riff on bread pudding, and the panna cotta is perfectly creamy. If you want chocolate cake, order the tiramisu. If you want tiramisu, perhaps try a different restaurant.
Nancy Smith, partner, general manager and Smith’s wife, oversees the wine list at Farina. If you’re ordering a bottle and don’t have any particular budget in mind, you should do fine, but the by-the-glass list is somewhat underwhelming. Bar director Berto Santoro’s cocktails offer a little more excitement: The “Go Home and Get Your Shine Box” marries smoky mezcal with Montenegro amaro for a rich sipper, and “The Two Yoots” offers beautiful botanicals with gin and a fennel liqueur.
Farina is located at the corner of 19th Street and Baltimore Avenue, in a space that has been dark at night for at least the past 35 years. Now, soft light pours out of Farina’s windows onto the sidewalk, giving traffic and passersby a glimpse into the pretty, busy dining room.
On any given night, a who’s who of Kansas City is enjoying a meal here — Mayor Sly James was a few tables away during a Thursday night visit.
The crowd is an interesting mix. In a booth next to ours, half a dozen old white men were reclining amid half a dozen empty wine bottles, looking like they needed cigars. Young couples gazed at each other across their tables. Groups of friends and solo diners perched at the bar.
Despite the white tablecloths, Farina doesn’t feel stuffy. Not that Smith himself could ever be accused of stuffiness. Most nights, you’ll find him bustling energetically between the kitchen and the dining room, dropping off plates and conversing with guests, many of them people he’s been feeding for 25 years.
Many chefs with his resume would have retired to writing cookbooks and consulting. Smith seems determined to keep cooking like a man in his prime — and Farina shows that’s exactly what he is.
GO: Farina, 1901 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Mo., 816-768-6600, farinakc.com. Open Tuesday–Thursday, 5–10 pm, and Friday–Saturday, 5–11 pm. Closed Sunday–Monday.