11942 Roe Ave., Overland Park, Kansas
(913) 451-1040, www.40sardines.com
If you think there’s no fine dining inside the geographic diamond defined by the cardinal points of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans, you’ve obviously never been to Kansas City.
It’s a burgeoning foodie mecca right smack in the middle of America. Who knew? With a growing population and an economic engine that’s revving, according to local pundits, at three times the national average, the Kansas City metropolitan area is starting to enjoy a latter-day version of the culinary boom that the San Francisco Bay area saw in the 1970s and ’80s. You can still get the best gosh-darned barbecue on earth in Kansas City, but foodies don’t live by baby-back ribs alone. These days, savvy Kansas Cityans are as likely to destination dine as to fire up their backyard Webers.
No restaurant holds the torch of fine dining higher in America’s heartland than 40 Sardines. Since it opened in June 2002 in suburban Overland Park — a quick freeway drive by Mini Cooper or lazy drift by Huck Finn’s raft down the Mississippi River from central Kansas City —
Debbie Gold’s and Michael Smith’s freewheeling restaurant has drawn people from near and far who are bent on discovering what all the buzz is about. “There’s definitely great support here for what we’re doing,” says the upbeat Smith.
Gold and Smith met in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s high-profile, high-pressure restaurant in Chicago. After realizing that they were destined to be a lifelong culinary team as well as a couple (yes, they’re married), they moved to the French Riviera and spent two years as chefs at L’Albion in Nice, where they perfected their French technique and fell in love with the regional cuisine. “Michael has a large appetite,” says Gold, “so one day at a local bistro, he downed five plates of grilled fresh sardines. Like all chefs, we had ideas for our own restaurant kicking around in the back of our head, and now we had the name!”
Back in the States, they heard that Kansas City’s renowned Hallmark-backed establishment, The American Restaurant, was looking for a chef, they applied as a team and got the job. After revamping the menu and reviving the reputation of this landmark, Gold and Smith jointly won a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chefs in the Midwest in 1999, a first for Kansas City. Finally, last summer, the couple opened their own place and made good on their previous choice of name.
The raw materials at 40 Sardines are usually American-sourced, and the chefs use local products as much as possible. “I do fly fish in from Florida or morels from Oregon on occasion,” says Smith, “and our fans appreciate the extra effort we go to.” Dishes such as mascarpone and wild mushroom ravioli, or pan-roasted gulf yellowtail snapper with fennel-olive-oil emulsion, are inspired by the cooking of the Mediterranean region and informed by the couple’s strong French training. “If we have a Latin or Asian influence, it has to have integrity in the context of the menu,” says Gold. “We don’t do fusion,” Smith adds, “I try to keep all the elements on the plate from one region.” The unpretentious wine list is geared to the food, with wines classed conveniently by style and body, rather than strictly by varietal.
Amethyst “Floralia” Malvasia Bianca
Gold and Smith match this spicy, dry-fermented version of Malvasia with their grilled Hawaiian mahi-mahi with piperade basque.
A special section of the wine list at 40 Sardines is labeled “20 Wines 20 Dollars,” which happens to add up to 40 … as in 40 Sardines. We’ve taken a similar spin for this issue’s wines. Each of the following 10 bottles retails for around $20.
L’Ecole No. 41 Semillon Fries Vineyard Wahluke Slope 2001
A Washington State version of Semillon with complex flavors of oak spice and citrus.
Goldwater Estate Sauvignon Blanc Dog Point Marlborough New Zealand 2002
Lovely gooseberry fruit and zippy acidity in the best New Zealand tradition.
Schug Carneros Estate Chardonnay Carneros 2001
Walter Schug makes some of Sonoma’s most Burgundy-like wines; this Chard has bright citrus fruit and crisp acidity.
Miner Family Vineyards Viognier Simpson Vineyard Napa Valley 2002
An intensely aromatic Viognier with grapefruit and minerals; long, lush, and balanced.
Voss Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley 2000
Supple texture with intriguing dusty plum and cherry fruit.
Babcock Winery & Vineyards Syrah Santa Barbara 2001
Tangy and lifted with lively blackberry fruit and keen acidity; pure with a ripe finish.
Calvano Vino Nobile di Montalcino Italy 1999
Juicy and delicate with lots of length and elegance.
Buehler Vineyards Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley 2000
Snappy Zin-berry fruit with nicely balanced flavors and tannins.
Bodegas Parxet “Tionio” Crianza Ribera del Duero Spain 2000
An explosion of plum fruit in a lovely, modern-style Tempranillo blend.