How does a chef know when an elm tree is well-done?
When he’s cooked it in a 200-degree oven long enough, the deeply grooved bark is cured — and there are no carpenter bees left.
At Jonathan Justus’ new restaurant Black Dirt, which opens on Friday at 5070 Main Street, diners can look up at an organic chandelier made from Missouri hackberry tree emanating from the stump of an old elm.
“Conceptually, I wanted it to feel subterranean, like you are of the dirt,” Justus said of the striking fixture he created for his second restaurant.
He also wanted to offer a more casual environment than at his signature Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri.
Justus grew up in Smithville and returned in 2007 from stints as a bike messenger in San Francisco and a chef in France to open a farm-to-table restaurant with his wife Camille Eklof. Over the next decade he created menus informed by a mix of obscure local ingredients and complicated techniques that turned his restaurant’s larder into a culinary science lab.
“The food at the Drugstore has always been very complex,” said Justus, who earned two James Beard nominations for his work there. “Some of the dishes took two to three months to develop, and after a while you’ve invested so much time that you had to charge more for them.”
Now the Drugstore will close for two to three months while Justus gets Black Dirt up and running. Opening a new 5,000-square-foot space that seats 135 is a leap in volume that requires a simpler menu at a more affordable price. So everything rings up at under $30.
The Black Dirt menu includes seafood, which is new for Justus, and a wider array of vegetarian, vegan and paleo options, including Eklof’s favorite: a chopped kale salad with broccoli, turmeric, pickled cabbage, dried cherries and pepitas in a fragrant lemon vinaigrette.
And the cocktails won’t go above $12.
“We can do really interesting things without making $18-$25 drinks,” Eklof said earlier this week, as bartenders, servers and cooks hurried in and out of a makeshift office she’d set up in a private dining space just off the main dining room.
Lower prices at the bar are possible this time around because artisan products, such as off-the-shelf shrubs and bitters, have become widely available. In the kitchen, the crew was at work running down which items are worth investing the time to make from scratch.
The bistro-style menu includes a Missouri “Caesar” in which lightly grilled romaine lettuce swims in a luxurious pool of egg yolk, lemon and garlic dressing with the anchovies swapped out for tails of sustainably raised trout; hefty chunks of cornmeal-dusted catfish stand in for the croutons, and the salad’s finished off with Shatto Farms “Lilly,” a cow’s milk cheese with “pocks and holes” that add a salty crunch.
For his version of a classic French duck gizzard salad, Justus has gone with chicken gizzards from Barham Family Farm in Kearney, Missouri. Instead of preparing a confit, he breads and fries the nuggets and serves them on a bed of salad greens drizzled with a buttermilk dressing, bypassing the standard mustard-based version.
Buttermilk, which will be cultured in-house, makes several appearances on the menu, including a buttermilk anglaise accompanying the gluten-free chocolate cake with peanut butter cream, house-made graham crackers and strawberry compote.
No bistro menu would be complete without a classic bistro burger on a house-made sesame seed bun, but Justus is adding fries that require a three-day process to get the fluffy interior just right.
“When a French fry is cooked all the way through it should wobble like a pencil,” Justus told his kitchen staff as they fired up the fryers in the brand-new kitchen space.
The crisp, golden fries also get a faint dusting of berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture with a subtle heat, and are served with house-made ketchup and chipotle mayo.
Asked to name the dish that sums up his latest culinary transformation, Justus chose a simple salad of roasted carrots, orange wheels and avocado slices with an olive oil, lime, coriander vinaigrette and a dash of sea salt.
“That salad exemplifies what Black Dirt is all about,” he said. “It has such a few ingredients but they’re not exotic, and they’re put together in a creative way.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @jillsilvafood.