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The Hungry Heartland | Kansas City

Late-night channel surfing once led me to Union Pacific, Cecil B. DeMille's 1939 saga about the construction of the transcontinental railroad. But real life gave me the opportunity to create my own epic: my architectural firm recently designed a restaurant outside Kansas City's Union Station, once the second-largest railway station in the United States.

The restaurant, Lidia's (101 22nd St.; 816-221-3722), is the newest venture by Lidia Bastianich and her son, Joseph, the owners of Felidia, Becco and Frico Bar in Manhattan. The location is the Freight House, an abandoned brick building near the railroad tracks. The Freight House Arts District, an area of spectacular redevelopment, is home to a burgeoning creative community, and a $250 million science museum is currently under construction there.

Bastianich was determined that her restaurant pay tribute to both the past and the future of Kansas City. My team and I followed her lead by restoring the shell of the Freight House to its original state while also giving it a clean, contemporary feel: there's an exposed pitched roof, plus light fixtures from a local artist who uses found materials, mainly industrial metal, in his designs. The menu, with such items as air-dried beef salad with truffle oil and saltimbocca (thin slices of veal seasoned with sage), features the northern Italian recipes that have made the Bastianich empire so successful.

On a trip last summer with some of my architects to check out the future site of Lidia's (scheduled to open in late October), we met up with David Wagner, the Bastianiches' business partner, and Mary Simpson, the restaurant manager. Passing a Folgers plant that filled the air with the delicious aroma of roasting coffee, we headed to the Freight House, where workers were busily sandblasting the ceiling, restoring the wood to its pristine glory.

As soon as we announced that we were from New York, the workers began to put down Krispy Kreme, the chain of doughnut shops that has become a Manhattan favorite. They informed me that Kansas City's 65-year-old LaMar's Donuts (with 12 branches in town) puts Krispy Kreme to shame. Warner and Simpson suggested we purchase a batch for the crew. The light, fluffy, greasy confections were superb.

After visiting an antiques showroom, we started to get hungry again. Our next stop, the American Restaurant (2501 Grand Ave.; 816-426-1133), is in Crown Center, a downtown development owned by the Hall family of Hallmark fame. Michael Smith and Debbie Gold, two of the Midwest's best chefs, have been here for four years, and they're so committed to quality ingredients that they fly in fresh fish daily. The feast they prepared for us included risotto with quail, truffles and chanterelles as well as foie gras with plums. The restaurant was built in 1974, and it's a study in classic Seventies design, filled with mirrors, glass, brass, chrome and bentwood Gothic arches.

We opted to follow this elegant meal with something down-home. When we announced that we were heading to L.C.'s (5800 Blue Pkwy.; 816-923-4484), Smith and Gold whipped off their chef's whites and joined us.

An old metal smoker sits in front of L.C.'s, from behind which L.C. Richardson once peddled barbecue to passersby. In addition to his tender, tangy ribs, which swim in a rich sweet-and-sour sauce, we ate brisket ends on white bread and goopy pork sandwiches and swilled strawberry soda. As we left, we spotted L.C. at the smoker and tried to speak with him, only to be told he was too busy cooking. Creating great barbecue clearly requires undivided attention.

Even though we were smeared with sauce, we moved on to Arthur Bryant's Barbecue (1727 Brooklyn Ave.; 816-231-1123). If L.C.'s is a cool dive, Arthur Bryant's feels like a tourist attraction, with Jimmy Carter and Steven Spielberg staring out from photographs on the walls. Spoiled by L.C.'s, I found Bryant's food to be sweeter and not as flavorful.

While Kansas City is famous for its jazz as well as for its barbecue (the Kansas City Jazz Museum and the Blue Room jazz club are both must-sees), the city's ethnic diversity is often overlooked. Hispanics, for instance, make their home on the West Side, where a string of Mexican restaurants lines the main artery, Southwest Boulevard. On our last day in town, we decided to check out El Pequeño Guadalajara (701 Southwest Blvd.; 816-842-8141), which seats only 10 people--it may be the smallest restaurant I've ever been in. Having spent eight formative years growing up in Guadalajara, I felt qualified to judge the cuisine. I gave the tacos, tostadas, burritos and enchiladas an A+ for authenticity.

The tour came to an end in Little Italy, now populated largely by Vietnamese. We stopped at Kim Nguyen Deli(522 Campbell St.; 816-471-4466), a cheery Vietnamese restaurant with neat rows of booths. We ate delicate spring rolls, crisp fried shrimp wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped into a spicy sauce and marvelous fried sweet potatoes that were genuinely sweet.

Finally we poked our heads into LaSala's Deli (910 E. Fifth St.; 816-421-2189), one of the last Italian outposts in Little Italy. I had time to down a delicious meatball sandwich before heading to the airport. I was sad to leave but knew that if I lingered any longer, there'd be no going back.

DAVID ROCKWELL is the president of the Rockwell Group, the Manhattan architectural firm that designed such top New York City restaurants as Nobu, Monkey Bar and Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro.

Published November 1998
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