KoZak's Laketown Grill, Smithville

Tucked into a strip center in Smithville, 30 minutes north of downtown Kansas City, KoZak’s from-scratch American kitchen has garnered a large and loyal following. So loyal that fans wait for lunch and dinner specials to post daily on Instagram and Facebook. Chiefs and Royals players count as fans, too, because KoZak’s caters their inflight and pre-departure meals, as well as those of visiting professional teams.

“Many of our daily specials have close to 2,000 views, and, if we don’t post, people call us,” says Jacquie Hove who owns KoZak’s with her husband and executive chef, Brian.
Inspiration for the restaurant and its name came from the couple’s sons, Kobe and Zach. Brian, a long-time Marriott chef, left the corporate world in 2012 to improve their family’s quality of life. Neither he nor Jacquie have looked back.

The Hoves remain community-minded. Produce is sourced from area farms. The evening my husband and I dined, a farmer stopped in with baskets of plump, green tomatoes. Paradise Locker Meats supplies beef and pork; leftover steak and salmon trimmings are donated to a Smithville animal sanctuary. Several wines originate from nearby Ladoga Ridge Winery. Among the craft cocktails and 23 beers on tap, Yankee Smith Ale was created exclusively for KoZak’s by Levi Garrison and Sons in Hamilton.

Appetizers include the signature Asian BBQ pulled pork nachos drizzled with wasabi cream and siracha, developed for a 2013 competition. Mouthwatering fried green tomatoes come pooled with tabasco pimento sauce. One regular told me she always orders them.
“People want comfort food with a creative flair,” says Brian, who explains that many of his dishes were influenced from menus he developed for Marriott.

Entrees include a mini cast-iron skillet of tender cornbread, dolloped with house honey butter. Mediterranean salmon salad tossed with house lemon basil vinaigrette remains extremely popular, as do steaks, Cajun pasta and burgers. Hearty Kansas City steak soup has chunks of meat and veggies. The well-rounded kid’s menu offers smaller portions of salmon and steak.

Loyalty extends to pastry chef “Sam” whose four or five daily desserts include a signature gooey butter cake, chocolate cake with peanut butter icing and apple crumble pie.
In addition, KoZak’s will cater, and banquets for up to 90 people can be arranged.

KoZaksLaketownGrill.com for more information.

The Trophy Room, Camdenton

Culinary creativity has injected new life into the Trophy Room’s menu at Old Kinderhook Resort, Golf Club and Spa. At the helm is Executive Chef Andy Raynor, a Kansas City native who studied in the chef apprenticeship program at Johnson County Community College. As a member of the American Culinary Federation, the program ranks as one of the top nationwide. After graduation in 2012, Chef Raynor worked for several prestigious Kansas City country clubs before the resort called.

Diners take in stunning views of the golf course nestled into the valley that was originally a cattle ranch. An expansive outdoor patio boasts enormous fire pits and plenty of seating, making this spot worthy of lingering. Live music plays Friday and Saturday nights.

In sync with the seasons, the menu changes throughout the year. Chef Raynor’s refined Midwest-style keeps to the basics as he deftly builds his flavor profile to create classic sauces and dishes. Since coming on board almost two years ago, he has maintained customer favorites but has definitively put his stamp on the menu.

“I consider us a steakhouse,” says Raynor.“We butcher certified angus beef in house, and our steaks are fork tender.”

The menu’s bestseller lived up to its reputation. Twin Filets “Kinderhook Style” were crowned with jumbo lump red crab and Béarnaise sauce. Another popular entrée, the Berkshire bone-in pork chop came out grilled to perfection. Steak toppings ranged from caramelized onions and wild mushrooms to garlic and herb butter, buttermilk blue cheese and Béarnaise. The ultimate comfort food, a side of jalapeno-cheddar grits delivered a solid kick. Raynor developed his chicken spiedini as an apprentice, and it remains one of his signature dishes. The accompanying wild mushroom risotto will have mushroom-lovers swooning.

Starters included a soup of the day. Roasted tomato bisque garnished with house made croutons tasted like just-picked tomatoes. And the excellent caprese salad featured mozzarella, garden-fresh basil and local tomatoes, all drizzled with EVOO balsamic reduction. Local farmers supply the restaurant with produce and honey.

House desserts ranged from the well-executed crème brulé with berries to a nightly featured dessert, such as fried apples with vanilla bean ice cream. The extensive wine list starred high-end labels and beers on tap, which invited more conversation around the fire pit after dinner.

The Barred Owl Butcher & Table, Columbia

Inspired by Missouri’s bounty and changing seasons, the Barred Owl is equally butcher shop and restaurant.

On a Friday night, every table was filled in the warehouse-style space embellished with stained concrete flooring, Edison lights and an open kitchen. A centerpiece bar ramped up the bustling vibe. Through a side door, the cozy butcher shop, with its long display case, felt like stepping into an Old World purveyor.

Owners Ben Parks and Joshua Smith define their cuisine as Southern-Midwestern American. Southern influences originate from Joshua, who owned a restaurant in New Orleans. Ben describes his Midwestern charcuterie as leaning toward Spanish and Italian influences.

“Joshua and I both believe in farm-to-table sourcing and base our menu, as much as possible, on what’s coming in season with our farmers, who are primarily 50 miles or less from Columbia and exclusively in Missouri.” says Ben, who grew up in Columbia and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “Our menu is a constant evolution, and even successful dishes are on for only a month before rotating off.”

Meats, cut from the whole animal, are matched with fresh produce and not overpowered by heavy sauces or seasonings. Missouri’s Goatsbeard Farm, Hemme Brothers Creamery and Green Dirt Farm supply cheeses. From-scratch breads and desserts are deliciously straight-forward. And their innovative cocktail program, according to Ben, offers the largest selection of spirits in Columbia and features hand-made bitters, mixers and freshly squeezed juices.

At dinner, my husband and I started with sweet potato hummus slathered on house-made flatbread, garnished with fried black-eyed peas. Warm milk and honey rolls incorporated a Dark Matter porter beer from local Logboat Brewing Company. The butcher board showcased the variety of charcuterie.

“First-timers are encouraged to try our board because we rotate five different items on it each night from our pâtés, 20 different salamis and up to ten different sausages using pork, lamb, goat, rabbit and duck,” says Ben.

The praise-worthy lamb lasagna layered béchamel and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Fork-tender “butcher’s style” oxtail ragu was served on bowtie pasta smothered in a rich tomato-based gravy. For those who love sweets, desserts change regularly so there’s always something new to try.

Red Onion Cafe, Joplin

It’s no surprise that the Red Onion Café has maintained a loyal following since it opened in 1995. My husband and I stopped for lunch on our way home from Tulsa and, even on a Monday, the short wait around noon attested to its popularity. On weekend nights, reservations are recommended.

Long-time restaurateur David Blum serves from scratch cooking in a cozy, 100-year-old downtown building—free municipal parking lies adjacent to the café. Specialties range from tasty appetizers to pastas, to hamburgers and steaks and tempting desserts.

Next to us, an older woman was dining solo but received a constant flow of attention. “Miss Betty” stops in several times each week, gives the staff Christmas cards and is walked to and from her car when she visits. We struck up a conversation and, although we’d already ordered, I asked about her favorite dishes. She immediately listed the smoked chicken dip, French onion soup and the smokehouse turkey sandwich. When she dines with her son, he always orders a double portion of the bourbon maple glazed pork chop.

I noted that a number of tables ordered an appetizer. No wonder. The signature smoked chicken dip fused chicken smoked in-house and mild Anaheim peppers. Beautifully plated bruschetta misto, a deconstructed version of bruschetta that’s generous enough for four, came with herbed cream cheese and marinated olive salad for piling on the grilled focaccia.

I ordered the café’s most popular lunch entree, Dave’s fried chicken salad topped with lightly crusted coconut fried chicken strips. Fresh and flavorful, I drizzled it with homemade honey-mustard dressing. My husband chose the “Love Me Tender” sandwich—grilled tenderloin medallions enhanced with garlic parmesan butter and cheese on a brioche bun. The restaurant slices whole tenderloins for its filet mignon dinners and uses the ends for this fork-tender steak sandwich. The Arkansas smokehouse chicken pasta remains a standout, too. Noteworthy sides include butter fondue broccoli and loaded smashed potatoes.

The beer selection features drafts from the Springfield Brewing Company and Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company. Wine is available, but the list isn’t as extensive.
Local Apple Road Farm creates desserts each week. There’s always a low carb option, such as low-carb strawberry cheesecake. Hank’s Cheesecakes in St. Louis also supplies desserts, bringing the total up to a constant eight or nine.

The Red Onion offers a full menu for informal gatherings or custom catering to accommodate weddings, events and banquets.

RedOnionRestaurants.com for more information.

Black Walnut Bistro, Hermann

Pasta aficionados will find much to love at Black Walnut Bistro where Nick and Brittany Renfroe whip up noodles on a daily basis. Hand-made egg fettucine and spaghetti serve as the cornerstone for their dishes that incorporate a variety of from-scratch sauces and toppings.

Situated on Hermann’s quaint main thoroughfare, the couple opened the restaurant in 2011, naming it after Missouri’s state nut. With few exceptions, every dish and sauce is made from scratch. Brittany, who studied textile apparel at the University of Missouri, designed the red and black interior and cooks side-by-side with Nick. Most weeks Nick’s grandmother comes in and whips up her caramel apple cake.

“While at MU, I studied abroad in Florence,” says Nick. “That summer, I made my first pasta and fell in love with the food, so I studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City after college and dreamed of opening my own restaurant.”

On a chilly evening, my husband and I began our meal with a hand-crafted white caramel apple sangria. Besides the signature sangrias, there’s a thoughtful selection of local and domestic wine, plus craft beers from St. Louis and beyond. For starters, we ordered the smoky-sweet tomato bisque garnished with pork belly croutons and shredded asiago. Crisp, panko-breaded zucchini spears came plated with a tasty lemon aioli dip and didn’t last long.

Pasta dishes ranged from a twist on traditional spaghetti and meatballs to chicken carbonara and popular lobster-shrimp fettuccine in parmesan cream champagne sauce. The impressive spaghetti and ribeye steak meatballs paired well with the plum tomato marinara and fresh basil—the plump meatballs were cooked sous-vide and finished on the grill for a seared outer crust. An entire meal can be made from the menu’s satisfying mac n’ cheese variations—spinach and artichoke, buffalo chicken or bacon and mushroom. Hand-cut aged steaks offered another option, but we had come for pasta.

Noteworthy sides included hand-cut cajun fries. Par-fried, or double fried, to order, they’re finished at high temperature for extra crispiness. Maple bacon Brussels sprouts are quartered and flash fried, then drizzled with warm maple bacon vinaigrette—sure to please the most skeptical veggie eaters.

Desserts change daily, and selection is limited compared to the extensive menu. But after filling up on pasta, no one seems to notice. We shared the decadent banana bread pudding drizzled with brandy butterscotch sauce. After a few bites, we boxed the rest of the generous portion to enjoy another day.

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