More than 8,000 people live in Smithville, Missouri, at least according to the person answering the phone at City Hall. I found the population surprising because, even though there's still a downtown in Smithville, the so-called "business district" reminded me of the forlorn hamlet in The Last Picture Show. There used to be a movie house and two drugstores and a hospital in downtown Smithville, but they're gone now. The Rialto Theatre closed in the 1950s, and the hospital never reopened after the flood of 1965.
The last baby born in Smithville Community Hospital was Jonathan Justus, a bouncing boy delivered on April 18, 1965. His parents, Krauss and Ann Justus, ran the Justus Drugstore at 106 West Main Street. Two months after Jonathan's arrival, downtown Smithville was devastated when the Little Platte River swept past its banks and right through the heart of town. After scrambling to move merchandise to higher shelves, Krauss and an assistant barely made it out of the pharmacy alive, crawling up through the attic and kicking out the air vents to get to the roof.
The family's drugstore survived. Ann was the pharmacist, and there was a soda fountain tucked in the back, along with a makeshift kitchen with an oven, a four-burner stove, and just enough room for an employee to make a grilled cheese sandwich or to plate up a meatloaf dinner. The Justus family sold the business to a new owner in 2000 but kept the building. The last tenant left in 2006.
And that's when the last baby born in Smithville came home. Jonathan Justus and his wife, Camille Eklof, had been working at a restaurant in France for most of 2005 when circumstances forced them back to the United States.
"We were essentially kicked out for working there without a permit," Justus says.
Justus and Eklof had no plans to stay in Smithville. But looking at the old drugstore reminded Justus of a recurring dream that he'd never taken seriously. "During my childhood, we served breakfast and lunch in the drugstore, but I would wake up from these dreams where I was cooking dinner in the building."
And that's what he's been doing since last May at the 66-seat Justus Drugstore, now a sleek and snazzy restaurant that looks nothing like a pharmacy. The old soda fountain (with the original chrome-plated stools) has been refashioned to serve as the well-stocked bar, and dining tables are made from locally grown woods and lacquered sorghum reeds. The shiny steel exhibition kitchen becomes the focus of the room — particularly after dusk, when it positively glows around Justus and his staff, including former Zin chef Jeffrey Scott, now this restaurant's chef de cuisine.
I've been telling friends that Justus Drugstore is the best new restaurant in Kansas City that isn't in Kansas City. It's not that far away, though — if the traffic's not congested north of the Broadway Bridge, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the turn on Highway DD, which leads to Smithville's main drag. (When they give directions to their place, Justus and Eklof like to describe the building as "Art Moderne," but it's really a nondescript one-story structure.) Justus Drugstore is sophisticated, yes. But it's not expensive or hoity-toity. On the two nights I visited, Eklof and one waitress were sharing duties as servers, bartenders, food runners and sommeliers.
One evening, my friends Bob and Ryan ignored the wine list after falling for Eklof's vivid description of the elixer du jour, that day's cocktail, made with one of Justus' house-made infused vodkas. This one was blueberry vodka served with tonic and lime. "It's very pretty and tastes like a limeade," Ryan said.
Meals begin with an amuse-bouche, a savory little snack to inspire a good appetite. That night, it was a squash blossom stuffed with house-made pork sausage, dipped in a light tempura batter and fried. (Nothing inspires my appetite like a crunchy fried treat!)
Justus and Eklof print out a new menu every day, though some choices among the four or five starters, the four salads and the 10 entrées might change only slightly from night to night. Ryan won't eat red meat, so that eliminated the fois gras and beef carpaccio as appetizers; we shared house-baked crackers and Justus' creamy herb cheese spread on freshly baked bread before launching into the next course — a honey-and-rose-scented fried-goat-cheese salad for Ryan and a jumble of roasted beets, candied persimmons, mixed greens and blue cheese for Bob. "It's the most wonderful salad," Bob raved, contemplating a little wedge of praline made with Missouri black walnuts.
And I had the most spectacular mushroom soup I'd ever eaten: a big bowl with a dollop of creamy mushroom pâté in the center, surrounded by grilled cremini, shallot-poached shiitakes, garlic-sautéed chanterelles and bits of crunchy bok choy. The broth arrived separately, immediately after the presentation of the bowl. From a teapot, our server carefully poured a rich and fragrant brew of chicken stock, Japanese daichi broth and supple pan liquid left after braising pork. Justus needs to leave it on the menu all winter.
That night's beef offering was American Kobe flat-iron steak splashed with a silky sauce of Maytag blue cheese and caramelized shallots, sided with a gratin of potatoes and cauliflower. Bob almost licked the plate clean. For Ryan's wild-sturgeon supper, the firm, meaty fish was surrounded by swirls of fresh pasta, locally made ricotta, spinach anglaise and a hearty wild-mushroom ragout. (Justus later described the presentation as "a deconstructed manicotti.")
I'd opted for a dish that's fast becoming a signature here, the Pork Two Ways: a hunk of fork-tender braised shoulder and a Berkshire rib-eye on a spoonful of polenta, drizzled with a syrupy reduction of blueberries and ginger.
After that, I wanted just a bite of something sweet. Luckily, there was a tiny scoop of watermelon-and-rosemary sorbet for me to taste while Ryan savored a golden citrus granita and Bob nibbled on a mound of chocolate truffles nesting on threads of pistachio brittle.
That dinner was so satisfying, I insisted on taking one of my fussiest foodie friends along for my next visit. Lisa, a chef and wine connoisseur, arrived a few minutes before I did and was perusing the wine list when I walked in. She pronounced it to be an excellent list, noting a wealth of half-glasses, which allows people to order different wines with different courses.
Settling in with a half-goblet of Chapoutier Belleruche Blanc, Lisa was indeed amused by that night's amuse-bouche, a complicated construction of the house-made pork sausage, a wedge of ginger-pickled apple and a dab of pork shoulder perched together on a toasted crostini. We shared the terrine of foie gras, served with slices of fresh pear on a soft cinnamon brioche, before I insisted that Lisa sample the mushroom soup (which she adored as much as I did) while I dived into a salad of frizzled curly endive and fried lardons jazzed up with a punchy mustard vinaigrette. Finishing off a few slices of yeasty bread and butter, I could have stopped there and called it the end of a memorable meal.
We had planned to share our dinners, but Lisa started talking to Eklof about French restaurants (both Justus and Eklof worked at Le Fou Frog in the 1990s) and dallied over her dazzling hunk of freshwater bass, presented with three sauces (including a splash of corn foam), while I wolfed down my luscious loin of venison, barely saving half a bite for her.
Afterward, Lisa sipped on a Manhattan, and I wavered between ordering the goat-cheese cake with basil syrup or the alluring-sounding caramel latte served with pistachio-dusted doughnuts. But I had indulged enough, so I had a cup of black coffee before walking to my car through Smithville's eerily quiet downtown.
The last baby born there might just be the one who brings it back to life.