Shanita McAfee, the chef and owner of the two-month-old Magnolia's Contemporary Southern Bistro, was recently called out of the kitchen by one of her customers.
"These are not grits," the patron said, pointing at her plate. "I know grits, and this is not the way to make them."
McAfee tried to explain that she uses stone-ground cornmeal, which she blends with cheese and eggs and surrounds with tender prawns. This mixture is as rich as the fine white-wine cream sauce that smothers the baked grit cake. It's a refreshingly creative variation on the classic — and usually unexciting — breakfast food or side dish.
She eventually won over her customer. And she should have. The shrimp-and-grits entrée is one of the finest items on her menu. But the thing about American Southern cooking is that everyone seems to have an opinion on how it should be prepared and what it means. And what Southern cooking means here is complicated.
From its beginning, KC has been a steak-and-potatoes town. Our affection for Southern cuisine remains limited primarily to the traditional soul-food branches: fried chicken, biscuits, greens, fried potatoes, oxtail. The Creole and Cajun sensibilities of Louisiana have been less successful in this market. The metro has a poor track record when it comes to New Orleans-inspired restaurants, which tend to come and go quickly. By local standards, the venerable Jazz, on 39th Street, practically deserves to be on the National Register of Historic Places. And until recently, when grits began to gain a little haute-cuisine steam, you couldn't even count on finding the dish in KC (unless you were at a diner or a Cracker Barrel or a Bob Evans).
"What I'm doing here," McAfee says, "isn't traditional Southern cooking or traditional Louisiana cooking. I've had customers come in looking for fried chicken or wings, and they tell me that I'm a little too contemporary for them. But if I ever do fried chicken as a special, I'm going to do it in a new, unexpected way."
That means McAfee's collard greens haven't been stewed down to gorgeously green mush. Rather, they're presented practically al dente, slow-simmered with smoked turkey and black-eyed peas. (They're wonderful, by the way, served with little triangles of feather-light cornbread.)
"It's a somewhat lighter version of the dish," McAfee says, "but Southern cuisine is not ever going to be considered a healthy cuisine. We use a lot of butter."
McAfee says she doesn't want to be a soul-food restaurant, but her stylish versions of classic soul dishes are nothing less than outstanding: pillow-soft sweet potatoes baked in a spiced caramel sauce, savory pork barbecue tucked into slider buns, and the very best deviled eggs in town (three different kinds, including one made with smoked salmon).
And you won't find, on any soul-food menu in the city, more exquisite macaroni and cheese than Shanita McAfee's. The elbow macaroni is deftly blanketed in a creamy and distinctive, vegetarian-friendly smoked-gouda cream sauce.
There's not a dish or beverage served here that doesn't bear McAfee's personal touch. Because she has yet to obtain a liquor license, she serves inventive mocktails: a nonalcoholic peach bellini, a basil-and-cucumber cooler and a spirit-free sangria. There's sweet iced tea, of course, but no unsweetened tea, and our server insisted that the glass of lemonade was "freshly squeezed." It may have been, but there was so little lemon juice in the beverage that even calling it lemonade was a serious overstatement. "That's how they drink it in the South," explained our server, taking me for some fool Yankee. Hey, I once lived in Florida.
The service at Magnolia's was friendly and attentive if a bit unpolished. Several of the front-of-the-house staff members are related to McAfee, so they might be a little too zealous in their tasks. McAfee's 10-year-old son, Mkai, served as both host and busboy on the afternoon I was there for Sunday brunch, and by the end of the meal, I was putting my hands over my cup to keep him from taking it off the table.
The brunch dishes — served Saturday and Sunday only — are McAfee's showiest creations: sweet-potato pancakes, "Nutter Butter" French toast, red-velvet waffles. That last innovation has gotten so popular here that it's also offered during the week, on the all-day menu, as a side dish or a full meal.
Now, I find red-velvet cake to be one of the most overrated desserts in the American pastry canon, so I was resistant to the "red velvet waffle Evangeline." Would they taste like cocoa? Would they have cream-cheese icing? But I found courage and ordered the light, crispy batter cakes — more pink than red — and discovered that they taste like ... waffles. Drenched in maple syrup, they're as good as anything you can get at Waffle House, just rosier. I prefer the biscuits and gravy, though the biscuits should be flakier and come with more of the silky gravy.
The signature dessert at Magnolia's, white-chocolate blueberry bread pudding, must be popular because the kitchen never had any left when I tried to order it. And the banana pudding? "We just sold our last order," I was told — twice. My consolation was a generous wedge of pecan pie, which made a perfectly delicious alternative, sided with a dollop of real whipped cream. (It made me long for the menu to add a pecan-pie waffle.)
Magnolia's is located in a 1950s-era tan brick building (it formerly housed the vegetarian venue known as Café Seed) on a residential stretch of Cherry Street. But McAfee is so attractive and affable, and her new-wave Southern cooking so wonderful, that I think she might turn this quiet neighborhood into a new restaurant destination. Magnolia's may not serve traditional soul food, but it has soul.