Several years ago, when Steve Cole was still working as a real-estate broker for restaurant properties, he tried to lease the former plumbing-supply space at 2050 Central to several restaurateurs.
"This part of the Crossroads wasn't nearly as desirable then as a restaurant destination," says Cole, who is now the chief operating officer for the Missouri Restaurant Association. "No one was interested."
But last year, three local entrepreneurs expressed interest in the 4,200-square-foot raw space in the same building, directly behind Lulu's Noodle Shop. And so in September, Michael Werner, Michael Thomas Edmondson, and Pat Phelan opened the doors to the Jacobson, named for the original tenant of the building (the A.D. Jacobson Heating and Plumbing Co.). The tastefully designed watering hole seats 100 in the dining room and just as many on its patio (which has one of the most congenial outdoor bars in the city). There's work by local artists on the walls, and an eerily lifelike portrait of the late William Burroughs greets you near the entrance. Werner and his associates have glammed up the place but left enough of the original architectural details to give off some attitude. If you squint just right, you can see that, yes, this place used to sell toilets. Burroughs would doubtless approve.
The Jacobson does for the Crossroads what the original Houlihan's Old Place did for the stuffy Country Club Plaza back in the 1970s: Provide an attractive, comfortable venue for drinking snazzy cocktails — flask service is the gimmick here, an effective one — and eating tasty, imaginative food. The sandwiches and meals here have real style but aren't terribly expensive. It's a sleek urban hangout, brassy and vital but unpretentious.
It's nearly impossible not to like the Jacobson, even if the parking is a headache. (Many of the parking spaces closest to the restaurant are already claimed for Nico's 320 and Lulu's patrons.) And the wait for a table on weekends can be substantial. The agreeable serving staff and chef John Smith's cuisine, however, make up for a lot of petty irritations.
Smith, who came to Kansas City to open the upscale 801 Chophouse, has been tinkering with this restaurant's debut menu a lot in recent weeks, and by this writing, several items have vanished (including a pork-belly banh mi sandwich, country ribs rubbed with espresso and spices, and herb-crusted tuna). Other dishes, such as the buttermilk-marinated Cornish game hen or the garganelli pasta with shrimp, are being retrofitted for the change in seasons. (The spring peas in the pasta, for instance, have left to make way for butternut squash.)
Smith is a real talent, and I've enjoyed almost everything I've tasted at the Jacobson, with only a couple of exceptions. The grilled scallops I sampled were so gritty that I think they polished my teeth as I chewed them. And I'm hoping to make it two out of three with the stuffed beef-and-pork meatball appetizer, which was fork-tender and extraordinary the first time I tasted it but dense as a handball the next.
Much of the remaining menu is classy and delicious, though. The Jacobson burger is the very best in the city right now, a thick ground-beef patty pan-seared with bone-marrow butter, slathered with succulent short-rib marmalade and then dressed with a jumble of fried onion straws on butter-toasted brioche. It's savory and sweet, soft and crispy, and deeply satisfying.
A variation on the usual grilled cheese wraps a blanket of molten provolone around a seared portobello and roasted red peppers, between grilled sourdough pieces. Like the other sandwiches here, it's offered with several possible sides, including seasonal vegetables (the Brussels sprouts are great), fries (not hand-cut, not terrific) and house-made chips. The latter come sprinkled with an oddball collection of spices that fails to conquer a predominant cinnamon flavor, which leaves the unfortunate aftertaste of a 1960s breakfast cereal.
Meat-avoiding eaters have limited options for now, but Smith has kicked the mushroom penne off the menu to try out a promising vegan lasagna made with layers of Swiss chard. There's also a dish of large pasta shells smothered in rich Mornay sauce and bubbling melted gruyere. A starter of moist oyster mushrooms, flash-fried in a sesame-batter crust, is delicious enough to be a meal, though it helps if you like it spicy. The fiery Sriracha aïoli dipping sauce is head-spinningly hot.
I've already nagged Smith to permanently add a recent special to the Jacobson's menu, and now I'm taking my plea public. The soothing, aromatic stew of oxtails and fresh vegetables that I ate here at the end of November may be, as the chef says, a labor-intensive dish, but it's too good to hold in reserve. The smoky, chewy, house-cured bacon beautifully complements a decadent truffle-cream sauce (over that garganelli pasta again). Don't attempt to finish this rich dish if you're planning to tackle dessert.
Lucky for me, there's only one dessert that absolutely beckons to me at the Jacobson: a puffy, custardy creation called a Dutch Baby that's part pancake and part bread pudding. It arrives in a white-hot iron skillet, all soft and gorgeous and dripping with melted butter, rum and brown sugar. (Smith recently changed one component of the recipe for the season, replacing the sliced bananas and rum with tart Granny Smith apples and a shot of aged bourbon.)
The Jacobson has a different vibe during the lunch hours — mellow and a little cheery — from the evening, when the pace is faster and the noise level is just north of cacophonous. But that's to be expected at a place that has positioned itself as a magnet for the see-and-be-seen set. (You can imagine what First Friday is like here.) And people do look good as they sip a Capo or an Absinthe Minded and nibble on crispy salt-and-pepper shrimp. For the rest of us schlubs, though, there's no reason to put on airs or feel self-conscious. I'll be back just for the good food.