By Marian Betancourt
Barbecue and jazz immediately come to mind when Kansas City, Missouri is mentioned, but there is much more to enjoy here in the heart of America, such as its sophisticated museums, a thriving arts culture and award-winning chefs and the city’s walkable neighborhoods are soon to be linked by a light rail system.
One of the most impressive museums anywhere and ranked one of 25 best in the U.S. is the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. The citizens of Kansas City erected the memorial immediately after the war to commemorate the millions of lives lost, and all five allied commanders attended its dedication. The museum underneath the monument was expanded and revamped in 2006 to showcase the second largest collection of WWI artifacts in the world and to interpret that war’s effect on civilization. During these centennial years of the Great War, this is a must-see along with a related art exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.
As you walk across the lobby’s glass floor, look down into a field of 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 combatant deaths. An introductory film sets the stage for your visit with an overview of the many things that went into starting the war. This was the first time machine guns, planes, and tanks were used in war, but most of the fighting was done by men confined for days or even weeks at a time in 35,000 miles of trenches.
Recreations of these muddy pits lined with sandbags, are especially moving. Give yourself a couple of hours to take it all in and stop at the museum store, a treasure trove of books and DVDs of the era including the BBC favorite, Downton Abbey.
For more insight into how the war changed the world forever, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art organized “World War I and the Rise of Modernism” in cooperation with the National World War I Museum. It has been extended through October by popular demand. “Modernism was a philosophical, social, political, artistic and literary movement that impacted and was impacted by the war,” said curator Jan Schall, who organized the show in three sections: before, during, and after the war with 59 works of art.
Before the war, Wassily Kandinsky in his “Sketch for Composition II” expressed the spiritual transformation he envisioned for the modern world. Later, the DaDa movement arose to mock the war and surrealism and cubism also came into being. One of Monet’s famous water lilies is here, painted while the fighting was only 60 miles away. His friends urged him to leave Giverney, but he refused and afterward gave the entire suite of paintings to France in the name of peace.
Browse the rest of the museum for its exceptional collections, such as Carravagio’s breathtaking, St. John in the Wilderness. In the new wing is an exquisite metal sculpture by Maya Linn, depicting the Missouri River, which the artist claimed as her favorite. Outside in the Sculpture Park stroll through a new glass labyrinth by Robert Morris.
There is more art to see at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the many galleries in the city’s Crossroads Art District.
The New Dining Scene
Being far from any seacoast, you might not think of seafood in Kansas City, but one of the best restaurants in town, is Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar under the direction of Executive Chef Sheila Lucero. Fresh seafood is a three hour flight from either coast, so Emersum oysters, exclusive to Jax, arrive daily from the Chesapeake Bay. Hot messy shrimp is a favorite with Old Bay seasoning, andouille sausage, and comeback sauce (spiced up mayo). The lump blue crab cake with grilled lemon tartar sauce is so light and pure you feel as though you are at the edge of the sea.
Just because there are four giant TV screens at The Well doesn’t mean it is an ordinary sports bar. Chef Eric Quisenberry runs a serious kitchen and posts his daily specials on a sandwich board outside. Always included are house-made soups and desserts such as the light as air strawberry short cake. His tender smoked brisket burger is subtly sauced and topped with very light fried onion rings. With vinegar dressed coleslaw on the side, this is a wonderful take on a classic. In good weather, you can also dine on the roof.
Affäre is an elegant modern German restaurant operated by Chef Martin Heuser, a 2014 James Beard nominee, who comes from Bonne where his family operated a restaurant. Try the lemon risotto and seared seafood with sea asparagus, or perhaps a cup of tomato bisque sprinkled with fresh violet petals. Sauerbraten with pumpernickel raisin sauce, potato dumplings, and apple compote, is a favorite.
Spectators Gastro-Pub is on the mezzanine of the 730-room Sheraton Crown Center with its multi-level open lobby illuminated by a ball sculpture of long chains of sparkling light.
Chef Franck Marciniak is Paris born and trained. He came to the Midwest to help another chef open a French restaurant, and decided to stay. His flavorful dishes such as grilled herb marinated breast of chicken with a simple lemon parsley pan sauce served over roasted potatoes, peppers, and zucchini lets the pure flavor of each ingredient shine through. Beer and ice cream may not immediately come to mind as an ideal pairing until you taste the St. Louis style butter cake with Boulevard pale ale ice cream, chocolate sauce and Jameson caramel.
Cocktails such as The Flapper and Sidecar are a nod to the past at Pierpont’s in the newly restored 1914 Union Station, but the food is very much today such as duck two ways: seared breast, duck sausage, king trumpet mushrooms, whipped celery root and sherry glacé. Union Station is the nation’s second largest railroad terminal after New York’s Grand Central. At its peak, 271 trains a day passed through here and Ernest Hemingway, cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, hung out looking for stories, while native son Walt Disney worked in one of the shops.
Lest we forget, there are at least 100 barbecue joints to choose from, such as Arthur Bryants, Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, and Gates Bar-B-Q. Kansas City style barbecue is slow smoked over wood, usually hickory, for up to 18 hours. Every establishment has its own secret sauce, which is added after cooking, never during. Don’t leave town without trying those very succulent Kansas City morsels known as burnt ends (the burnt tip of brisket that captures more of the fat and flavor).
After dinner, visit some of the jazz clubs, such as Green Lady Lounge, in the historic district around 18th and Vine. During its heyday from the 1920s to 40s there were so many jazz clubs here that the city became known as the Paris of the Plains. The American Jazz Museum is here, too, featuring exhibitions and performances.
One trip to Kansas City won’t be enough because there is still the Pony Express Museum, the Arabia Steamboat Museum with its collection of sunken treasure from the Missouri River, and the National Archives, which has changing exhibitions of historic interest. And then a short detour down Truman Road will take you into nearby Independence to explore the Harry Truman National Library and Museum as well as his home. Stop in for a butterscotch sundae at Clinton’s soda fountain where he worked as a teenager. But that’s a whole nother trip.