Magnolia’s reconstructs itself — and regional cuisine — out south

Shanita McAfee-Bryant bristles when fans of her first restaurant — which outgrew its space in a rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhood before she could find new quarters — ask her: “Why here?”

She did indeed choose an unexpected zip code for Magnolia’s Contemporary Southern Cuisine, which reopened a couple of months ago in the relative exile of 99th Street and Holmes rather than, say, in the tonier Crossroads or in some cozy midtown storefront. But there’s a simple reason, and in today’s restaurant economy, it’s a good one.

“I’m a small business, and it was a great deal for me,” she tells me. “I finally have a real kitchen instead of that little room with a tiny-ass residential oven. I’m finally running the kind of restaurant that I’ve dreamed about.”

It’s a good dream, too, one that dovetails nicely with my own fantasies about Southern cuisine — food that’s fresh, imaginative and comforting. McAfee-Bryant wants to take every advantage of at last having a proper commercial kitchen, and her passion shows. If cooking is an expression of love and Southern cooking a demonstration of maternal love, then McAfee-Bryant wants to be the antebellum mother you never had — even if her food is post-post-bellum.

“Magnolia’s is not your mother or grandmother’s Southern cooking,” she says. That’s what sets Magnolia’s apart from any other restaurant — soul food or otherwise — in Kansas City. The venue represents McAfee-Bryant’s insistence on following her own culinary path, even if it veers out of the traditional (and toward the sublime).

There are no collard greens in the city as flavorful as those served at Magnolia’s. And here they’re made with only collard greens — no bitter mustard greens mixed in — slow simmered in smoked-turkey stock. It’s a traditional dish done in a habit-forming way.

Among the salads here — which are uniformly delicious, though a little expensive — McAfee-Bryant’s pickled-beet salad is a standout, with thick slices of deep-purple, house-pickled beets on a jumble of spicy arugula. They’re dressed with tangy blue cheese and sweet candied pecans, with the sum splashed by a tart, house-made apple-cider vinaigrette.

Even this, though, is mere prelude to an exceptionally strong core of entrees. It’s a relief to once again taste McAfee-Bryant’s celebrated fried chicken, deliciously moist under a crunchy, discreetly peppery crust. But I might prefer the pot roast: braised short ribs, succulent and fork-tender and glossy from a silky red-wine demi-glaze. Sided with roasted potatoes, it’s a divinely rich meal. Even more decadent is this restaurant’s version of shrimp and grits. Over an unexpectedly crispy foundation of a corn-grits cake, a creamy white-wine sauce, dappled with wilted spinach, is flanked by a chorus line of chubby prawns. It’s both artful and full of flavor.

McAfee-Bryant says her new Magnolia’s remains “a work in progress,” and so it is. She’s still adjusting to the significant uptick in scale; 2932 Cherry was a 55-seat dining room with a kitchen so cramped that her go-to joking complaint — that it was really a closet — was basically true. But by the time that Magnolia’s begins serving liquor this spring, McAfee-Bryant will have moved the dining room into the south side of her new 4,500-square-foot space (currently unoccupied) and remodeled the bistro’s former dining area into a comfortable bar that will utilize the small stage in the room.

That stage notwithstanding, McAfee-Bryant is adamant that Magnolia’s is a restaurant — not a nightclub, not a jazz joint, and 100 percent definitely not anything like the previous tenant, the Groove Station Bar & Grill. That space, a raucous night spot, was justly unloved by neighbors of the Gomer’s Plaza retail complex. By contrast, Magnolia’s, with its crisp white tablecloths and retro soundtrack (Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Nat King Cole), is unabashedly old school. But don’t mistake its gentility for ho-hum-ness. Much about McAfee-Bryant’s menu and style are creatively progressive, and her reborn venue gives me hope that Magnolia’s could reverse the long decline of south Kansas City as a serious restaurant destination.

The original Magnolia’s suffered from erratic service that didn’t help sometimes long waits for food to come out of the kitchen. The new restaurant has overcome most of that, with service that’s polished and smooth and a kitchen considerably more in tune with timing — though some fine-tuning there is needed. When I tell McAfee-Bryant this, she replies that she’s “still working on the nuances,” and her attention was evident on each of my visits. (One thing on the menu that could use her critical eye: a starter of house-made chips served with a bacon-horseradish dip, which would have been memorable if the concoction I tasted one evening hadn’t been served at a just-out-of-the-refrigerator temperature. Dipping was a lost cause.)

McAfee-Bryant is slowly building her dinner business, but Sunday brunch has already taken off. Making a reservation is advisable. The demand is understandable: I ate one of my favorite Sunday meals of 2015 here, enjoying an array of McAfee-Bryant’s best-known dishes — red-velvet waffles, Nutter Butter French toast, fare for the window between sleeping in and taking a nap. And my new favorite breakfast sandwich in the city is Magnolia’s “Morning After,” a flaky, oversized cheddar-herb biscuit stuffed with a fried egg, hot Havarti cheese and a thick slice of Dr
Pepper–glazed ham.

The house-made desserts include a “chocolate soufflé cake” that’s not very accurately named. It consists of a warm, muffin-sized cocoa sponge cake sided with two scoops of house-made ice cream. (The toasted-marshmallow scoop makes the dish.) A confection called “Not Yo’ Mama’s Banana Pudding” reflects McAfee-Bryant’s use of traditional Southern recipes as inspiration more than template. Instead of banana pudding — the boxed-mix version — she first cooks the bananas Foster-style, searing them with brown sugar, butter and bourbon. She then folds them into pastry cream, layering the rich pudding with crumbled vanilla wafers — Nabisco Nilla, of course. “You can’t use puff pastry or anything fancy for that component,” she says. “You’ve got to have the real thing.”

I’d say the same about this part of the metro, which, in McAfee-Bryant’s Magnolia’s, now has it.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews