Kansas City: extremes for all tastes by Konstantin Bezzubov

I recently visited Kansas City, the “Paris of the Plains”; geographic center of the U.S. The city successfully combines American traditions with extreme modernity.

A LEADER Chauffeur Services driver picked me up from the airport, and took me to Hotel Sorella, located on the Missouri side of KC in Country Club Plaza, an upscale shopping and dining hotspot. The Plaza was developed in 1922, based on the architecture of Seville, including Spanish-style buildings and grand fountains. Sorella impresses with old-fashioned hospitality and understated contemporary luxury.
I got a first dose of “extreme” when trying the goods at Original Juan Specialty Foods; the Midwest’s largest bottling company, on the Kansas side. Original Juan has been creating sauces, salsas, rubs, snacks and dips for wholesale, retail, and private label customers since 1997. The factory I toured churns out 1,300 products covering 13 sub-brands, and supplies many of KC’s top establishments.

The company’s accolades include several Sofi Awards, one of the highest honors in the specialty food industry. Their hottest sauce – and the hottest sauce known – The Source, measured at 7.1 million Scoville Units. The sampling session started a few steps lower, at Pain 100%, made from habanero pepper. The tiny portion had a kick that subsided 10 minutes later. Being a novice, I only felt heat; a chile pepper enthusiast would appreciate complex flavors.

Next was Da’ Bomb Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce, containing the world’s hottest pepper. Taking a hit off a toothpick tip, my throat burned up, and I threw in the towel. Two steps above that was The Source, which I imagine makes the others seem tame – especially because one has to sign a waiver before trying or buying it.

A cool-down at Glace Artisan Ice Cream followed, a shop developed by KC-based chef and chocolatier Christopher Elbow. I had a combo of the unique Farmer Bob’s Sweet Corn and Elbow Dark Chocolate. The Sweet Corn flavor’s taste mimicked a smashed ear of corn, and blended well with the dense chocolate.
I got back the comfy feeling at Hotel Sorella’s restaurant, Rosso, which puts an adventurously modern take on Italian fare. My appetizer of pig ear salad and bricks of polenta fries next to grilled octopus displayed Rosso’s philosophy well.

The next day, I visited the Quixotic School of Performing Arts, the practice space of the Quixotic group of aerial acrobats and contortionists. The troupe performs across the country and at KC’s Fringe Festival, using projection mapping, costumes and stage design to enhance the show. The School hosts various workshops for kids and adults, and I got to test my limits too. Warm up stretches guided by aerial artist Liv had me bending every possible way. I then observed silk rope climbing, plus a few hanging stunts. Liv also snuck me into a dressing room where the aesthetic detail used in each show was evidenced by the variety of masks and made in-house costumes.
Next, I crossed the street to a venue where Quixotic performed on its opening day, The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Opened in September 2011, the Kauffman sprung from the imagination of architect Moshe Safdie when he drew a concept of it on a napkin while dining at the nearby American restaurant. Safdie envisioned a home for all types of performing arts, and the Center now hosts KC’s top ensembles. A metal shell frames either side of a multi-floor, glass-enclosed lobby and reception area. The glass is held up by tension rods. On a building tour, venue representative Larry Jacob said, “Safdie saw musicality in everything he built here – the shells are like a kettle of a drum and rods are like strings of a violin.”

Two theaters sit at Kaufmann. Helzberg Hall is tuned for musicians, and the stage extends into one-third of the auditorium, allowing many attendees to get a view near the artist. The Muriel Kauffman Theater, based on European opera houses, accommodates KC’s opera and a ballet company, musicals, plays, and dance groups. Past talents include Placido Domingo, Willie Nelson, and Green Day’s “American Idiot” musical – a diverse mix that shows Kauffman Center’s flexibility. I was also got up close with Helzberg’s 5,548-pipe Casavant Organ, custom built for the Hall and able to produce 102 different sounds at 61 notes per sound. Billions of sound combos are possible, and walking through the organ’s workings shows how the smallest and largest parts function together.

For lunch, I stepped into Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, one of KC’s best purveyors of the city’s signature slightly sweet, tangy and spicy style. The old train freight house was an ideal setting to try the famous Crown Prime Rib; meaty, tender and charred perfectly. That, along with burnt ends, (a KC original) satisfied my craving. I also got to tour the kitchen, where the cycle of smoking and cooking in huge pits made me appreciate barbecue technique.
Extreme art was also on the agenda. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art displayed a recently-unearthed and polished 16th century Jain shrine. Four badminton birdies on the lawn, the feathers representing the area’s Native American culture, and a triangular glass labyrinth that I almost flawlessly navigated were nice surprises.

That evening, I had a prohibition-era bar experience at Manifesto Speakeasy. Coming in through a secret door in the back and walking into the dark, small space was worth having a drink at Ryan Maybee’s establishment – Imbibe Magazine’s 2013 Bartender of the Year. Dinner at Michael Smith’s Extra Virgin was a fitting second round of unique classiness. The James Beard winner twists tapas from items like duck tongue tacos and calf heart pâté. The new Power & Light district had a dearth of leisure options, but getting my KC jazz on at Green Lady Lounge seemed most appropriate.
A Kansas whirlwind capped my trip: speeding down Schlitterbahn Waterpark’s Verruckt – the world’s tallest waterslide; reaching 165 m.p.h. riding in a NASCAR at Kansas Speedway; catching a MLS soccer match at green energy-packed Sporting park, and staying at whimsically themed-room Chateau Avalon. KC: extremes await! More information at: http://www.visitkc.com.