Hot in the Heartland
Chef Howard Hanna combines global influences with regional ingredients at
The Rieger to re-invent Kansas City, Mo.’s culinary scene.
By Stef Schwalb
When you think of Kansas City, Mo., cuisine, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s a pretty safe bet most people would say barbecue, but Chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger has been leading the charge to change that perception.
While the goodness of grilled meats cannot be denied, this Midwest destination – and Chef Hanna’s restaurant in particular – offers much more. The wealth of gourmet history and an abundance of amazing local food sources are making their mark as signature dishes and memorable meals in the city’s vibrant downtown.
Opening its doors in 2010, The Rieger is operated by co-partners Chef Hanna and Ryan Maybee, co-founder of J. Rieger & Co., the iconic and historic spirts brand. Chef Hanna, who was born in the Midwest, graduated first in his class at The Culinary Institute of America and followed up that achievement working with Larry Fiogione and Danny Meyer in New York City. He also spent some time traveling through California, France and Italy, holding positions at numerous world-acclaimed restaurants.
Chef Hanna then returned home to Kansas City bringing knowledge, global influences and world-class techniques with him. Chef Hanna’s philosophy for The Rieger is simple: He believes the best ingredients and the dishes they inspire are grown in the heartland – the places closest to forests, trees, and farmland.
Driven by the motto, “Beautiful Food for the People,” the restaurant is centrally located within Kansas City and showcases the region’s bounty with pride. Offering food and beverage lovers “traditional heartland hospitality with classic dishes and handcrafted cocktails,” The Rieger’s menu changes on a quarterly basis to feature a variety of regional seasonal ingredients.
The building, which houses the speakeasy-style bar Manifesto (also owned by Maybee), opened originally in 1915 as a hotel. Throughout Kansas City’s early years, it was home to numerous travelers, railroad workers and salesmen. Most of the original décor has remained intact. By adding a lasting, fine-dining landmark, The Rieger helps honor the neighborhood’s history.
On the Menu
Many of the dishes served at the restaurant feature some interesting backstories. Take for example the celebrated Rieger Pork Soup – a favorite of both locals and visitors alike. “I created the base of this soup for a pork-centric competition called Cochan 555. I wanted to do a simple but delicious pork soup by making an amazing pork stock, reducing it down a bit and enriching it with some trotters,” Chef Hanna explains. “For another dish, I made some pork confit and I had several heads of garlic left over. I decided to puree them in my pork broth and call it ‘pork and garlic soup.’ Then I garnished it with nettle pesto.”
With French soup in mind, he decided to add shredded-up pork confit to mimic the traditional onions and then float a crispy pork skin on top instead of croutons to hold up the oozy, melted Gruyere. “Thus, The Rieger Pork Soup was born,” Chef Hanna enthuses. “While this is an extremely rich and hearty dish, I finish it with Angostura bitters and sherry vinegar to balance it out and cut the fat. It’s become a signature dish, and it is the only item that has been on the menu since we opened.”
The team at The Rieger also has prepared a lot of dishes with bison in the last year, working with local/regional purveyors such as KC Buffalo in Belton, Mo., and Chef Hanna is thrilled with how well it’s been received. “We’ve really done several bison preparations, but I’ve recently been thinking about how to show it off as simply as possible to let guests know what it really is,” he adds. “The concept is about putting the bison back on the prairie to truly taste and understand it better.”
Since bison has always been synonymous with life on the Great Plains, it has played an integral part of Heartland cuisine. For Chef Hanna, coming up with his own unique take on it – currently Bison Tartare – has been an ongoing process. “This dish has been on my mind for a couple of months. You know the story: A young, passionate cook studies, travels and learns, battles his demons, wins some successes, survives some heartbreak and comes back home searching to find his style,” he reveals. “He is then awestruck with the beauty of the places where he was raised, which he is now able to see with new eyes, and creates a dish that simply but beautifully expresses that terroir.”
Speaking of the region’s beauty, catfish was served as early as 1921 in the original Rieger Hotel and is a food of historic importance in the Midwest. The Kansas City region has numerous streams and rivers.
For his housemade Tonnarelli Pasta, KC Shrimp and Spring Vegetables, Chef Hanna sources local from KC Shrimp (a Pacific variety), sustainably farmed-raised fish from the Green Valley. It’s also featured in his Whole Fresh Catfish preparation, which is breaded and fried in a light, homemade cornmeal-tempura that harkens back to the restaurant’s origins.
Additionally, Chef Hanna sources classic rainbow trout, another staple of the area, from Troutdale Farm in Gravois Mills, Mo., for his Smoked Trout Toast. This dish is an enticing option at The Rieger, as well as Ça Va, the champagne bar Chef Hanna co-owns, located in Kansas City’s historic Westport district.
It would be remiss not mention some of the delectable vegetable dishes Chef Hanna has on the menu, including The Rieger’s Coal Roasted Beet Salad, which features locally-grown golden, Chioggia, and Detroit red beets cooked through and charred to intensify their flavor and add a little smoke. It includes homemade dukkah (an Egyptian snack food) created from Missouri Northern pecans and Kansas sunflowers seeds.
Although most charcuterie boards are all about meat, at The Rieger, the Vegetable Terrine has layers of vegetables, such as melted leeks, raw turnips, carrots, shaved red onions, poached wild garlic and more, held together with vegetable stock. It’s chilled, then unmolded, and cut into slices. The Chilled Pea Soup, which is topped with a mousse made from Green Dirt Farm fresh cheese of Weston, Mo., is another sumptuous standout that makes the ideal start to any meal.
A born and bred New Yorker, Stef Schwalb’s love of everything culinary knows no bounds. She has written about food and beverages for several years, covering everything from how to make goat cheese to pairing oysters and Chablis. Schwalb is the senior content manager at Gregory White PR where she writes about enticing food and wine experiences at restaurants, bars & lounges, wineries and wine regions across the globe.