In Strong City, a little foodie palace on the prairie

12/10/2013 11:03 AM

12/10/2013 11:03 AM

Tiny Strong City, Kan., population 485, is home to a couple of farm stores, a grocery, a saloon and a restaurant that’s been written up in the New York Times and Saveur.

Ad Astra is housed inside an exposed brick and limestone building on the town’s main street, and its interior is a funky blend of farm implements and retro-modern upholstery in cheery lime green.

The long, inviting bar serves up sophisticated cocktails and long list of craft beers including Kansas brews from Free State and Tallgrass.

A glance at the menu and daily specials written on a sidewalk chalkboard explain why you can’t get in on Friday or Saturday night without a reservation: smoked duck and goat cheese salad; roasted pork belly; toasted smoked turkey and cranberry brie sandwich; French onion prime rib soup; smoked trout.

If you want to be the first of your friends to try it out, you have until Dec. 22, when the restaurant will close its doors until February. Strong City is an uncomplicated 2-hour ride down Interstate 35 south to Emporia and west on Kansas 50. December is a pretty time to visit; you can take in the historic courthouse in neighboring Cottonwood Falls and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, including a grand historic limestone ranch house, 2 miles to the north.

Ad Astra is a shortened version of the Kansas state motto “Ad astra per aspera” (“to the stars through difficulty”), and indeed the restaurant’s quick rise to stardom has taken husband-and-wife chef-owners Amanda Hague and Ben Hayes by surprise.

“We didn’t expect to be doing this well at all. We kind of thought we’d get the tourists and some locals, but we weren’t expecting all the people who come from Emporia and other larger cities on a regular basis,” Hague said.

The secret to Ad Astra’s success is its clearly defined Midwestern cuisine based on products from Kansas ranches and farms. The longhorn beef comes from Peabody, bison from Madison, bread from Newton and produce from whoever knocks on the door. “We called the farmers and told them we’ll buy whatever they have in excess and build specials around that,” Hague said.

The combination of traditional foods prepared simply for bargain prices (entrees start south of $10) keeps a lively mix of patrons in tailored suits and dusty Wranglers crowding in on weekend nights.

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