Dining With Denise Neil

Ad Astra Food and Drink: Big Flint Hills treasure in small Flint Hills town (VIDEO)

Ad Astra in Strong City has become a destination dining spot for both Kansas City and Wichita foodies.
Ad Astra in Strong City has become a destination dining spot for both Kansas City and Wichita foodies. The Wichita Eagle

Those who say that Kansas is flat and scenery-free likely haven’t driven to the Flint Hills to take in the Tallgrass prairie in all of its springtime glory.

The flint and the limestone. The budding wildflowers and glowing range fires. The antique ranches and abandoned one-room schoolhouses. The wind and sunsets and utter un-flatness.

This is where Amanda Hague spent her early years living on her family’s Sauble Ranch outside Cedar Point, now one of the oldest family-owned ranches in Kansas. And it’s where she now owns one of the area’s most successful businesses: a restaurant open only on the weekends that people regularly drive two hours from Kansas City and an hour-and-a-half from Wichita to enjoy.

Ad Astra Food and Drink opened in April three years ago on the main drag in downtown Strong City, population 466. The city sits just a half a mile north of Cottonwood Falls, the Chase County seat known for its historic limestone courthouse.

Fueled by foodie word-of-mouth and a few high-profile mentions in the national media a couple of years ago, Ad Astra – named for the state motto “ad astra per aspera,” to the stars through difficulties – has become a destination restaurant where you likely won’t get a seat if you don’t have a reservation.

“Part of it is probably my low self-esteem, but it boggles my mind that people would come down from Kansas City and Lawrence to eat here,” said Hague with a laugh. “There are so many good restaurants there. That’s where we go to eat.”

Hague, a self-taught cook trained in the kitchens of her grandmother and mother, finished high school in Newton and opened the restaurant Eat Your Vegetables in Newton when she was 20 years old. After she and her husband, Ben Hayes, had their first child in 2000, they got too busy to run the restaurant and sold it. Today, the space is occupied by Reba’s Restaurant & Bar.

In 2001, rattled by the events of Sept. 11, the couple decided to return to the Flint Hills to try to make a more self-sufficient life. They lived in a house just outside the family ranch property, and Hague worked for several agritourism outfits, including the Flying W Ranch in Cedar Point. She learned the patterns of Flint Hills tourists and deduced what they were missing. She planned to open a restaurant as soon as the right space became available.

Hague and Hayes agreed they’d open only on the weekends. Not only was Hague committed to home schooling her children, who are now 13 and 15, but her time in the agritourism business taught her that she wouldn’t have much weekday business even if she was open.

The couple, who now live in nearby Matfield Green, loved the space in Strong City, about a 20-minute drive from home. It’s long and narrow with wooden floors, an attractive bar and big front windows that let light pour in. They opened what Hague now laughingly refers to as “a glorified hamburger joint,” the glory coming from the fresh, local ingredients that make up the dishes on her menu.

The menu is an eclectic mix of American favorites made with a gourmet twist. Regulars rave about the bison burger and the rib eye, a top cut of Creekstone Farms beef served with horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes. The fried Brussels sprouts, turned crispy and palatable even to non-Brussels sprouts lovers, with some help from the deep fryer and a trip through some garlic-infused olive oil, are a must-have, too.

Ad Astra has crab cakes made with real crab, homemade potato chips and roasted Sriracha cauliflower bites. It has cheese pizza on the kids menu that’s better than most cheese pizzas on competitors’ adult menus. But for grownups, the restaurant offers a flat bread pizza topped with fig jam, goat cheese, grilled onions and fried shallots. The mac and cheese is served with (or without) smoked duck breast.

The menu also includes the most gorgeous salads you’ve ever eaten, including the Lulu, mixed greens topped with a warm, pistachio-crusted goat cheese round and seasonal fruit. Recently, that was blackberries so plump, the restaurant halved them before sprinkling them on the salad.

The local sources of the food’s ingredients are listed in colorful chalk on a chalkboard posted in the dining room. The restaurant also boasts a list of craft beers, wine and specialty cocktails.

Back in 2013, New York Times writer Seth Kugel was on a cross-country journey when he stopped in for dinner and mentioned Ad Astra in his piece. The next month, Ad Astra caught the attention of Saveur magazine, who listed the restaurant as one of the best places to eat in Kansas. A glowing writeup in the Kansas City Star that year also earned Hague a big following from that area, too.

Hague has a local following as well, she said, and gets big crowds from Emporia and El Dorado. More and more Wichita visitors also have begun making the trek to the restaurant, enjoying the scenery and checking out landmarks like Z-Bar Ranch and the one-room Lower Fox Creek School house along the way.

The restaurant just gets busier all the time, Hague said. In February, a notoriously slow month for restaurants, Ad Astra broke sales records. People who stop by on a Friday or Saturday night without reservations can rarely get a table, which makes Hague feel bad, especially if they’ve driven a long way.

“It’s become a destination place, which is great,” Hague said. “I don’t know if we would be as busy as we are if we were open in a big city.”

If You Go

Ad Astra Food and Drink

Where: 318 Cottonwood St., Strong City, 620-273-8440

Type of food: “New American”

Price range: Sandwiches and burgers are $9.99 to $14.99. Salads are $7.99 to $15.99. Entrees are $7.99 to $16.99.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. The kitchen closes at 9 nightly. NOTE: Ad Astra will close at 4 p.m. this Sunday in observation of Easter.

Information: www.adastrafood-drink.com