Review: Clay & Fire makes ‘rapturous’ pizza—and great mezze, too
Built at the turn of the twentieth century, the architecture of this historic Westside structure is probably still best suited to its original purpose—a duplex. The granite steps that lead from the sidewalk to the front door are narrow and steep. A catalpa tree takes up a sizable portion of the patio, which can accommodate a handful of tables. The upstairs bathroom still holds a clawfoot tub. And on busy nights, the charmingly petite interior can feel claustrophobic.
Such complaints drove numerous former tenants (Novel, Fox & Pearl) to other spaces. But Adam Jones, who has owned this building for the last twenty years, always wanted to open his own Near Eastern restaurant there.
Jones is one of Kansas City’s longtime developers and entrepreneurs. Noori, his wife, is Iranian, and Jones has traveled extensively through the region. He owns property throughout Kansas City—many of them historically significant buildings that he’s resurrected—and several businesses, including an organic farm that provides the bulk of the produce at Clay and Fire. With his unruly beard and dusty T-shirt and jeans, he mostly looks the part of a farmer: On a Saturday evening dinner, he ambled around the garden-cum-patio, beer in one hand, watering can in the other.
Clay and Fire is the restaurant Jones envisioned, but it didn’t roll out in quite the way he anticipated. Jones had tapped Turkish restaurateur Orcan Yigit to lead the kitchen, but the pandemic threw plans off course, and Yigit was stuck in Turkey. Meanwhile, Jones was building a long mangal grill and getting to know chef Brent Gunnels, who was hosting backyard pizza parties via his pop-up, Cult of Pi. They started talking.
“It was synchronicity,” Gunnels says. “Near Eastern cuisine was a direction I was going in—I just didn’t realize I was going there.”
Kansas City, with all its barbecue legacy, has recently seen an uptick in restaurants with menus built around a wood-fired hearth, notably The Town Company and Fox and Pearl. There is something to this: Live-fire cooking is the oldest form of food preparation. It is instinctual—primal—and inherently comforting. Naturally, perhaps subconsciously, we are drawn to what we know.
And Gunnels knows fire. Before opening Neapolitan pizzeria Il Lazzarone in River Market in 2015, Gunnels traveled through Europe, where he camped in Copenhagen and cooked on a Schwenker in southwest Germany. Clay and Fire opened in August 2020, and while the menu is part collaboration with Jones, it’s also deeply personal for Gunnels.
There are two pizzas on the menu at Clay and Fire. One features salty Persian piknik cheese and basturma (a spiced Armenian version of bacon) and the other—the Grandma Pizza, whose mozzarella base is topped with chunky tomato sauce and basil—is Gunnels’ ode to the NYC pizzeria he worked at a decade ago. It’s a rapturous combination of bubbly cheese and fresh tomato on a perfectly singed, chewy crust.
But before you get there, you should order some mezze. If you are with a group, get “the whole shebang”—an order that will overwhelm your table with a barrage of small snack plates and homemade flatbread (spongey, spotted, good with everything). I could taste the char in the garlicky baba ganoush—Gunnels roasts the eggplants on coals until they turn black—and I loved the peppery pop of the guajillo hummus. Snow-white Bulgarian yogurt could be mistaken for luxury face cream (only in texture, not in taste—it’s all tang). And if you spot butter-poached radishes on the menu, order doubles: Gunnels slowly ladles hot butter over skinned radishes until they are just cooked through, sublimely textured and as precious as the pearls they resemble. Of course, there is kebab. Noori gave Gunnels a hands-on tutorial on the legacy of kebab, and her instruction paid off. In homage to Turkey’s Aleppo region, Gunnels rolls minced lamb and beef into happy meatballs seasoned with tomato, cumin, mint and—if you opt for the spicy version (you should)—a blend of half a dozen chili peppers from Gunnels’ garden.
Entrees are meant to be large-format dishes. They succeed—except for the duck, which is too delicious to share. This combination of duck breast is so achingly tender it will make your knees weak, swathed in crispy peppered skin and sliced into bites so pretty you will want to pick them up gently between two fingers. (You will need utensils, though, to enjoy that duck with a mouthful of charred cabbage, understated burnt orange yogurt and tart maple-smoked pickled strawberries.) You’ll want to settle down with the wood-fired chicken brined with a symphony of imported spices—Aleppo pepper, allspice and star anise—and finished with a bright Armenian-style barbecue sauce made from just-ripened tomatoes and red pepper. Your server will give you a sturdy knife to carve this bird, but you’re better off following your baser instincts by ripping the juicy flesh right off the bones and dragging it through a valley of velvety hummus. And the smoked short rib—outrageously delicate beef nested in a bowl of blue corn polenta with tomato sauce, mushrooms and flame-licked walnuts—is one of Gunnels’ most dynamic plates.
On second thought, the house at 815 W. 17th St. could never have been anything but a restaurant. This one, specifically. The cloistered tables lead to connections—something we spent fifteen months longing for—and the clawfoot tub now hosts a school of goldfish. On the courtyard, resilient blades of grass creep up between bricks, and a string of lights runs through the catalpa branches. It is the perfect setting in which to linger over a bottle Romanian wine and debate who has earned the last bite of cardamom and rose cheesecake.