I am so sick of this winter that it warms me up just to think about this. It's time for the annual vertical Norton tasting at Stone Hill in Hermann.
Uncommon pair-ups are not so uncommon now - i.e., the Thai-Japanese menus and the Korean-burger mashup that's thriving out in Creve Coeur - but here's a new one. Spare No Rib is taking no prisoners on Gravois Avenue in south St. Louis. Barbecued ribs and tacos? Oh, why not?
Actually, the menu is a little wider than that, but not much. A couple of salads, some sandwiches, a decent beer list and hand-made (I'm sorry, but "hand-crafted" sounds like they're using a loom or a lathe) cocktails. Guacamole, of course, and good stuff it is, chunky and fresh, served at a temp that makes me think it was made to order. A little hit of heat, but mostly avocado, onion, a little tomato, some cumin and fresh chips. Those excellent chips, thin, warm and salted, also come with the two house salsas. And salsas they are, rather than the fresh, choppped vegetables of a pico de gallo. The yellow-beige one is roasted yellow peppers, deeply vegetal, a dish to offer to anyone who thinks there's no distinctive flavor to a ripe yellow pepper, and almost creamy in the mouth. The one that's addictive, however, is made of smoked tomatoes and other vegetables. The smokiness definitely isn't out of a chipotle can, as one bite will prove.This is like eating barbecue, utterly addictive and making it devilishly hard not to fill up on it and the chips. Yes, a moderate amount of heat with it.
These are a step up, maybe two, from the Cherokee Street tacos. Nothing wrong with most of those guys, of course, but expect something different. For example, cachete, which is beef cheek. Think of two soft corn tacos with the tender meat much like a short rib, but richer - that's cachete at SNR. Very beefy in flavor, and with a sploosh of that yellow pepper salsa. Carnitas, the nuggets of pork were tender, too, nicely un-greasy and, as with the cachete, generously served and a nicely biting red sauce atop. Of the three I tried, the fish taco came in third - mild, lightly breaded and fried, but I was hoping for the crunchy cabbage of the Baja style and these wore chopped peppers and a green, very mild sauce. For St. Louis, which frequently wants fish that doesn't taste like fish, they'd work well. Me, I prefer a little more character to it.
Dry-rubbed ribs come with three sauces, a citrus-y sweet one, a spicy one that also has some sugary notes, and a brown mustard that rings bells when paired with the pork. The ribs themselves are toothsome, not tough but not that falling-off-the-bone that many folks think is perfection but always makes me wonder if they've been steamed. The standard for barbecue in this town has been raised a lot in the last five years or so, but these will hold their own.
Sometimes, though, a hamburger is just what the mouth craves. The house burger arrives with cheese, tomato (a slice of nice red Roma) and lettuce. How rare? they asked. How thick? replied I. About an inch or maybe a little less was the finger-thumb measure. Medium-rare, please. Mixed results, technically: The very faintest trace of pink here and there - but astoundingly moist, and it certainly wasn't the tomato, because Romas are notoriously unjuicy. Proprietor Lassaad Jeliti says the beef is about 90% lean, and it was wonderfully flavorful, but the trick in keeping it moist was impressive. And frankly, I'm more concerned about how it tastes than what color the interior is. And a dab of that smoky salsa on one bitewas a nice experiment .
Not much rummaging around with the sides for me. The beans here are Great Northerns that are baked and turn out intriguingly different and yet quite recognizable. Another example of a flavor one never thinks about until its surroundings are changed some, but a dish worth seeking out. Fries are fresh, long strips of baking potatoes tossed with a light hit of coarse salt, looking almost like long strips of pretzel where the dark skin and the salt meet.
Hard to pass up the caipirinha on the blackboard menu of drinks, but I don't navigate Gravois other than fully alert.
Spare No Rib
2200 Gravois Ave.
Lunch and Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Tacos, etc.: $3-$13
Right from the start, let's be clear: I am of the generation "Jersey Boys" is aimed at. KXOK poured out the music from all those male quartets, and at the time, it was hard to differentiate between the Four Seasons, the group whose story the musical is based on, and many others. Falsetto singers weren't hard to come by - but Frankie Valli, the Four Seasons' lead and eventual solo artist, came to be preeminent.
This was the background music to many lives. And coming to St. Louis as it does just a couple of weeks after the excellent Beatles tribute on CBS, "Jersey Boys" shows another part of that pivotal point in American music, one the old style and another the new. Each influenced the other, no question about it, but it's pleasant to ruminate upon.
Happily, "Jersey Boys" is way more than just an arbitrary story made by patching together the lyrics of [INSERT NAME OF ANY GROUP HERE], unlike some other shows. None of the guys involved would have considered themselves artists in the proper sense of the word when they began, but artistic temperaments seemed to have existed, and when that's crossed with young (and less young) male testosterone and Italian neighborhood loyalties out of their childhoods, it's naive not to expect waters being roiled. (It's also naive not to expect language to match, and signs taped to the Fox's front doors warn about that.) A couple of stereotypes - a gay producer, a mobster or two - but basically an interesting story, although it's condensed and apparently eliminates a number of personnel over the years.
The voices sound great, and remind us how much fun this music must have been to sing, at least the first hundred times or so. Hayden Milanes, playing Frankie Valli, nails the falsetto parts without breaking a sweat. (Matinees and February 27, the part will be played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett.) Bob Gaudio, who not only sang with the group but wrote many of the hits, and who had preceeded joining them by writing the novelty song "Who Wears Short Shorts?" at age 15, is Quinn Vanantwerp, another particularly watchable performance. And speaking of the music, pay attention to how the music evolves, both in terms of harmony and setting, going from simple to elaborate.
Offstage, credit has to go to Marshall Brickman, whose first Broadway book this is - but a guy whose credits include writing or co-writing lots of movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan and being head writer for Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. Also kudos to director Des MacAnuff and the La Jolla Playhouse, a fabulous regional theater who originally developed this show. Hard to imagine the neighborhoods of La Jolla and Jersey coming together in such a felicitous manner.
Lots of folks having a great time. Better for depression than Elavil.
through March 2
Rumors of spring are rumbling around and with that in mind, maybe it's time to be thinking about a road trip. The commercials for Anheuser Busch on the Super Bowl reminded me that a good, and very interesting, time is to be had at their Clydesdale breeding farm.
Known as Warm Springs Ranch, it's about 15 miles west of Columbia off I-70. Like the brewery tour, this is the real thing, not something set up specifically for tourists, although it's shiny-new, unlike our old pal on Pestalozzi Street. They film some of those commercials here, in fact.
Only a couple of miles on hard-surfaced Missouri Highway 98, and passing a farm stand (and pumpkin patch, I found, in October), Warm Springs Ranch is so much the real deal that security is noticeable. Tickets must be purchased in advance. When you arrive, the large red stable is visible from the highway, but the gate is closed and remains so until a few minutes before the time one's ticket is set for.
This is a walking tour, although the ground is level and the distance not far. You probably won't see large numbers of the herd - this is a big property and there are many fields and all have what the website terms "customized walk-in shelters". But there are indeed Clydesdales around, and an opportunity to pet them and get photos with the gentle horses. In fact, getting them used to lots of people is part of what these tours are for.
Yes, colts - we saw the one that was in the 2013 Super Bowl commercial, named Hope, and another irresistible darling only three weeks old. And two of the trailers used for the horses' road trips are there, interesting, too. Much more, as well, including discussion of breeding and veterinary care.
Of course, there's an offer of beer at the end of the tour, unless it's Sunday, when local law puts the kibosh on.
They aren't open year round, but tours begin March 22 this year and run through October. Two tours a a day every day but Wednesday. $10 a head, kids under two free, and cameras are allowed. Reserve in advance via the website.
25270 Highway 98, Boonville, MO
There's something about the long, cold winter that calls for escape - if not to a warm, sunny beach, then somewhere cozy and cosseting without the cost of that plane ticket to Phuket. It's been a time to avoid thinking about traffic jams and school closings and what footing is like on the front walk, but instead focus on something distracting, maybe a little challenging. For some people, that might be Bartok. For people like me, it can be great food, the sort that makes you think, as well as just grunt in pleasure.
And so it was off to Niche for a first visit since their move to Clayton. It's roomy, modernish without being industrial, the acoustics are good and the light is excellent without being glaring. Gerard Craft's kitchen crew works in an open area to the rear - I didn't see the maestro himself the night we were there - and the dining room is in the capable hands of Matt McGuire. (It's an open fact that Pollacks have known McGuires since back in the late Renaissance.)
The Niche style has always been forward-looking, one of the reasons Craft has attracted national attention, and so the newcomer must understand that this isn't your run-of-the-mousse food. Yes, they're serious about local ingredients. But there's technique here that intrigues, innovation that surprises and a balance of flavors that brings to mind the Thai idea of a mixture of sweet, sour, salty and hot. Not Asian seasonings, understand me. But lots of things going on at the same time. It's not quite like Paul Prudhomme's memorable phrase, "Flavors playing pinball in your mouth", it's more subtle, but it's that sort of thing.
We paid too much attention to the snack section of the menu, which meant no dessert, but it was worth it. Kicking things off were coxinha. Don't try pronouncing it. It's Portuguese, the name of a Brazilian dish that's marble-sized nuggets of cream cheese and chicken deep fried and poised in a green mayonnaise tart with sorrel. Pleasant and interesting, but easily the closest to the same old stuff we came all evening. Then came cheese bread, balls of gooeyness, moist, not at all like the Italian restaurant standby, because of the cheese incorporated into the dough, which lent its moistness. It perched on a board with some prosciutto, pickles of several sorts, all housemade, and whipped lardo. Lardo? Looks white, tastes rather like spreadable bacon. Addictive. Then there was the egg. That's all it's called on the menu: Egg. About the top third has been removed with surgical precision. Inside were layers, tender custard flavored with maple, wafer-thin slices of sauteed mushroom and a topping of caviar. I'm always delighted when something that doesn't sound so great is a pleasure, and that's what this is. The maple was definitely there but not more than a whisper of sweetness, the caviar a little salty, the mushroom more texture and a faint deep note of woodsiness.
Unbidden, some tea arrived. Tea? Proper tea cups, shallow-bowled, with a thin, glistening slice of lemon in the bottom. "There's some bacon grease in there," cheerfully announced our server, and then poured pale oak-steeped hot water. Smoky, woody, slight notes of acidity, fruit and salt - it was the liquid equivalent of holding cold hands in front of a crackling fire. It may have been the most remarkable thing of the meal. Maybe.
Chicken liver arrived as a napoleon. Using the idea that foie gras is often accompanied by something sweet, the riff begins with a light spreading of strawberry preserves on a crunchy layer that's too thin and brittle to be the brioche mentioned on the menu, continues on with the crunch of peanuts, homage to PB & J, obviously, then the rich, creamy liver mousse under another crisp layer that tastes of celery. Flying-saucer-shaped ravioli nestled in a pork broth, the filling ricotta, and a delicate, transient anise-like flavor of chervil wafting across the tongue.
Somewhere in here arrived a palate cleanser of freezer pops, a twist on sorbet, in tubes the size of an index finger and arriving in a bowl of lemons and celery. The pops themselves were, of course, flavored with lemon and celery, savory rather than sweet, the crunchy, quickly melting ice adding another element.
Smoked pork, pulled, fork-tender, redolent of hickory, rested on a bed of polenta, glistening leaves of brussels sprouts sprawling next to it, along with a handful of candied pecans and a hazelnut ice cream.
Slices of more-flavorful-than-usual beef tenderloin were paired with chunks of roasted Jerusalem artichoke, chestnut, pear slices and sunflower seed brittle. And the lamb plate featured slices of rare leg, a sort of confit of lamb shoulder, carrots cooked with cumin, a yogurt drizzle and crumbles of carrot cake.
Many of these dishes carry some sweetness with them. All have an element of surprise, the reason this is a journey into the unexpected. It's remarkable food. And the service, while lacking any element of surprise whatever, which is a very good thing, is pleasant and without a hint of condescension. And at these prices - a $95 chef's tasting menu, four courses for $65 - some might be ready for a little Attitude. And speaking of prices, things are also available a la carte, too, no more of prix-fixe as the only options.
This is, quite simply, exciting food. There's nothing ho-hum about it, and I hope it attracts folks who pay attention to what's on their plates and in their mouth.
7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
If you've got an ear for crisp dialogue, especially that which has a not-infrequently bitchy edge, you'll need to trot down to Stray Dog Theatre's "The Little Dog Laughed". It's certainly an adults-only show, with nudity and a theme of coming to terms with same-sex attraction. Interesting, isn't it, how the mercenary sub-plot alone wouldn't make it unsuitable for kids?
A rising young film actor - one cannot call him a star yet, even by today's loosey-goosey standards - is visiting New York with his agent, a shark in pumps. He calls, as is his habit, an escort service for a visit from a young "nephew". Hilarity ensues, sort of, but hypocrisy makes headlines.
The fact that this Tony-award winning comedy manages to rise above a stereotype or two and remain funny a decade after it was written, despite the progress in American society about human rights, is a tribute to that dialogue. Sarajane Alverson, the agent with a sense of morality that would leave, oh, Anthony Weiner stunned, tries hard to run the life as well as the career of Bradley J. Behrmann's Mitchell, the emerging heartthrob. Mitchell seems pretty far in the closet, and that's the way Diane, the agent, who's a lesbian herself, wants to keep it. But when the cute young thing arrives at the hotel room, there's a spark from both the guys. This despite the fact that the lad, Paul Cereghino, has a sort-of semi-ex-girlfriend, Paige Hackworth, a refugee from her affluent family in Westchester County.
Alverson has a fine sense of timing with her cracking wise, and occasionally reveals the wisps of humanity Diane lets slip. Behrmann doesn't leave us with much sense of how good an actor the character is, but does very well with showing his deep conflict over his identity. Cereghino shows us a guy at loose ends, planning tomorrow but not next week or the rest of his life, and Hackworth gets good laughs with her monologue about her mother and a scene with the invisible landlord. The two-story rather geometrical set by Rob Lippert works well, and helps with several monologues.
"The Little Dog Laughs" certainly asks serious questions about private lives becoming public. Perhaps we can laugh a little more freely now that some of those questions are getting answered. Not a serious night, to be sure, but quite a funny one.
The Little Dog Laughed
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
2336 Tennessee Ave.
Thurs.-Sat. through Feb 22
Last weekend, when "Forget Me Not" opened at the Upstream Theater, it had just been announced that Missouri senator Claire McCaskill proposed introducing a resolution to urge Ireland to open the records for adoptees in that country. Presumably given impetus by the movie "Philomena" which is based on an Irish woman's search for her relinquished child, such a resolution would, of course, have no legal effect on the laws of another sovereign nation.
It was sheer coincidence that "Forget Me Not" is about an Australian man who was taken from his mother, in this case in England, and shipped off to Australia. And not to a welcoming home but to a large farm with barracks for the kids who were brought in en masse to labor. Now a man in late middle age, Jerry Vogel's Gerry Connor is a volatile, frequently angry alcoholic who lives with his grown daughter, Sally, who's played by Maggie Conroy. She's found an agency that might reconnect him with whatever birth family remains. To say he resists the patient conversations of Terry Meddows' social worker is to understate things.
And his mother is not dead, despite what he thinks he was told. Mum is Donna Weinsting. That completes the cast, and if you have any doubt about the depth of the local pool of actors, come see this show. Vogel's talent has been growing ever since I first saw him more than a decade ago. Terry Meddows, a superb chameleon, is always hard to take one's eyes off of. Donna Weinsting's comedic talents are so good that it's always a pleasant shock to see her grab a serious role like this and absolutely own it. And Maggie Conroy more than holds her own in this crowd - you can almost see her arms shake as she resists the urge to have at her argumentative, foul-mouthed father.
I should reveal some personal perspective here: I was adopted as an infant. I've known many adoptees, including one who was one of the Irish babies. I also worked at a home for unwed mothers, as the phrase went back then. I am not convinced the play is more powerful for us than for other folks, though - one of the great gifts of theater is that it has folks walking a mile in someone else's shoes.
Part of that here is the unspoken message about how our views of extramarital pregnancy have changed in the last sixty years or so. I wondered if the young in the audience understood why children were taken from their mothers or why young women were whisked off to "boarding school" or "her aunt in Birmingham" or even more dangerous consequences, whether by purple-faced parents or their own sense of shame.
Playwright Tom Holloway doesn't do any direct finger-pointing, but it would be superfluous. This pain multiplied literally thousands of time is quite sufficient - although the program note with a quote from a bishop clearly indicating the desire to continue the white supremacy in the nation is, alas, deeply relevant as to motive.
A remarkable ensemble working together seamlessly, a strong script - it's a good evening of theater. And Senator McCaskill? Could you please put your weight behind legislation in the state of Missouri to open the tighter-than-nearly-any-other-state regulations here?
Forget Me Not
The Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Ave.
through Feb. 16
It's totally by accident that this series of posts have turned things into Carbohydrate Parade. But some things are, as I've said, too good not to share. If you're a serious baker, or want to be, here's something to make sure you attend. Simone Faure of la Patisserie Chouquette is beginning to give classes on how to recreate the glorious jewels she creates. And she's branching out, too - note the discussion on getting kids in the kitchen, too.
I strongly suspect these aren't the sort of classes where it's an excuse to start gabbling with one's buddies while the teacher is speaking, one of my pet peeves. Go. Concentrate. Enjoy the coffee bar. But save the gossip for afterwards.
Not every dessert need to be elaborate. I grew up in a world where my mother, of the Rosie-the-Riveter generation, and her friends, all teachers, valued things like a one-bowl cake and the much-vaunted wacky cake. Pies and layer cakes were for special occasions or left to grandmothers who didn't work five days a week. These days, there's more expectation of A Production when it comes to dessert - but that's just another reason to admire Nigella Lawson who somewhere in one of her books has a photo of a platter of brownies piled in a mound, showered with powdered sugar and studded with long, slender candles for a different take on a birthday cake.
This cake isn't quite that dramatic, but it could be. It's a little more work than a pan of brownies, but not much. I found it on Food 52, one of my favorite food-obsessed websites, where it's very popular. Named for an Italian woman from Chianti who showed a reader how to make it, it's a simple one-layer cake that needs nothing, although a drift of powdered sugar or some fruit alongside are lily-gilding possibilities. It's moist, interestingly flavored and textured, and quite craveable. Not terribly sweet, it's a good breakfast cake, too.
The recipe calls for a 9- or 10- inch springform pan. Don't use a 9-inch layer cake pan for this - it almost certainly won't be deep enough if you use all the batter. I used a 10-inch springform, which was fine. Next time, I will line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper so I can slide the cake onto a covered cake plate. The recipe calls for one apple - I used part of a Granny Smith and part of a Fuji because that's what I had on hand. You can grate them in the processor using light pressure or on a box grater's largest holes. If you worry about them browning, and I did, stir them into the ricotta - and by the way, supermarket ricotta worked fine here. If you do that, it's easiest to toss the grated lemon zest into that as well. I also whisked together the dry ingredients, even though the recipe didn't call for it, just because that's my habit.
The recipe originally called for 25 to 30 minutes of baking. Like a great many of the readers who wrote in, mine took longer even though the 10-inch pan makes for a shallower cake, which theoretically should bake faster than a 9-inch pan's contents. I went 38 minutes and it perhaps could have gone a little longer. To my eye, it looks like a cheesecake, that same golden-ness and shape. But it's its own beast and a lovely one at that.
9 Tbs. unsalted butter (1 stick plus 1 Tbs.) , room temperature
1 c. plus 2 Tbs. sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/4 c. flour
1 Tbs baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 c. ricotta cheese
zest of 1 lemon
1 apple, peeled and grated to give about 1 cup
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 or 10-inch springform pan. Optional: Line the base of the pan with parchment or waxed paper. Put the flour, salt and baking powder in a medium bowl and whisk to mix. In another bowl, stir together the ricotta, apple and lemon zest.
Cream the butter and sugar in a standing mixer until light and fluffy. Drop the beater speed to the lowest possible and add the eggs, one at a time. Scrape the bowl as needed throughout this. Add a third of the flour mixture (you can be casual about this and eyeball it). When it's fairly thoroughly mixed in, add half the ricotta mixture. Add another third of the flour, mix in, add the rest of the ricotta, and then the last of the flour.
Scrape into the prepared pan, smooth the top (moistened fingers may be the preferred tool for this) and bake for 35-40 minutes. The cake should be golden and the sides pulling away from the pan.
Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes , loosen the sides with a knife and remove the sides. Leave on the bottom if you want to keep it that way, or slide onto the rack if you've used the wax paper, or even invert it, although I think that top's too handsome to have wire marks on.
Serves 6, but as usual, who knows?