Do you know Lucky Peach? It’s a quarterly food magazine, but not the here’s-a-new/obscure/folksy-restaurant-and-some-interesting-recipes-you-probably-won’t-even-try sort of thing. The focus is on writing about food. There are few recipes, modern (but mostly readable) graphics, and some interesting bylines.
The fall 2016 issues focuses on the concept of fine dining, and it includes things like Anthony Bourdain’s full-page introduction to an excerpt from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London wherein he writes about being a dishwasher in a 5-star Paris hotel’s kitchen. As part of a long discussion with a group of 5-star-type chefs, David Kinch from California’s Manresa restaurant said,
There was a whole meme ten or fifteen years ago about, Food doesn’t need to be delicious, it just needs to be thought-provoking. I completely reject that. Food has to taste good. It can still be thought-provoking.
When I read that, I’d just eaten for a second time at Local Chef Kitchen, the venture from Roy Uyemura. He’s known for having run the kitchen at Yia Yia’s for a good while and then taking over Eau Bistro and kicking it into high gear. Now, like a number of chefs, he’s decided to go out on his own and opened a storefront in Ballwin. He still does some catering – lunches for a local Montessori school, for instance – but he’s focused on developing relationships with local farmers and other producers.
This is a deeply casual venue, with customers ordering and paying at the counter, picking up silverware and water and having their food brought to them. Tables and refrigerated cases hold ingredients, things he uses, sold for do-it-yourself-ers. One visit, a farmer arrived, and soon Rob and his sous-chef, if I may use that formal a designation in such a relaxed setting, were marching in the front door with butchered hog halves slung over their shoulder.
And how does this tie into that fine dining discussion? I’d just had food at Local Chef Kitchen that was pretty close to stunning – again. And I was reminded that fine food doesn’t have to have a high price tag.
Open for lunch and early dinner, there are sandwiches and salads available, too, but I hit the entrees mostly. The adventure began with pork. Red Wattle heritage pork, to be precise. What arrived was, most obviously, a slice of pork loin breaded and deep-fried. It leaned at an angle on something, initially undefinited, and that sat on a small handful of microgreens. Atop the pork were a few pieces of what looked to be pulled pork. The pork loin was, essentially, a schnitzel, the breading dry and crisp, the pork mild and tender. But underneath? Ah, underneath, was scrapple.
Scrapple? Most St. Louisans don’t know scrapple. It’s common in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and often seen on breakfast menus. It’s pork, traditionally made from bits and pieces from various parts of the hog that couldn’t be used other ways. That often includes organ meats, but it definitively is not liver loaf. The ground meat is mixed with seasonings and a binder and baked in a loaf pan. When it’s done, it’s refrigerated and slices are fried up til crisp before serving. Properly done – and this certainly was – it’s crunchy on the outside and moist, almost creamy but with some texture remaining on the inside. This version was wondrous, some sage, just a little hit of red pepper, all waltzing on the tongue. The greens underneath it had been quickly and lightly dressed in a little vinaigrette, so they gave new textures and a little acidity to things. What I’d thought was pulled pork turned out to be marinated wild mushrooms, a bonus touch that sent things over the edge into delight.
All these plates come with either two or three sides, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Another entree on offer – and these change frequently, given the seasons of the Midwest – was chicken and andouille etouffe. The andouille was a light presence, more for flavoring than anything else. What about the chicken? It was a thigh, bone-in, of course, and half a large wing, the flat and the tip. The tomato-sweet pepper melange that the meat wore was too good to pass up any of, so I picked up the wing with my fingers to attack properly, and discovered that this was Real Chicken. If you’ve only had mass-produced bird, this would have been shocking. Deeply chickenish in its flavor, the best I’ve had in probably decades, it was large and showed clear evidence this fowl had had a life before it met its maker. Not tough, but certainly chewier than the common stuff, it was way worth the effort for the flavor. Instead of serving it over rice, Uyemura sits it on top of stuffing, a fine idea to make things even more complex.
He’s clearly a believer in comfy beds for his protein – slices of grilled salmon arrived on a sweet potato cake with a little chipotle thrown in for fun. Each plate has a half-slice of good homemade bread along with the sides, and it’s used for sandwiches, too. Slices of the last of this year’s crop of heirloom tomatoes began a sandwich that also sported bacon confit, soft here, crisped-up there, and tomato jam that tasted like what being in a tomato patch on a warm summer afternoon smells like, so essential was its flavor.
Sides, too, vary, but some seem to be there most of the time. Right now, the creamy macaroni and cheese is paired up with butternut squash to make it slightly sweet. It goes well with the greens cooked with more pork, their slight earthy bitterness and very slight acidity a good contrast with the mac and cheese. A cucumber-carrot salad was marinated in a vinaigrette that wasn’t sweet, with lots of pieces of pepper to up the game. Kale wore a seriously Caesarian dressing, rich with umami. (A bowl of that for lunch with a duck egg atop it, and/or perhaps some chicken? Both those options are available for sandwiches, but this kitchen is pretty flexible.) What the menu merely calls fried potatoes are baked new potatoes which are then smashed some, then seasoned and deep-fried. People who complain that french fries aren’t crunchy enough need to hie themselves hither. Not everything was perfect – some yellow beets were surprisingly bland and a soup of sweet potatoes and roasted Hatch chiles was a little too salted. But overall, the balance is way in favor of flavor.
There’s homemade ice cream in the freezer and several cakes, individually sliced, in the cooler. Cakes need to go there because of the buttercream, but it’s unfortunate. The difference in a bite of the chocolate salted caramel layer cake cold and another bite three hours later at home, when the cake had come to room temperature was dramatic. Not only does the buttercream go from waxy to creamy, but the mouthfeel of the cake itself changed considerably. Cold, it seemed almost dry. Once the fats in the cake, whether from the chocolate or the butter, came to room temperature, the layers were velvety and tender. The same happened with a lemon-raspberry layer cake. Bear that in mind, maybe take them home to eat later that evening.
A simple interior, and the food brought to your table by one of the folks that cooked it, and, unless it’s busy, a willingness to answer (lots of) questions about what’s being served.
This is a long review for a small business. But it’s extremely worthwhile, and good bang for the buck, to use Tim Zagat’s old phrase. The entrees with two sides are under $14, a third side adds another $2. They close at 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Local Chef Kitchen
15720 Manchester Rd. at New Ballwin, Ballwin
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair