I miss Erv Janko's pie, but there was more to Sadie Thompson's than that.
Interested in fare beyond bacon and eggs? I have just the place for you. I wrote about it for the St. Louis Magazine blog Dining. A good spot for a little hair of the dog then, too.
The food world seems to be catching on to how good we have it here. Schlafly's Stout and Oyster Fest has made a world best-of list. Read about it here in St. Louis Magazine's blog Dining. And the music sounds like it'll be great.
This year's there's a sort of VIP pass. To me, having all the oysters I wanted might be worth the price.
A special dish for Valentine's Day? Pink? Luxurious? Tasty? We got this.
There’s something about restaurants in Soulard that feels echt St. Louis to me. I’m sure it’s because I’ve been going to them since the Hoover Administration, but there’s a coziness that helps balance their chill and/or drafts this time of the year. The brick walls and tin ceilings, the darkness of the deeper ends of the interior, all contribute to the atmosphere, and Epic Pizza & Subs fits right into the tradition. Giant blow-ups of old Cardinals photos, drawings of Soulard buildings and an immense antique beer ad cover the walls.
They’ve got a wood-burning pizza oven that’s so well insulated that it doesn’t warm anything but the prep area, which is in plain view – we will admit it was a tad chilly on one visit. But what comes out of the oven is exceptional enough that it’s worth donning an extra sweater and perhaps a scarf on truly Arctic days, not that we’ve had many of those so far.
Two of the three starters/sides turned out to be winners. Wings are roasted in the oven, leaving them crisp, still moist, and ready for a run through their sauce. The hot variation (there’s a medium also) was just right, not incendiary, and not wetting things down so much the crispness was lessened.
Do not under any circumstances miss the garlic knots; these guys are remarkable. Nothing reheated about them, they’re cooked to order, tossed in garlic butter and then in seasonings, cheese, just a little rosemary and some salt. So addictive, they could be a Schedule III narcotic. Alas, the Caesar salad, while crisp, wore an unimpressively bland dressing, and the croutons were hard and unwilling to fraternize with the dressing.
Epic’s pizza is New York-ish, in 14” or 16” sizes, cut in large wedges. Furthermore, it’s available by the slice, the better, I daresay, to tote next door to the International Tap House, where they encourage food from outside. It’s an excellent crust, the thickness perfect, even the edges tender-chewy and flavorful. The basic margherita with its tomato sauce, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella was a reminder of just how tasty simple things can be. Very tomato-ey, with pieces of fresh tomato here and there atop the sauce, the basil dancing right along with the tomato’s slightly acid notes, and the mozzarella to add some creaminess, it was a very fine pie indeed. My pals tried a couple of the white pizze, a chicken pesto using mozzarella, parmesan and feta cheeses, white meat of chicken and the pesto not running roughshod over everything else, which that sauce is capable of doing in the wrong hands. Clearly this is a spot that understands basil. They also keep rosemary in good control, as evidenced not only by the garlic knots but by a slice of Bradley pizza. The Bradley uses Parmigiano Reggiano (the only item on the menu claiming that specific cheese), a little red onion, a dab of rosemary here and there, and the singular addition of pistachios, adding crunch as well as flavor.
The subs deserve some attention as well. They make their cheesesteak with pork as well as beef, which does good things for moisture levels, and both mozzarella and provolone cheese. The menu talks about the EPIC sauce. I couldn’t quite make out what that was, but overall, it was a first-rate take on the dish, pleasantly messy to eat. For some of us, a judicious use of the Cholula hot sauce on the tables enhances the experience even more.
Order at the counter and pleasant employees bring food to the table. Yes, beer and wine are available, especially since liquor laws don’t allow takeout orders from ITAP next door.
Epic Pizza & Subs
1711A S. 9th St.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
It’s been decades, I think, since St. Louis had a new style of Chinese cuisine, when Yen Ching brought us Hunan-style food, our first non-Cantonese experience. China, of course, is immense, and more multi-ethnic than most of us tend to realize. (I’m guilty, too.) Now we have a restaurant bringing us Dongbei-style food, something I only heard of a couple of years ago when I visited a fellow foodist in Queens, New York.
The area is in Northern China, home of cold winters, more wheat than rice, and some fermented foods like cabbage. If this sounds faintly familiar, I can tell you the food fits right into our climate. It’s not quite yeast rolls and sauerkraut, but the discerning eater can find similarities. The non-discerning will simply find good stuff to eat.
Cate Zone Chinese Cafe is small, modest in price, and tastefully decorated. It’s on the south side of the Olive Boulevard strip that’s home to many Asian businesses. The menu is fairly short for a St. Louis Chinese restaurant, and is in the process of being revised. Several things that are on it are no longer offered, including, unfortunately, the lamb ribs, a version of which I’d had in New York and swooned over. Too hard to get lamb ribs here, say the guys who own the place.
This time of year is a good excuse to go for soup, and the offerings here are hearty ones, none of your chicken-broth-with-a-few-vegetables sort of stuff. Sour cabbage with pork belly is a soup, although the menu doesn’t use that word, the sour cabbage being very traditional. This isn’t sauerkraut, but less acidic, more finely shredded, almost citrus-y to go with the robust flavor of the pork belly – which was, by the way, pretty lean for the cut of pork from which bacon is made – and chunks of potato, which are easier to grow in northern China than rice. It’s thick, and about as hearty as you’d expect from pork and cabbage. Only slightly lighter is the chicken and mushroom soup, thick with noodles and very mushroomy.
“Clear noodle with sesame sauce” is not the sesame noodles found on many Chinese menus, the small noodles with a sauce that is the color and almost the consistency of peanut butter. It’s a nicely arranged salad-ish dish where the julienned cucumber, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, a little pork and a shower of cilantro wait for the diner to pour over the sesame sauce and mix it all together. The serving is generous and the results are so good it’s hard share without begrudging one’s fellow diners. But resist that urge, there’s more. (Dongbei servings are always large; that, too, fits right in our local tradition.)
The sizzling plate in the title of tofu on sizzling plate was, indeed crackling and spitting merrily when it arrived. A brown sauce, slightly sweet and laced with ginger, was nubbly with bits of ground chicken, plus carrots, peas and green onions. The fingers of tofu had been lightly battered and quickly fried, the better to hold the sauce and give a little more texture.
That same batter, so light one wonders about rice flour, surrounds curling finger-sized piece of fish in the simply named hot crisp fish. It’s double hot, not just in serving temperature, but in spicing as well. A couple of handfuls of dried hot peppers are sliced and cooked in the oil with the fish, so that even if one doesn’t eat the peppers, some residual flesh, and thus capsaicin, which is what makes chili peppers hot, is on the breading. It’s pretty sharp, a slow-growing heat that abates some, and returns more vigorously with each succeeding piece of fish. Hot food lovers should be blissful.
Twice-cooked pork uses thin slices of nice lean pork tenderloin, also battered and deep-fried before being swathed in a fruity, acidic sauce, tasting of pineapple and more. It is, of course, a take on sweet and sour pork, but this is remarkably better, not just in its freshness and handsome appearance but in the ratio of sauce to meat and tenderness of the meat.
On our first visit, a dish topped by what appeared to be a cloud went by. “What’s that?” we asked. “Sweet potato,” explained the server. “Next time,” we promised, and so we did. Listed as honey crisp sweet potato, it would convert the most reluctant. The cloud was spun sugar, the technique of taking sugar melted to a liquid and then stretching it out. As it cools, the thread hardens. The same sugar had been used to coat chunks of sweet potato on the plate and the cloud of threads that topped it. Untidy to eat, yes, but very rewarding, perhaps even irresistible. This isn’t, by the way, some tourist bait; spun sugar has been in Chinese kitchens since the Ming Dynasty, often using the syrup to make confectionery animals for children for holidays.
It’s a small place, diners are often waiting for a table, which gives them time to admire the subway-tile décor and the New York City signs creating the black and white décor. Service is pleasant and accommodating. There’s a sort of buffet on one wall, for a do-it-yourself run with the ma la soup, something I haven’t tried yet. Ma la is spicy, so be prepared if you are interested.
I could happily work my way through the whole menu based on what I’ve tasted so far.
Cate Zone Chinese Cafe
8148 Olive Blvd., University City
Lunch and Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
The Hi-Pointe Drive-In has opened to lots of traffic. Located where Naugles of blessed memory was, on McCausland, just south of the movie theater of the same name, and run by the Sugarfire Smokehouse gang, it has been an immediate Hot Spot. No, there’s no drive-through. And there are certainly no car-hops, which is what drive-ins were really all about back in the day.
A 9 p.m. visit (and a parking place) gave me a first look. And a good sandwich. The grilled salmon banh mi turned out to be a tasty, if rather messy, choice.
The salmon is grilled to order, and layered on a bun from Fazio’s. It’s not the traditional French bread (which in Vietnam is more like the New Orleans version of French bread, crisp outside, tender inside), but that does make it a little easier to eat. The greens are lettuce and cilantro, the pickled vegetables are housemade, and radishes add crunch. Love the mango-chili mayonnaise, a little kick and occasionally a slightly bigger push of heat. It’s just hard to eat without the sandwich disassembling itself as gravity takes its immense toll. The only possible option besides using a fork is to cut it in half and use one’s hands as a wall against the ingredients. Just don’t expect the same flavor profile as one finds in the banh mi from a Vietnamese restaurant.
Bonus bite: The fries are fresh and full of potato flavor. If you’re looking for fries that are all very crisp, that’s not these, but of their kind they’re excellent.
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches, etc.: $6-$11
Olive and Oak was hopping when we arrived a few minutes early for a late dinner reservation. It’s always heartening to see a dining room, especially in the suburbs, moving and grooving at an hour when most are winding down. Staying up late to dine is far less common now than it was, say, when television was newish and its only late night alternatives were Jack Paar or the movie after the 10 o’clock news – which ran 15 minutes in those days.
So there we were, enjoying the busy room – plenty of plants but not at all resembling a fern bar of the Seventies, very pleasant. It was about the right time for a table turn.
But we ran into two problems. One wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. The other? Well, you’ll see.
We needed more than a four-top. And therein was the rub. The people at the six-top we were scheduled for weren’t moving. They were camping out at the table. They had the check. They just weren’t leaving. There was no room at the bar to usher them there; it was busy and all the high-topped tables and the counters were occupado. And there were no other seating arrangements that could be juggled at that point. The owner working the front of the house was very apologetic. The hostesses were disconsolate. Even the servers were sorry. But the group didn’t move.
We were finally seated 50 minutes after our reservation time. Very few local restaurants figure that a party will occupy a table for three hours. Some leisurely-paced white-tablecloth spots may, but even then I suspect the working figure will be two and a half hours. I hope that party tipped very well indeed.
There wasn’t anything the restaurant could have done. One certainly doesn’t expect the management to throw them out. We were assured the kitchen were preparing an appetizer for us that would be ready the moment we sat down, not at our request but as an offering from the management.
But sit we did, and I must say the appetizer and its companions, also gratis, were good. The crab gratin was remarkable, a little heat (Calabrian chile, says the menu) alongside the celery notes that remind one of Old Bay Seasoning, the creamy, thick mixture warm and dippable with the batons of pretzel bread and some celery sticks, which were also warmed. Smoked turkey meatballs, tender and not at all dry, were in an agrodulce sauce over a little creamy polenta. The house bread, sourdough with some whole wheat flour, charmed, the accompanying butter slightly sweet. The bread did yeoman work of wiping up the garlicky butter under crumbs that topped some baked shrimp.
The Dip, a lamb sandwich on a crusty roll, held slices of well-done leg of lamb, accompanied by a bowl of jus in which to dip the sandwich. The meat was tender, and the flavor fine – it would be a good introduction to lamb for those new to it. A small slice of the Spanish cheese that translates as drunken goat was under the meat. Fries alongside were pretty good, with some subtle, unidentifiable seasoning, which hit my tongue, but not one of my pal’s, as slightly sweet, creating a light crusting on the potato.
Two of us decided to order one of the two entrees-for-two, the other being the 32-ounce prime “cowboy steak”, which is a ribeye. Our choice was the Dover sole, which came with a mushroom risotto. Four boneless fillets, the fish having been deboned and skinned in the kitchen, lay atop the platter of risotto. While the fish was properly cooked and the risotto a real risotto – which is to say it wasn’t pre-cooked rice that had been stirred into a sauce, something that still happens around town occasionally, there were problems with the dish. The garnish, chopped black olives, overwhelmed the delicate taste of the fish. The risotto was oozing olive oil and some liquid. And the entire dish was barely above room temperature, even the risotto, which is a dish that, if anything, tends to hold the heat too well. (It’s why Italians traditionally eat it around the edges, to allow it cool.) The mushroom-y risotto tasted fine, but overall the dish lacked the feeling of indulgence that both Dover sole and risotto should produce in the diner.
The temperature maladjustment continued with a glass of cava, which was barely cold, although a pinot noir was nicely cellar temp. Perhaps they had been stored together.
Dessert? Whoever thought of brulee-ing rice pudding? It’s a good idea, especially with the rice cooked with chai spices, a nicely comfort food-ish piece of work that rises well above the cliché.
Our server worked hard to keep things moving – it certainly isn’t the servers’ fault for the delay in being seated, the cold fish and the warm wine. Those flubs make their jobs harder because diners are disgruntled.
This is a good-looking menu, and many people are clearly very happy about the restaurant. But they’ve been open for around a year, and glitches like these should have been worked out long ago. We appreciate their apologies and efforts to make things right – and diners should be aware of their own camping out – but it made for an unsuccessful evening overall.
Olive + Oak
102 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Entrees and sandwiches: $12-$30
Mixing the arts together is always an interesting idea, and mostly it’s a good one. Opera Theatre of St. Louis is indulging in just that with a series of get-togethers at venues throughout the area, mixing food, drink and music.
It’s not quite “dinner and a show”, but almost. It’s (probably heavy) appetizers and some beverages, plus four young singers with work that ranges across the history of opera. And the price is very reasonable, from $20 to $25 a head. The gatherings begin January 25 and run through the following Monday. And as for the venues - well, here's your chance to mix it up and hear opera in the National Blues Museum, for one site.
Five nights, four venues, and varying times. More details here.
How delightful to find a pizza place that treats salads as more than a sop to the conscience. After three weeks of pretty much nothing but Asian food, I was ready for pizza, and led a raid on PW Pizza.
I do think the building, which holds Vin de Set and 21st St. Brewers Bar as well as event spaces Moulin and The Malt House Cellar is a pleasure. PW is on the ground floor, and there’s parking just outside the entrance, which is on the east side of the building. Rustic, and in the case of PW, very casual and family-friendly, the whole shebang is a great re-use of an old space.
The two salads we had were large and gorgeous, not overdressed (hurray) and clearly tossed to order. My favorite was the BLT, romaine lettuce, bacon, diced fresh tomato and blue cheese with a light ranch dressing. The bacon was generously portioned, the lettuce crisp and cold. And the tomato – well, hey, it’s January. Fresh tomato is nearly always a polite gesture rather than anything satisfying this time of year. Red onion, pepperoni and pepperoncini studded the greens of the house salad, which was crowned with pieces of parmesan cheese. What’s called “Dad’s vinaigrette” is a sweet one, but at least the sugariness is under pretty good control, making it truly sweet-and-sour rather than some of the cloying versions around town. These were ordered as small salads, and what arrived were 6-inch plates mounded high with the food.
PW is a provel-free zone. Plenty of other cheeses hang out in the kitchen – there are ten listed on the make-your-own section of the menu. Unfortunately, it’s also an anchovy-free zone. I wonder what would happen if someone pulled a tin of the lovely salty little fish fillets out of a pocket and made a request…. On the other hand, they proudly serve Volpi salami, along with their other options.
This is a crust of middle thickness, a single 12” size available and three doughs from which to choose. The crust is tender rather than crisp, a little chewy but not remarkably so. One pie of ours showed off fresh mushrooms and some nice housemade sausage laced with fennel.
The other was burdened with one of those names it’s hard to repeat aloud without coming near to giggling. Shrimpy shrimpy bang bang was the handle. Shrimp, bacon, jalapenos, mozzarella, monterey jack and, unusual for an American pizza, corn were the toppings. (Corn’s not uncommon on pizzas in Europe – although goodness knows, not in Italy.) There was an avocado-cilantro sauce drizzled over the top. Unfortunately, all this added up to not enough. On the entire pizza, there appeared to be no more than three small pieces of jalapeno. Fire-eaters should take advantage of the sriracha sauce offered. It was also skimpy with the pieces of shrimp, perhaps a half-dozen pieces. The corn adds nothing but a slightly different texture, and the drizzle is more about avocado than cilantro. Interestingly, this is another of those dishes that was better the next day, cold from the refrigerator, when it was rather comfort food-ish, than it was hot out of the oven.
Peanut butter pie is on the dessert menu, fluffy and enjoying the chocolate ganache drizzled on and in it. Extra points for the crust, which stayed relatively crunchy and seemed to actually have some salt in it to make it even more peanut butter-y.
Sandwiches and calzones as well as pizze, and a white chili that’s popular this time of year. Yes, beer, natch, and some wine. Noisy when it’s busy; we can just imagine what it’s like on hockey nights.
2017 Chouteau Ave.
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
One of the first times I ever ate brunch was a New Year's Day - it was at the Chase Park Plaza, in what was then, I believe, the Hunt Room. I was amazed that there were enough people interested in brunch after the annual late-nighter that the hotel had gone for it. (I was young - while I wasn't a heavy partier, I assumed pretty much the rest of the world was.)
Atomic Cowboy is doing brunch New Year's Day, and every Sunday. I wrote about it as part of the Tour de Toast series at St. Louis Magazine's Dining blog. I'm not sure how quiet it will be this New Year's Day. But there's plenty of the sort of food that helps metabolize the leftovers from too much ethanol having been imbibed.
While the new Cyrano's in Webster Groves is very nice - I love the food-related wall art, and it's a fine place for post-Repertory Theatre eating and drinking - it's just a different creature than the original mothership. Here's a few words on it; I imagine a lot of readers could say a lot more.
I suppose, if you will forgive me, this could be called an Eggs-press restaurant. Eggcept all the food is cooked to order, or at least the food you'd expect. (The chocolate cake, for instance, isn't. It'd melt the ganache.) But the food is good, sometimes great, and it's frequently very interesting. I like it a lot.
My first visit to Gian-Peppe's - wasn't. My beau, accustomed to the hurly-burly of Boston, felt that in St. Louis one surely wouldn't need reservations at a restaurant, even one who'd recently been reviewed with considerable relish by a certain food critic of the Post-Dispatch. We waited until he, embarrassed, confessed to being too hungry to wait another half-hour. I don't recall where we went instead.
But life changed, of course; it always does. I got to know it much better a decade later when I married that selfsame critic. When I left there after the first real visit, a quote from Robert Morley came to mind. "No man can be lonely while eating spaghetti." Despite its formal air, there was a warmth that was quite real.
In our perpetual search for morning food, we've hit the eastern Mediterranean with a visit to Aya Sofia. And speaking of hits, there's a first-rate potato dish to be had.
It’s that time of year for Sunday drives. If you’re headed west, here’s a place to stop for dinner on the way home.
The Old Barn Inn is a part of the Inns of St. Albans. It’s an event venue as well as an extremely upscale bed and breakfast. Part of it used to be Malmaison, the French restaurant. And they only do one meal a week that’s open to the public, on Sunday evenings.
The community of St. Albans has lots of ties to names out of St. Louis history, including Theodore Link, the architect who designed St. Louis’ Union Station, and the Oscar Johnson family of International Shoe. The names of various family members of Johnson can be found all over what once was simply called Barnes Hospital, with names like the Rand-Johnson Building and the Irene Walter Johnson Rehabilitation Building. Link built one of the buildings that’s part of the Inns, in fact, and established it as a sort of vacation community for (presumably well-off) artists.
There’s a lovely terrace with two fireplaces as one enters. The old timbered room that was my primary memory of Malmaison, is still there, no longer reeking constantly of wood smoke, but it, too, has a fireplace. It’s the site of the bar and the buffet line that’s holding the Sunday meal; a couple of tables sit near the fireplace.
Things are very simple; several wines are offered by the glass, listed only by variety. I asked about the Norton, and was told it was “house wine”. The label does indeed show the Old Barn Inn logo, but it comes from St. James Winery, a good source, and the wine, while still young, was rewarding, especially at $6 a glass, the price for each of the offerings.
The buffet kicks off with four cold salads, a tasty mayonnaise potato salad, slaw that isn’t cliched – I’m thinking there are some peeled broccoli stems that have been julienned in there – cucumbers with dill and vinegar, and a pasta salad. Frankly, I’m way not a pasta salad fan. The ones put out on too many buffet spreads are monotonous and unexciting. Not this guy. The creamy dressing was faintly pink, and slightly textured, as though it had been thickened a little with potato. It was difficult to identify specific seasonings, although I think I got a bit of roasted sweet pepper in there, but overall, it was good enough that I got seconds, a rare thing.
The headliner at the buffet is the fried chicken. It’s a crackling batter, probably containing beer, and it’s well-seasoned. The buffet line is frequently replenished, so things are crackly-fresh when it comes to the chicken. Slices of meatloaf are juicy and tender enough that they need to be removed from the chafing dishes with some care.
The classic side dish with both those entrees is mashed potatoes, and these are real potatoes, not those infernal instants, which still plague society, and very good of their style. Green beans were labeled “country style”. I would have expected bits of bacon or ham with them, given that description. The small beans, almost the size of haricots verts, were cooked to tenderness, and there may have been a ham bone in their past but what came with them were bits of diced carrots for color. Okay, but not remarkable. I passed on the “vegetable medley”. I’d rather have a Cole Porter medley, thanks.
And then – before the dessert – there was a pan of milk gravy, followed by a chafing dish of biscuits. White gravy was the standard in the household I grew up in, poured over the fried chicken and/or mashed potatoes. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now; other people can better judge this than I. But the biscuits were great, and it was real butter, not margarine, available. (Strangely, a request for jam or jelly brought the news that there was none to be had, rather surprising for a place that offers continental breakfasts to folks staying there.)
Dessert was apple crisp, very mom-like, the topping chewy here, softer there.
All this for $20 a head. Not sophisticated food, certainly, but worthwhile, especially in interesting surroundings, as the building, grounds and community are. The locals make for good people-watching, too.
There’s no information on Sunday dinner on the website, but the pictures are nice. I’d suggest calling for a reservation.
The Inns at St. Albans
3519 St. Albans Rd., St. Albans
Credit cards: Yes
I’m a sucker for nachos, even the ones with ersatz cheese pumped out of a steel cask. But I don’t often order them in restaurants, preferring to graze on items less frequently seen hereabouts. And an order of them, unless it’s shared with several people, is just too filling to allow for enjoying the following courses. Plus, they’re not a dish that reheats well. (Maybe I should consider using them for migas – or my standby fritatta.)
That said, my pal the Potato Queen, her consort Mr. T and I were supping at The Scottish Arms recently, and discovered scotchos. The dish begins with the housemade chips – that is to say, potato chips; in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, those are known as crisps, because their chips are what we call French fries.
Onto a plate of hot-from-the-fryer-but-not-greasy chips are ladled rarebit, the Welsh-ish cheese and beer sauce, more cheeses, seasoned sour cream, bacon and smoked jalapenos. The combination is pretty darned stunning. In particular the rarebit/cheese work is notable in its contribution to the dish. In the dark room, for a while I thought I was getting blue cheese in some bites. But on reflection, I think it may well have been the sharp cheddar and brown ale romping around on my tongue.
A fine ballast for a leisurely couple of hours of sipping the native waters of Scotland or, as was the case for me, the cider currently on draft.
The Scottish Arms
8 S. Sarah
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Brunch Sat.-Sun., Dinner nightly
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
A shooting star? A brilliant flash, then moving across the heavens, then gone? That might describe An American Place, the restaurant that Larry Forgione, who, more than once, was described as the "godfather of American cuisine", opened in the old Statler hotel downtown. Forgione was an amiable guy, at least to those of us in the media, and I didn't hear tales from non-media folks to say otherwise. And boy, could he cook. I still use a recipe for pumpkin pudding that I'd forgotten was his. Here's the piece in the St. Louis Magazine blog about An American Place.
Does St. Louis need another barbecue place? Pish tosh. That’s like asking if we need another hamburger spot. Barbecue is a birthright, especially in this part of the United States. We can put that argument out of the way right now.
And so we have Dixon's Smoke Company, very old school in some ways – like the plastic containers used for serving – and modern in others – sparkly clean and tidy. It’s in a neighborhood that’s suffered from a lack of ‘cue heretofore.. They’re located on the south side of Forest Park Boulevard between Grand and Spring, which means it’s much easier to approach them from the west.
Keep an eye on the menu board – things change from time to time, and we hear intermittent reports about a pork steak – but even on the usual stuff, it’s good. Rib tips are offered sauced or unsauced. They’re crosscut, bigger pieces than are often seen around town, with a nice rub. The unsauced, which we got, were rather chewy, and one wonders about the effect an extended spell in barbecue sauce with its heat, moisture, and acidity, would have had on them. My pal and I were sort of divided – the texture on the piece I tried was more than acceptable, she less happy than I.
The chicken rib tips – ah, no, that’s not a misprint – only come sauced. They were close to addictive. This sauce is in many ways very St. Louis-y, tomato based, sweet and hot, its flavor nicely punched up, not just with heat. And the chicken responded, preening as though it were on the runway at a beauty contest. It’s mostly dark meat, a good thing here, as it stays tender, only one bit of gristle in an entire serving, an altogether craveable dish.
I’m not sure if St. Louis is beginning to understand brisket better, from a barbecue standpoint, or if my taste is evolving, but it was never one of my faves. In fact, until I married a brisket fancier, I seldom tried it. Now things are improving, whether it’s barbecue chefs or my palate, and Dixon’s brisket is quite satisfying. That rub is utilized, and the texture is nearly all first-rate, almost none of the crumbling-into-bits sort of thing that can be off-putting.
Among the sides are a remarkably good version of greens, with a little of the pulled pork in them. This has a touch of heat to it, and the greens are tender but not mushy. In addition, and perhaps a don’t-miss if this sort of thing intrigues you, the sweet potatoes are tasty, in a brown sugar sauce with spicing that goes beyond cinnamon. Maybe a little clove or orange peel? Chunks that are almost falling apart (the small ones) or with definite texture (the larger ones) call your name, especially if you’re eating any of the pork options.
More traditional is the potato salad, definitely not the Sysco sort. It’s a little sweet, with none of the tang that one might find with a vinegar or sweet pickle juice used to help with the seasoning, but very home-y feeling. Pit beans, too, seem home-style, some cut-up pork in them, sweet, but not so thick that you feel like you’re eating paste.
They were out of the beef hot link, and we should have, we understand, tried the corn on the cob and the peach cobbler. But next time. And there will be a next time.
Dixon’s Smoke company
3674 Forest Park Ave.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches and entrees: $8-$23
If someone’s looking for yet another example of how Time Marches On, recall, please, that Al Baker’s, one of the perpetually popular restaurants of the area, was at Clayton and Brentwood. Ah, the indignity of being replaced by a Linens-n-Things, which, of course, was in turn replaced by a megapharmacy.
Al Baker was a guy with high standards, as former employees report. He’s still around (Hi, Al!) and enjoying retirement. But the memory of the restaurant lingers on, as I wrote in St. Louis Magazine.
The photo is via the Clayton Historical Society.
There are a few dishes in St. Louis that are legendary in their greatness. One of them is the onion rings at Al’s downtown. The o-rings there have, in my history, always been at one of the first levels of divinity, and they continue to excel.
The batter is tempura-ish, light and flaky, the width of the rings neither too wide nor too narrow. (The so-called tobacco onions, narrowly sliced, are a fine thing, but certainly a different, more modern sort of creation that’s not what I’m speaking of.) The rings arrive hot and alluring, the aroma distinctively onion-y. They’re sublime.
I can’t think of a better way to spend happy hour than sitting in the dark, old-fashioned bar at Al’s, the long mural of the 1890’s waterfront on one wall, sipping a glass of sparkling wine and eating these babies.
And a word of caution – the parking lot across the street is no longer available. There’s a lot just to the east of the building.
1200 N. 1st at Biddle St.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
It’s slightly disconcerting to this particular swinophile to say that the salads at The Muddled Pig Gastropub – an establishment dedicated, in part, to the glories of the hog – are quite excellent. Austin Hamblin and Michelle Allender acknowledge that the Berkshire breed, from Missouri farmers, are the focus of their work. We’ve been saying for decades that some of the best pork in the world can be had here in the Midwest, and that was before the heritage breeds battled their way back from near-oblivion. Things are even better now, thanks to the farmers and their hogs.
So there’s pork and there are salads, but there are other things, too – although the lamb breast I lusted for and hadn’t had for years, wasn’t available on my visits. The beer selection is interesting, and the cocktails a great temptation, plus happy hour specials that can be found online.
Besides pork, they use other local suppliers, too, and one of them must have a peach orchard, because there were three peach dishes on the menu in August. One was a grilled peach salad, using greens, a light buttermilk dressing, onion and bacon. The smokiness of the bacon was a great match to the peach, which had been lightly grilled – it was still quite firm, so it provided a textural contrast, tart-sweet with the bacon and the dressing, a surprising but surprisingly logical conglomeration of ingredients, and one I’d eat again very happily.
The second salad was farro and mushrooms. And it’s not the expected medley of brown and beige. Lots of mixed greens, for one thing, and pickled red onions, plus what James Beard would have called “doots” of goat cheese go along with the mildly chewy farro grains and plenty, yes, plenty of shiitake mushrooms, whose pungent, earthy flavors are remarkable. A vinaigrette was mild, unobtrusive, but harmonized well.
Pig wings? Pigs are, of course, only slightly less gifted aeronautically than chickens, but since they’re larger, their wings are meatier. But for the more literal-minded, these are pork shanks cut across the bone in pieces about an inch and a half long. They’re offered with two sauces, a sweet-and-spicy and a soy-bourbon. The latter, sprinkled with peanuts and green onions, was a delight, not deeply boozy nor overly sweet, but enhancing the porky flavor perfectly. And these wings are beautifully trimmed, no bits of fat or bone anywhere, and cooked done but not falling apart. When pigs fly, indeed….
Alas, they were out of pork belly for their banh mi sandwich, but the Big Pig sandwich is indeed a big guy. It starts with what the menu calls a pork cutlet, but is actually a fried boneless loin pork chop. On top of that goes pulled pork and a couple of strips of thick bacon, finishing off with some slaw. Very hearty, nice and juicy, for a serious appetite.
Fish and chips is, for the U.S., a common pub food. This version, with mild white fish in a beer-batter crust, nice and yeasty, is crisp, comparatively oil-free, and very satisfying, especially since the ratio of crust to fish is quite in balance. Fries are seemingly hand-cut, and malt vinegar, the traditional condiment, is offered when they arrived. Another side dish that might go under the salad discussion is the Swiss chard slaw. The server offered the information that it’s served warm, which is intriguing. It’s more than that. The chard is lightly cooked, the stems still a little al dente, but not much. The dressing of red wine and lots of bacon is a winner, but it’s hard to think of it as a slaw. The closest comparison might be German potato salad if the dressing were a millimeter or so sweeter. I liked it a lot.
Bread pudding is always on hand; the particular type varies. A Butterfinger version was light, with large slices of close-textured bread showing themselves in a chocolaty custard. The peanut flavor was very mild, but showed up much more obviously in a chocolate-peanut butter ice cream alongside, whose dense, creamy texture proved it was peanut butter and not just peanuts that were used.
My only quibble overall is that in this Big Flavor food, details can be overwhelmed. The vinaigrette on the farro, said the menu had lemon and Madeira. The slaw on the sandwich had currants and blue cheese in it. None of these careful touches were apparent except the currants, when the sandwich was opened.
Amiable service, and the ability to let diners make their own pace. This probably isn’t the place for a quiet conversation during regular dinner hours, with the concrete floors, but off-peak, it worked very well for that. And that’s very pub-like, in the old, traditional style.
The Muddled Pig Gastropub
2733 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood
Lunch & dinner Tues.-Sat., Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches and entrees: $9-$34
Bixby's, on the second floor of the Missouri History Museum has rather a different formula for brunch, part buffet and part sit-down. And, for those who are gourmands (or merely curious) as well as gourmets, one may order as much and as often as desired from the sit-down portion of the menu. One price covers everything, including mimosas.
The photo here shows an egg Benedict. They were, the day of my visit, also offering a mushroom benedict which was quite good as well, and the hollandaise was quite proper, a little sharp with lemon, just the way I prefer it. The classic French style is much more about butter and egg, but I cut my hollandaise teeth in New Orleans and love how that take avoids the egg-on-egg-ness in a Benedictine situation. (I'm also not crazy about custard sauce on bread pudding for the same reason.)
So I wrote about it for Dining, the food section of St. Louis Magazine's blog, and you can read that here. A strong recommendation for reservations, even if it's ten minutes before you leave the house. And don't forget, right now the Route 66 exhibition is open.
Missouri History Museum
5700 Lindell Blvd.
Brunch Sun., Lunch, Mon.-Sat.
Paul and Wendy Hamilton put in a garden a few years ago to help provide good stuff for their restaurants, Eleven Eleven Mississippi, Vin de Set and PW Pizza. It has flourished, and this year, for three consecutive Fridays, they're offering tours and a prix fixe dinner afterwards.
I had a test run of the first menu, which was a fine salad, a riff on a Lyonnaise, with a mild arugula, soft-cooked egg and crisped-up guanciale, a take on a caprese salad with mozzarella, some wonderfully sweet grilled eggplant and mozzarella, and then roasted pork, porchetta style, with the traditional fennel notes, plopped on a potato puree and some mixed braised greens. It was a lovely meal, delicious and just the right spot between exotic and homey. Even a fairly conservative eater would have been thrilled with it. That's the menu tonight, if there are any spots left; you need a reservation (314-241-9999).
There are two more such evenings coming up on the next two Friday nights, one with lamb and another with pork. Here's where you can get the scoop:
This time of year, the sunlight in Parigi is a wonder. That’s not the only reason to eat there, but it’s the first thing that might strike diners, especially if they enter through the garage parking on the east side of the building. Overlooking Clayton’s Shaw Park, the tall windows make it feel almost like eating on a balcony. It’s a handsome room, done in red tones from peach and orange on to an almost lacquer red, even small accessories like trays.
Parigi is the newest restaurant from Ben Poremba, whom St. Louisans know from Olio and Elaia – although that adjective “newest” will probably disappear soon, as he apparently has a pizza spot up his sleeve. Poremba’s brought Ramon Cuffie on board to run the kitchen. Most experienced St. Louis gastronauts first found Cuffie in the kitchen at Bar Italia, so putting him in this Italian-ish steakhouse-ish spot is a logical move.
“Ish” is as far as one should go with those descriptors. There’s a fair amount on the menu that falls into neither category. But one thing that’s very Italian, happily, is the option to have pasta as a primi, a starter course, the way they do in Italy. Some recent reviews have raved about the cresta di gallo, which translates as “rooster’s comb”. Good. I’m going to rave about it too. It’s stunning, flavorful with the local mushrooms, a touch of greens that have been braised, just a wee bit of heat from a dab of chili oil, and the properly al dente pasta, not hard, but firm enough that it wasn’t sloppy and falling apart. It’s the sort of dish that it’s hard not to order on every subsequent visit to the restaurant.
Another first course didn’t fare quite so well. Grilled romaine lettuce had been left on the fire so long it became limp – perhaps larger cuts would have helped with this – and while the grilled bread and marinated anchovy were tasty, the dressing on the lettuce was pretty wan unless the cheese, seemingly real Parmigiano, showered over the lettuce got involved.
Didn’t try any of the three steaks offered. Two are $38, the third, a porterhouse served in the Florentine style (and at 32 ounces certainly shareable), is $110. The secondi, or main courses, mostly seem quite hearty, almost wintery. But two of them proved impossible to forego in favor of the possibly lighter chicken and salmon.
A braise of veal cheeks floats off the plate and into the mouth, delicate and rich at the same time, punctuated by dice of pancetta and more of those wild mushrooms. The light golden-colored mash on the side turns out to be from Japanese sweet potatoes, fluffy and a nice contrast to the richness of the veal. Lovers of lamb shank may be astounded to find that the lentils that come with Parigi’s rendition of the dish are actually the star of the plate. The lamb shank is perfectly done, not quite falling apart, but tender and moist as it should be. But those lentils – ah, those lentils! Cooked in the lamb juices, certainly, but some Madeira as well, and perhaps just a hint of ginger in them? Astonishing. They would be divine with pork or pheasant, any of the rich dark meats that we’ll see more of in the autumn.
It’s foolish to resist dessert here. They’re from Simone Faure at La Patisserie Chouquette, in which the polydigital Poremba also has a finger. A strawberry-balsamic vinegar ice cream is the most deeply strawberry-flavored I’ve ever tasted, despite its relatively pale color. There’s more going for the tirami-choux than just the pun in its name. Faure has given us the traditional dough used for cream puffs, known as choux paste, made the puff – but filled it with tiramisu-type filling, mascarpone cheese, espresso, and then put a little meringue that’s beautifully browned. It puts ladyfingers to shame.
Of note from the cocktail list is the French 75, a champagne cocktail with oomph added with gin, lemon and simple syrup. It came in a tall, narrow glass with ice cubes, way not traditional, but a lovely presentation and a pleasant change, especially here in mid-summer.
The service was good, but my pal knew the chef and was recognized by him before I arrived. Whether or not that influenced things, one never knows, but I saw no one craning their neck seeking assistance or glaring at their plate.
A couple of logistical notes: No more breakfast, just brunch. Enter through the garage whose entrance is on Bonhomme – the exit gate was up when I left – and take the elevator down a level, or on Brentwood Boulevard, but not at the corner of Brentwood and Bonhomme. The entrance is up the feet a number of yards.
8025 Bonhomme Ave., Clayton
Lunch & Dinner Mon.-Sat., Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good from garage
Entrees: $26-$110 (but see above)
Yes, it's a little off the beaten path - but not much. But it's pleasant and casual at Peno, if I may call it by its first name, and it's a tasty stop. My editor at St. Louis Magazine used a phrase that translates as "hidden gem". Take a look at the fig trees outside when you visit.
And they're doing a Sunday "Mediterranean brunch", too.
It’s not that no one has done tacos in Kirkwood, even tacos beyond the chains. But no one has gone to the lengths that Club Taco does, spreading options far and wide.
There’s not much room in which to spread – it’s a snug interior, some tables, a bar with stools, a shelf facing the back bar with more stools. The patio, though, facing Kirkwood Road, is pretty roomy, and that helps when the weather is pleasant. It’s casual, of course, order at the counter, drinks are help-yourself except the alcoholic ones, and if you sit at the bar, you can actually have your order taken by the bartender. Food arrives on metal trays and taco racks with disposable utensils. There are also cardboard boats offered, those shallow, rectangular cardboard containers with flared sides, for those who cannot or choose not to manage the tacos manually.
That should give some idea of how generously these guys are stuffed – or, actually, piled. Yes, they’re messy, messier than the average taco, and only part of that is due to the tortillas not being double-layered. But these are not your average tacos. Twenty-two of them, to be precise, and three sides.
The closest to traditional I tried was the tinga, the shredded chicken that’s just a little spicy. It was extremely juicy, and generously served, the only one I had that seriously benefited from the house salsa, which is roasted tomatoes and tomatillos along with chiles. It’s piquant, not killer-hot, but the acidity in it from the tomatillos makes it more alive. Some of the taco names are, well, tongue in cheek, like the Lake of the Ozarks, which is cod, slaw, avocado and pumpkin seeds with a cumin-laced sour cream sauce, and some cilantro. (That's it on the left, above.) There’s a lot going on with that in terms of textures and flavors, not the standard fish taco, tangy-crunchy-creamy simultaneously. Surely the cod didn’t come from mid-Missouri, but it’s a fine piece of work. We’d point out, by the way, that these are one-tortilla tacos, not the two tortillas often seen.
On the red meat side of things, From Our Seoul (above center) holds Korean-style grilled short ribs with house-made kimchi. Boneless thinly sliced cross-cut beef reveled in a sweetly garlicky marinade, although several pieces of gristle showed up uninvited. This is one of the tacos marked as “may contain additional heat”. In this case it may not, as the kimchi was so mild as to be lacking heat and that distinctive funk. Nevertheless, with the green onions chiming in, it was pretty charming. A B.L.T.A., a take on a BLT sandwich (above right), showcased fingers of pork belly fried to crispness, some good tomato, superfluous romaine lettuce and a slice of panko-coated fried avocado, plus, somewhere in there, a little hit of smokiness. (Chipotle pepper?) Here, as with some of the others, the full spectrum of the flavor didn’t arrive until half-way through consumption, as ingredients weren’t always spread out evenly the length of the tortilla, but once the full-flavored pork hits the palate, it’s very clear what you’re scarfing down.
Breakfast tacos, too, although no breakfast hours. The Mexicana starred house-made chorizo, a few potato tots, a little egg that had been fried in a circle so wide that at first glance one thought a crepe was lining the flour tortilla, and some tomato and cheddar. (If you look carefully, you can see it in the photo to the left here.) Again, nicely done, although another one that welcomed the house salsa, not on every table, but can be found near the soda dispenser and utensils. Those tots are also available as a side with cheddar, chiles and a fried egg, by the way. But our choice was roasted corn, still crisp and fresh, mixed with crema, a little cayenne (but not much) and Mexican queso fresco. Absolutely delicious, whether or not the lime is squeezed over it, very rich and charming. It comes with a little wooden fork, charming and far more efficient for this mixture than the ice-cream paddles it’s vaguely reminiscent of. There are black beans, too, but that’s for the next visit
That bar puts out some serious margaritas, including a mango version that charmed. My only edit would be that the rim needs salt, and perhaps a little cayenne mixed in with it, rather than sugar; mango, goodness knows, needs no more sugar.
Food arrives pretty quickly, and at busy times the area is policed often, although technically, one should dump one’s own tray and deposit it. Lots of smiles from the workers. At the moment, they’re staying open late enough to offer half off all dine-in tacos (which go as high as $6) after 10 p.m. every night.
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Eating at the Muny has evolved considerably. My late husband, Joe Pollack, used to look at the then-newly-installed picnic benches and beam, because he had urged their installation in his column in the Post-Dispatch. This year, they've expanded their casual dining options with Cafe One, for sandwiches, salads and pizzas. I had the open-faced ribeye grinder last night and found it worthwhile, the beef tender and flavorful, the whole thing messy to eat but quite tasty. (And it's huge, if that's a concern.) Last week, I went with friends to the buffet in the Culver Pavilion, and I wrote about it for St. Louis Magazine's blog.
Two things: Parking is easier if you arrive early. If you don't, the Muny is famous for its very punctual 8.15 curtain. I saw people arriving last night at 8.40.