A new option for Grand center pre-theater and -music dining? You bet. A half-block from Powell Hall, Sweetie Pie's Upper Crust puts soul food in elegant new digs. And speaking of elegant, this is, as a lot of people know, the project of the elegant Robbie Montgomery, the third location for her restauratnt. The OWN Network is currently filming the third season of "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's", the reality show about Miss Robbie's, and on most visits, there will be fans from out of town mingling in line with the locals.
It's a cafeteria with lots of additional help to bring guests their drinks, help with trays, and offer carryout boxes, because, yes, St. Louis, these are generous portions. Lines can be long, but the interior is so roomy, it's not because folks are waiting for a seat. After church on Sunday, for instance, the line rums out the door. (But on any visit, there always are folks getting take-out, also easing the demand for seats.) There's also a room for private functions and a nice patio adjacent to that.
The stars of the line, not surprisingly in this cuisine with its rural American roots, are the vegetables. Other items glow, but it's the side dishes that stand out in memory. It makes the habit of some traditional Southern restaurants of offering a plate of nothing but three, four or five vegetables quite understandable. Not that these are vegetarian, at least not the great majority of them. But the macaroni and cheese is. A far cry from anything Kraft produced, the consistency is a little iregular, the top chewy-cheesish, all properly comfort food-esque. The greens are definitely, defiantly, not vegetarian. Generous shards of ham run throughout the greens, whose flavor is so deeply complex, smoky and peppery, that it's easy to see how people could make an entire meal of them. It's the sort of dish I'd like to set before a French chef and see his reaction.
For those of us who grew up on dense, caramelized sweet potatoes, Robbie's are amazing. Light and tender, sweet and slightly citrusy, there's also some cinnamon swooping around. And dumplings, as in chicken-and-, are clearly homemade, again with numerous pieces of chicken in the surrounding gravy, all richly chicken-savory, a little celery chiming in. (If you order it as a main course, it comes with a piece of either light or dark chicken, pan roasted.) Not up to those high standards are the cornbread dressing, dark and moist and tasting mostly of celery, and the potato salad, surprisingly underseasoned.
Main courses headline a rocking fried chicken, including huge wings, available solo, dipped in a crunchy, garlicky/oniony batter and absolutely greaseless, the best fried chicken in town until someone feeds me a superior bird. Hot braised wings, almost as large, are meaty but the braising sauce is closer to sweet-and-sour than spicy. A reliable, sturdy meatloaf that's not loaded with filler seems very Mom-ish. Some days there's liver, and ox tails as well. Alas, I never caught either of those, being particularly fond of ox tail, a meat that will charm anyone who likes osso bucco or pork shank. Catfish and jack salmon on Fridays. (Why wait for Lent?)
Corn bread, of course, surprisingly tender and barely sweet at all, and rolls on Sunday. The dessert case is full of options, but most folks opt for one of the two cobblers sitting on the steam table. The peach is a constant, although my editor at St. Louis Magazine moans over a pear version he encountered a while back. I grew up on blackberry cobbler, the empress of all cobblers, and have a tendency to look down on the peach, but this is sublime, seasoned with what seems to be a pas de deux of nutmeg and cinnamon. And it's a real cobbler, with pastry crust top and bottom, not the cake-batter-poured-over-fruit thing that's reared its ugly head in recent years. Caramel cake features a brown sugar-y icing on a close-grained pale yellow cake with a slight hit of almond in it.
If your idea of a soul food restaurant is frugal surroundings and a $5 dinner check, this will change your mind. It comes close to lavish. Service? Help carrying trays if needed, and sometimes even if it isn't, and refills of iced tea ad infinitum. Lots of smiles and lots of happy folks eating. A little post-prandial stroll to your seat at the Fox won't take more than 5 minutes.
Sweetie Pie's Upper Crust
3643 Delmar Blvd.
Credit cards: Yes (for over $10)
Wheelchair access: Very good
Entrees: $11 - $14 (including vegetables)
Atlas has begun serving brunch, and, in Bryan Carr's usual style, the menu is downright seductive. The bistro, with its shady sidewalk for tables and large windows for morning sun, is a fine setting for morning food (although there are some options for lunching, including their excellent simple green salad).
Yes, thanks, we'll have some of that excellent coffee to kick things off. Mimosa choices? Classic, grapefruit or mimosa du jour, which on this visit was a berry-based combination. And the juices are freshly-squeezed; it's particularly apparent with grapefruit juice, whose frozen iteration is alwayswretched. The grapefruit mimosa (or maybe it's actually a wisteria?) was perfect, the juices' light bitterness riding the house prosecco perfectly. The berry version, sweeter, of course, was also a happy discovery.
Just to tide us over until the main courses came, we tried the beignets, six fat, irregular deepfried blobs, showered lightly with powdered sugar and served with a spiced berry preserve, tasting of cloves. Even without the preserves, they're good, and one of my pals tried buttering them to gild the lily.
How can one brunch without eggs Benedict? The menu calls them classic, and that's exactly what arrived. The English muffins were fresh, the eggs perfectly cooked, a generous piece of ham rather than Canadian bacon, and a fine hollandaise sauce, rich and lemony, very nice indeed.
Carr's French training shows with that hollandaise, but pancakes were granny, rather than French, thick, fluffy pillows, in this case cradling slices of banana and pieces of crunchy pecans. The bacon alongside seemed artisanal, the slices irregular, a little chewy, not heavily salty but nicely smoked. Even better was a daily special of chicken-apple sausage, a moist, irregular patty full of flavor. And potatoes? I thought you'd never ask. Red potatoes, cooked to tenderness, and nicely seasoned, the sort of thing that would serve with a couple of over-easy eggs as a complete and satisfying entree.
More proof of the granny influence comes with the biscuits and gravy. The biscuits, which are also available a la carte, are square, fluffy, and probably would crumble immediately if someone tried to butter then with cold butter. Plenty of sausage and black pepper in the gravy, too, enough to convert the unbeliever, not that there were any around.
Calm, pleasant service and, obviously, good food.
5513 Pershing Ave.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Brunch entrees: $6-$11
San Francisco has been, until fairly recently, not known as a good spot for Mexican food. That is, not known to outsiders. But the neighborhood south of Market Street around the historic Mission Dolores is definitely Mexican, and more than once Joe and I, after a large, late dim sum brakfast, had tacos for tea (Joe's phrase) there before a proper San Francisco dinner. So when I heard about Mission Taco Joint on Delmar, I had hopes.
It looks right, although less crowded than its Left Coast siblings - San Francisco real estate is as pricey as New York, and the restaurants nearly as wont to cram in as many seats as feasible and then add another two-top. Very casual, a large mural on one wall, a decor that invites shorts and flip-flops. It's quite loud when it gets busy, not surprisingly.
Inviting stuff on the menu, to be sure, but one of the baseline tests for Mexican restaurants has to be guacamole. Creamy-tasting but nicely chunky, and topped with a small spoonful of pico de gallo and a shower of queso fresco, its texture is so nice that it takes a couple of bites before the mouth realizes that the seasoning is coming from the cheese and a light hit from the pico de gallo. The guacamole seems nothing more than mashed avocado. Each table sports a bottle of green habanero sauce, fortunately. Sadly, the warm chips were nevertheless stale.
Tacos, of course, utilizing house-made corn tortillas, according to the menu. Interestingly, they only use one per taco, which means it's easy for the masa to disintegrate into the hand before the diner's done. (Most of the Cherokee Street-type spots use two.) Duck tacos sounded like a good idea; the shreds of duck meat is paired up with pork belly, giving the potential for a real grease bomb. Happily, it wasn't remarkably so, but there was a disappointing lack of duck flavor.
The Cowboy burrito is not, quite, the size of the cowboy's forearm, but it's mighty big. Knife and fork are necessary, even if the optional tomato-ancho sauce and melted cheese are skipped. Large slices of pretty tender brisket, some smoky black beans, a little rice and corn. The results were flavorful, nice notes of cumin and Mexican oregano, but only that ancho sauce, which was just a polite covering, barely masking most of the tortilla, gave any heat.
The most interesting find was the ahogado. It's a torta, or sandwich on a large, fat bun. The word ahogado translates to something like "smother"; the torta of that name is always covered in sauce. At Mission Taco Joint, the sandwich is made of pork carnitas, smashed black beans, Chihuahua cheese, and chipotle bacon, the whole thing anointed in a properly generous manner with an ancho sauce. Good stuff, but it was the ancho sauce that made it outstanding, not fiery hot at all, but a fine example of how chiles can have a slightly sweet fruit flavor to balance out the salty-spicy notes. Chili-crusted fries, which come with all the tortas, looked more seasoned than what they actually tasted life.
Not surprisingly, there's a good selection of draft beer and often-tempting house cocktails. Pleasant service, although erratic at times, with frequent checking interspersed with the thousand-yard stare.
A challenging mix of tasty and hesitant when it comes to seasoning. Your call.
Mission Taco Joint
6235 Delmar Blvd., University City
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Tight at the entrance
The Market at The Cheshire is, clearly, a charming place to enter, casual and interesting, with food to eat there or to carry out after you're ordered at the counter. Other things to buy, both edible and not, while you wait for your name to be called are arranged in one of the low-ceilinged pair of rooms at the east end of the complex.
It's breakfast and lunch and early dinner, closing at 8, focusing mainly on sandwiches and casual baked goods, cookies, muffins, that sort of thing. Some beverages are in a cooler, some come from behind a counter, and coffee, except the espresso-based drinks, is serve-yourself. Stroll around and inspect the oils and vinegars, ceramics and cleaing products and alcoholic beverages available. I pondered a beautiful teak salad bowl for an upcoming wedding present - are they $135 friends? Or perhaps a St. Louis-based cookbook.
The best thing I ate was a breakfast sandwich of bacon, egg, pepperjack cheese and avocado. It was on a multigrain toast, the whole thing a fabulous combination of crunchy and creamy. Alas, they've turned it into a wrap. Maybe if you ask. But that bacon was The Best Ever, thick and smoky, crunchy here and chewy there, quite distinctive. A steak and egg sandwich sounded promising, but the roasted chuck steak was, essentially pot roast meat, tender enough to have been shredded rather than sliced., with a fried egg white and cheddar cheese on some ciabatta. I'm a big fan of pot roast, but the meat lacked savor and the sandwich was lackluster. Technical execution was good, but it needed pizaaz. Horseradish? Harissa? Even salt and pepper?
Lunch sandwiches come with Billy Goat chips or fresh fruit, and credit must go to the quality of at least the apples, fresh, polished, crisp and unbruised. Tarragona chicken, described as having an olive tapenade and almonds on it, is on a grilled sourdough. The chicken is shredded coarsely rather than sliced. No almonds, whether nubbles or slices, were apparent, nor olives, although the flavor was intermittently present. It was hard to tell whether the soft pieces of red vegetable were cooked tomato or red pepper. (And there was no flavor of tarragon at all. Perhaps the name refers to the city in Catalonia.) A very moist sandwich, and decent enough but not what was expected. A cheese danish serving as dessert was lightly sweet, fresh and with an interesting, almost fluffy filling.
Serious coffee, bottled soft drinks, newspapers to read, especially at the long table on the breakfast side of the market, which is on your left as you enter through the red door. And nice morning light there. But not quite up to the mark, at least not yet.
Parking? There's been plenty of discussion about that since the restaurants at The Cheshire opened. Enter from that little block of Clayton Avenue that goes by the Hi-Pointe Theatre. No valets to be seen.
The Market at The Cheshire
7036 Clayton Ave.
Breakfast, Lunch and early Dinner
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Tight
By now, we've all gotten used to seeing buildings that once were fast-food spots recycled into something like Wing-a-Ding-Ding or Mamma's House of Hummus. In a world with not enough places like that and too many fast food joints, that's a good thing. But sometimes that same sort of process works differently, and an old, yea, even ancient place sheds its skin and emerges the same but not quite the same.
In old Carondelet, now re-styled the Patch, at the corner where Michigan turns into Ivory sits Schoemehl's South Side Grill. It's a corner tavern, the decor updated some but not obnoxiously we're-so-hip so. The sun pours in through large windows, but the bar somehow still has that tantalizing dark air of quiet noonday drinking. And they've begun to refer to the area in the back as the beer garden rather than the patio, a fine touch of The Real Thing.
Still, in the old days, the taverns that operated here wouldn't have had salads beyond perhaps potato salad, or, in later years, slaw. And they surely wouldn't have had a house dressing made of avocados. It adorns the Signature Salad, a tower of greens, chicken, a bit of black bean-corn relish and a little tomato, and absolutely charms with its jade-green mysteries.
Then there are the wings. It was a surprise to see a casual place like this with an actual Presentation of chicken wings. And then we thought, "Eight bucks for four wings?" But they're huge and they're delicious. Smoked a little and then flash-fried and glazed, they look almost lacquered in their glossiness. Still moist despite all this attention, they're faintly sweet, and a drizzle of what seems to be Asian chile sauce, spicy but not dangerous, just offers a little bit of contrast. They're not Buffalo wings at all, but they're darn good. The dill-laced dip is unnecessary, but hold onto it if there are house-made chips or fries coming, because it's pretty darn tasty, too.
The only sub-par thing we tried was the South of the Border burger, with queso jack cheese (their phrase) and pickled jalapenos. Ordered medium-rare, it was cooked beyond pink all the way through. Still, it was pretty juicy and cheese and jalapenos pump up almost anything this side of sponge cake.
Amiable service appropriate to a spot with plenty of televisions, which means casual but not distracted. That beer garden is looking pretty good once the rain stops. And, oh, yes, there's live music sometimes.
7529 Michigan Ave.
Lunch Tues.-Sun, Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
By now, much, if not all, of the St. Louis food community, both professionals and happy amateurs, has learned that Jilly's Cupcake Bar has won Cupcake Wars - again. And the winners deserved it. The winning collection is carefully focused, the flavors choreographed to go together with leaps and flourishes and pirouettes and even a little tap-dancing here and there. The last set of winners were nice. This group is outstanding.
Because the competition was held at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami, Miami became the theme for the cupcakes. The winning entry's four cupcakes were Cuban Coffee, Miami Spice, Cruising Down Collins (Avenue, a main drag in South Beach) and SOBE Wine Fest. (You can see them on Jilly's website.)
I'm hard pressed to choose a favorite, but Miami Spice, a passionfruit cake with raspberry jam filling, and a frosting of mango whipped cream, a bite of passionfruit candy, and a hit of ghost chile salt certainly pushed all the right buttons for those of us who love a little heat in unexpected places. Cruising Down Collins is a tropical cocktail in a fluted paper cup, so to speak, coconut, rum, pineapple, orange and tangelo flavors doing a rhumba. Cuban Coffee is happily, seriously coffee, between the cake, the buttercream, andthe coffee syrup to add at the last moment, plus a toffee dulce de leche filling. And the SOBE Wine Fest has cabernet in the chocolate cake, a zinfandel chocolate ganache and more cab in the buttercream grapes and vine. What a group.l
Yes, they're sweet. If that's a problem, move along, nothing to see here. They're cupcakes, they're going to be sweet. (Actually, the judges allowed for the possibility of savory ones, but the single entry, one with shrimp, didn't make it to the next round.)
Do not even attempt to eat these without a cold jug of milk. Not coffee, not with these complex flavors. You need milk, which really ought to be offered along with other end-of-meal beverages like brandies and espresso and port on restaurant menus, come to think of it.
Available through the end of June. Hurry up.
Jilly's Cupcake Bar and Cafe
8509 Delmar Blvd., University City
Jilly's Cupcake Bar a-Go-Go
1131 Colonnade Center, Des Peres
Central Table Food Hall is landing in my old neighborhood, the lower Central West End, and it's the perfect location for this new outfit. Some people have likened it to Eataly or the Plaza Food Hall in New York City, but I think that's not quite on the money. It's going to be a multifaceted restaurant with a big grab-and-go section. Folks on their way home from BJC or Washington University Med School's labs or classrooms, for instance, can stop by for carryout or sushi or a pizza, or just stop and have dinner. Once lunch service starts, I'm sure the be-scrubbed (as I was for many years) will be rushing in and out to fetch something different for sustenance during their shifts.
They open Wednesday, May 1, for dinner, but there's been action for the past few nights as guests culled from their Facebook followers have gone in by reservation for soft-opening dinners. I dropped by on one of those nights at the invitation of Matt McGuire, who's running things. Matt was at the helm of the much-missed King Louie's on Chouteau, and, in the interests of full disclosure, his father John, the late Post-Dispatch writer, and my late husband Joe were close friends. Joe knew Matt and his brothers from infancy.
As at Louie's, it's easy to eat at the large bar, often a really good idea for solo diners. I nibbled around and had a glass of lambrusco. Wait, wait, it's not the sweet stuff of our misspent youths. This is dry and fruity and with maybe just a hint of fizz, very nice and works with lots of different foods. The star of the evening was gnocchi with bacon and clams and tomato. They've brought in some guys from Roberta's, a restaurant in Brooklyn, and one of them is their pasta and pizza maker. The gnocchi are amazingly light. One can't really talk about a "sauce" with them, just some pan juices, but it was a great dish. Taken alone, the juices are quite salty, but with a bite of the pasta, fabulous.
The single dessert available - remember, these were training nights - was a strawberry soup. Very thick and creamy, like a pudding, really, but calling it strawberry pudding somehow doesn't work to the ear. Topped with a wee scoop of lime granita, rose petals, a dab of cotton candy and three wee meringues that had been toasted, it was excellent. And, by the way, an example of modern dessert construction, with four separate things that required creating before combining them.
Lots of things going on here, sushi, a raw bar, a coffee bar, which will provide morning sustenance even before they open for lunch, and, not surprisingly, a good and interesting wine list. Watch the website or Facebook for the lunch opening day. For now, hang on until Wednesday night.
Valet parking ($4) at night, or a freebie in the Barnes garage just to the west of the building, also only at night. BJC is, after all, the landlord.
23 S. Euclid
Wheelchair access: Good
Entrees: Not available at this tim
It's a little surprising that it took this long to make the trip for a visit to Hendel's Market Cafe in Florissant. Somehow, there always seemed to be somewhere else that needed to be investigated. But my pal, soon to move to a home in the Alps, had heard of it and yearned therefor. Excuse provided. Thank you.
The neighborhood clearly goes back to the days before Florissant was a suburb of St. Louis, the streets narrow, the hills a reminder of the rivers' activities over millennia, and many modest homes of a certain age. And while people park on the street in an easy small-town style, there's a parking lot behind the restaurant; the entrance is there, too.
Inside the 19th century store, the windows across the front and the interior decor bring to mind an equivalent establishment in rural Virginia, tasteful and genteel. There's a covered patio, and an open one in the back, centered around an immense tree. It was the first truly warm night of the year, and impossible to resist.
An order of calimari, arriving with a spicy, citrusy aioli, kept us company while we considered entrees. The breading was light and just a little crunchy, with no excessive oiliness. Housemade rolls topped with cheese before they went in the oven arrived warm, giving even more distraction from the task at hand.
Entrees come with a salad or soup, and a house salad wore the signature lemon-poppy seed dressing. Alas, another sugary dressing but the greens were fresh and crisp, although swimming in said dressing. The evening's butternut squash soup was an absolute winner. Very thick, just a little lumpy, piping hot and seasoned with curry, it surprised and pleased.
Cajun carbonara pasta used spaghetti to go with shrimp and andouille sausage, a few chunks of tomato thrown in along the way. On a technical level, there were quibbles - no apparent cheese in the carbonara, way too generously sauced - but the fact is,it tasted really good, the spiciness of the cream sauce vigorous, the shrimp not overcooked.
The same could be said of the salmon. It was cooked all the way through. But the Asian-esque glaze on it was tasty, the asparagus alongside (offered as a substitute when the still-damnably-ubiquitous vegetable medley was declined) was perfectly cooked, and it, too, arrived properly hot. The orzo pasta underneath wasn't overcooked, either.
Four dessert options, including a chocolate cupcake with a ruffle around it, and a cheesecake, which the server pointed out was from de.lish Cheesecake Bakery nearby (and points for that unprompted bit of openness), but it was lemon meringue pie that won. Good crust that had survived what was obviously not more than a few hours in the fridge, tall, elegant meringue, and a illing that was properly tart and at the right point between sloppy and Jello.
Good service from a young but quick-witted guy who didn't blink an eye when his offer of vegetable medley was met with, "Couldn't I get a Beatles medley instead?" (We used to ask for a Cole Porter medley, but got too many blank stares from nextgen servers.) And as we left, up through the tree branches, beyond the roofline, there was a church steeple and the moon. A pretty nice evening.
599 St. Denis St., Florissant
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sat., Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Tricky