Finger Lickin Good
Three new eateries roll out their mouth-watering interpretations of a theme we can really sink our teeth into.
What do the best barbecue, fried chicken and crab have in common? They’re all great excuses to put down the utensils and dig in with your fingers. In a delicious irony, three new hands-on eateries are emerging in St. Louis, courtesy of three of the city’s best fine-dining restaurateurs: Tom Schmidt of Franco, Ben Poremba of Elaia and Olio and Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Café.
Where There’s Smoke
Earlier this summer, Schmidt repositioned his restaurant in The Loop (formerly known as Nico) into Salt + Smoke, with a barbecue and bourbon theme. He made the move for three simple reasons: “No. 1: I love both of them. No. 2: They play so nicely together. No. 3: I love both of them.” He’s also a fan of the restaurant’s new backyard-casual vibe, which his wife, Genny, helped achieve with denim, cacti and apple crates. “Barbecue is fun and unpretentious, and everyone gets to let their guard down a little bit,” says Schmidt.
If the barbecue doesn’t lower your guard, the whiskey surely will. Schmidt says spirits guru Nick Caminiti came to him with ideas for the barrel-aged cocktail program and pairings he would have never considered. The Salt + Smoke, for instance, combines Laphroaig, Amaro Nonino, lime and tarragon syrup with a salt rim, and it’s one of the best cocktails the owner says he’s ever had.
After running out of food for the first few weeks, Schmidt tripled the kitchen’s efforts. Now they’re smoking more of everything, especially the popular brisket. But there are also interesting dishes like the occasional smoked mushroom for vegetarians and a jalapeño and cheddar bologna that’s been a big hit. “Chef [Haley Riley] makes it in-house and then cures and smokes it and serves it in a big hunk, pan-fried,” Schmidt explains. “It’s like the best parts of my youth and adult palette merged to form this sticky and rich chunk of meat.”
Salt + Smoke: 6525 Delmar Blvd., 314.727.0200
The Chicken Dance
On the other hand, over at Old Standard, the 50-seat eatery opening this month in Botanical Heights, Poremba is serving up something he didn’t have much as a child in Israel: fried chicken. But he’s all about it now—adjectives such as “tasty,” “crunchy,” “juicy,” “moist” and “spicy” roll off his tongue. In addition to the classic poultry breaded in flour and deep-fried in peanut oil, the menu will include salads and “fun fried foods” to share, plus seasonal sides like coleslaw with grilled corn. Poremba’s also experimenting with “appetizers that aren’t overtly Southern but are a nod to the South,” such as Virginia hams, smoked trout and a black-bean dip with smoked chiles, cilantro and lime.
Why the focus on fried chicken? Poremba says he’s been watching the trend toward making fast, casual, familiar foods like pizza and tacos “cool and hip”— but no one was doing chicken. “The other big aspect is an all-American, educated whiskey list,” he adds. “People shouldn’t expect any liquor other than whiskey.” But there will be sparkling wine, and plenty of it. Because, Poremba explains, “Anything cold and bubbly is good with fried chicken.”
Coast to Coast
Finally, there’s Nashan’s newly opened crab-and-lobster shack, The Peacemaker, in the Benton Park space that formerly housed Niche. After a gut rehab that substantially expands the space, 120 or so customers can dig into a seafood dinner that rivals anything on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts—food Nashan grew up loving. His goal was to use the same thought process and philosophy as at Sidney Street but in a laid-back setting where he can bring his family and not worry that stuff falls on the floor. “A place where I want to eat every single day,” he says.
And what does that look like for one of the city’s top chefs? Dishes such as lobster pie with pork rinds, crumbled Fritos, crème fraiche and chives. “You want to go for three things: yummy, fun and interesting,” Nashan says. And yes, there are plenty of hand-held foods on the menu, from po’boys and lobster rolls to corn dogs, shaved ice and soft-serve ice cream with house-made Magic Shell. Keep those napkins coming.
The Peacemaker: 1831 Sidney St., 314.772.8858
Salt + Smoke
Photo credit: Michael Becker