Restaurants of the Year

Seven new and newsworthy restaurants to visit-or revisit-right now.

 

FROM INNOVATIVE NEWCOMERS to bold reinventions, St. Louis chefs and restaurateurs are elevating the local foodie scene to a whole new level. It speaks to the synergy that exists amongst the city’s top-performing foodie destinations—as well as just plain good-natured competition. Needless to say, narrowing our Restaurants of the Year to seven proved quite the challenge. But we persevered—and ultimately landed on a stellar group of new and newsworthy destinations whose dynamic energy continues to surprise and delight us. Introducing “THE YEAR IN MENUS.”

 

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The “MOVIN’ ON UP” menu

Niche, moving to 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, mid-November

Niche has long set the bar for innovation in St. Louis. A longtime foodie destination, its most recent buzz comes as a result of the restaurant’s mid-November move from a tree-shaded street in Benton Park to a shiny Clayton office tower‰ÛÓadjacent to chef and owner Gerard Craft’s latest brainchild, the highly anticipated Pastaria. Craft says Niche’s focus on dishes that are unique, new and fresh will remain‰ÛÓthe differences will be on the surface.

And we’re anticipating very lovely surfaces indeed. The new building’s interior uses Midwestern limestone and reclaimed hardwood floors. Set against that backdrop will be tables from Alton’s David Stein, a master tablemaker. Part of Niche’s space, a private mezzanine, will overlap with its sister restaurant, Pastaria. Together, the two will make a powerful pair‰ÛÓa family-friendly joint with delectable noodles conjoined with an upscale white-tablecloth restaurant that pushes all sorts of culinary envelopes.

In the back of the house, the kitchen will have something many home cooks are familiar with: an island. Craft says the amenity will make the new space easier for the chefs to operate in, even though size-wise it’ll be about the same‰ÛÓbecause when chefs work around each other instead of in a line, communication is better and they can collaborate more, he explains.

Niche’s move coincides with the start of the fall menu season, so the new menu will be more a coincidence of timing than a shift in philosophy. Craft, who was nominated again in 2012 for a James Beard best Midwest chef title, is zealous about building his menu around the freshest produce. A longtime advocate of foraged foods, he anticipates working wild sorrel into the mix, thanks to its abundance in local woodlands, as a lemon-like flavor for salads, soups or sauces. With the move, the newly opened Pastaria and the family’s other sibling, Brasserie in the Central West End, it’s a safe bet the Utah native won’t have time to be the one out there foraging for it.

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The “WHAT WINE SHOULD WE ORDER” menu

Local Harvest Cafe, 12309 Old Big Bend Road, Kirkwood; 815 Olive St., Downtown; 3137 Morgan Ford Road, Tower Grove, 314.772.8815

The big news for Local Harvest Cafe in 2012 was an expansion from its single location near Tower Grove Park to Kirkwood and Downtown. (Though we would be remiss not to point out that chef Clara Moore did get her 15 minutes of fame as a reality TV cooking show contestant, too.)

Moore’s dedication to sustainability, buying locally and cooking seasonal dishes will carry over to the new locations. So will the challenge of sourcing all of those sustainable, fresh, local products‰ÛÓthe past year had her using close to 20 different suppliers on a weekly basis already. She has committed publicly to sourcing half of her ingredients from within 150 miles of St. Louis, and the spirit of charitable giving‰ÛÓto organizations like the Tower Grove Farmers Market, Creative Exchange Lab, the YMCA and Earthways Center‰ÛÓis already thriving at the Downtown location, which donates daily to St. Patrick Center.

Moore sees her mission as helping “incubate and support the local food community by buying locally and seasonally,” and although she certainly uses meat in many dishes, part of her vision is to expand carnivores’ horizons into the vegetarian and vegan worlds. Take, for example, the Green Plate at the Tower Grove location. “This is our ever-changing vegan special that is not just for vegans,” Moore says. “We have tons of regulars that are omnivores who come in just for the Green Plate.”

Local Harvest’s brunch and lunch menus are renowned, so rather than fix what’s not broken, Moore has kept them at both new locations, with a few twists. In Kirkwood, it’s an expanded prepared food section and sandwiches to order; Downtown, it’s extra menu items with an international flair (like tofu bahn mi at lunch and huevos montulenos for brunch), plus box lunches and catering.

As Moore tweaks and perfects the new locations, she’ll keep working on the Tower Grove menu, too, with seasonal specials like this fall’s wild mushroom stroganoff with house-made pappardelle and locally sourced fungi.

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the “DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS” menu

Home Wine kitchen, 7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.802.7676

Home Wine Kitchen‘s executive chef Cassy Vires is full of ideas. In addition to No Menu Mondays, when she customizes meals for all of her customers in groups of six or fewer, Vires channels her inspirations into a menu that changes weekly and seasonally. She also creates private event menus for groups using the restaurant’s upstairs space. “The smallest we have done was two and the largest 55,” she recalls‰ÛÓand you get the sense that she could go into quite a bit of detail on most of those menus.

Still, Vires knows that for some customers, change is the enemy of comfort. “With the menu changing so often, it can be intimidating or difficult for some people,” she admits. “The best tip I can give diners is not to be afraid to ask questions.” Indeed, the servers won’t look down their noses, even if you don’t know frise?e from fried grits. To the contrary, they will probably launch into an enthusiastic endorsement, much like Vires does about off cuts (aka offal). “People see pig’s ear, trotter or cheek on the menu, and they assume they won’t like it,” she says. “But a lot of times, these are some of the most delicious and approachable items on our menu. Pig’s ear, for example, when fried crispy, is like candy! Beef cheeks remind me of pot roast.”

Lately, Vires has been pulling her inspiration from the treetops‰ÛÓliterally. “I love using leaves to season foods,” she says. “Those little things pack quite a punch. I just recently made a peach liqueur, which tastes like summer peaches through and through. We will get to use the incredibly fresh flavor all year long.”

What’s next for the prolific inventor of dishes? Don’t be surprised if it’s something she picks up on the stress-free cruise she and her husband, Home’s general manager, Josh Renbarger, will be taking to the Dominican Republic.

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the “THREE IS BETTER THAN ONE” menus

Local Harvest Cafe, 12309 Old Big Bend Road, Kirkwood; 815 Olive St., Downtown; 3137 Morgan Ford Road, Tower Grove, 314.772.8815

The big news for Local Harvest Cafe in 2012 was an expansion from its single location near Tower Grove Park to Kirkwood and Downtown. (Though we would be remiss not to point out that chef Clara Moore did get her 15 minutes of fame as a reality TV cooking show contestant, too.)

Moore’s dedication to sustainability, buying locally and cooking seasonal dishes will carry over to the new locations. So will the challenge of sourcing all of those sustainable, fresh, local products‰ÛÓthe past year had her using close to 20 different suppliers on a weekly basis already. She has committed publicly to sourcing half of her ingredients from within 150 miles of St. Louis, and the spirit of charitable giving‰ÛÓto organizations like the Tower Grove Farmers Market, Creative Exchange Lab, the YMCA and Earthways Center‰ÛÓis already thriving at the Downtown location, which donates daily to St. Patrick Center.

Moore sees her mission as helping “incubate and support the local food community by buying locally and seasonally,” and although she certainly uses meat in many dishes, part of her vision is to expand carnivores’ horizons into the vegetarian and vegan worlds. Take, for example, the Green Plate at the Tower Grove location. “This is our ever-changing vegan special that is not just for vegans,” Moore says. “We have tons of regulars that are omnivores who come in just for the Green Plate.”

Local Harvest’s brunch and lunch menus are renowned, so rather than fix what’s not broken, Moore has kept them at both new locations, with a few twists. In Kirkwood, it’s an expanded prepared food section and sandwiches to order; Downtown, it’s extra menu items with an international flair (like tofu bahn mi at lunch and huevos montulenos for brunch), plus box lunches and catering.

As Moore tweaks and perfects the new locations, she’ll keep working on the Tower Grove menu, too, with seasonal specials like this fall’s wild mushroom stroganoff with house-made pappardelle and locally sourced fungi.

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the “WE APPRECIATE YOU” menu

Sidney Street Cafe, 2000 Sidney St., Benton Park, 314.771.5777

There are those who only visit Sidney Street Cafe on special occasions like anniversaries, engagements and romantic holidays. This is a lovely tradition‰ÛÓexcept that anniversaries and Feb. 14 roll around only once a year, engagements (hopefully) are even less frequent, and Sidney Street deserves your patronage way more often. An insider tip: Do like the neighbors and stop in for a surprisingly inexpensive cocktail after work, when you can have a conversation about anything from the private island you’ll buy when you win the lottery to the best setup for composting with worms.

The unpretentious atmosphere is a credit to chef and owner Kevin Nashan, who claims to be “just taking it day by day”‰ÛÓright after he lists his highlights for 2012, including cooking for President Obama and famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer; being nominated for a James Beard best Midwest chef award; hosting a national Celebrity Chef Tour dinner; and helping raise money for charities from around the country. If he feels pressure to top these highlights in 2013, Nashan doesn’t let on.

Sidney Street’s menus balance favorites like lobster turnovers and steak wasabi with seasonal, local dishes. This fall, for example, Nashan will be experimenting with tripe and game birds. To those in the know, tripe is trendy. Whether those celebrating their 45th anniversary will go out on that limb remains to be seen.

Within the local restaurant community, Nashan‰ÛÓ who hails from New Mexico originally‰ÛÓis known for a collaborative spirit. “The success of the St. Louis food scene is a group effort,” he says, “and it will take all of us to make it happen.”

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the “GLOBAL GREATEST HITS” menu

Truffles, 9202 Clayton Road, Ladue, 314.567.9100

It’s true, Truffles‘ new menu under incoming chef Brandon Benack focuses on steak. But before you yawn, take note, because you’ve never had it quite like this‰ÛÓseasoned with a unique Creole spice blend and zapped in a 1,600-degree infrared broiler.

Benack and general manager/wine director Aleks Jovanovic have revamped and reinterpreted their way through the menu at the venerable 13-year-old restaurant, keeping beloved dishes (like the bone marrow and Dover sole), going to extreme lengths with others (like the 54-step foie gras) and introducing their own favorites from their days together in New Orleans at Emeril’s, plus post-Katrina gigs in the Caribbean and Miami and Benack’s native New York.

Ingredients, too, are a mix of locally sourced, house-made and imported (like Elysian Fields lamb from Pennsylvania or hand-selected fresh seafood from New Orleans Fish House). The prime beef is aged between 10 and 29 days in-house.

Passionate as he is about the food, Jovanovic is even more confident about the 1,300 selections of wine in Truffles’ cellars, 300 of which are available for under $50. The oldest, a madeira, dates to 1863. Also notable are the French Champagnes, from small growers instead of the big houses. But, that’s not to say this is a haven for wine snobs. Jovanovic’s free Thursday wine tastings give everyone an opportunity to vote on a wine that will be sold at cost the following week by the bottle and glass. And, as long as you’re there, stay for the live music and a bowl of the Soon to be Famous French Onion Soup.

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the “FOOD WE WOULD LIKE TO SEE ON A MENU” menu

Cleveland-Heath, 106 N. Main St., Edwardsville, 618.307.4830

When she says her restaurant’s menu is full of very familiar items, chef and co-owner Jennifer Cleveland isn’t kidding. Tacos, pulled pork, wings, mac-n-cheese…it doesn’t sound like the kind of food that would be worth a drive to Edwardsville. And the locals waiting in line for an hour to dine on Friday and Saturday nights would prefer that you go right on thinking that.

In fact, Cleveland and her husband, Eric Heath, enjoy challenging their customers’ palates with surprises like Cuban-influenced pulled smoked goat. “People might come in for their favorite thing and end up trying something new,” Cleveland says. Case in point: The braised pork cheeks that debuted over the summer are now a standard menu item. Customers might even try something they don’t think they like‰ÛÓsay, Brussels sprouts or beets or kale. (Spoiler alert: You didn’t hear about the octopus from us.)

The same willingness to break out of a rut holds true for the husband-wife, chef-owner duo who first met in Utah and then moved together to attend culinary school in California’s Napa Valley. “We envisioned our restaurant being a certain way,” Cleveland says. Now that they have a year under their belts, she has realized that, “it’s different from what we expected, but in a good way.” For one thing, the menu has evolved to be meat-centric, but Cleveland and Heath are all about modifying dishes for vegan, gluten-free and other diets. Besides, special requests give them a chance to play with all the small batches of fresh veggies farmers drop off at their back door.

The wine list isn’t deep, but, like the food menu, it’s carefully selected to provide comfort with a dash of the unknown for customers who are savvy about their vintages. Come to think of it, the drive across a bridge‰ÛÓgasp!‰ÛÓto the up-and-coming food destination of Edwardsville might have the same effect on the fleet of certified foodies from the city that Cleveland-Heath is attracting.

 

Photo credit: Jonathan Gayman

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