The Best New Restaurants 2013

 

At first glance, these 10 newcomers make a colorful snapshot of the diversity we love about St. Louis restaurants. But behind the scenes, the key trait they share is experience. Getting it right as a first-time restaurateur is like hitting the best-seller list with your debut novel. You might get lucky once, but true mastery takes time. These chefs, GMs and owners have paid their dues, and it shows.

 

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Basso at the Cheshire

Much was made of the nostalgia factor as The Cheshire gradually reawakened last winter. So it’s perhaps fitting that two of those at the helm of Basso‰ÛÓthe hotel complex’s trendy lowerlevel eatery‰ÛÓboth did stints away from home before returning to St. Louis. Executive Chef Patrick Connolly is a St. Louis native who won the James Beard Best Chef: Northeast award in 2008 while working in Boston, and general manager Jonathan Schoen has spent most of his career climbing the local ranks at Italian restaurants, with the exception of a few years spent in Scottsdale, AZ. A year later, the customers flocking to see and be seen at Basso are coming purely for the here-and-now. The beer menu, for example, boasts 32 varieties on tap, including a number of local microbrews alongside out-of-the-ordinary labels from Italy. The small sampler makes it easy to get acquainted with new flavors or compare styles from multiple countries. Connolly’s wood-fired pizzas go well with the beers, and they’re easy to share among groups. Basso’s happy hour specials may end at 6pm, but the jovial vibe extends well past midnight, focused around the 40-seat bar that dominates the space. In a creative experiment during English soccer season, Basso opens for breakfast at 8am on game day Saturdays, making it possible to spend all day in the trendiest basement in the city. 7036 Clayton Ave., Clayton, 314.932.7820

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Gringo

The scope of the place has to be seen to be believed, but here’s an example of what a 10,000-square-foot restaurant looks like: When my brunch companion said, “Get a load of those wine barrels,” I had to crane my neck around for a few seconds before noticing the 12 wine barrels suspended above the bar. But the seating manages to feel intimate enough, even for the full-service evening meal. The much-ballyhooed food stations‰ÛÓthe wood-fired oven, grill, deli sandwiches/ salads and coffee‰ÛÓare important to understand for breakfast and lunch, when you order there and bring the food to a table. For brunch and dinner, the menu has it all, classified generally according to hot and cold dishes and sushi. While it’s entertaining to watch some of the stations, especially the open hearth, once the food arrives you’ll forget where it’s from and just dig into the addictive fried fingerling potatoes (the closest approximation to fries), tangy arugula-asparagus salad or pizza with gooseberry, lamb bacon and goat cheese. Sushi-lovers who miss Miso will be happy to find Eliott Harris behind the counter at the raw bar, and wine-lovers will feel the same about general manager Matt McGuire, formerly of Brasserie by Niche and King Louie’s. 23 S. Euclid Ave., Central West End, 314.932.5595

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Bar Les Fr•À_res

This petite little number in red oozes sophistication and confidence. How else could a place so lovely get away with showcasing deer antlers above the bar? Or make a go of it with only a couple dozen seats? True to the old adage, looks will only get you so far, and it’s what’s inside that counts‰ÛÓin this case, a winsome staff that imbues the tiny establishment with a big heart, while in the kitchen, Chef Ny Vongsaly tantalizes the taste buds. The restaurant’s signature dishes include caviar on potato blinis and filet mignon in the steak au poivre. Bar Les Fr̬res tops all the romantic dining lists in town‰ÛÓwhich is little consolation when you and your beloved are waiting and waiting and waiting for a table. Best bet: Come early or late. Barring that, take the servers up on their offer to mix you a drink before you’re seated. Zoe Robinson Pidgeon’s third culinary creation is a gem. The dÌ©cor is a product of her love of collecting, carefully chosen to appeal to both feminine and masculine tastes, as any great date venue should. And she’s not finished yet. The owner of I Fratellini and Bobo Noodle House is already envisioning an expansion of Bar Les Fr̬res and collecting the treasures to furnish it in the style of a French hotel (no, it won’t contain more antlers‰ÛÓand please don’t call them horns). 7637 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, 314.725.8880

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Central Table Food Hall

The scope of the place has to be seen to be believed, but here’s an example of what a 10,000-square-foot restaurant looks like: When my brunch companion said, “Get a load of those wine barrels,” I had to crane my neck around for a few seconds before noticing the 12 wine barrels suspended above the bar. But the seating manages to feel intimate enough, even for the full-service evening meal. The much-ballyhooed food stations‰ÛÓthe wood-fired oven, grill, deli sandwiches/ salads and coffee‰ÛÓare important to understand for breakfast and lunch, when you order there and bring the food to a table. For brunch and dinner, the menu has it all, classified generally according to hot and cold dishes and sushi. While it’s entertaining to watch some of the stations, especially the open hearth, once the food arrives you’ll forget where it’s from and just dig into the addictive fried fingerling potatoes (the closest approximation to fries), tangy arugula-asparagus salad or pizza with gooseberry, lamb bacon and goat cheese. Sushi-lovers who miss Miso will be happy to find Eliott Harris behind the counter at the raw bar, and wine-lovers will feel the same about general manager Matt McGuire, formerly of Brasserie by Niche and King Louie’s. 23 S. Euclid Ave., Central West End, 314.932.5595

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Prasino

Restaurants touting their sustainably raised ingredients and eco-friendliness are no longer outliers in the industry. But in practical terms, walking the talk is still easier for the little guys‰ÛÓsourcing green vendors (not to mention dealing with the prep and the meal’s aftermath) for restaurants that seat 250-plus customers is daunting. An Illinois-based chain with a moniker that means “green” in Greek, Prasino has hit on a formula for making such initiatives profitable. And while that’s certainly a selling point for some of its clientele, most are simply out for a good meal in a sophisticated venue. The light fixtures made of repurposed corrugated cardboard and the chairs using recycled seatbelts are nice, but we’re really here to eat. Prasino’s savvy hiring of Executive Chef Tony Marchetto gave it a leg up in terms of local purveyors. He’s a veteran of Tony’s and of Cardwell’s at the Plaza, where the proprietor, Bill Cardwell, has long been an advocate of supporting the region’s farmers and ranchers. The menu Marchetto oversees ranges from seitan to Prince Edward Island mussels, kale to gooey butter cake, lamb meatballs in pepper coulis to pork steak with Fitz’s root beer barbecue sauce. They’re all worth a celebratory toast‰ÛÓwith a local microbrew, of course. 1520 S. Fifth St., St. Charles, 636.277.0202

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Olio

To customers braving the perpetual construction zone in the fledgling neighborhood around Olio, the brightly lit wine bar and its sister restaurant Elaia beckon with the promise of relaxation. To the young staffers, the former gas station is a beacon of opportunity. They’re clearly having fun discovering how far they can push the envelope, offering exciting tasting opportunities for wine and spirits geeks such as wines from New York’s Element Winery or arak from Lebanon. Pulling it all together is chef and proprietor Ben Poremba, who has seen the industry from all sides: from the back doors, where restaurateurs sometimes take a risk on an unknown guy hawking fresh produce; from the counter of his artisan cured meats company Salume Beddu; and now from the front of the stove, dreaming up new dishes to showcase top-quality ingredients. His counterpart on the wine side is General Manager Andrey Ivanov, 27, who already holds the title of advanced sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers and has experience at several of St. Louis’ most well-known wine venues. Showing the youngsters they still have a bit to learn is Olio’s chef, Jay Stringer, who’s proving the value of un-exotic staples such as housemade mozzarella and Thousand Island dressing. The synergy is undeniable. 1634 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, 314.932.1088

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The Libertine

The space could have been a liability. It’s almost windowless and partially walled off into separate rooms, making it impossible to see from one end of the restaurant to the other. Instead, thanks to inspired design and lighting, it achieves the goal set out by the visionary team: to foster the art of conversation in the same way as a British pub or historic French salon‰ÛÓor, less loftily, the neighborhood eatery. And, it goes without saying, to serve outstanding food and drink. If diners need something to jump-start their chitchat, there’s always the topic of Executive Chef Josh Galliano’s triumphant return to the local dining scene. His signature southern dishes are scattered here and there‰ÛÓgrits and scorched okra with a trio of fowl, fried chicken at lunch and Sunday supper once a month‰ÛÓbut it’s the creative license that really ups the “wow” factor. He plays around with everything from duck eggs to carrots and cauliflower, and more than one diner has left raving about the vegetables above all else. 7927 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.2999

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Table

Cassy Vires sticks to a theme at her restaurants Home Wine Kitchen and Table: Food and wine should not be intimidating. That’s true of the final plated dishes as well as the combination of ingredients and inspirations that go into them. Thus, when she kicked off her weekends-only chef’s tasting menu at Table, it’s no surprise that the first theme she chose was a kids’ carnival. Corn dogs, funnel cakes, cheese fries and snow cones abounded, featuring grown-up flavors like chorizo, goose, pork belly, cayenne and smoked tomatoes. The concept at the new restaurant is for long communal tables to promote interaction among diners. For some, this could be more intimidating than ordering fried pig ear and crispy beef tongue. But the restaurant is intended to be a forum for sharing, be it small plates with friends or stories with strangers. Although she envisions Table breaking less new ground than Home Wine Kitchen, with its seasonal menus and rotating dishes, there is still plenty to invigorate the loyal customers who have come to trust her instincts. Take, for instance, the veal carpaccio with fried capers, foie gras with chocolate balsamic and lamb meatballs with blueberry-chipotle glaze‰ÛÓany one of which could certainly start a few conversations on its own. 1821 Cherokee St., Cherokee, 314.449.1888

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Tree House

Bay Tran knows South Grand like the back of her hand. And many of the passersby outside her new restaurant clearly know her too, either from Mekong, her family’s Vietnamese place just up the street, or as a fellow resident of the neighborhood. Then there are the professional connections Tran has earned, both as a trained chef and a businesswoman. She capitalized on that by locating Tree House on one of the boulevard’s busiest corners. Tran’s concept for her first restaurant‰ÛÓ”refined vegetarian” with many vegan and some raw dishes‰ÛÓtook her out on a metaphorical limb. But her team delivers the goods. Tree House’s meat-free versions of smoked sausage, street tacos and wild mushroom pÌ¢tÌ© are overflowing with umami, the hard-to-define flavor that keeps carnivores craving meat. The dishes also pass the test of standing up to flavorful local microbrews and bold cocktails from Billy Holley (who, like Tran, is a familiar face in the industry). In keeping with the South Grand vibe, there’s a strong global fusion element to the menu, ranging from melt-in-your-mouth pan de queso to pitch-perfect banh mi sandwiches to quintessential pisco sours. On the other hand, Tree House may be the first place on earth to have mastered beet fries. 3177 S. Grand Blvd., Tower Grove, 314.696.2100

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Pastaria

In a city that loves to celebrate Italian carbs, value pricing and local celebrities, Gerard Craft’s success at Pastaria was assured from the day his ode to simple pasts and pizzas opened. Parents in particular are paying Pastaria the highest homage: waiting for a table with kids in tow at a downtown Clayton venue. Granted, at $10 fro an entree and dessert, the kids’ menu is way cheaper than a sitter; but the family-friendliness extends beyond pricing, a nod to Craft’s two young daughters. The multifaceted experience at Pastaria is one that more restaurants should emulate. There’s the introductory level, where diners may step outside their comfort zone and try a pizza topping they can’t get delivered at home. There’s the food-lover level, when the shape of a pasta and the density of the sauce starts to matter. And there’s the connoisseur level, for those who can rattle off what makes lardo different from guanciale (strips of cured Italian fatback versus unsmoked Italian bacon) and recognize the unique grape varieties dotting the wine list. The James Beard folks who passed up yet another opportunity to reward Craft as Best Chef: Midwest earlier this year were probably just jonesing for another pizza with fontina and house-made American-style pepperoni. Our prediction: another nomination and another trip to the finals in 2014. 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.6603

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg

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