The Hot List: Dining

 In Culture, Feature

The STL dining scene is serving up local and national acclaim like never before. Our moneys on the creativity and passion of our beloved hometown chefs and restaurateurshands down.


See the full Hot List feature in the June issue of ALIVE, or in the digital edition.

Best Chef: Kevin Willmann, Farmhaus

Last year, Willmann earned a nod from Food & Wine magazine as one of the nation’s Best New Chefs. This year, the James Beard Foundation followed suit, naming him as a nominee for Best Chef: Midwest. Notice the “new” was dropped—Willmann’s cred is officially established. The Florida-raised chef always has freshly flown-in fish on the dinner menu, but the majority of his ingredients are locally sourced and sustainably raised. His team also cures meat, makes cheese, pickles veggies and bakes bread—and still finds the time to whip up a $10 Blue Plate lunch special five days a week. It’s a fabulous deal, and pretty much your only opportunity to try Farmhaus without a reservation booked well in advance. 3257 Ivanhoe Ave., South City, 314.647.3800.

Best Burger: Baileys’ Range

There isn’t a single “best” burger on the menu here. For one, all the burgers are juicy and delicious. For another, the menu has been evolving since the restaurant opened last November—and with our luck, the “best” would have been replaced with something even better. You really can’t go wrong, whether you choose a beef patty or a specialty (pork, chicken, lamb, bison or veggie). It will come on a house-baked bun with house-made condiments, something almost unheard of in the world of burger joints. Even the ice cream is made on-site—with choice booze added to several milkshake varieties. 920 Olive St., Downtown, 314.241.8121.

Best New Restaurant: Salt

SaltIf you think no one’s used the word “larder” since your grandma’s day, dust off the dictionary. Salt’s tagline, “An American Larder,” is a fitting description of a kitchen that uses everything you might have found in an old-fashioned pantry—from pickled pig’s tongue and duck fat to humble potatoes. Behind the bar, there are house-made tinctures (another classic term, essentially high-proof alcohol with an essence of herbs or fruit). By embracing wholesome ingredients with creativity and passion, chef and owner Wes Johnson helped Salt book a nomination for Best New Restaurant in this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards. 4356 Lindell Blvd., Central West End, 314.932.5787.

Best Ambiance: Cielo

The vistas over the Arch, Riverfront and Downtown skyline from Cielo‘s Sky Terrace are worthy of their own “best of” category, but they’re just a part of the overall ambiance. Reflecting pools…cushions and throw pillows… candles…savvy servers who know when to step forward and when to fade into the wood-paneled background. Ah, the perks of a pampered existence. For a behind-the-scenes experience, arrange to be seated at the chef’s table inside the kitchen to witness Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi’s artistry firsthand. 999 N. Second St., Downtown, 314.881.5759.

Best Brunch: Home Wine Kitchen

What’s the point of going out to brunch if you’re going to order something you could make at home? It’s definitely not a problem at Chef Cassandra Vires’ Maplewood eatery. She’ll whet your appetite for spice (tasso on the eggs Benedict), sweetness (bread pudding French toast), freshness (spinach salad with radish and fennel) or sheer decadence (chicken and waffles). Technically, you could replicate some of these at home—Vires frequently shares her recipes with local magazine and TV audiences—but after you’ve relaxed with a specialty mimosa (Meyer lemon, honey and sparkling wine), you’ll likely decide to make Vires your permanent Sunday morning chef. 7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.802.7676.

Best Lunch Spot: Bixby’s

Three-quarters of us grab lunch at our desks at least a couple of times a week. But, when we actually steal away some time for a real lunch, there’s no better place than the green expanse of Forest Park, as seen through the windows of Bixby’s in the Missouri History Museum. Chef Callaghan Carter and his team, working under the leadership of the Butler’s Pantry catering company, offer seasonal dishes— like the spring vegetable tart, grilled shrimp and lemon basil lasagna—in addition to a short roster of delectable salads, soups and sandwiches. You could take it back to your desk…or not. 5700 Lindell Blvd., Forest Park, 314.361.7313.

Best Wine List: Robust 

One of the many wonderful things about wine is that every year there are countless new bottles to explore. Of course, that’s also one of the most intimidating things about it—and the reason even longtime wine aficionados like to do some guided exploration every now and then. Enter the Robust team, led by owner and certified sommelier Stanley Browne. They are constantly refining the selection of wines within Robust’s eight-category easy-to-follow classification system. Not only are the staff members (including five sommeliers) ready to pour, they’re also ready to talk about the 45 by-the-glass selections and dozens of bottles in each category to bring the wine list to life. It’s no wonder a second location Downtown is set to open this summer. 227 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, 314.963.0033.

Best Deli: Pickles

At this neighborhood deli, the art of the sandwich is all about the meat. Pastrami, corned beef, ham, salami… take your pick. And, they don’t skimp when it comes time to fill the bread (available in seven varieties, including the delectable pretzel roll, and worthy of a whole separate conversation). You can create your own sandwich or order one of theirs, like the Cuban, French dip, Reuben or Italian sub. Either way, you’ll want to save room for the bakery-fresh cupcakes. Not every deli can boast about its proteins and its carbs, but this one can. Multiple locations,

Best Coffeehouse: Park Avenue Coffee

Quick, what’s the first thing you thought of when you read Park Avenue Coffee? The Chauvin coffee? Low-fat muffins? Fat-free latte? Admit it, none of the above—it was the crave-worthy gooey butter cake. With more than 70 flavors in its rotating selection, we guarantee you’ll find one you like, even if you profess not to like this particular local delicacy. With a second location now open Downtown and sales of boxed gooey butter cake mixes from its own Ann and Allen Baking Company spreading across the nation, Park Avenue is poised to be a name you’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future—which won’t help your cravings one bit. Multiple locations,

Best Bakery: Companion

Because Companion’s 15 or so styles of artisan breads show up in so many grocery stores, markets and restaurants around town, you might not make the trip to the two cafés or the early bird outlet all that often. That means you could be missing out on some of the delicacies— like the top-selling MoMos (brioche cinnamon-sugar rolls) or the delectable pain au chocolat—that have helped Companion owner Josh Allen continue to expand since 1993. Besides, Companion is all about breaking bread in the community sense, both with its customers and through the CollaBREADtive project with chefs at its many partner restaurants. Multiple locations,

Best Date Spot: Scape American Bistro

The indoor restaurant at Scape is all about sophistication and chandeliers, which is good for a date, no doubt. But, the Back Bar at Scape exudes romance. The private courtyard is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the CWE, with live music, twinkly lights, specialty cocktails and the same menu as the indoor restaurant until 9pm. The menu is a secret weapon for a first date, satisfying every dietary whim, from filet mignon to raw veggie lasagna. The crowning touch is the banana cream pie—for two, naturally. 48 Maryland Plaza, Central West End, 314.361.7227.

Best Cafe: Blondie’s

Blondie’s fits the definition of an overachiever. First thing weekday mornings, it’s all about coffee, smoothies and specialty caffeinated beverages. Weekend mornings, it offers bottle service at brunch. (Yes, you read that right.) For lunch, there’s chicken salad, and those who prefer a glass or two of wine around 4pm can choose from small plates like beef carpaccio, smoked salmon, baked olives or pork tenderloin with polenta. They can also try a wine flight, three 3-oz. pours of red, white or sparkling selections. Then there’s the dessert menu, a full page of chocolate, cake, ice cream and martinis. We rest our case. 1301 Washington Ave., Downtown, 314.241.6100.

Best Fine Dining: Tony’s

Decades from now, we hope to dine out with our children’s children at Tony’s. We expect some longtime favorites will still grace the menu, like filet mignon and lobster albanello. We also expect to watch, transfixed, as the staff puts the finishing touches on our salads, or ignites a perfect flambé tableside. But, because this is 2012 and the grandkids are still a long way off, we’re all about the new dishes that Executive Chef Vincent P. Bommarito is easing into the rotation. Even with the somewhat relaxed dress code, we love that, at age 60 years and counting, Tony’s continues to inspire everyone to sit up a little straighter in their seats. 410 Market St., Downtown, 314.231.7007.

Best Locavore Menu: Winslow’s Home

It’s surprising that no imitators have popped up to replicate the symbiotic relationship between this popular U City eatery and the four-acre Augusta farm that supplies it. The concept is brilliantly simple: The farmers collaborate with Executive Chef Cary McDowell, who tweaks his soups, salads, quiche of the day and entrées based on whatever is freshest that day or that week. And, if it’s eggs you’re hungry for at breakfast time, you should know that the chicken feed at Winslow’s Farm comes from the restaurant’s compost bin—which is about as full circle as it gets. 7213 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.725.7559.

Best Steakhouse: The Block

For a card-carrying carnivore, the opportunity to order half a hog at the butcher counter is reason enough to visit The Block. By daring to pair his new steakhouse with a real live butcher shop, owner Marc Del Pietro has hit on a winning combination. Because it has total control over the butchering, aging, curing, preserving, barbecuing, smoking and roasting, the kitchen can guarantee top-quality cuts and preparation. It also finds time for fun, with non-traditional steakhouse fare like pork rinds, bacon candy, bacon jam and bacon ice cream. 146 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, 314.918.7900.

Best Sushi: Tani

Rather than try to hold back the wind, Tani bows to the fact that most St. Louisans use “sushi” in the broadest sense possible. In describing itself as a fusion restaurant, it frees itself of the burden of defining sushi as only nigiri (the raw fish that has defined sushi’s reputation for so long). Tani’s nigiri is stunningly fresh, the pricier cuts tending to be even more buttery and meltin-your-mouth delicious. However, the maki rolls can get pretty elaborate, and shouldn’t be ignored. When you see one set on fire tableside, you’ll know what we mean. 16 S. Bemiston Ave., Clayton, 314.727.8264.

Best Mexican: Chava’s Mexican Restaurant

Soulard is not often associated with international cuisines (aside from Irish). But, tucked away in its side streets are a handful of unexpectedly authentic ethnic eateries, including Chava’s. Tortas, fried tacos and stuffed peppers weren’t as familiar to diners as they are now when Chris Ybarra opened his restaurant in 2006, but he’s still in a league of his own with El Mireko (flash-fried ranchero-style chicken burritos topped with chile con queso and guacamole). And, because this is Soulard, after all, there are nine tequilas and six hand-blended margaritas made with real fruits like pineapple and mango to get the fiesta started. So, what are you waiting for? ¡Salúd! 925 Geyer Ave., Soulard, 314.241.5503.

Best Pizza: The Good Pie

Foodie circles were buzzing when this Neapolitan-style pizzeria fired up its wood-burning stove in 2009, and the love affair has only grown over time. Now the restaurant’s two other main offerings, salads and beer, are earning accolades, too. But, to us, it’s still all about the pizza—thin crust, tenderly topped with three or four ingredients and then thrust into a fiery semicircle. Purists stick with the first two pizzas on the menu: The Margherita with tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil, or The Good Pie, which swaps in a richer and more expensive mozzarella made from the milk of water buffalo. It’s well worth the price. 3137 Olive St., Midtown, 314.289.9391.

Best Dessert Menu: Brasserie

Brasserie’s desserts have been described by Pastry Chef Summer Wright as straightforward, country French dishes with no fancy plating. We disagree— the Floating Island, for example, is a lovely meringue dollop on crème anglaise, drizzled with caramel and almonds. We also find it hard to believe that country folk in France are noshing on house-made ice creams in flavors like brandy and crème fraiche, or pot de crème flavored with maple. And yes, it’s true that profiteroles (aka cream puffs) are not hard to make…so when was the last time you whipped up a batch? Thought so. Wright can probably pop out these delicacies in her sleep, but we’re impressed nonetheless. 4580 Laclede Ave., Central West End, 314.454.0600.

Best Mediterranean: Aya Sofia

It’s hard to resist a menu that transports a diner to far-away Turkey, where a dish like eggplant casserole is transformed into Ímam Bayildi, and soup of the day becomes Gunun Çorbasi. Aya Sofia is all about the escape from the everyday, which helps explain its growing popularity on special occasions like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day—not to mention the draw on a plain old Sunday night that needs a little spicing up. Our favorite getaway also boasts a good wine list, colorful décor and welcoming staff. Even if you’re not the most adventurous diner in the world, we’re willing to bet you’ll find a dish to your liking. 6671 Chippewa St., South City, 314.645.9919.

Best Vegan Menu: VegaDeli

The crew at VegaDeli isn’t out to convert you to the vegan cause, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t be persuaded. It’s true that no animal products appear on the menu—and many items are also organic, fair trade or raw—but new owner Gina Gerber is more interested in getting customers to try a new juice blend, smoothie, muffin or wrap than extolling the benefits of veganism. That said, she is delighted to share information, should you happen to ask. She’s also ramping up cooking classes and other outreach efforts so those who are hungry for a lifestyle change can fill up on that—along with tasty vegan chili, burgers and brownies. 177 Hilltown Village Center, Chesterfield, 636.536.6938.

Best Italian: I Fratellini

I Fratellini is something of a stealth candidate in this category. Up against a lot of muscle (and, let’s face it, testosterone), Zoe Houk Robinson and her chic 11-year-restaurant prevailed. It’s an intimate space, with only 35 seats, so dinner reservations are a must. The size is a plus for the kitchen; it can pay extra attention to every order of the zucchini carpaccio, pistachio-encrusted trout and squid ink linguine with shrimp and mussels. Ravioli are a highlight, whether they’re filled with mushrooms, lobster or spinach and rabbit. Authentic dishes aside, what really seals the deal is the ambiance that wraps diners like a fond embrace from an old Italian friend. 7624 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, 314.727.7901.



The Good Pie

The Good Pie











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