St. Louis, Missouri is home to a thriving, young food scene. Wonderful spots can now be found in all areas of this sprawling city and county.
As someone who grew up in St. Louis, the main change in the dining scene that has occurred in the many years since I lived there is, well, that there IS a dining scene. There have always been a few fine-dining restaurants, and a scattering of down-home local places, but I’m amazed every time I revisit that there’s actually a culinary scene here now. Wonderful spots can now be found in all areas of this sprawling city and county, from the downtown area to such suburbs as Maplewood, Clayton, and others. Here are some of my favorites.
Looking right onto St. Louis’ iconic arch, Cinder House would be worth a visit for the views alone from the eighth floor of the Four Seasons St. Louis. When you’re dining at a place helmed by James Beard award winning chef Gerard Craft, however, it’s guaranteed the food is going to equal, and perhaps surpass the views. Craft has created an intriguing menu with a South American flair that’s somehow familiar and challenging at the same time, centered around the wood hearth and inspired by his childhood nanny, who instilled a love of cuisine from Brazil and other South American locales. Take, for instance, the charred onion dip, a slightly smoky concoction with charred scallions, chive oil, and made-to-order potato chips: it simultaneously reminds you of your childhood and surpasses your memories. Gazpacho is perked up with wood-fired tomatoes and peppers, with a little shrimp/summer squash ceviche giving an additional twist. For mains, I love the orange piri chicken, with a coconut/pea sauce and wood-roasted watermelon radish, whose deep, bold taste comes as much from the chicken as the no-holds-barred spices. You can’t go wrong, either, with a grilled ribeye (with carrot mole, thank you very much), bigeye tuna livened by ahi verde sauce, or a stunning vegetable rice bowl with chimichurri and the traditional Brazilian side of farfoa. Among the desserts, even the customary flan gets a twist with a hint of caramel and sea salt. Chocotorte, meanwhile, might remind you of Argentina with its house-made chocolina cookies and dulce de leche, but as you look up and see the unmistakable silhouette of the arch as the sky deepens into sunset, you’ll be reminded that this amazing food is all right here in St. Louis. Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, 999 N. 2nd St. Tel: 314-881-5759. www.cinderhousestl.com
OLIVE + OAK
The perfect combination of casual and chic, Olive + Oak has an open, airy feel, with large windows looking onto Lockwood Avenue, a main drag of the Webster Groves suburb, with lots of plants, a buzzing crowd any day of the week, and the nicest servers in restaurant history. If I were you, I’d start with the blue crab gratin, a cheesy, smooth wonder served in a little blue pot with this incredible pretzel bread (and celery stalks) for dipping. The octopus, too, is a great appetizer, chewy but tender, livened by smoked paprika aioli. Chef Jesse Mendica, a native of Webster Groves, offers mains ranging from a deep, complex, and slightly sweet chickpea stew to wild king salmon (worth it for the accompanying sesame-scallion pancake alone), or beef tenderloin with a parsley-pine nut pesto and potatoes redolent with warm grain mustard. Whichever you choose, the side dish of choice is the charred broccoli, livened by a pistachio/ date crumble on top and a sea of red pepper sauce underneath. It’s an astounding array of flavors and textures in a side of broccoli! For dessert, I’d go with the butterscotch pot de crème (sweet, salty, and tasty), or perhaps the cloud cake (vanilla chiffon cake, coconut pastry cream, coconut and whipped cream icing), which my friend Alene proclaims “absolutely delicious” (I’m not a coconut fan, so I leave all coconut judgments to Alene!) With wonderful food and a great vibe, Olive + Oak is a must-visit. 216 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves. Tel: 314-736-1370. www.oliveandoakstl.com
CASA DON ALFONSO
The name Don Alfonso is legendary in Italy, and in-the-know foodies flock to the venerable two Michelin star Don Alfonso 1890 in Sant’ Agata, on the Sorrento Peninsula. So you can understand why, when chef Sergio Chierego got a call from them, his reaction was, “I got scared!” He needn’t have worried, as he upholds the traditions beautifully at Casa Don Alfonso, which opened in March as the brand’s first U.S. branch and the flagship of a new, more casual line. Well, casual is relative, as this spot in the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton is elegant, with white pillars, rich parquet floors, and a long “kitchen table” overlooking the food prep. The new spot is supported by over a century of history (the bread, for example, comes from a 120-year old recipe), and Chierego’s flavors are, to quote him, “simple and genuine.” This is exemplified by their popular soups: both my brother (a frequent diner there) and the restaurant’s own general manager, when asked for suggestions, responded immediately, “the soups.” Simply but perfectly made, my lentil soup is creamy, thick, and rich, with a beautiful flavor, served with bread rounds piled with herbs, dried chiles, and sun-dried tomatoes, and I vow to return for the bell pepper soup, a more recent addition. Pastas are, of course, amazing, from tagliatelle with shrimp, seasoned with a bisque and a hint of citrus, to perfect little gnocchi. Everything is worth a try, so either do several visits (not a bad idea) or move from appetizer to pasta to main courses (secondi) like veal pizzaiola or classic cod with capers, olives, and cherry tomatoes in true Italian style. Now you aren’t going to forget dessert, are you? Not with a chocolate-almond Caprese torte or orange profiteroles with white chocolate mousse on offer. Stylish and casual, with flavors both simple and complex (and always delicious), what a welcome addition to the St. Louis dining lineup this place is. Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, 100 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton. Tel: 314-719- 1496. www.casadonalfonsostlouis.com
SIDNEY STREET CAFE
Many credit James Beard award-winner Kevin Nashan, along with Craft and a few others, with ushering in the dining scene in St. Louis, and certainly his Sidney Street Café was among the first to offer a creative, modern American cuisine. I remember being startled at how good the food was when I first visited longer ago than I want to admit (it opened almost 20 years ago), and each revisit brings the comforting revelation: Wow, Sidney Street is as great as ever! Located on its eponymous street, a lovely block near the famous Soulard Market, t he place evoke s old St. Louis in its décor (lots of brick, wood, antique bar, and gas lamp-style lighting), but its food is up-to-date and fabulous. You might star t with a beet salad, where g o l den and red beets arrive both pickled and roast ed with citrus, and dill-flavored quark, a perfectly jaunty little ring of flavor. Definitely splurge on the restaurant’s signature lobster turn overs, sweet lobster chunks brilliantly done in filo turnovers with a tomato/brandy cream sauce . Past as h ere are primo: my rigatoni with smoked chicken and peas enthralls me the minute my server ( the ever-wonderful Jason) sets it down and smoky aromas come drifting up. S o me how rich and light all at once, it might be my favorite pasta ever. For mains, you might choose the beef cheeks with celery root/horseradish puree, or simply but perfectly don e scallops. Then there’s dessert, with such further temptations as a passionfruit /macadamia pot de crème with coconut/lime cake, whipped cream, and passionfruit/macadamia puree. Can you really pass that up? It’s easy to see how this restaurant has achieved iconic status in St. Louis, and the good news is that it just keeps getting better. 2000 Sidney Street , St. Louis. Tel : 314-771-5777. www.sidneystreetcafestl.com
Just down Sidney Street is Peacemaker Lobster & Crab, Nash an’s more casual outpost (not that Sidney Street Café is all so formal), with a hug e bar at the center, photo blowups on the walls, wood tables, cement floors, and rock music at a noticeable but not oppressive volume, and meals served on paper-lined trays. As the name indicates, there’s a concentration on seafood, and it’s flown in fresh daily. Check out the peel and eat shrimp, crudo, or oysters from the raw bar before proceeding to a king crab boil, oyster or shrimp poor boy, or steamed mussels in a tomato, bacon, and shallot broth. I can never pass up the lobster rolls, however, served on a warm, buttery roll (Connecticut-style) for an absolutely heavenly dish that, even though it’s really filling, is sure to make you say, “I could actually eat another one of these.” They’re served with homemade chips that are thick, crisp, and oh-so-delicious. I know I’m raving about potato chips here, but there you have it. I can’t help but add in some perfect hush puppies (my friend Bonnie’s first comment as I tell her about my meal there is “You got the hush puppies, right?”), and there’s even a succulent smoked brisket sandwich for that one obstinate seafood hater in your party. The place is bustling with a constant stream of people even on a weeknight. Nashan’s on to a winning formula here: great food, reasonable prices, casual atmosphere, and, during nice weather, a group of outdoor tables. It’s my prediction that between Peacemaker and Sidney Street Café, you’ll be making a few trips to the Benton Park neighborhood. You’d be crazy not to! 1831 Sidney St., St. Louis. Tel: 314-772-8858. www.peacemakerlobstercrab.com/st-louis
With its large Vietnamese population, St. Louis boasts more Vietnamese restaurants than you might expect. One of my favorites, Pho Grand, is located right on South Grand, which has for years been a go-to destination for dining in the city (and includes at least two other Vietnamese places I can think of). It’s a simple place, with umbrellas and musical instruments in cases hanging on textured cement walls, menu booklets with a builtin chopstick holder, and a diner-y, casual feel. Did I mention that the food is great? You might start with their appealing lettuce wraps, where a chicken mixture is accompanied by wedges of lettuce to pull apart for your wrapping. It’s the perfect blend of hot and cold, accompanied by a little dish of a sweet and savory sauce that only deepens the flavor. As the name indicates, the marvelous Vietnamese soup Pho is a specialty, and here you can get it with a beef or chicken base, the former enabling such additions as meatballs, brisket, or sliced round steak, while the latter comes with egg or rice noodles and, of course, chicken. You can have soups featuring such extras as a pork/shrimp/crab, wontons, beef stew, and vegetables. It’s just a matter of what you’re in the mood for; they’re all winners. I also love the classic chicken with lemongrass and chiles for a spicy, eyeopening treat. It’s one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, and Pho Grand does it, along with the huge variety of other options, in flawless fashion. 3195 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis. Tel: 314-664- 7435. www.phogrand.com