The List: The people, places, plates and products we love right nowThe St. Louis food scene offers much to celebrate. Our list of favorites is always in flux, as the city’s creative chefs, artisanal producers, passionate farmers and innovative entrepreneurs keep us constantly intrigued, sometimes surprised, always well-fed. Here, a few dozen things that have our attention at the moment.
The Good Pie
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of The Good Pie’s Margherita pizza. Yes, there are only five components. But the high quality of those components, all perfectly in balance, makes a flavorful difference, as does the two minutes the pie spends in the 900-degree wood-burning oven (built in and shipped from Naples): A chewy crust, its edges crisped with charred bits; a bright and clean-tasting tomato sauce, not too much and not too little; melted fresh mozzarella dotted here and there with whole basil leaves and a swirl of fruity olive oil. Even better, a whole pie leaves you full, but not in need of a nap. 3137 Olive St., St. Louis, 314.289.9391.
Blues City Deli
The ornery Soup Nazi character from Seinfeld could learn a tip or two about customer service from Vince Valenza. The owner of Blues City Deli knows that visitors to his establishment aren’t looking just for good eats that are generously portioned and priced affordably. “Most of our customers are under a lot of stress at work,” said Valenza. “They need a break, and when they come here, we give it to them – a smile, friendliness, a few moments of something positive.” Although Valenza has almost a dozen employees, he dishes out his own rockin’ affability to patrons nearly every day because he’s at the Benton Park lunch spot 99 percent of the time. “I love my customers. I love seeing the people when they come in and getting to know them.” If you visit twice, count yourself a regular – because that’s all it takes for Valenza to remember your name. So while you may hear the blues as you chow down on one of this deli’s po’ boys or pastrami sandwiches, you certainly won’t leave feeling down. 2438 McNair Ave., St. Louis, 314.773.8225.
Miso on Meramec
To experience sushi the way it should be experienced, go omakase. And if you’re willing to trust the chef – that’s what ordering omakase means – then the perfect place to do so is the bustling basement of Miso on Meramec. Sidle up to the sushi bar, and turn yourself over to chef Eliott Harris. He’ll analyze your likes and dislikes and customize a dining experience aimed at delighting your taste buds. Harris uses little-utilized ingredients like fresh shiso leaves and house-cured Spanish mackerel, so in this sushi-loving town, his nigiri and maki satisfy diners who expect more than just a California roll. 16 N. Meramec Ave., Clayton, 314.863.7888.
El Torito Supermarket and Restaurant
Wind your way past the cans of beans, the piles of dried chiles and the fresh produce, back to the meat counter. There you’ll find house-made salsas that are fresh, hot and cheap stacked beside fresh Mexican cheeses and crema. The salsa selection varies, but no matter which of the five you pick, you’re assured of two things: nuanced flavor and heat that’ll tingle your tongue for, oh, about an hour. There’s a burnt-orange dried-chile salsa with smoky undertones and pronounced fire. The tomatillo salsa is verdant green and tart. Red tomato-based salsa pricks the taste buds with sweet tomato flavor before it gives way to a lingering heat. Grab a bag of thick, crunchy, salty tortilla chips on your way to the register, and dig into some of the best salsa this side of the Rio Grande. 2753 Cherokee St., St. Louis, 314.771.8648.
Dessert should make you smile, and when you savor the soft, sweet Italian meringue at Rue Lafayette, you may well giggle. Here, executive chef Natalia Penchaszadeh piles her pastries with snowy, fluffy, sweet pillows of happiness. The cooked meringue tops lemon curd and mixes with almond flour to make macarons; it’s also sometimes baked into Pavlovas. But Penchaszadeh uses it most strikingly and deliciously atop her tres leches coconut cake. Soaked in coconut milk, this moist cake is elevated by spikes of meringue given a final dusting of cinnamon. For lovers of European-style pastries, this is a taste of sugary bliss. 2024-26 Lafayette Ave., St. Louis, 314.772.2233.
Wenneman Meat Co.
Leaf lard’s making a comeback. A few generations ago, many baked goods incorporated natural shortening – aka lard – but the fear of saturated fat ended that. Modern cooks are again seeking out this hard-to-find treasure. At Wenneman Meat Co., pigs are butchered on premises Tuesdays and Thursdays, and if you want to nab this traditional butcher shop’s incredibly high-quality leaf lard, call to have some set aside. Wenneman sources hogs from only four farmers within a 20-mile radius of its St. Libory, Ill., location, and because the shop handles the entire butchering process, you’re ensured a product so fine, your grandmother will ask for your pie-crust recipe. 7415 State Route 15, St. Libory, 618.768.4328.
It takes considerable business savvy to open three restaurants in less than two years, but when Pi owner Chris Sommers moved from San Fran back to his native St. Louis, a conventional, one-and-only indie eatery was never in the plans. Sommers, along with partner Frank Uible, has taken a great pizza crust recipe and whirled it into a wildly successful pizzeria that has The Loop, Kirkwood and now the CWE – as well as places much farther afield – abuzz. What’s Sommers’ vision for Pi? “To elevate the experience in general and differentiate with quality ingredients that at the same time create a sort of a ‘lifestyle-something’ that people could embrace that is off the pizza scene,” said Sommers. Differentiate: a standout thick-crust cornmeal-based pie. No Provel. No pastas or sandwiches, either. That “lifestyle-something” translates to gluten-free crust, vegan options and green-as-can-be (local and organic) food and beverages, plus eco-friendly operational decisions on design, décor, recycling and more. Top it all off with the recent addition of chef Marc Baltes (Cardwell’s at the Plaza, Niche) and pastry chef Mathew Rice (Niche), and it may not be long before Pi encircles the world. 6144 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, 314.727.6633; 10935 Manchester Road, Kirkwood, 314.966.8080; and (opening soon) 4753 McPherson Ave., St. Louis.
El Chico Bakery
Slip into El Chico Bakery early Saturday or Sunday, and slide out with perfect tamales, red or green. Plump and inviting, still warm from the steamer, the tamales made each week by the matriarch of the family running the bakery sell out well before noon. The masa is slathered on the corn husks just right – not too thin, not too thick. You’ll taste a hint of garlic, a smidge of onion in the moist pork filling. But things get jiggy when you hit the added bits – mild red ancho chiles for the wimpy, green peppers with spicy tomatillos for the gutsy. (Great for breakfast, BTW.) 2634 Cherokee St., St. Louis, 314.664.2212.
Each year customers wait, forks at the ready, for chef Michael Roberts to put his much-loved cassoulet back on the menu at Atlas Restaurant in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood. This rich, soul-satisfying mélange of lamb, duck confit, Toulouse sausage and flageolets is heightened by tomatoes, fresh herbs and toasted bread crumbs, ensuring that not a speck remains on anyone’s plate. 5513 Pershing St., St. Louis, 314.367.6800.
We don’t know how this can possibly be legal, but apparently, it is. Nachomama’s, the venerable Rock Hill Tex-Mex dive, has a drive-thru. Everyone knows that. You can order burritos, enchiladas and that fabulous roasted chicken, right? But did you know you can also get a Margarita? Yes, a Margarita. From the drive-thru. Pull up to the window, and they’ll cheerfully hand you a to-go cup full of the tangy libation. Where else do they make it so easy? (But they don’t dispense straws!) 9643 Manchester Road, Rock Hill, 314.961.9110.
Randall's Wine and Spirits
Say you like tequila and mezcal – a lot. You’ve run through even the obscure brands. Then you hit the shelves at Randall’s and discover the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal – four varieties, one for each town in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they’re distilled. Also: the Del Maguey Pechuga, an ultra-exclusive mezcal made with (among other things) a cooked chicken breast suspended within the still. Mamacita! Truly, Randall’s offers a positively obscene selection of liquor, beer and wine in a warehouse-sized store. From the low end to the high, it stocks a dazzling array of libations, and everyone seems to have trouble leaving with only what they planned to buy. 1920 S. Jefferson, St. Louis, 314.865.0199.
legrand’s Market and Catering
Do you measure the gustatory brilliance of a sandwich by how much grease has soaked through both the wax paper insert and the butcher paper wrapping? If so, you should love the Legend Club from LeGrand’s Market. It boasts not only a sweet roasted red-pepper sauce, but also hot Havarti and a garlic cream-cheese spread – as well as tender turkey, spicy pepperoni and perfect pastrami. And smack in the middle is a layer of real bacon crumbles. Everyone has his or her favorite sandwich, sure, but perhaps only the Legend truly lives up to its name. 4414 Donovan Ave., St. Louis, 314.353.4059.
Kakao (pronounced kuh-KAY-oh) Chocolate leads The Lou as a brand of artisanal chocolates and confections that makes cacao-lovers go gaga. Everything – from the fragrant lavender truffles to the decadent, crisp pecan bark that showcases the Show-Me State’s signature nut sprinkled on dark chocolate – is individually handmade at Brian Pelletier’s Fox Park shop. The chocolatier and his crew get kudos for innovative goodies like velvety truffles infused with teas, spices, liqueurs and even beer, using top-quality, all-natural ingredients (oftentimes organic or sourced from local businesses such as Traveling Tea or Mattlingly Brewing Co.). 2301 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis, 314.771.2310.
A true spaghetti carbonara may be the best pasta dish on the planet. It’s certainly one of the simplest: dry pasta boiled to al dente, one egg, lots of freshly ground pepper, a generous grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano and crispy bits of guanciale. What’s guanciale? Think bacon, but with five times the porkiness. It’s hard to find in America, but thankfully, local purveyor Salume Beddu makes a stellar version of this Roman delicacy, curing raw pork jowl and flavoring it with red and black pepper, brown sugar and rosemary. Accept no substitutes – and look for it at area farmers’ markets. salumebeddu.com.
Square One Brewery and Distillery
Steve Neukomm may have begun Square One as a microbrewery and later expanded the Lafayette Square operation to a gastropub, but distilling alcohol was always in the back of his mind. After the entrepreneur was licensed to distill spirits in August 2008, Neukomm determined to offer not only top-quality standard spirits to the local market (thus the birth of the Spirits of St. Louis labeled vodka, rum and gin), but also inventive craft liquors like whisky made with cherry wood-smoked malt, artisanal rums such as Green Flash (a spiced rum infused with vanilla bean and blood orange) and the rum-based Citrus Mello Cello, inspired by Italian limoncello. “We’re trying to create new and interesting things for people to discover and enjoy,” said Neukomm. As Square One Brewery and Distillery readies to release its latest production, a beer schnapps loaded with hops, the “and Distillery” extension is quickly becoming a hallmark of the Square One brand. And if Neukomm has his way, he’ll soon get distribution so that folks all around the Midwest can sip the products of his fine still skills. 1727 Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.231.2537.
Choosing a Beer with Jamie Coffman
Dressel’s Public House
It’s a great problem to have, no doubt. But sometimes our town’s ever-expanding selection of craft beer makes ordering a bit bewildering: Go dark or light? With an ale or a lager? Local or regional? Any bartender worth his salt can offer knowledgeable recommendations, but at Dressel’s Public House in the CWE, bartender Jamie Coffman turns such indecisive moments into an experience. A series of rapid-fire questions helps Coffman narrow the field. (Always first: “What mood are you in?” Next, “Hoppy or malty?” One or two more build from there.) Then he’ll set two to three samples on the bar and instruct you to taste them from right to left. Pick the one you like, and he’ll pour you a pint while filling you in on the details: brewer, style, flavor characteristics. The result? The beer you didn’t know you wanted. 419 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, 314.361.1060.
Hill Brewing Co.
“I’ve always liked Almond Joy candy bars,” said local brewer Ray Hill, explaining the origin of one of his craft beers. He laughed and added, “Will I sell a million of the toasted-coconut porters? Probably not.” For much of the past decade, that devil-may-care attitude has positioned Hill as the hops-and-barley equivalent of The Little Engine That Could. And as a budding beer baron, the man keeps chugging along. This year, for instance, he’s been toiling almost nonstop to rehab a Jazz Age Ferguson brownstone. There, in Ray Hill’s BrewHouse, he plans to offer his interpretations of international beer styles, based on his studies under the Beer Judge Certification Program and paired with appropriate cuisine. When? Early 2010. Maybe January. Maybe February. Hill affably confessed that no now-now-now timetable will trump his vision. That vision earlier prompted him to sever a cushy-sounding agreement with Anheuser-Busch. (Hill has chutzpah like a like an imperial stout has heft.) Driving his vision is one of the oldest motivations known to humanity. “I love what I do,” Hill remarked. “I love the beer business. I love craft breweries.” We all should drink to that. 418 S. Florissant Road, Ferguson, 314.521.2337.
Bona Fide Espresso
Goshen Coffee Co.
These beans may be billed as perfect for espresso, but we like them just fine using the plain old drip method, thank you very much. Goshen Coffee’s Bona Fide blend packs a punch, with the perfect balance of berry notes and in-your-face bitterness tempered by a little taste of caramel and chocolate. Goshen Coffee, located in Edwardsville, offers an all-organic line of fair-trade coffees, doing good economically and environmentally while pleasing people’s palates. Buy the blend brewed or whole bean at 222 Artisan Bakery in Edwardsville, Foundation Grounds in Maplewood, Local Harvest Grocery in South City or a number of other specialty shops. 110 First Ave., Edwardsville, 618.659.0571.
The corked bottle of cloudy liquid behind the bar looks like lemonade, but don’t be fooled – it’s Franco’s homemade ginger beer. Not carbonated or sugary like most such brews, this adaptation’s recipe is simple: minced ginger, brown sugar and lime (rind and juice), steeped in hot water until the flavors have been infused. The unexpectedly punchy, spicy and refreshing beverage is used mostly for cocktails … like owner Tom Schmidt’s new creation, The Old Gentleman, which serves the ginger beer in a martini glass with gin and a wash of Ricard. Try the ginger beer in a hot toddy, with vodka or in an iced tea, even. But trust us – there’s nothing gingerly about it. 1535 S. Eighth St., St. Louis, 314.436.2500.
Grilled Cheese Thursdays
Every Thursday, Companion’s lunch special ups the ante on a classic pair, teaming its thick and creamy tomato bisque with any of the bakery-café’s four grilled cheese sandwiches. Go Mediterranean with mozzarella-basil-tomato, French with Brie-apple-apricot jam or old-school with the unabashedly simple – and unashamedly gargantuan – Cheese on Cheese, whose two layers of tangy Cheddar and Swiss, studded with sliced tomato and melted between three slices of toasted house-made brioche, make it our favorite. 8143 Maryland Ave., Clayton; 4651 Maryland Ave., St. Louis; 9781 Clayton Road, Ladue; 314.352.4770.
The Wine and Cheese Place
St. Louis has probably hundreds of places to buy wine, more than a few of them staffed by wine geeks. You know the type: They can wax poetic about the microclimate in a particular region of Alsace and get starry-eyed talking about malolactic fermentation. Which is all well and good, except that sometimes you just want to know what wine to drink with dinner. Enter Paul Hayden, wine manager at The Wine and Cheese Place. “It doesn’t matter to me what the sun exposure is like on the eastern slope of a vineyard,” he said. “I don’t care about the dirt. Wine should be fun. It shouldn’t be that geeky.” Despite a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of winemaking, Hayden prefers to approach wine from a consumer’s perspective. He learned the business from the ground up, starting out stocking shelves at the shop’s Rock Hill location while still a teenager. Now, with more than 20 years of experience, all of it at The Wine and Cheese Place, Hayden has a gift for demystifying wine. Add that to an almost uncanny ability to pair the right vintage with almost any dish, and you’ve got a real wine pro on your hands. 7435 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.727.8788.
Taste by Niche
Although modern life has conditioned us to favor complexity over simplicity, Taste by Niche puts the lie to that conditioning with its roasted-radish bruschetta. A bit of olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Three varieties of radish, chopped. A slim rectangle of toasted bread, its garlicked scent delicately perfuming the tiny Benton Park space. Almost necessarily, the subtlety of the radishes will astound someone expecting, even dreading, the palate punch of the ones Granny Burpee served as appetizers every second Sunday. But then, as Taste proves with this small plate, subtle borders on sublime. 1831 Sidney St., St. Louis, 314.773.7755.
Prairie Grass Farms
It appears at area farmers’ markets, listed on a casually hand-lettered posting at Dave and Barb Hillebrand’s Prairie Grass Farms booth. Merguez. This French lamb sausage, flavored with North African spices, isn’t available all the time; nor is it available anywhere but the Tower Grove and Maplewood markets (and, during winter, St. Louis Community Farmers’ Market). All the more reason for you to buy as much as you can when they have it on hand. Grilled, sautéed or removed from its casing and added to a sauce, the sausage features a complex spice mixture that provides a heady complement to the rich lamb. Don’t pass it up. 573.835.2272.
COCOA NIB AND MERGUEZ PIZZA
Adapted from a recipe by David Lebovitz
1 10-inch pizza
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
½ lb. merguez sausage, removed from its casing
1 Tbsp. harissa (spicy Moroccan tomato sauce)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. cocoa nibs
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Pizza dough, rolled to a 10-inch round
4 oz. fontina cheese, grated
2 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated
• In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the minced garlic. Set aside.
• Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet and cook the onion until soft and translucent. Add the merguez and harissa, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook slowly for 10 minutes uncovered; then take off the heat and allow to cool.
• Once cooled, stir in the cocoa nibs and chopped parsley.
To make the pizza:
• Preheat the oven to 450. Brush the top of the pizza dough with the reserved garlic-infused olive oil. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the dough; then spread the sausage mixture over the cheeses. Finally, top with the remaining cheese, and bake the pizza until the cheese is bubbling and a deep, golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes.
Locally Grown and Sourced Foods
Local Harvest Grocery & Café
Peaceful Bend Vineyard. Lemp Lager. Goshen Coffee. Patric Chocolates. Heartland Creamery. Gelato di Riso. If you understand the importance of buying locally grown and sourced foods, you understand the marvelous work Local Harvest does. More than half of the South City bodega’s products come from the vicinity, and to see them all clustered together in the same shop does the heart – and the small business – good. Also, at the café just across Morganford Road, Local Harvest offers what just might be the tastiest – and the only – vegetarian slinger known to man. Locally sourced foods, produce in-season and vegetarian options: how things are supposed to be. 3148 and 3137 Morganford Road, St. Louis, 314.865.5260 and 314.772.8815.
The Map Room
The Map Room owner Michele Floyd’s sangria will astonish you – whether the melon medley, mixed berry, pineapple or peach. “I hate to say it,” she said, “but I’ve been collecting sangria recipes since high school.” It shows. Her complex recipes feature a sweet, zesty blend of fruit steeped for about 24 hours in liquor and wine. Also, Floyd’s sangria lacks the raw, crunchy fruit so common to others; maceration softens and mixes it into the base spirits she uses. And through experimentation, Floyd has learned what works – both in the height of summer and the dead of winter. 1901 Withnell Ave., St. Louis, 314.776.3515.
There’s no sign for Savalan Market, just a sandwich board on the sidewalk advertising gyros, hot coffee and baklava. Once inside, be prepared to rubberneck. Dal in saffron yellow, red, cream and quiet green. The tiniest, most perfect green lentils. Plump dried mulberries to crunch alone or to mix with dried, seasoned garbanzos for a salty-sweet snack. Tart cherries big as shooter marbles jarred in glass. Bricks of feta, beaucoup goat cheeses and thick Mediterranean yogurt. Rose, fig and tart cherry jams. And don’t miss the honey-rich baklava or the gyros, both made in-house. 3608 Bates St., St. Louis, 314.352.4999.
As a postprandial treat, the latte can be a bit of a bore. Espresso and steamed milk. Big deal. Acero offers a vivacious variant and then some, though, in its affogato, a nice, simple espresso poured over a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream from Serendipity. Bitter, sweet, creamy and delicious, Acero’s affogato will make you love taking your after-dinner coffee in your dessert. 7266 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.644.1790.