Spring Scene

2011 shows all the signs of being a year to remember for St. Louisans who love to dine and drink well. Here’s a peek at what’s trending in local dining in the coming months.

Membership has its privileges
The flip side to 2011’s embrace of the casual? Exclusivity. Expect more and more spots to add a club-like membership component this year. Sanctuaria, known for its cocktail program, launched the Sanctuaria Cocktail Club late last fall. It’s no wonder why the club already has 112 members. For a one-time, $20 membership fee, liquor-lovers can enjoy drinks from a list of 150 cocktails compiled by bar manager Matt Seiter and his talented crew. Among the perks: drinks are only $8, with the first being free; a chance to win a bottle of wine, spirits or beer in a monthly drawing; and an invite to Sanctuaria’s private monthly social, Cocktails by Candlelight, an evening of all-inclusive food and cocktails. CWE cigar and spirits shop Brennan’s debuted its members-only cigar bar early this year, turning part of the second floor Maryland House space into Zino Platinum Lounge. A $35 monthly membership comes with a $35 credit for tobacco, while $100 a month nets a $35 tobacco credit plus invites to monthly spirits tastings and a cigar locker box on-site.

Squealing over Wooly Pig
Who’s not squealing over Wooly Pig? The Mangalitsa, a European heritage breed of pig, gets its nickname thanks to the 6-inch hairs that cover its 300-pound frame. Chefs in St. Louis have been eager to work with this hog, revered for its fat and flavor, particularly since the meat is processed practically in our backyard at Swiss Meat and Sausage Co. in Hermann. Swiss Meat ships some 1,200 pounds a week of this fat-prone pig to of-the-moment restaurants in New York, another 4,000 pounds every two weeks to the California and Seattle regions, including to Thomas Keller’s flagship restaurant The French Laundry, and has even started making shipments to Hong Kong. Closer to home, look for Wooly Pig at numerous fine-dining establishments, including chef-owner Jim Fiala’s The Crossing, Liluma and Acero, where you’ll encounter spring-oriented ribeye dishes as well as braised neck roll, smoked guanciale and lardo. At Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, watch for Wooly Pig in dishes like smoked belly, sausages and, of course, chops as center-plate specials.

Fresh faces at the farmers’ markets
Diversity is a key ingredient in a sustainable food system, so it’s promising for our region that we see so many new faces among the farming community. Meat products from Todd Geisert Farms of Washington, Mo., are relatively new (try the hog farmer’s newest items: apple-cinnamon sausages and mushroom-Swiss brats) at Local Harvest Grocery, which also recently began carrying meat from Buttonwood Farm near Jefferson City. Live Springs Farm, producer of biodynamic eggs, chicken and pork, will likely debut at the Maplewood Farmers’ Market as well as the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market and return for a second year at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market. Thierbach Orchard & Berry Farm also hopes to debut the fruits of its labor at the Webster Groves market; this would be the first time that the Marthasville, Mo., grower sells peaches – plus berries and cherries, if we’re lucky – at a farmers’ market in the St. Louis area. Look for a dozen different cheeses from Marcoot Jersey Creamery at the Maplewood and Tower Grove markets, as well as at Local Harvest Grocery, Sappington Farmers’ Market and all Dierbergs stores. And don’t miss the International Institute Global Farms stand at the Tower Grove and Downtown markets. The produce from this urban farming initiative of the International Institute of St. Louis is grown on a lot in Botanical Heights in St. Louis.

In addition, some familiar growers and producers have expanded their offerings. Greenwood Farms, producer of grass-fed meats, recently began selling artisanal cheeses – the Alpine cheese Jersey Girl Alpenglow and Gouda-style Harvest Moon are available at Freddie’s Market in Webster Groves and at Local Harvest Grocery and will be available this season at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. The Farmers’ Larder, now in its second year of business, will be selling an expanded line of cured and smoked meats made using locally raised animals and organic spices at numerous farmers’ markets around town. And Justin Leszcz of YellowTree Farm, who’s added acreage in Waterloo, Ill., expects to sell excess produce at the Maplewood Farmers’ Market and possibly the Webster Groves Farmers’ Market this year.

Multi-use concepts
As our to-do lists get longer, more dual-purpose places are popping up around town to serve our every need. This winter, Whiz Tech Technology Café opened downtown, offering a range of tech services – from computer repair to retail sales, help desk services to Web site design – and a café that boasts a full menu of sandwiches, salads, desserts and breakfast items. Look for Marc Del Pietro’s butcher shop/restaurant/bar, The Block, to open its doors this spring in Webster Groves. Unfortunately, Jon Parker’s Delmar Farm and Food, which would have incorporated a farmers’ market, neighborhood grocery and restaurant in the East Loop, has been stalled. Parker is currently looking for a new location for his endeavor.

Keep On Truckin’
Eating on the run can be oh so fun – and tasty, especially when the fare comes from one of our town’s newest culinary additions: food trucks. The national food truck craze hit STL last year, and the trend should only increase in 2011. Mangia Mobile, the latest of the rolling restaurants, is a full-service truck-on-the-go operated by siblings Catherine, Thomas and Alex Daake. Find their made-on-the-truck gourmet Italian eats – don’t miss the arancini – downtown for lunch weekdays and for all Cardinals home games. And look for Guerrilla Street Food, a venture by Terrene executive chef Brian Hardesty and his business partner, Joel Crespo, to be on the road soon. They’ll be specializing in grilled foods and Filipino street fare. Key elements for both Guerrilla Street and Mangia Mobile: fresh, from-scratch and local. Track the whereabouts of these trucks on Twitter by following @MangiaMobile and @GuerrillaStreet.

Casual by design
If we had to pinpoint the start of the latest casual craze, it might be last summer, when Monarch owners Jeff Orbin and Aaron Teitelbaum revamped their Maplewood restaurant, rolling out chef Josh Galliano’s casual Southern-inspired menu in a transformed bistro space that offered a relaxing, entertaining vibe. Like Monarch, Dierdorf and Hart’s in Westport recently veered away from formal via a facelift to the main dining room and the creation of an affordably priced, diverse bar menu that provides an alternative to the restaurant’s steakhouse menu. And Molly’s in Soulard owners Luke Reynolds and Sam Berger recently completed a renovation that expanded the bar and added high-top tables, while Molly’s exec chef Bryan Flaxbeard reworked his Creole entrées into more affordable, small plate options. It’s a trend that’s tailor-made for diners seeking thoughtfully prepared food in moderate portions that doesn’t break the bank or require wearing a tie.

Raising the bar
Two years ago, cocktailian bars in town could be counted on a single hand. These days, we can spout more than a dozen destinations with creative bar programs, with others in the works. What’s more, with the fledgling St. Louis chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild at 40 members and counting, it’s easier than ever to find bartenders who can mix a classic or build a well-balanced cocktail using your poison of choice. After all, it’s one thing to have access to umpteen small-batch spirits, it’s quite another to have bartenders who can use them capably. A case in point: Taste, the only bar in town where the entire full-time staff is certified by the Beverage Alcohol Resource, whose premier training program in spirits and mixology has become de rigueur among today’s cocktailian bartenders. (Think of it as the equivalent of a restaurant where every cook is a grad of the CIA.) With Taste and talented beverage director Ted Kilgore squarely on the national imbiber’s radar, all eyes are on new owner Adam Altnether’s craft cocktail lounge as it moves from its infancy on Sidney Street and begins its next stage at Moxy’s old digs in the CWE.

Tableside finishes
Expect plenty of pampering at the table as new fine-dining establishments and some reconceptualized ones bring on the tableside finishes. At 1904 Steakhouse at River City Casino, the Tomahawk Chop, a 40-ounce bone-in ribeye, is carved tableside. Other gestures at the table include tossing Caesar salad components in a hollow Parmesan wheel, folding a sunny-side-up egg into a side of creamed spinach and flaming crème brûlée. The new large service table at Truffles in Ladue will soon take center stage; guests can watch staff make final flourishes on Dover sole and decant wine. And we can’t wait for mid-summer to arrive so we can reserve the chef’s table at Trattoria Spezie in the East Loop and watch as the suspended herb garden gets lowered for some à la minute snipping.

Viva Italia!
Despite the economic doom and gloom, new restaurants continue to add to the local dining scene – and in 2011, it seems more than a few of them will be Italian spots. Things seemed to kick off last fall, starting with Filomena’s Italian Kitchen in Glendale. Sporting the quintessential red-checkered tablecloths, tiny Filomena’s is building a reputation as a good choice for casual Italian-on-a-dime (and no corkage fee for wine since it doesn’t have a liquor license). Jim Fiala’s downtown dining establishment, Terrace View, went Italian in December, serving a menu similar to that offered at its sister restaurant Acero in Maplewood. In January, Truffles exec chef John Griffiths launched an ingredient-driven menu where seasonal foods shine in Italian-influenced dishes. Expect the trend to continue into the warmer months, with Vito Racanelli Jr. of Onesto Pizza & Trattoria opening Mad Tomato in Clayton in April; Racanelli promises southern Italian faves – yes, wood-fired pizzas, too. And, come summer, the East Loop will be a posh spot for vegetable-loving Italian-philes, once Michael Del Pietro debuts his Trattoria Spezie.