Review: The Side Door in St. Louis

The Side Door, 236 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, 314.361.7771

Once you figure it out, Jim Fiala’s pocked-sized restaurant, The Side Door, is a great little spot. As the name suggests, the eatery is an appendage – specifically, the renovated back room – to Fiala’s successful Liluma restaurant in the Central West End. And like Fiala’s other operations – Liluma, The Crossing and Acero (He shutters The Terrace View at the end of this month.) – there’s an emphasis on freshly made food with Italian-French influences.

It’s all small plates in this small space. But unlike other small plate concepts that encourage over-ordering and result in tabs that are anything but tiny, the prices here are as diminutive as the portions: $4 “bites” (appetizers), $7 “pillows” (ravioli), $10 “snacks” (light entrées) and $5 “afterthoughts” (desserts). One of each makes a good, light meal. Heartier appetites will want a couple more. The interior – a mere 33 seats – is casual by design with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and photos of Fiala’s trips to Italy adorning the walls. And while the food is casual, there is nothing nonchalant about its preparation. Even the olive oil accompanying the house-made rounds of dense bread is above average: fruity, flavorful, certainly extra virgin.

During one visit, we focused on bites and pillows. You’ll need your server to interpret the menu, which changes regularly. “Fried bologna” is really prosciutto-wrapped mortadella sliced into eight little nibbles of meaty, salty heaven. “Sweet Potatoes” were – surprise! – sweet potatoes: a mound of creamy, smooth, unadulterated earthiness accented with sweet maple butter. The “Squash and Bacon” was savory and delicious: diced butternut squash and pancetta in a bit of aromatic chicken stock. Ask for more bread and spoon the liquid over the slices for a real treat. Shiitake custard, served in a ramekin, was robust with earthy mushroom flavor and balanced by the sour, nutty warmth of Swiss and Gruyère.

Pillows, aka stuffed pastas, required even more explanation. (And here is where the cuteness bordered on tiresome.) “Ducks in a Lake” consisted of five mini ravioli stuffed with shredded duck confit —the combination of dense duck and al dente pasta making for a satisfying chew—swimming in a buttery, salty duck broth. The combination of dense duck and al dente pasta made for a satisfying chew. The dish’s warmth was perfect for a chilly evening. “Vichyssoise,” two dome-shaped pastas, popped with the flavors of puréed leeks, onions and potatoes, while the three “Squash and Nuts” ravioli had the smooth, mild consistency of puréed butternut squash. Although light on the nuts, the dish still conveyed the earthiness of fall, though a little more contrast in flavor would’ve been nice. “Bacon and Egg” came as one raviolo filled with an egg yolk, doused with a light cream-and-butter sauce and topped with diced bacon. Piercing the pasta let the yolk blend with the sauce for a decadent, creamy, salty, meaty delight.

By the time you want to order from the snacks section, your confidence is shot because you’ve been conditioned to ask what the dishes mean. Is “Rice and Beans” really rice and beans? (Yes.) What are “Mussel Boats”? (A bowl of mussels.) “Fish and Chips” is just that: two deep-fried segments of tilapia, house-made potato chips and a spicy dipping sauce. The fish was crisp with a light breading, but tilapia always has a muddy flavor; a cleaner-tasting cod would do wonders for this dish. “Steak and Eggs” is one fried egg, over medium, atop a thin yet nice slice of medium-rare beef with a side of micro greens. “Surf and Turf” varies broadly here, ranging from grilled shrimp with watermelon to the version I had: two sea scallops – cool in the middle with a perfectly seared exterior – atop a swirl of spaghetti squash.

The wine list is a shocker. Three wines at $12 and four at $15 is absurd – so absurd I requested to see the Liluma wine list to check cheaper by-the-glass prices. The real shocker was that Side Door’s prices were by the bottle! Now that’s the type of absurdity I can get used to. The list switches out, but there’s an interesting lineup of wines that, except for everybody’s favorite cheap Spanish sparkler, Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, you typically won’t find in local stores. It’s an ideal list to match the relaxed nature of the restaurant (although, serving those wines by the glass would be perfect).

Desserts, err, “afterthoughts,” are fine endings. Apple pie is reinvented as cooked apples between puff pastry with a side of salted caramel ice cream: sugary, salty, bready and just the right size. In keeping with the menu’s things-aren’t-what-they-appear-to-be theme, the Baked Potato is vanilla ice cream shaped into an oval (“potato”), rolled in cocoa powder (“potato skin”), and topped with a mound of whipped cream (“sour cream”), chopped mint (“chives”) and, the only reality of the dish, bacon bits (“bacon bits”). Sure, it’s essentially just your basic bowl of ice cream (enhanced by bacon and mint, that is), but if your brain didn’t know it was time for dessert, it would have some serious reprocessing to do upon the first bite.

Playful menu aside, there are aspects of Side Door that will frustrate some would-be diners to the point of exasperation. The entrance is around the corner from Liluma on Euclid Avenue, but with no hostess station for Side Door, we stood there among the tables looking around for instruction before deciding to walk through the restaurant to the hostess station at the entrance to Liluma. On our second visit, a sign was placed on a table instructing diners to make themselves at home at any table. While service during our visits was attentive, there were extended gaps between courses; both restaurants share servers so pacing can be slow.

But here’s the thing about The Side Door: The food is well-prepared and affordable, the wine cheap and whether you’re dining alone, as a couple or with friends, it’s a helluva good time.

The Side Door, 236 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, 314.361.7771

Mon. to Thu. – 5 to (around) 9 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. – 5 to (around) 10 p.m.
Don’t Miss Dishes
Fried Bologna, Ducks in a Lake, Steak and Eggs.

Relaxed and informal, good stop for pre- or post-theater night out. Just walk in and sit down.

Entrée Prices
Bites: $4, pillows: $7, snacks: $10