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Oct 25, 2014
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Intelligent Content For The Food Fascinated
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SERVING SAINT LOUIS SINCE 1999
New and Notable
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New and Notable: Little Country Gentleman
By Michael Renner | Photos by Jonathan Gayman
Posted On: 01/01/2013   


Little Country Gentleman, 8135 Maryland Ave., Clayton, 314.725.0719, littlecountrygentleman.com

This review started well before Little Country Gentleman opened. But first, a recap: Mike Randolph owns The Good Pie, a Midtown Neopolitan pizza place, and Half & Half, a breakfast-and-lunch eatery in Clayton. At night, staff transformed Half & Half into Medianoche: a Mexican-inspired dinner-only restaurant. I thought the concept intriguing, if not a bit confounding. I liked how Randolph’s experimentations challenged our preconceptions of Mexican food.

And I would have said as much had Randolph not shuttered Medianoche a few months later, mid-way through my review. Seems diners wanted tacos and burritos more than braised beef cheeks or crispy belly from a lamb butchered in-house. A few weeks later, Randolph opened Little Country Gentleman in the same spot. Still working with the two-in-one concept, this time, LCG focused on what Medianoche was becoming anyway: an oasis for Randolph’s nose-to-tail, New American, molecular gastronomic approach to translating Midwestern ingredients (more on this later) into innovative, boldly flavored dishes.

LCG takes the current progressive tasting menu trend a step further (for St. Louis, at least) by solely offering three prix fixe menus of three courses, six courses and a grand taster of about 12 courses, each available with wine pairings expertly selected by wine director Daniels Parseliti. Regardless of your option, the excitement begins with a complimentary half glass of sparkling Lambrusco – the real stuff, fizzy and dry from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region – and an amuse-bouche. Mine was goat cheese, supremed lime and chorizo pork powder topped with a bit of cilantro and packed on a spoon for one perfect bite of crunch, astringency and creaminess.

During my visits, the three-courser consisted of two options from which to choose. Ordering both is a good way for a couple to experience the Randolph way. Listen to your server – carefully – as the menu descriptions are mere hints for what are very arduous preparations. “Country-fried chicken” is really a couple nuggets of rich and earthy chicken liver bathed in Tabasco and buttermilk, and fried crisp. Parseliti’s pairing of a German riesling, fresh but not too fruity, was spot on. The wine list, it should be noted, is decidedly Old World, meaning European and meant to be enjoyed with food.

Calling “Lobster” the soup course sounds so banal: Succulent lobster meat gets bathed in a creamy, foamy base of aerated vanilla and potato with a whisper of orange and tarragon, flavored with Thai dragon chile. Another second course included trout – pan-seared to a golden crispness yet still moist – and several clams served in their shells. A scattering of Brussels sprout leaves, more the idea of a vegetable than actual sustenance, accented the plate. As with the Vouvray poured with the soup, the acidic, mineral flintiness of the sauvignon blanc – a 2011 Sancerre – proved the proper foil for the fish and seafood. But for a restaurant touting Midwestern ingredients, I was surprised to see lobster on the menu at all, let alone learn that the trout was not sourced from Missouri, but rather from Idaho, although the restaurant also sources trout from Missouri. I could say the same about the lack of regional wines.

Pig and cow, however, did come from the heartland, and each makes up the third-course options. On one long plate, the dish is simply labeled “Pig,” Randolph showcases nearly every aspect of the hog: beautifully medium-rare tenderloin cold-smoked with apple wood; crunchy, deep-fried skin (chicharrón or cracklings); unctuous sous vide belly; and a delicious croquette made from the meat of boiled head using cheeks, ears and tongue. It’s an involved process that takes more than two days to produce before it hits the fryer. A bit of braised coleslaw and a black pepper biscuit rounded out the plate. I found the cracklings too thick, but the croquette had the concentrated savory, meaty flavor often described as umami: the fifth taste.

For me, that one pork croquette and the beef trio crystalized Randolph’s concept and supreme attention to detail. For the beef entree, beef cheeks are rendered meltingly tender after being brined for about two days, then spending nearly 20 hours in the immersion circulator and then finally seasoned and shredded. A slice of New York strip is grilled rare and juicy. Pan-roasted tongue is pickled and shredded. Just a little of this meat and you’ll feel luxurious without feeling indulgent. Parsnip miso, a few roasted root vegetables and a bit of Maytag blue cheese provided good counterpoints to the three styles.

For dessert, there’s a well-stocked cheese cart and sweets, like flourless chocolate cake slathered in magic-shell syrup with a scoop of ice cream and roasted banana with black strap molasses and topped with puffed rice. Or, order nothing; you’re still going home with a complimentary cookie.

Watching Randolph, chef de cuisine Dale Beauchamp and sous chef Chip Bates bending over the kitchen’s butcher block table, carefully attending to each dish and assembling it with all the precision and intensity of a surgical team, you realize why they call it the “culinary arts.” Despite the sophiscation of the food, there’s a casual vibe running throughout the restaurant. Bow-tied servers move about calmly and efficiently. Service is crisp, knowledgeable and attentive, if sometimes bordering on hovering. 1920s Tin Pan Alley jazz filters throughout the room, evoking those old black-and-white cartoons of dancing tomatoes. Even the restaurant’s name dates back to a mid-19th century breed of corn called Country Gentleman.

Some will grouse about the prices and expect big servings. Yes, bigger appetites may leave hungry, especially if they have the three-courser; I feared the same, but after the second course, I knew I’d be fine. Some may not pick up on LCG’s wit and humor; I confess sensing a bit of pretentiousness seeping through at times. Some won’t like eating on the gentleman’s terms and resent that “modifications are politely declined.” (However he will accommodate allergies or dietary restrictions.)

But unless you’re part of the 1 percent, Little Country Gentleman is not a place you return to on a regular basis. It is a food experience: a place where you surrender all preconceptions, trust Randolph and his team, and embrace the unexpected. This is how cities gain reputations for great restaurants. Without Beehthoven pushing the envelope, there would be no Mahler; without Parker, no bebop. St. Louis needs chefs like Randolph to challenge us, to push us from good to great.


AT A GLANCE

Where
Little Country Gentleman, 8135 Maryland Ave., Clayton, 314.725.0719, littlecountrygentleman.com

Don’t Miss Dishes
Cow, any fish course

Vibe
Sophiscated yet casual, romantic atmosphere, a bit cheeky

Entree Prices
Three-courses: $38 (add $30 for wine pairing). Six-courses: $68 (add $48 for wine pairing). Grand tasting menu: $98 ($80 for the wine pairing).

When
Cocktail hour: Tues. to Fri. – 5 to 6 p.m. Dinner: Tues. to Sat. – 6 to 10 p.m.

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