Review: The Libertine in Clayton
7927 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.2999, libertinestl.com
Deadline be damned, I wanted fried chicken. Specifically, I wanted Josh Galliano’s fried chicken: the deep-fried, crunchy, spicy bird that I – and seemingly half of St. Louis – devoured last year at his one-night pop-up event. This was well after Monarch (where most of us first fell under the spell of Galliano’s chicken) had closed, so there was much pent-up demand and curiosity about what he was going to pull out of the skillet this time. Since then, the New Orleans transplant put on another pop-up (gumbo-themed) and designed and executed the menu at MX Movies downtown.
Earlier this year, Nick and Audra Luedde tapped Galliano to head the kitchen at The Libertine, their new restaurant in downtown Clayton; and you thought all that buzz you heard was the cicada invasion. Nick is a practiced mixologist, sommelier and restaurateur, while Audra is a master chef and sommelier. A year ago the husband and wife team moved to St. Louis (Nick’s hometown) from Chicago to open The Libertine.
By May, the former space for the restaurants Chez Leon, Mazara and Shiitake – and even a Woolworth’s back in the ’30s – was refurbished, reinterpreted and ready for business. Then, in July, the question everybody had been asking for months was finally answered: The royal baby is a … no, wait, that was the second most-asked question. The first: Will The Libertine serve Galliano’s fried chicken? “July 21,” came the tweets and blog posts – no town crier required.
Fried chicken was the inaugural meal for Sunday Suppers, a three-course, prix fixe dinner offered every Sunday for $30 per person. The chicken is now only served the second Sunday of every month; the rest of the Sundays rotate. (Other meals have been built around Italian, Vietnamese and barbecue cuisine.) At this point, you should be questioning my effusive praise for something as basic and down-home as fried chicken. But consider these facts: These birds are raised on an Amish farm in Illinois not far from where Galliano lives, brined in sweet tea, soaked in spicy buttermilk and coated in cornmeal and flour before being submerged in lard and canola oil. It arrives hot and crackling on the outside, juicy and glistening on the inside. Its shaggy, crunchy crust – dark with paprika and black pepper – was so noisy, I had to ask my dining companions to repeat what they just said. There is nothing healthy or refined about this five-piece dish, but the side of stewed cabbage and roasted zucchini offered a bit of lightness. Dessert was peach cobbler, filled with not too mushy early peaches held in a buttery and crisp crust with just a bit of chew – a great texture all around.
Nothing goes better with fried chicken than sparkling wine and, in this case, even better with a cabernet Franc rosé sparkler. But fried chicken is a populist dish equally comfy with beer. Victoria Mitchell, one of the restaurant’s two general managers, constructed an appealing and affordable wine list, including a strong wine-by-the-glass selection. Her fiancé and The Libertine’s co-manager, Nate Weber, put together a beer selection heavy with popular craft beers and a solid cocktail list.
The Lueddes described The Libertine as a “reimagined neighborhood eatery that serves accessible yet ingredient-driven food,” an approach well matched to Galliano’s philosophy of sourcing locally and his cooking style that balances sophistication and simplicity. The menu is built around three categories: vegetables, meat and seafood. Each category includes appetizer- and entree-sized dishes, which your server will explain if the prices aren’t enough of a clue (roughly, anything more than $11 is an entree).
As if readying diners’ palates to expand, the kitchen kicked off the meal with a complimentary bowl of deep-fried garbanzo beans dusted with powdered guanciale. Your eyes tell you Cocoa Puffs and powdered sugar; your brain gives up; your tongue doesn’t care because it’s fun.
One evening, monkfish subbed for walleye, its meaty flesh folded and poached in olive oil. Because monkfish must be cooked thoroughly to be tender, it’s often dry and stringy; however, poaching it kept the fish tender and moist, while using olive oil added a denser, more satisfying texture. On the side: Flavors from each vegetable rang through with a beautiful, bright mélange of three-bean ragout (green and wax beans, crowder peas), roasted red peppers and verdant tatsoi.
Three Little Birds exemplifies Galliano’s Louisiana roots and reputation for reinventing simple dishes. Here, thick slices of roasted game hen, chicken and quail came pressed into a short stack atop creamy rice grits and maque choux. A whole charred okra served as a Southern exclamation point. While succulent, it was difficult to distinguish the individual flavors of the birds without dissecting the stack.
Tired of pork belly on every menu in town? How about something that tastes like belly, only fattier? (Yes, this is possible.) Deboned, stuffed, rolled, deep-fried and served four to an order, crispy pig tails “Buffalo style” combines the sticky, spicy goodness of Buffalo wings with the richness of belly. The texture reminded me of Korean barbecue pork, with its crunchy exterior and chewy interior. Served on a bed of creamy brown-butter polenta with whipped Gorgonzola and a celery seed vinaigrette, the reference to real Buffalo wings did not go unnoticed. Be warned though: this is one rich dish.
Ever richer is the She-Crab soup, a Southern coastal staple made with the meat of female blue crabs, roe, cream and sherry. Galliano’s version has a deeper than normal orange hue from the roe and a pleasant, sneaky heat from the addition of Turkish marash ground pepper. A trio of mini crabmeat spring rolls sits in the puddle of deeply flavored soup, topped with icy beads of spherified sherry, exploding with each bite.
Galliano’s desserts are not to be missed, such as The Libertine Candy Bar: a crunchy chocolate dacquoise base layered with salted caramel semifreddo and hazelnuts and dipped in chocolate. A slice of blueberry pie with a cornmeal crust was topped with cinnamon ice cream; a scattering of caramel corn added whimsy, but not much else.
While every meal I had at The Libertine showed off Galliano’s sophisticated yet playful approach, and each dish was executed beautifully, there’s only one that will make me miss a deadline – one that will make me wait until the right Sunday rolls around again.
Don’t Miss Dishes
Crispy pig tails, She-Crab soup and fried chicken
Casual and energetic setting with exposed brick walls, bar and tables made from reclaimed wood and diners comfortable in everything from shorts to chic.
$11 to $23
The Libertine, 7927 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.2999, libertinestl.com
Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 p.m. to midnight (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.), Sun. – 5 to 10 p.m.