Review: Tree House in St. Louis
3177 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.696.2100, treehousestl.com
Years ago, over dinner with a few friends, a vegetarian acquaintance mentioned that she never ate anything with a face. Her hushed tone was so sanctimonious that I thought she was praying. “What about a head of lettuce?” I chimed in. She didn’t even chuckle. I think she just blinked. Sure, my snarky remark was the proverbial poke in the eye – a silly attempt to inject a bit of juvenile humor into the conversation – but her comment epitomized the stereotypical smug, humorless non-meat eater. We moved on.
In retrospect, perhaps my dining companion was simply too hungry to be much fun. This was back in the day when the best meatless option you could “special order” at a restaurant was a plate of spaghetti or rice with steamed veggies. Today, chefs prepare vegetables with as much care and skill as they would a collop of cow – so much so that carnivores frequently forgo flesh. In short, it’s much easier to eat vegetarian and vegan these days; yet, there is always room for more restaurants solely dedicated to the cuisine.
The latest restaurant on the meat-free, green scene is Tree House, Bay Tran’s bright and inviting little bistro in the heart of the South Grand restaurant district. Unlike many vegetarian-vegan restaurants I’ve frequented in the past – with their incessant aroma of soy and patchouli, hodge-podge furniture and windows plastered with remnants of flyers from sundry out-of-date community events – Tree House has a flair that’s both contemporary and rustic: bright orange, stackable chairs; blown-glass light fixtures hanging from the yellow-gold, pressed-tin ceiling; bamboo floors; and a bar and shelves fashioned from reclaimed wood.
The menu is categorized into Snacks, Small Plates and Large Plates, with each dish labeled vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. Tran, a vegetarian, brings her Vietnamese heritage to the table (Her family owns the restaurant Mekong down the street.) with meatless versions of popular dishes like the banh mi sandwich. Here, wild mushroom pâté substituted for traditional liver spread and optional house-made seitan (for an extra $2) sat in for pork. The baguette was fresh and crusty, the thin layer of pâté forest-y, the carrot and pickled daikon slaw cold and crunchy, and the cilantro and sliced jalapeño bright and hot, but there wasn’t enough food in the dish to qualify it as a Large Plate. (Tree House has since moved the dish to its brunch menu.)
Other dishes reflect the ethnic backgrounds of the kitchen crew, like sous chef Tanya Brown’s Obaachan’s Udon Noodle Soup, based on her grandmother’s recipe. A vegan dashi served as the base into which red miso, scallions, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, noodles and cabbage simmered. The noodles were more like fettuccine, not the ropy thickness I prefer, and the warming winter dish would have been even more warming if served hotter. Otherwise, it was a satisfying noodle bowl, especially with the optional hardboiled egg.
Some flavors were unfailingly lively, with surprising combinations of savory and sweet, like the Brussels sprouts salad with Thai basil, crisp cabbage, cilantro and mint tossed with a gently hot and slightly sweet chile vinaigrette. Among others, the red beets (cut like french fries) were roasted to bring out their natural sweetness before being fried and coated with salt and togarashi (Japanese chile powder). The result was a surprisingly fun and flavorsome appetizer.
A johnnycake packed even more flavor bombs: a fried, pita-sized masa and black bean bread sliced in half came nestled in a pool of thick and smoky malagueta pepper sauce, tamed by an outer ring of garlic-parsley chimichurri. Pickled vegetables provided the proper acidic foil. But some fell short: Red beet hummus, rich with deep raspberry color and heavy on the garlic, was devoid of root vegetables’ earthy flavors.
Other offerings translated easily into the vegetarian vernacular. Jambalaya arrived steaming hot, made with smoked, spicy, wheat gluten-based sausage, brown rice, garlic, tomato and the holy trinity of all Cajun cookery: bell peppers, onion and celery. On top, a small square of cornbread; you will want more. Southern grits, made with coconut milk and topped with tomato-garlic ragout and braised kale, elicited wonderment.
Some translations didn’t work. Roasted duck (Do I really need to use quotation marks at this point?) was really just seitan sliced into medallions to simulate duck breast. The Asian glaze was overpowering and the texture, unappealing. You can’t make duck out of a sow’s ear, so why bother trying to imitate the meat-eating experience?
Among Tree House’s successes, there’s the drink menu. Creative cocktails run between $7 and $9, on par with St. Louis prices, and include the bright and citrusy Rhubarb Rickey (gin, lemon, grapefruit, ginger beer, rhubarb bitters, candied ginger) and a boozy Furlough Fashioned (bourbon, spice bitters, St. Germain, lemon zest). There’s a handful of local beers on tap and a short, but decent, wine list. Kudos to Tree House for serving red wine by the glass at the proper temperature.
Desserts are limited but should satisfy any after-dinner sweet tooth. Pumpkin bread pudding with bourbon cranberry sauce tasted like pumpkin pie; the Truffle Trio, consisting of coffee toffee, toasted coconut and toasted walnut chocolates, was decadent.
Tree House moved its closed day from Wednesday to Monday. This is too bad because many people are seeking vegetarian dining to support Meatless Monday, a movement that encourages skipping meat one day a week. But even with its hits and misses, Tree House would be a fine place to begin … any day. So, this vegan walks into a bar with a duck on his head … oh, never mind.
Don’t Miss Dishes
Jambalaya, fried beets, Brussels sprouts salad
With its contemporary blend of sleek and rustic, this ain’t your hippie father’s vegetarian restaurant.
$10 to $13 for Large Plates
3177 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.696.2100, treehousestl.com
Tue. to Sun. – 5 to 10 p.m.; Brunch: Sat. and Sun. – 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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