Posted On: 02/01/2015
Neighborhood restaurants are risky ventures. Without the advantage of a recognizable location, familiar name or easy visibility, their existence hangs on the buzz of adventuresome diners hungry for something off the beaten path. They are true destinations: Think Jax Café, Farmhaus, The Purple Martin, Ernesto’s Wine Bar or The Piccadilly at Manhattan.
I love neighborhood restaurants.
One particular stretch of Macklind Avenue in St. Louis’ South Hampton area is a neighborhood of destinations: Russell’s on Macklind, Macklind Avenue Deli and The Mack Bar and Grill all keep side-street parking at a premium. Add Ben Anderson’s 5-month-old bistro, Grapeseed, to the list.
Anderson has opened two restaurants – Canoe Regional American Fare and Gist Bistro – both popular, both closed and, in some ways, both preludes to Grapeseed. Each had a scratch kitchen, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, interesting wines and an emphasis on new American cookery.
Grapeseed’s menu leans heavily toward small plates, a trend more restaurants are adopting in an effort to keep prices down while still offering variety and creativity. Consider this flavorful spin on nachos: pulled, smoky pieces of turkey leg piled on a bed of house-made sweet potato chips layered with red onion, roasted red pepper, tomatoes and microgreens drizzled with buttermilk dressing and spicy firecracker sauce. Balancing smoky, sweet, spicy and savory sensations, I wasn’t surprised to see a parade of orders streaming out of the kitchen.
Three house-made pastas shared billing on the small plates menu. The most inspired of the three was ravioli stuffed with shredded, grass-fed beef short rib served with crimini mushrooms and thick-cut root vegetables, all coated with a goat cheese cream sauce. This is the kind of dish that’s toothsome and rib-sticking enough to graduate to the big plates category. It was that good.
The kitchen knows its fish, so count on at least a couple choices among the menu’s compact entree section. The selection varies – during one visit, there was a beautiful serving of meaty, flaky Florida wild black grouper painted with pepper jelly atop a salad of winter greens dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. What at first seemed like a plate trying too hard eased into several layers of flavor. Modest appetites will find the serving just right, but for more substantial eaters the lack of a starch did little to warm the heart or fill the belly on a cold January night.
Meat, like the bone-in pork chop and grass-fed flatiron steak, is sourced from local farms. Both the pork and steak are splashed with richly flavored sauces: the pork with a wild mushroom-Madeira sauce, the steak with a red wine demi-glace. Both suffered from timing flaws, however. The chop was about two minutes overdone and lacked the juicy, blushing pinkness desirable with pasture-raised pork. The steak arrived much rarer than the requested medium-rare.
Shrimp and grits, a Gist carryover, may become Grapeseed’s signature dish, and rightfully so: Anderson makes a mean rendition. Here, centered in a bowl of creamy grits – thickened with cheddar cheese, speckled with Granny Smith apples and bacon and a streak of pepper pesto – sat five plump, spice-rubbed, wild-caught Texas whole shrimp, their heads (rightfully) still attached.
Given its name, you’d expect a lot of wine at Grapeseed. It delivers with an accessible, affordable list of nearly 70 bottles, most less than $40, 16 of which are available by the glass. Straddling Old and New World styles and balancing single varietals with blends, this is what all wine lists should look like. The beer and cocktail selections are no slouches either, with six local brews on tap, a long list of bottles and an array of cocktails with catchy names like Double Freedom Rocket, a Manhattan enhanced with both bourbon and rye. For dessert, most compelling was the house-made lemon-coconut roulade, the pastry’s delicate sweetness complemented, not overrun, by its two headlining ingredients.
The interior of the renovated turn-of-the-20th-century building is one big open space, with half-walls partitioning the dining and bar areas, pressed tin ceiling, exposed duct work and modern brass chandeliers fitted with retro Edison bulbs. Snagging a table on busy weekends can be as dicey as the parking, but there’s seating around the perimeter of the bar area and an eight-seat sharable bar table in the middle.
Grapeseed finds that elusive balance between a go-to Friday night burger-and-beer neighborhood joint and a restaurant good enough to be a destination. The result, while not flawless, is a convivial gathering spot with a talented kitchen putting out simple yet creative American food using local ingredients. I say again: I love neighborhood restaurants.
AT A GLANCE
5400 Nottingham Ave., St. Louis, 314.925.8525, grapeseedstl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Short rib ravioli, shrimp and grits, turkey leg nachos
Casual, convivial eatery with well-curated wine, beer and cocktails serving relaxed, but creative, American cuisine
Small plates: $4.50 to $16; entrees: $18 to $25
Tue. to Sun. – 5 p.m. to close
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