A St. Louis Place: Larry Forgione Becomes Part of Our Downtown Renaissance

Like actors, writers and other ambition-driven people, chefs migrate to New York where they attempt to mimic Frank Sinatra's line, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And those chef-restaurateurs who do make it there will later head out of town to establish outposts of a hoped-for dynasty in a second tier of cities. There are exceptions to this pattern, of course, but not enough to overturn the rule.

Chefs go to Chicago, or Philadelphia, or San Francisco or Las Vegas (an aberration, but. . . .), but they never have come to St. Louis. Lidia Bastianich opened a fine, eponymous restaurant in Kansas City, but nationally ranked chefs, like the National Basketball Association, have avoided St. Louis as if it were home to the plague.

At least until now, or more accurately, until late September, when things will change as Larry Forgione opens An American Place and the Centennial Lounge, in the Ninth-and-Washington end of the Renaissance Grand Hotel. Using the gorgeous, two-story space that once was the lobby of the legendary Statler Hotel, built in 1917, Forgione is creating a major restaurant for downtown, and his 100-seat establishment will have the same American-style food that he has been using, and improving, and continues to improve, since he opened the original An American Place, on Lexington Avenue, in 1983.

Forgione, 52, has a long and distinguished career as a chef in the U.S. and in Europe, and the St. Louis enterprise may be the beginning of a larger expansion, which began with his restaurants in six Lord & Taylor department stores in the New York area. However, unless and until the store opens a branch with space for a kitchen and dining room, there will not be one in St. Louis.

Forgione grew up on Long Island, went to college in West Virginia, but only briefly. A bout with illness convinced him to drop out for the semester, and upon his recovery in the middle of a semester, a Brooklyn relative who had a catering business put him to work. After that experience turned out to be a lot more pleasant than he anticipated, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"I love a lot of the St. Louis architecture I've seen," he said as he munched breakfast one morning recently. He has a round face and a neat, well-trimmed, graying beard, set off by a small ponytail.

"And," he continued, "I've found all sorts of growers and purveyors of local fruit and vegetables. I'm not insistent on organic growing methods, but I like them, and I like the idea of sustainable agriculture, and I intend to support it. For example, I found a grower of shallots and bought his entire crop."

Forgione is living at the hotel and will be his own chef, but will be joined along the way by his son, Bryan, who will work with him at the restaurant. He emphasized that the hotel does not own An American Place.

After graduation from the CIA, Forgione worked at the Connaught Hotel, one of London's top dining rooms and then in Paris for Michael Guerard. Returning to this country, he was in the kitchen at the River Café, in Brooklyn, in 1979, before opening An American Place.

He still is working to establish a menu, but he intends to devote space on it to the names and affiliations of all his area producers. He's planning on St. Louis-style ribs (that's a style of trimming the ribs, not a cooking or saucing technique) with a ginger-plum glaze, foie gras from the Hudson Valley, roasted oysters, buffalo carpaccio and, on the lounge menu, even a "plateau de fruits de mer," a chilled seafood display that will be a familiar to those who dine in Parisian bistros. That "seafood extravaganza," as Forgione calls it, will be served as part of a lounge menu that also will feature appetizers from Asia and the Middle East, along with an antipasto plate from the Hill.

And yes, he has discovered Volpi's.

Although the menu will change seasonally, Forgione is thinking about entree items like Missouri bass, beef and lamb, with complementary sauces, along with a variety of other dishes. He's planning a wine list that is primarily mid-priced and from California, though he also is investigating Missouri wines, and specifically talked of a Chardonel for use in a sauce for a chicken entree. There was discussion of a price fixe menu – "I like it," he explained, "because it gives me a chance to mix and match, to add a taste of something here or there to spark the dinner, but everyone I talked to here was strongly against it." It may still be tried, but the price consciousness of St. Louis diners seems to predicate against it.

"It's tricky," the chef added, "because if you don't do it for the entire room, one diner sees someone at the next table get an off-the-menu item that he didn't get, and it can cause hard feelings."

Forgione was a friend and disciple of James Beard, probably the Godfather of American cuisine, and has used Beard's philosophy of freshness and sustainable farming. He owns several James Beard and CIA awards, has written two cookbooks and will be an immediate challenge to St. Louis chefs of every culinary persuasion.