Posted On: 12/01/2015
Opening a restaurant isn’t easy. Each year, hundreds give it a shot – and not everyone succeeds. Some, however, aren’t just surviving; they’re killing it. In the last year, we ate our way through newly opened restaurants from Alton to Ballwin, compiling a list of places that serve the food and drinks we can’t get out of our heads. They bring something different and exciting to the scene – and they do it damn well. While technical excellence was a must, the service and ambiance also had to win us over. Office debates nearly came to fisticuffs, but at last we agreed on St. Louis’ 11 best new restaurants of 2015. Clear your schedule and book your reservations; you’ve got a lot of eating to do.
The world stops when you enter Público, stepping away from the controlled chaos of the Delmar Loop. Here, chef-owner Mike Randolph invites you to luxuriate in the finer things through an innovative Mexican- and South American-inspired menu unlike anything St. Louis has seen before.
The kitchen and bar teams refer to Randolph as “Coach,” a title that goes far beyond his pre-service pep talks. “You’re only as good as your team,” he said with an Eric Taylor gleam in his eye. This is not a platitude – the kitchen is structured to support and challenge its cooks as much as its diners. A cook who works hard at Público will go far in Randolph’s world. “I’m a firm believer in the fact that you can’t teach attitude,” he said. “If somebody has a good attitude, and they’re not turned into a rock star, then that’s my fault.”
When enthusiasm to learn can outweigh culinary school credentials, Randolph has to be prepared to invest long-term in cooks. That’s no easy task in an industry where turnover can be swift and frequent. What’s made it possible at Público isn’t a curriculum or corporate training system, Randolph said. It’s his even-keeled chef de cuisine, Brad Bardon.
“Brad’s just as cool as the other side of the pillow. I’ve never seen him get angry, certainly never seen him yell,” Randolph said. “He gets along with people. The servers love him; the cooks love him. He’s a dream come true.”
The yin and yang of their creative partnership shapes Público’s entire menu. “Brad was extremely conservative, and I was about as far on the opposite end of that spectrum as you can possibly be,” Randolph said. “So he was here,” – Randolph stretched out his right arm – “and I was here.” He extended his left arm, then brought both hands together. “And Público is here, in the middle. … It’s no longer Brad’s food or my food. It’s Público food.”
And just what is Público food? Imaginative, yet tight and reliable, the distinctive menu offers reassuring familiar dishes, like tacos and guacamole arepas. But these serve as an approachable entry into Randolph and Bardon’s world rather than an alternative to adventurous dining. “We have no interest in being a strip-mall Mexican restaurant or just a taco place,” Randolph said. “Tacos are a part of what we do, but they don’t by any stretch of the imagination define us.”
Público is defined by technique rather than a signature dish. The roaring wood-fire oven visible in the open kitchen touches almost everything on the menu. Cooking with something as temperamental as fire is notoriously difficult, and Público’s consistency showcases Randolph’s masterful execution.
Though a few small plates are available, think of all the offerings as a build-your-own tasting menu. Try as many dishes as possible and encourage your dining companions to share. Be brave and order the baby octopus – even texture-phobes can get behind these tender little bites of intense umami flavor. Dishes that sound tame will surprise you. A simple order of leeks arrived as a work of art, decorated with bright roe and surrounded by crema that demanded to be licked from the plate. A more substantial whole fish (a market option meant to be shared between two or more guests) is fire-roasted, simple perfection.
The esteemed bar program headed by bar manager Nick Digiovani will encourage you to share as well, since it’s almost impossible to choose just one inventive cocktail. Classics like El Diablo (Espolón Blanco tequila, lime, cassis and ginger beer) are offered alongside a menu of peculiar house creations. Try the Windy City Mezcalero for a strange, smoky herbal drink made with Del Maguey mezcal, Besk (a Swedish wormwood liqueur) and sugar.
Drinks and dishes rotate aggressively. If you haven’t dined at Público since doors opened in March, you won’t recognize most items currently available. Some favorites are gone in a flash, like the delicate cobia ceviche, served in a slurpable tomato water. Público’s heavy rotation is due both to seasonality constraints and Randolph’s commitment to keep his cooks on their toes. “Monotonous things lend themselves potentially to complacency in the kitchen, so we try to change things up,” he said.
Servers hate it, joking that the moment a dish becomes popular, Randolph pulls it from the menu. “And it is kind of the truth,” Randolph admitted. “I like to keep my cooks fresh, keep them trying new stuff.” If Randolph and Bardon are behind it, we’ll happily keep trying the new stuff, too. – H.H.
2. Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery
Three years after Sauce published a story on how Ted Wilson was going to change the St. Louis bread scene with a new bakery, we can finally report that we were right. Wilson and co-founder Sean Netzer opened Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery in Botanical Heights at the end of September, a lunch spot serving sandwiches on bread unrivaled in the city.
The key to Loafers’ loaves is fermentation. The bread is naturally leavened, meaning the bakery doesn’t just avoid chemical compounds like baking soda. In all but two of Loafers’ breads, it means avoiding even mass-produced yeast. Instead, Wilson starts with just flour and water, and carefully cultivates the yeast that occurs naturally, watching over it as it ferments – think of sourdough starters or Amish friendship breads.
Aside from the incredible flavor this process produces, Wilson is objectively fascinated by fermentation. The fact that he can start with water and flour and end up with bread makes him giddy. “In some way, it takes responsibility off your shoulders. Your role is to set up this environment … you can only be in control of so much,” Wilson said. “Then you just have to react, and you have to pay attention.”
This patient relationship with food requires a rare mix of fanatical curiosity and dogged perseverance – qualities reflected in Loafers’ entire team. Some, like chef Brian Lagerstrom (Sauce Ones to Watch class of 2015), left the fine dining world for Loafers to explore the freedom fermentation allows. Lagerstrom, who dabbled at Niche with house bread and cheese programs (not to mention house-made soy sauce, vinegars and fish sauce), was given free reign at Loafers to get as funky as he liked.
No condiment is too small for serious attention; house-made mustard and pickles grace the Cuban-like roasted pork sandwich, and house-smoked beets are piled high with sauerkraut and creamy Thousand Island dressing. Even the rotating nut butter and jam sandwich is taken seriously. Wilson and crew roast and grind the nuts, cook down the berries and churn that creamy butter.
Romantic slow food notions could easily stall when confronted with labor-intensive reality, but not at Loafers. “The work really brings us joy,” Wilson said. “(We have a) great excitement and love for these transformations that happen under our watch. … They’re little science experiments that taste good.”
Union Loafers is waiting on a liquor license to extend service into evening hours and debut a bread-centric bar menu. We’re confident it, too, will be worth the wait. – H.H.
Rick Lewis ate a lot of hot chicken for you. The chef-owner of Southern, which opened its doors this June next to Pappy’s Smokehouse in Midtown, racked up the miles on his F-250 cruising to Nashville to research hot chicken royalty like Prince’s and Hattie B’s. Southern features their influence, along with a few barbecue techniques from the pros at Ubons in Mississippi, plus Lewis’ own tricks. Here, the path to Southern’s hot chicken:
Back off, buttermilk. Southern chicken marinates barbecue-style in a tub of beer, lemon juice, rice wine vinegar and cayenne pepper. The barbecue method continues with a dry rub of Lewis’ house-made riff on Old Bay, habanero powder, garlic, salt and sugar, building in layers of heat.
Dredge, baby, dredge. Chicken is tossed in a mixture of two different starches and flour (This, Lewis insisted, is the key to breading that doesn’t slide off the entire piece after the first bite), plus more seasoning.
Fried and true. Chicken swims in corn oil until cooked through, then is sprinkled with a seasoning salt that Lewis called “magic dust.” Finally, the hot version of the fried bird takes another plunge in a vat of hot corn oil – this one glistening with cayenne and habanero peppers.
Not a one-trick bird. What makes Southern a force to be reckoned with is Lewis’ care for the whole meal. Greens rich with drippings from Pappy’s smoked chicken, flaky biscuits and creamy mac-n-cheese offer respite before you venture back to the merciless goodness of that crispy chicken.
Despite his meticulous research, the chicken’s punishing-yet-addictive heat and perfect crunch, Lewis is still at a loss to explain Southern’s overwhelming popularity. “I have no idea,” he said, grinning. “You want to know what everybody says? They just go, ‘There’s just not any chicken that’s this good around here.’ That’s what they tell me.” We couldn’t put it better ourselves. – C.K.
4. Randolfi's Italian Kitchen
Chef-owner Mike Randolph welcomes St. Louisans into his family at his newest restaurant venture, Randolfi’s. The slight spelling alteration honors his Italian heritage; the family’s name was changed when they immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1800s. The space that once housed The Good Pie is now festooned with red-and-white checked tablecloths and photos of generations of Randolphs. It has all the semblance of an old-school Italian-American ristorante, but you won’t find fettuccine Alfredo or garlic bread on this Italian menu.
Neapolitan-style pizzas come out of the same roaring wood-fired pizza oven as in The Good Pie days, but at Randolfi’s, they work well as a sharable starter. Follow the rustic pizza with a sophisticated beef tartare, a silky appetizer with delicate meaty flavor crowned with a luxurious semi-soft cured egg yolk.
Randolph’s passion and attention to detail carry through to the house-made pasta dishes and entrees. Hand-cut pappardelle, toothsome buccatini and more are made with precision and prepared perfectly al dente. Fluffy gnocchi is served as a bed for rich duck confit with briny olives and orange segments for a balanced dish of ricocheting, complementary flavors. Deceivingly simple in its presentation, a pork and apples entree was texturally delightful: pork loin served with soft caramelized apples and tender-crisp celery.
The bar program holds its own against the creative fare. Indulge your curiosity with any of bar manager Jeffrey Moll’s inspired seasonal cocktails. Sip on the No. 37¾, a bourbon and ginger liqueur libation delivered with an apple-wood smoke cap roiling atop a blackberry garnish.
Don’t be selfish when your order arrives; the variety and creativity of Randolfi’s menu begs to be shared with friends and family. Then take your time; linger and enjoy the food, company and la bella vita in a space as intimate as Nonna’s kitchen. – K.S.
5. Reeds American Table
Unfold the menu at Reeds American Table, and you see names before you see dishes. These are the people chef-owner Matthew Daughaday wants you to know before digging in – the ones who braise that succulent beef cheek, concoct house tinctures and know exactly how long the kitchen worked to perfect the lamb sugo.
Traditional restaurants operate under a relatively strict hierarchy: An executive chef directs a staff that operates in descending order from sous chef on down to line cook and dishwasher. The bar may have some interaction with the kitchen, but not much. Servers live at the front of the house, balancing trays and scribbling orders. It’s a time-honored method that’s produced top-notch results – but Daughaday is doing things a bit differently.
The former executive chef of Taste announced he was leaving the swanky CWE cocktail bar last December. Public anticipation built over the following months as Daughaday assembled a crack team to aid his first solo enterprise: sommelier Andrey Ivanov as beverage director, Summer Wright as executive pastry chef, Nicki Ball as general manager and Andrew Moore as office manager.
“We all try to be people who are very open about the learning process,” Daughaday said. “(We’re) creating a mentoring environment where you’re teaching people things and pushing them to be better, but not in an overbearing, demanding (manner).” The result is a delightfully collaborative and approachable menu, resulting in dishes like the decadent chicken potpie and silky panna cotta. Pastry chefs craft syrups and tonics for the bar team. Extensive beer and wine lists include charts, maps and graphs; the house coffee program details brewing methods.
Most important, Daughday said, is that everyone from the executive sous chef to the busser to the bartender feels a sense of ownership. “I always use the analogy of a baseball team,” he said. “Everybody has their positions and the expectation is that you play your position, but we all know that it supports the greater goal.” – C.K.
6. J. McArthur's An American Kitchen
Removed from the glittery lights of the Central West End and Clayton, friendly J. McArthur’s An American Kitchen is a neighborhood restaurant emphasizing local, seasonal ingredients. The warm, comfortable interior will make you feel like a regular on the first visit, and once patio weather returns, you may never leave.
Chef-owner Ben McArthur’s menu reads like a geography textbook of local farms: pork from Geisert Farms, potatoes from Harvey Yoder Family Farm, pea shoots from Claverach Farm and locally foraged greens from Double Star Farms. But McArthur isn’t just hopping on a trend or trying a gimmick. Chef can cook.
The seared diver scallops are consistently cooked to tender, buttery perfection. These sea jewels sit in a dreamy smoked bisque that rotates with the seasons. This summer it was corn, but now the dish is served with smoked butternut squash bisque, Brussels sprouts, tender pieces of confit butternut squash, Geisert Farms bacon and a sage-butternut squash seed pesto. Even the street tacos are no slackers, featuring rich, braised pork belly, Double Star cabbage slaw, crumbly cotija cheese and guacamole. This summer’s accompanying chimichurri was recently replaced by a smoked chile and sorghum barbecue sauce.
Dishes turn over or change due to availability of seasonal ingredients – a sign of true farm-to-table commitment. If you see a ravioli special, snap it up because McArthur knows his way around house-made pasta. And snap fast, as menu items can vary week-to-week, not just season-to-season. “We pretty much get our produce lists Monday and Tuesday,” McArthur said. “And that’s how we know what we’re going to do for the rest of the week.”
Why mess with all our favorite dishes chasing local farm produce? “It’s better food; it tastes better,” McArthur said. It could be as simple as that, but for the proud owner of a family restaurant, it’s also about relationships. “The relationships we’re going to make (at local farms) will last a lot longer than with commercial suppliers,” he said. As patrons, we look forward to a long-lasting relationship with McArthur’s, too. – K.S.
7. Living Room
Tucked away on Sutton Boulevard next to Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions sits Living Room, a neighborhood gem serving up simple, impeccable breakfast and lunch since December 2014. Living Room grew from Art House Coffees, a wholesale roaster started by Barry Larson more than five years ago. His son, Nate Larson, now heads the kitchen at Living Room. Here, three reasons why this little daytime cafe is worth your attention:
The hand-brewed espresso drinks, pour-overs and cold-brew offerings are good, but you won’t find Living Room’s seasonal, flavored coffee drinks anywhere else. House-made syrups offer a hint of sweetness and rich flavors that complement Art House espresso. Try the Smooth Criminal, a fragrant, lightly sweet cortado flavored with lavender, vanilla and expressed orange peel.
Larson is a self-taught baker – and he’s a complete natural. We’re talking more than cookies, too (though it’s worth getting the shortbread). Living Room tackles buttery croissants, scones worthy of England, old-fashioned flaky biscuits and a rotating lineup of cakes. Larson even bakes his own bread for sandwiches. And speaking of those sandwiches…
Despite the bakery and many house-made items like yogurt, aioli, pickles and jams, Larson insisted he isn’t trying to complicate things. “There’s nothing conceptual about the menu,” said Larson. “I want to prepare the best version of what I can make, simple and generous.” That means great sandwiches, breakfast plates and specialty items like savory bread pudding. The Hot Shroom sandwich entices with melty Gruyere, white mushrooms and caramelized onions. A surprise favorite was the biscuit breakfast, featuring a perfect soft-boiled egg draped in melted white cheddar over a wingspan of Boylard’s bacon, served with a rich, cheesy biscuit. Living Room also offers rotating bento boxes for the occasional snack attack. Munch on an assortment including Bolyard’s signature andouille, white cheddar, grapes, house-made candied almonds and a shortbread cookie. – R.T.
8. Private Kitchen
A meal at Private Kitchen is equal parts adventure and leisure. Not only is a table at this University City restaurant by reservation only, but chef-owner Lawrence Chen also encourages diners to place their orders for authentic Shanghai cuisine in advance. Head to Private Kitchen’s Facebook page and click through photos of the menu and specific dishes (like the live crab with ginger, pictured below), then make your selection and place your order via email or phone. Consider this a quest, your dragon to slay before entering an enchanted dining kingdom. Your efforts will be well rewarded when that dragon is served to you as spicy lobster with ginger sauce. No, seriously, Chen actually carves the lobster to look like a dragon.
Chen’s fanciful plating of flavorful dishes doesn’t stop there. He breaks down a whole crab for your convenience, but then reassembles the body piled atop the legs to stare (perhaps a bit accusatorily) at you, glossy with ginger sauce. Tender, savory xiao long bao (traditional soup dumplings) arrive plump in a bamboo steamer basket, and a generous mound of sweet-savory kung pao chicken arrives strewn attractively across the plate with edible flower garnishes.
This much advanced planning for a night out may seem inconvenient, but by the time Chen’s wife, Emily Chen, shows you to your table, your work is done. Sit back and enjoy the tranquil little space as your food arrives unbidden and exactly as you wanted it. – H.H.
9. Beast Craft BBQ
The road to Beast Craft BBQ is long. Missourians must drive over the Mississippi River into Belleville, then hunt among fast food chains for a former Hi-Ho diner. If you smell intoxicating hickory smoke, congratulations: You’ve found the Beast.
And hopefully you left early – it’s not unusual for popular items to sell out by 7 p.m., according to owner-pitmaster David Sandusky. If you want to get your hands on a 1½ inch-thick pork steak or fork-tender burnt ends, you’ve got to plan ahead, people. Step up to the counter and peruse a daily list of offerings, all handwritten on butcher paper. Even if the heavy hitters are out, staples like ribs (with a burnished brown crust, deep pink smoke ring and just enough cling) or smoky half-chickens (moist long after you admit defeat) are sure to satisfy. Meals are served on aluminum trays draped with a few fresh tortillas – perfect for sharing, swiping up house-made sauces or constructing an epic burnt end taco.
But meat alone does not a great barbecue joint make. Sandusky, who opened Beast in December 2014, offers exceptional sides like classic pit beans, but fresh veggie sides provide an unexpected respite from the heavier fare – like roasted Brussels sprouts studded with pork belly and garlicky sauteed kale.
Choose from dozens of brews to go with your barbecue. Sandusky stocks his bottled beer list with St. Louis staples like Urban Chestnut and several Southern Illinois-based options like Big Muddy Brewing out of Murphysboro.
Sandusky spent years in the fine dining world before hitting the barbecue pits, amassing skills reflected in his determination to provide not only killer meat, but also a stellar meal. “I wanted to get into something more soulful and family-oriented, more fun to eat,” he said. “I just try to bring the standards that were hammered into me by some of the best chefs in the city … to something more home-grown.” So gas up the car and bring your appetite – the Beast is calling. – C.K.
10. Retreat Gastropub
Retreat Gastropub in the Central West End is our getaway of choice these days. Owner Travis Howard opened the corner bar in October to serve as an outdoors-inspired refuge, day or night. Pull up a stool at the poured concrete bar or get comfortable on a handmade cedar bench and sip a creative house cocktail from bar manager Tim Wiggins, who is reason enough for a visit. He’s the mind behind such drinks as the smoky-sweet Oaxaca Flocka Flame, made with Vida mezcal, blanco tequila, lime juice, passion fruit puree, curacao, ancho chile liqueur and mole bitters. And forget sweet dessert wine; Wiggins hooks diners up with a selection of aged rums for sipping after dinner.
Not to be outshone by the bar program, Retreat’s kitchen does fresh comfort fare right. The menu is solid straight through dessert (Order the decadent bread pudding, which swims in caramel sauce.). Crispy, flavorful flatbreads and fried fingerling potato poutine served with a rich mushroom gravy are small plate standouts. Don’t miss the addictive Farmhouse Burger with two smashed beef patties topped with cheese sauce, candied bacon and an over-easy egg. But be warned: Repeat visits for this brinner burger will occur, and the congenial staff may comment on the love you and Farmhouse Burger seem to share. You are not alone. – H.H.
11. Dalie's Smokehouse
The newest installment of the Mike Emerson-Skip Steele family of barbecue restaurants has some unexpected draws. We expect delicious pulled pork and ribs from the co-owner of Pappy’s Smokehouse and Bogart’s Smokehouse, but here are six exceptional things that took us by surprise – and kept us wanting more – at Dalie’s Smokehouse:
The Cuban sandwich. Shaved ham and Pappy’s pulled pork are complemented by gooey Swiss cheese and a layer of heat from chipotle mustard on ciabatta, while the house-made Fire and Ice Pickles bring a hit of acidity that cuts through the rich meat.
The Ultimate Reuben. Beef and pork pastrami are piled on grilled marble rye for a monstrous, meaty sandwich topped with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.
The Hushpuppies. So often dense and dry, Dalie’s hushpuppies have a light, crisp exterior and an almost cake-like interior studded with bits of jalapeno, green onion and fresh corn.
The Mac-n-Cheese. This is the first Emerson-Steele barbecue joint to offer a side of mac-n-cheese, and we’re so glad it does. Elbow noodles luxuriate in a creamy cheese sauce with just a touch of heat and a crunchy bacon-breadcrumb topping.
The Fried Pickles. What’s better than the Fire and Ice Pickles? Deep-fried Fire and Ice Pickles.
The staff. From the busboy to the cook to the server, Dalie’s employees are unfailingly kind, exuding the same charm as their boss. Is an Emerson likeability test required before hiring? It’s entirely plausible. – M.N.
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