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Dec 16, 2017
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SERVING SAINT LOUIS SINCE 1999
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Best New Restaurants

Best New Restaurants: No. 2 – Privado

Friday, December 1st, 2017

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here are St. Louis’ 12 best new restaurants of 2017.

 

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Reservations only. Open just two seatings on Friday and Saturday. Sixteen diners, max. A 12- to 15-course tasting menu that changes nightly.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Privado is high-concept dining performed to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack by a Midwestern chef who is genuinely having fun – and guests are having a blast, too. This is fine dining according to Mike Randolph.

“I really wanted to prove to myself as much as anyone else that we could – in this particular market, two nights a week – change the way the people thing about a ‘fine dining’ experience,” Randolph said.

Yes, there are a handful of seats at the bar, where those who still pine for Randolfi’s can walk in and select from a tight menu of pasta and snacks. Randolph even hosts occasional weeknight pop-ups to stretch his creative muscles (curry, anyone?). But to truly experience Privado, book a reservation online and prepare for a three-hour multisensory meal.

When you arrive, you feel like you’re in on a secret – sneaking into a restaurant for a private meal on the chef’s day off. Swing by the open kitchen before service and chat with Randolph and his team (no starched chef whites here, just a couple of guys in baseball caps and aprons) while you sip an aperitif and snack on an amuse bouche served at the pass. That’s the whole point: to create a relaxed, organic interaction between diner and kitchen. “We want people to feel disarmed, like they can come in and be themselves,” Randolph said.

 

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As First Aid Kit’s cover of “America” cues up, settle in to the first course – perhaps Missouri paddlefish caviar atop a crema cloud – and feel free to audibly marvel. Everyone else is, and it gets louder as the wine pairings flow to a steady playlist of rock, bluegrass, soul and jazz.

The meal features two- to three-bite dishes you’ll stretch into seven or eight nibbles just to study their complexity and savor the moment. Observe the crisp skin atop a meaty cube of pork belly and how it provides textural contrast to the unctuous liver (yes, liver) ice cream. Swoon over a raviolo stuffed with braised turnips and buried under a snowbank of white truffle shavings, presented on its own hand-carved spoon.

Swipe the perfect cylinder of mind-blowing Taleggio cheese wrapped in dried pear through vibrant sorrel ice cream. Wonder why on earth you never thought to pair earthy porcini mushrooms with rich dark chocolate ganache before now. Savor the last bite as Roy Orbison croons “It’s Over” and collect your thoughts between sips of Madeira and French-pressed coffee. You’ll never experience that meal again – and neither will anyone else.

Photos by Carmen Troesser

Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine. 

Related Content
• First Look: Privado in The Loop

• Mike Randolph will open Privado in former Randolfi’s space

• Sauce Magazine: Best New Restaurants 2017

Best New Restaurants: No. 1 – Vicia

Friday, December 1st, 2017

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here are St. Louis’ 12 best new restaurants of 2017.

 

112817_vicia2

 

When something is as expected as naming Vicia the best new restaurant of 2017, you almost want to fight it. You want to know something big publications like Eater, Bon Appétit and Esquire don’t. (All have listed Vicia on national best new restaurant lists.) But you know what? Some things are expected for a reason.

It’s hard to compare a food truck (Balkan Treat Box, No. 4) to a weekends-only tasting menu experience (Privado, No. 2) to a bare-bones fast-casual spot serving one thing (St. Louis Soup Dumplings, No. 11). You have to assess each place on its own terms, and not just the qualifications of your personal preference. Vicia, objectively, attempts to do more than any other restaurant that opened in St. Louis this year. And from concept to menu, design, service and even a counter-service lunch option, it brings something fresh, stylish and clever to the local dining landscape.

Vicia is both familiarly hip and extreme in its farm-to-table, vegetable-forward sensibilities. Owners Michael and Tara Gallina captured our attention when they moved from the culinary Ivy League of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York to open their own place, intending to work closely with farmers to support methods so sustainable they improve soil health (vicia is the name of a cover crop planted for that purpose) and to waste almost nothing – not even vegetable tops – in the kitchen.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished with all of that,” said Michael, executive chef to Tara’s general manager. Vicia tries to support individual farmers by asking for the produce they need to sell, not just making regular orders. “We get a farm delivery every single day, and we try to make the menu a celebration of what comes in. It drives [Tara] nuts, because we print the menu three to four times a week sometimes.”

That kind of improvisation isn’t some hipster buzzword claptrap. Think about how hard it is to dial in one dish at home – a constantly shifting menu means a moving target. Vicia has three: lunch, a la carte snack plates and family-style dinner mains, and a tasting menu with wine pairings.

“We try not to waste anything,” Michael said. “The dynamic of lunch, a la carte and tasting menu really has to be very cohesive and synced with each other. If we’re running a pear salad on the a la carte menu, then the scrap has to be going into a puree for the tasting menu, or some of the other pieces that we’re cutting are going into Summer [Wright, Vicia’s executive pastry chef’s], apple butter.”

 

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Logistics nerds are already sold. But to be the best, Vicia’s food had to be as good as the mission statement, and eye-rollers at the concept would still be enchanted by its dishes that are at once familiar and unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

A quick pick-two soup/salad/sandwich lunch, for example, turns into something else when your cauliflower soup comes topped with popcorn powder. The fact that the lunch menu is not just fancy entrees priced down for midday makes it that much more impressive.

The tasting menu starts with a flurry of small bites arriving at once. Simple, familiar luxuries like raw oysters – flown in from Maine for a late-summer menu – are suddenly surprising when topped with a watermelon granita. The same course featured two pieces of compressed watermelon rind that somehow tasted just like a puckering bite of pith and yet refreshingly clean, crisp and mild at the same time. How do they do that?

Other composed bites – like a rectangle of yellow watermelon topped with translucent slices of pickled green tomato, herbs and blooms beside a creamy dollop of whipped goat cheese – displayed perfect pitch in both texture and flavor combinations. All the plates worked together in a larger symphony of individual movements. And that was just the first course.

Even with so many plates and pairings, service doesn’t falter. It’s no surprise the staff can answer any question you have about a dish – they go on field trips to farms and other producers about once a month. What is surprising is how relaxed such knowledgeable and orchestrated service feels.

“I’m trying to bring the touches of fine dining but in a setting that makes people feel like they can be themselves and not have to be nervous at the table that they’re putting their wine glass in the wrong place, you know?” Tara said. “None of that.”

It’s typically impossible to hold a conversation during a tasting-menu dinner – the constant ceremony of plate transmission and wine pouring dominates the night. But the friendly, rationed visits from Vicia servers don’t feel like an interruption.

“I don’t want people to think of it as, ‘Oh, that’s the tasting-menu spot – that’s the special-occasion spot,’” Michael said. “It’s the place where you can have any kind of experience you want.”

Vicia’s space is designed with that in mind. Light-drenched during the day and fashionably dim and energetic at night, the restaurant’s natural wood elements and massive white-paned windows make it feel both casually cool and sophisticated at the same time. It’s not easy to look so relaxed.

So while Vicia has its share of surprises, its No. 1 spot on this list isn’t one of them.

Photos by Greg Rannells

Heather Hughes is managing editor at Sauce Magazine. 

Related Content
• Review: Vicia

• Sneak Peek: Vicia in Central West End

Sauce Magazine: Best New Restaurants 2017

Best New Restaurants: Top 3 Dishes of 2017

Friday, December 1st, 2017

vicia

 

1. Berkshire Pig at Vicia
The best restaurant of the year also served the best pork dish. Cooked to butter-softness and finished on the grill for a hint of smoke, the small serving rivaled any chop. On my visit before Vicia switched to family-style mains, the pork was served with a rich assortment of shelling beans and wild blooms – don’t forget to order those separately.

2. Seared Lacquered Halibut at Polite Society
Glazed with miso butter and highlighted with ginger, this was the best piece of fish I ate in 2017. Serving it on a bed of aromatic jasmine rice congee with vegetables made it the best fish entree.

3. Grilled Octopus at Nixta
Like a fool, I didn’t have the pulpo until months after I reviewed Ben Poremba’s upscale Mexican restaurant. With crispy tentacles and tender meat brightened by almond mole and garnished with charred lettuce, it’s no wonder this is Nixta’s most popular dish.

Photo by Jonathan Gayman 

Michael Renner is Sauce Magazine’s longtime restaurant critic who pens New & Notable

Related Content
• Best New Restaurants 2017: Vicia

• Best New Restaurants 2017: Polite Society

• Best New Restaurants 2017: Nixta

Best New Restaurants: No. 10 – Melo’s Pizzeria

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened: St. Louis’ 10 best new restaurants of 2016.

 

120116_melos

{ dom pizza }

 

Five seats, five menu items and a fire crackling merrily in the oven: This is Melo’s. The small but mighty Italian-American pizza shop is run by the Valenza family – brothers Joey, Johnny and Vinny, and their dad Vince Sr., the owner of Blues City Deli, whom you could call their consigliere.

When Vince finally bought the Blues City building in 2013, it came with a teeny garage, big enough to fit a couple cars, or to give life to Joey’s bread-making hobby turned pizza-making obsession.

Happily, Dad went with the latter, and now we’re obsessed, too. The Dom is our favorite, a simple pizza topped with Grana Padano, sliced garlic, fresh basil, oregano and a glug of extra-virgin olive oil. It’s Neapolitan-style, with a thin, wood-fired crust and a perfectly pure crushed tomato sauce, but has an American twist, mixing fresh mozzarella with drier, shredded mozzarella. This transgression makes for a lower moisture content that keeps the dough from getting too wet.

“It’s more of a familiar flavor for people,” Joey said. “I don’t know if it’s our American taste buds, but we think it tastes better.”

Melo’s formula for an Italian-American pie combines the best of both worlds. We appreciate an edited menu, pared down to the bare, most delicious bones.

 

More about Melo’s Pizzeria

• Hit List: 6 new restaurants you must try this month

• Sneak Peek: Melo’s Pizzeria in Benton Park

The Scoop: Blues City Deli owner to open Melo’s Pizza

Photo by Dave Moore

Best New Restaurants: No. 9 – Egg

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened: St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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{ cornbread benedict }

Egg, the former weekend brunch pop-up at Spare No Rib, hatched into its own restaurant this October, and we couldn’t be happier.

Certain combinations may sound odd, but don’t let that stop you from ordering chakchouka alongside a cheesy carne asada wrap or a chorizo breakfast taco with the cornbread and gravy.

The eclectic, Tex-Mex-leaning menu is a reflection of chef-owner Lassaad Jeliti’s background, from growing up in Tunisia to running a barbecue/taco joint for the past three years. The chakchouka, a hearty tomato and pepper stew topped with creamy soft-baked eggs and served with toast for dipping, was a childhood breakfast favorite. The Benedicts begin with the sweet, crumbly cornbread Jeliti perfected at Spare No Rib, topped with sauteed veggies or house-smoked pork belly and poached eggs, all drenched in hollandaise.

“They all have similar flavor profiles,” Jeliti said of his influences. “The Mexicans got their flavors from the Spaniards, who got their flavors from [North Africans],” he joked. “That’s my theory, anyway.”

Whatever its heritage, Egg’s flawlessly prepared, wide-ranging fare keeps us coming back for brunch.

 

More about Egg

• First Look: Egg in Benton Park

• The Scoop: Spare No Rib to move to larger space, expand Egg

Photo by Cory Miller

Best New Restaurants: No. 8 – Sheesh Restaurant

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened: St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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{ adana kebab }

Sheesh Restaurant is more than just another spot to grab great kebabs. Each time we settle around a low copper table etched with intricate scrollwork, we’re transported a long way from South Grand Avenue. The menu of traditional Turkish dishes is all delivered under heavy burnished domes: from large plates to tiny cups of strong Turkish coffee. Every time a server whisks away the copper cloches, each kebab appears with quiet drama through a cloud of steam. Don’t get overwhelmed among the dozens of sharable mezze, richly spiced entrees and sweet buttery desserts; order one of our five go-to dishes at Sheesh:

1. Baba Ghanoush
The kitchen doesn’t cut any corners with this classic Turkish dip. The smoky eggplant and rich tahini are balanced by garlic and lemon, but it’s the sprinkle of savory, pungent sumac that makes this starter so addictive.

2. Ezogelin Soup
Shove off, Campbell’s. This tomato soup is bulked up with bulgur, rice and lentils for a comforting bowl that actually feels like a meal.

3. Adana Kebab
Tender ground lamb intensely seasoned with Turkish spices (we meet again, sumac) is formed around a blade and grilled before it arrives atop a bed of delicate rice pilaf. This is what kebabs aspire to be.

4. Sheesh Tawook
Not to be outdone by its lamb counterpart, chunks of chicken breast are served juicy and packed with flavor thanks to a lemony marinade with tomato and pepper paste.

5. Knafeh
The best of baklava and cheesecake come together in knafeh, a disc of hot Turkish cheese covered in layer of crunchy, buttery phyllo and soused in sweet syrup.

 

More about Sheesh Restaurant

• Lunch Rush: Sheesh Restaurant

• Hit List: 6 new restaurants you must try this month

• First Look: Sheesh Restaurant on South Grand

Photo by Elizabeth Maxson

Best New Restaurants: No. 7 – The Preston

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened: St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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Hotel bars aim for luxury and sophistication, but most miss the mark, landing in chintz and disappointment. The Preston at The Chase Park Plaza hits a rare bull’s-eye with stylish leather chairs, cool gray wainscoting and stiff drinks served in cut crystal glasses on a marble bar. The atmosphere is swanky, but still comfortable with a refined, masculine elegance.

Service at the bar and in the dining room strikes the sweet spot of being attentive without getting in the way of conversation, with a staff dressed as smartly as the room. Some original cocktails have a classic vibe, like Goodnight Mr. Preston, which stares you down with bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Benedictine and bitters. But others, like Smokey and The Bandito, have more drama with hickory smoke and poblano-infused tequila.

Pecan-encrusted pork tenderloin may sound like boring hotel food, but one bite of the ultra tender meat glazed in barbecue jus and pulled through the bright orange and green swirls of carrot and pea purees, and you’ll want to check into The Chase and spend the whole night. Before you pick up your room key, order the salty-sweet pretzel croissants – at any time of day, at any point in the meal; just get them.

And take a moment, as you’re cozied into the rounded plaid banquettes in dim, flattering lighting, to appreciate how rare it is to realize the fantasy of accommodations that aren’t just expensive, but downright glamorous.

 

More about The Preston

• First Look: The Preston in the Central West End

• Hit List: 6 must-try restaurants in March

Nightlife: The Preston

Photo by Jonathan Gayman

Best New Restaurants: No. 6 – Porano Pasta

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened:St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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{ ‘nduja pizza }

Porano Pasta is the fast-casual restaurant we have been waiting for. It took Gerard Craft, the chef mind behind Niche Food Group, to combine affordability and speed with such quality ingredients and consistently well-executed food.

Walk in and notice the restaurant’s towering ceilings and wall-sized illustrations of Italian and St. Louis landmarks. Sunshine pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows and upbeat pop music fills the air (Ace of Base, anyone?).

Queue up to build your bowl from a variety of starches, sauces, proteins and toppings. The possibilities are endless, but we’re loyal to a combination we call the Suzie Bowl (That’s Suzie Craft, marketing director of Niche Food Group.): a half-kale, half-farro base, anchovy dressing, spicy tofu, green olives, crispy garlic, herbs and a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey. Spicy and sweet with briny bites, fresh crunch and pops of intense garlic and herbs – it’s been hard to order anything else since she suggested it on opening day.

While such healthy options are available, comfort combinations should also be indulged in, like a strozzapreti pasta bowl with Alfredo sauce, grilled chicken, herbs and toasted almonds. It’s a version of fettuccine Alfredo also known as our Achilles’ heel. Or go for executive chef Michael Petres’ new Detroit-style pizza: square focaccia-like dough with edge-to-edge cheese that bubbles at the brink into a salty, crackling border. Pair that with a Negroni slushie, and you’re in for a good night.

Niche Food Group took a national, fast-casual business model and made it work. Will it ever be a franchise? The possibilities, like their bowls, seem endless.

 

Related Content

Lunch Rush: Porano Pasta

• Hit List: 4 new must-try restaurants in February

• Sneak Peek: Porano Pasta on Washington Avenue

The Scoop: Gerard Craft to open fifth restaurant downtown 

Photo by Carmen Troesser

Best New Restaurants: No. 5 – Nixta

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened: St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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{ from left, chef Tello Carreón and owner Ben Poremba}

Surrounded by hip Latin music and tropical plants at Nixta’s recent soft opening, we kept spontaneously exhaling and saying, “This feels like vacation.” Along with the bright, beachy colors and dim, candlelit atmosphere of Ben Poremba’s newest restaurant, the menu is strewn with flowers and fruit: ceviche served with a fragrant, viscid sphere of rose water espuma; pork belly al pastor topped with caramelized pineapple pico de gallo; a sea scallop in a pool of green, bergamot-infused aguachile sprinkled with tiny whole blooms.

This pretty chiaroscuro of rich meats and delicate seafoods, deep dark mole and bright vegetal spice, is thanks to executive chef Tello Carreón. He’s the reason Poremba wanted to open a Mexican restaurant.

They got to know each other in the kitchen of Poremba’s fine-dining restaurant Elaia, just down the street. “I like his cooking a lot and thought a modern take on Mexican food – his kind of food – would make a great restaurant,” Poremba said. Why look outside – why go to New York to research new ideas – when you have such talent inside your own St. Louis kitchens?

Carreón’s passion for creativity is reflected in unexpected dishes, like the tuna tostada with lime-white shoyu glaze, and in more traditional offerings he grew up eating. “What I’m trying to say is you don’t have to be stuck with the same ingredients,” Carreón said. Which is why he paired his grandma’s classic mole recipe with braised beef cheeks instead of the expected chicken.

“I like to have dishes fresh and more alive than you typically find them. I want to elevate them a little more – bring them to life,” Carreón said. “I think I have the taste, the cuisine that people want to try.”

We think so too, jefe.

 

More about Nixta

• Sneak Peek: Nixta in Botanical Heights

• The Scoop: Ben Poremba to open Mexican restaurant, Nixta, in former Old Standard space

The Scoop: Old Standard Fried Chicken to close

Photo by Carmen Troesser

Best New Restaurants: No. 4 – Kounter Kulture

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened: St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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{ khao soi }

A carryout-only restaurant this high on our list will only surprise those unfamiliar with Kitchen Kulture from co-owners Christine Meyer and chef Michael Miller. The fine dining veterans make the foreign local and the local foreign at their first brick-and-mortar with a tight, rotating menu of Asian-inspired dishes.

“Using ingredients that people are familiar with – sourcing locally – is a great way to introduce people to things,” Miller said. The same goes for familiar dishes, which can help expose diners to new flavors. Take, for example, the shrimp and grits currently on the menu, made with coconut milk grits, lemongrass-marinated shrimp and a peanut-pepper relish. “I get that by nature [shrimp and grits] is not an Asian dish, but it’s one of those things that brings people in on a comfort level,” he said. “It’s a great gateway dish.

“That’s why we play a lot with our amuse-bouche,” he said. “Because it’s something that people might not order, but they’ll try because it’s free. There’s no risk.” Yes, Kounter Kulture offers complimentary, intricately composed bites for those waiting to pick up to-go orders. Not something you’d expect at a counter service spot with zero elbowroom on Watson Road.

“We’re trying to jam two hours worth of service into five or six minutes,” Meyer said. Servers at a sit-down restaurant can see if diners enjoy their meals or not, but the team at Kounter Kulture has to get more creative. “Having that customer contact every day has been fabulous,” she said. “It allows you to build better relationships, and the feedback is so important.”

But let’s be clear: We don’t go to Kounter Kulture for an education. We go for the food. We go for the khao soi. Miller’s version of the northern Thai soup starts with his house-made curry paste, which he cooks in schmaltz and simmers in stock. The bowl full of shredded Buttonwood Farms chicken, Midwest Pasta Co. egg noodles, pickled greens, lime juice, cilantro and burnt chile oil takes more than four hours to make. “It’s worth the time,” Miller said.

Like Kounter Kulture itself, the khao soi fits more in a small package than should be possible. It’s spicy, smooth, sweet, savory, bright, rich and piquant. “Asian food is a balancing act, because there are so many flavor notes,” Miller said. “It’s like a symphony – you can have something that’s really balanced but still has so much going on.” Consider this our standing ovation.

 

More about Kounter Kulture

• The Scoop: Kitchen Kulture to open brick and mortar, Kounter Kulture

• Sneak Peek: Kounter Kulture in Lindenwood Park

• Hit List: 4 restaurants you must try this August

New and Notable: Kounter Kulture

Photo by Carmen Troesser

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