Posted On: 09/01/2017
The preppy older gent dining alone at the two-top next to me started with a plate of chicken wings. After a few bites, a slight, sly expression emerged across his face. A surprising display of sublimity, I thought, for something as basic as a wings appetizer.
Opportunities for such satisfaction abound at Polite Society, which opened quietly in Lafayette Square in March after many delays. The kitchen, helmed by executive chef Tom Futrell (previously at Scape) and sous chef Chris Kryzsik (Blood & Sand), has a knack for turning out simple food in deliciously unexpected ways. Like those confit chicken wings: slow-cooked in their own fat and deep-fried to a golden crispness with a juicy, meltingly tender texture. Their bed of pickled carrot-celery slaw and three accompanying dipping sauces – a creamy Cajun aioli, a hot-sweet honey mustard and a not-as-hot-as-you’d-expect Sichuan sauce – showed further what good, basic cooking can accomplish.
Early last year, proprietors Jonathan Schoen (Scape, the restaurants at The Cheshire Inn, Bar Italia, Savor) and Brian Schmitz (Bar Italia, Grind Coffeehouse, Reference, Sol Lounge) acquired the space once home to Ricardo’s, the landmark Italian restaurant that closed in 2015 after a remarkable 26 years. The duo maintained the restaurant’s three-room structure, transforming each cozy section into distinct experiences, all with storefront-sized windows. The bar section, which also serves as the main entry, is a stunner with hand-stenciled wallpaper and a four-tiered open shelving unit suspended above the bar. That bar is helmed by beverage director Travis Hebrank (Scape), who put together the house infusion-heavy drinks menu, including an impressive rotating selection of affordable house wines.
The two dining rooms incorporate many design elements de rigueur for any new restaurant, including exposed brick walls, Edison bulbs, hardwood floors and plank tables. Perhaps it was the built-in bookcases filled with presumably personal collections, or the willy-nilly way strings of those retro bulbs were arranged to hang from the tin ceiling, but the vibe felt more like the living room of a well-read friend’s stylish historic home than a contrived remodel.
The menu followed suit. Four categories of snack-y small plates provide diners with a variety of ways to combine dishes for noshing or sharing. Alongside cucumber gazpacho, a trio of deviled eggs (creamy, tangy yolk enhanced by cayenne, topped with fried capers and trout roe) proved a suitable snack while getting acquainted with the menu. While the capers provided a crispy, briny edge, the roe’s flavor was harder to discern. I loved the balanced, tart freshness of the gazpacho, artfully poured by the server from a petite carafe into a glass filled with croutons, cucumber, tomatoes, pickled onions and fresh herbs.
Entrees express the kitchen’s dexterity with seasonally driven, full-sized meals for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Take, for example, the beautiful lamb chops with port wine demi-glace – accompanied generously by English peas, heirloom carrots and mashed boniato (a white-fleshed cultivar of the sweet potato). Mint pistou provided a subtle boost of flavor – and a nod-and-a-wink to traditional mint jelly sauce.
Come fall, I’m all in on the pork osso buco, a shank the size of a catcher’s mitt braised until the meat slides off the bone with barely a poke from knife and fork. Midsummer, that much blunt richness needed the contrasting bitterness of charred treviso (a variety of radicchio) and the acidity of marinated grape tomatoes. Polenta – funked up with herbs and goat cheese – stood in for traditional risotto.
The seared lacquered halibut was lean and fresh-tasting. It was one of the most perfect pieces of fish I’ve had in long while, made even more pleasing by its bed of chewy, aromatic jasmine rice congee and the expansive flavors of miso butter gently highlighted by ginger. The added combination of fiddlehead, garlic scapes, cauliflower, broccoli and sea beans made it a complete meal-in-a-bowl.
Chicken schnitzel is usually more comforting than impressive, which is probably why so many love it, but great schnitzel boils down to the details. Here, the kitchen pounds breasts to a uniform thickness, ensuring the cutlets have plenty of surface area for panko breading (the key to a crunchy crust that won’t burn and dry out when fried). Austrian potato salad – dressed in mustard vinaigrette with tarragon and shallot – and balsamic-dressed greens brightened the dish, as did lemon slices.
At the end of his meal, the older gent at the neighboring table put on his reading glasses, paid his bill and left as a couple servers politely addressed him by name and said they looked forward to seeing him again soon, while I was left thinking: everything clicks at Polite Society. The vibe feels right, the service is relaxed yet professional and attentive, and the food makes simple dishes exciting again.
AT A GLANCE
1923 Park Ave., St. Louis. 314.325.2553, politesocietystl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Pork osso buco, confit chicken wings, lacquered halibut
Elegant and stylish, in a sophisticated historic home sort of way – only much, much louder
$15 to $36
Daily – 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sat. and Sun. brunch – 10 a.m. to
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