Posted On: 10/01/2014
Did someone say there wasn’t enough barbecue in St. Louis? Must’ve been a Texan, because nowadays we are inundated with ’cue, from old neighborhood joints with their battered exteriors to new restaurants sporting gleaming stainless-steel smoker ovens the size of pickups.
Need proof that barbecue has nearly reached cult status? Around a dozen of the nearly 60 barbecue-centric eateries in the St. Louis area have opened in the past two years, including Michael Del Pietro’s 7-month-old The Salted Pig. Del Pietro’s newest venture departs from his proven portfolio of casual Italian restaurants (Tavolo V, Sugo’s, Babbo’s and Via Vino Enoteca) by juggling Southern-inflected cookery and, of course, barbecue. But the kitchen’s gambit feels more like a gamble, with long odds at that.
Take the brisket. Texas Monthly food critic Patricia Sharpe once wrote, “We love brisket because cooking it is a spiritual path, a quest that, as a wise man once said, begins with a single log.” A bit reverential, yes, but the point that smoking brisket is as much an art form as a cooking skill can’t be overlooked, which, judging by my plate of The Salted Pig’s sliced brisket, it was. The meat possessed a decent smoke ring, that pinkish layer directly under the meat’s surface, but I have no explanation for the brisket’s utter lack of smoky flavor. Smoke or no smoke, the beef was too salty, too dry, too chewy and (a no-no for brisket aficionados) drizzled with sauce, which at least added some needed moisture. Rounding out the order were ramekins of thick and spicy beans and a vinegary slaw, fragrant with celery seed.
The baby back ribs fared better, but barely. Thankfully served sans sauce, the bones had a satisfying chewy resistance when gnawed upon but, like the brisket, were dry and devoid of even the slightest hint of smoke. However, an order of delicious roasted Brussels sprouts glistened in a cast-iron skillet, sweet with caramelized onions and enriched by house-made bacon.
The Salted Pig’s sweet sauce (smoky and Tennessee Red sauces are also available) is slightly floral, sticky with honey and, from what I could discern, flavored with orange peel, warm spices and black pepper. A Kansas City boy, I don’t mind sweet, but I found this sauce too cloying and, again, wanting for smokiness. Worse, it tends to overpower other flavors, as when slathered on an otherwise excellent pork steak. Cut thick, smoked and finished with beautiful grill marks, this was the first cut of meat that arrived juicy and permeated with an oaky smoke flavor. The accompanying mashed potatoes would’ve been good, were they not served tepid, and a side order of grilled asparagus was just plain undercooked.
You’ll like the TSP Burger, made with short rib meat ground in house, seasoned just right and topped with a slice of aged white cheddar, house-made bacon and caramelized onions. The ensemble is stacked on a bakery bun and served on a smooth wooden cutting board. This meaty main went well with the tomato salad of the day, mingling thick-sliced, ripe local tomatoes, pickled onions and chunks of watermelon drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with a bit of microgreens and shaved white cheddar.
Though the flavor is absent from the food, wood is in abundance here, from the substantial butcher-block hostess stand and wall of cross-cut logs to the reclaimed wood tables; from the plank floor to the sprawling, heavy shelving unit along the back wall that throws off a subtle, musty scent. It’s a big interior to fill – this is the former home of Coco’s and Frontenac Grill – and not one that takes easily to rustication. Perhaps it’s due to the overabundance of barbecue and Southern cuisine that The Salted Pig, with its vague roadhouse affectations – the logo’s predictable silhouette of a pig and the faux-rustic clapboard exterior – feels like one more latecomer to the party, a stick-figure sketch of a Southern-barbecue restaurant.
These symptoms afflict the menu, too, as evidenced by the fried chicken. Serving it in a cast-iron skillet made me think the bird was fried in a pan. But the half chicken, brined in sweet tea and dusted with cornmeal and flour, was deep-fried. It wasn’t bad – peppery and served with mashed potatoes and verdant green beans – but the dish only furthered the fabricated motif of The Salted Pig. If the intent was to conjure up some hazy memory of a rural chicken shack or grandma’s recipe from back on the farm, I felt cheated.
There were a few desserts, including a mixed berry cobbler, a deconstructed miscellany of berries with a sprinkled crumb topping. But as with the rest of The Salted Pig, I sensed more pedantry than passion.
AT A GLANCE
The Salted Pig, 731 S. Lindbergh, Frontenac, 314.738.9373, thesaltedpigstl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Short rib burger, Brussels spouts
The Southern/barbecue theme draws diners, but lacks soul
$12 to $22
Sun. – noon to 8 p.m., Mon. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sat. – noon to 10 p.m.
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