Vegetarians Eat Well at Big Sky Cafe

Big Sky Cafe has been serving revitalized American favorites and excellent wines in Webster Groves since 1992. When I think of my favorite American classics, I think of meatloaf and pot roast and macaroni and cheese (with bacon). So does Big Sky, as these are all on the menu. But I didn’t try any of them because of my status as “temporary vegetarian” for this month’s vegetarian issue.

We started with the artichoke and blue cheese flatbread pizza, which was gooey and delicious, the crust crispy and golden at the edges. A small salad of greens and a julienne of apple perched on top added color, crunch and freshness.

Creamy or puréed vegetable soups are good wintry starters if their texture is luxe and flavor robust. Big Sky’s soup selection is right-on. A white bean and rosemary soup was bold with rosemary (maybe a little too bold), velvety and smooth, as was the potato bisque. Both soups were specials and both were satisfying, maintaining luscious body without being heavy or gloopy.

The roasted golden and red beet salad, with its mixed greens, toasted hazelnuts and goat cheese in apricot vinaigrette, had all the elements of a great salad but failed to produce. The hazelnuts and beets didn’t appear to be dressed at all, simply strewn atop the too-lightly dressed greens (so lightly dressed, we could barely decipher any apricot). The dish could have been really rich and vibrant with a few enhancements here or there – tossing the hazelnuts in oil, salt and pepper before or after roasting would have at least given them some sheen. Same with the beets – a little dressing or a drizzle of herb oil would have boosted the presentation and flavor.

As far as vegetarian entrées go, pasta and risotto are pretty par for the course. Sure, they’re filling, comforting and, done well, the perfect marriage of cheese and vegetables. But the challenge – both for chefs and vegetarian diners – is making these standards new and enticing; Big Sky scores both hits and misses in this area. A special of black pepper linguini in a citrus and Gouda cream sauce certainly enticed. The Gouda’s nutty and creamy characteristics were central, the citrus a subtle backdrop. The black pepper-laced pasta was tender, but the bite and slight heat of the peppercorn barely registered. Overall, though, this pasta dish was sumptuous and surprising.

Grilled vegetable risotto with mascarpone, crispy artichokes and microgreens featured zucchini and mushrooms alongside a bed of creamy risotto with a hint of lemon. The artichokes were fried crispy golden and were my favorite part of the dish. But the zucchini was lackluster, simply grilled with no embellishment, although the thick and meaty mushrooms had a nicely acidic and sweet balsamic flavor. This dish tasted fine but left me eyeing the lovely char on a juicy hunk of tenderloin nearby.

So on my next visit, I was a little timorous when ordering the other vegetarian dish in the large plates section (like so many St. Louis restaurants, the regular menu’s vegetarian options are limited): linguini with roasted zucchini and eggplant in a fresh herb and tomato sauce. Would my nose start to wander toward the aroma of grilled meats while I poked at another piece of lifeless zucchini?

Fortunately, the dish was excellent. A big serving of al dente linguini towered over hearty chunks of squash and meaty eggplant sitting in a pool of green-flecked tomato sauce. The sauce had a wonderful depth, and it splattered as the strands of pasta whipped my chin on their way up. Grated cheese melted into strings that reached from plate to mouth, enshrouded in steam; it was so satisfying. As I reveled in this dish, it seemed the surrounding meat-eaters were eyeing my plate instead.

Desserts were OK. A big scoop of orange and buttermilk sorbet was reminiscent of the Dreamsicles we enjoyed as kids, but with more tang and fresh orange flavor. What the crème brûlée lacked in texture, it made up for in flavor. The carrot cake was served mini muffin-style with five to a plate and a citrusy schmear of cream cheese frosting. The cake was a little dry and tough.

The service at the whimsical and playfully decorated Big Sky Cafe is among the best I’ve encountered. It’s not often every member of the staff, from the hostess to the servers to the busers and food-runners, looks you in the eye when speaking to you. Or welcomes and goodbyes the guests so graciously, or seems so willing to please. Executive chef Lisa Slay and chef Christine Cradock are out on the floor, making the rounds; their culinary vision and Big Sky’s warm hospitality are clearly what keeps vegetarian and omnivore customers coming back again and again.

Don’t-Miss Dish: Blue cheese and artichoke flatbread, linguini with roasted vegetables, great vegetarian specials.
Vibe: Guests young and old are made to feel at home in the cozy, upscale casual atmosphere.
Average entrée prices: $14 to $22
Where: Big Sky Cafe, 47 S. Old Orchard Ave., Webster Groves, 314.962.5757
When: Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to
10 p.m., Sun. – 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.