Review: Three Flags Tavern in St. Louis
There is no doubt that the humble hamburger has been fetishized lately, to the extent that we’ve almost grown inured to outstanding local variations (Veritas, Quincy Street Bistro, The Dam and The Tavern come to mind). Add Three Flags Tavern’s ground brisket burger to your must-eat list: a thick, simply seasoned 7-ounce patty of beef brisket griddled until crispy and topped with cheese (I opted for cheddar, but you can choose any cheese in the house), lettuce, bacon, tomato, red onion and “house sauce,” made from a mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and pickle juice. The house-made potato bun had a bit of sweetness to complement the savory meat, and thankfully didn’t disintegrate under the burger’s heft. On the side came fried pickles, an added delight.
To offer some insight to this burger’s popularity: The first time I ordered it, the 4-month-old South City eatery was out of buns. On my next attempt, the brisket was 86ed by the time I arrived. Disappointing, sure, but it’s difficult to fault a kitchen that bakes only as many sesame seed potato rolls and grinds as much meat as supplies allow that day. After all, isn’t that the point of a scratch kitchen? The third time, I called ahead to inquire about the availability of both burger and bun. Success!
Proprietors John and Cathy O’Brien have taken a little-known historic event called Three Flags Day – the 1804 ceremony held in St. Louis when the flags of Spain, France and the U.S. flew over the city to mark the official transfer of territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase – and stitched it into the multicultural concept of their first restaurant.
From the contemporary comfort food menu to superb cocktails, local beers (four on tap) and a wine list focused on variety (18 by the glass!), Three Flags isn’t your average St. Louis corner joint, even if it does reside in the old Harry’s Bar and Grill space. Patrons of the erstwhile sports bar may not recognize the place, though. The sprawling patio – once packed with legions of softball teams – is still an ideal gathering spot, and inside it’s cozy with exposed brick walls, pressed-tin ceilings, vintage chandeliers and deep, comfy dining room chairs. Framed prints of bygone St. Louisans and a wall-sized map of early 19th-century North America add charm.
Drawing on the culinary influences of all three countries is a fun concept that could get gimmicky fast were it not for John O’Brien’s 35-year career in the industry, including stints at McGurk’s, King Louie’s, Balaban’s and, most recently, Table Three. His approach is subtle. With the mussels, porter stood in for white wine – the usual liquid for steaming – providing a deeper, more complex flavor base to the miniature steamer pot in which the plump shellfish were served. Collops of smoky bacon and slivers of garlic didn’t hurt, either. Among other appetizers, there was an excellent posole simmered with a hunk of tender Berkshire pork shank, loaded with pearls of hominy and served with Indian fry bread – perfect for sopping up the savory broth infused with flavors of cumin, chiles and herbs. The kitchen even salts fresh cod for four days to make its brandade, rather than using reconstituted dried cod for the traditional French dish of puréed fish and potatoes.
You can count on one hand the number of restaurants that pan-fry chicken; it’s just too time-consuming compared to deep-frying. Our server wasn’t exaggerating when she explained the chicken was worth the 30-minute wait time. Dredged in a peppery coating of flour and cornmeal, the brined bird was fried to a shimmering honey-colored brown with a satisfying crunch. The accompanying biscuit was as soft and fresh as it gets – the kitchen bakes them to order while the chicken cooks – though the surprisingly flavorless velouté sauce on the side added little beyond the velvety texture that gives it its name.
Heirloom pork was the star of the mixed grill plate: a big, juicy bone-in chop, a slab of fatty, crackly pork belly and a medallion of smoky, bacon-wrapped tenderloin served with hasty pudding (ground corn porridge) and topped with diced apple and rich, slightly thickened pan drippings. An order of collard and mustard greens, one of six side options available, was at once salty and tender, smoky and porky.
But nothing better exemplified the philosophy of Three Flags than the quintessentially Creole dish of trout meunière amandine. Dusted with cornmeal, sauteed and served in a brown butter sauce flavored with lemon – beurre meunière style – the light and flaky fillets of Idaho speckled trout came garnished with whole Spanish Marcona almonds and North American lingonberries sauteed in butter. Between the sweet crunch of the almonds, slightly sweet tartness of the berries and creamy, muted spice of the accompanying horseradish flan, the dish was irresistible.
With only three selections, the dessert lineup is brief, but the options are made in-house. The creme brulee was rich and flavorful but a bit under-set beneath its crackling cap of burnt caramel. The cardamom- and Calvados-flavored whipped cream atop the deliciously warm, flaky apple tart needed a touch more sweetness to counter the spice.
Three cheers for Three Flags Tavern and the O’Briens’ commitment to what a neighborhood hangout should be. I suspect the kitchen is getting better at anticipating demand for those burgers, but I’m still going to call ahead – just to be sure.
Don’t Miss Dishes
Fried chicken, brisket burger, trout, pork mixed grill
Former sports bar turned gastropub. Casual and comfortable. And, oh, that patio!
$12 to $19
4940 Southwest Ave., St. Louis, 314.669.9222, threeflagstavern.com
Tue. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.