Best New Restaurants 2015: No. 2 - Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery
Opening a restaurant isn’t easy. Each year, hundreds give it a shot – and not everyone succeeds. Some, however, aren’t just surviving; they’re killing it. In the last year, we ate our way through newly opened restaurants from Alton to Ballwin, compiling a list of places that serve the food and drinks we can’t get out of our heads. They bring something different and exciting to the scene – and they do it damn well. While technical excellence was a must, the service and ambiance also had to win us over. Office debates nearly came to fisticuffs, but at last we agreed on St. Louis’ 11 best new restaurants of 2015. Clear your schedule and book your reservations; you’ve got a lot of eating to do.
Three years after Sauce published a story on how Ted Wilson was going to change the St. Louis bread scene with a new bakery, we can finally report that we were right. Wilson and co-founder Sean Netzer opened Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery in Botanical Heights at the end of September, a lunch spot serving sandwiches on bread unrivaled in the city.
The key to Loafers’ loaves is fermentation. The bread is naturally leavened, meaning the bakery doesn’t just avoid chemical compounds like baking soda. In all but two of Loafers’ breads, it means avoiding even mass-produced yeast. Instead, Wilson starts with just flour and water, and carefully cultivates the yeast that occurs naturally, watching over it as it ferments – think of sourdough starters or Amish friendship breads.
Aside from the incredible flavor this process produces, Wilson is objectively fascinated by fermentation. The fact that he can start with water and flour and end up with bread makes him giddy. “In some way, it takes responsibility off your shoulders. Your role is to set up this environment … you can only be in control of so much,” Wilson said. “Then you just have to react, and you have to pay attention.”
This patient relationship with food requires a rare mix of fanatical curiosity and dogged perseverance – qualities reflected in Loafers’ entire team. Some, like chef Brian Lagerstrom (Sauce Ones to Watch class of 2015), left the fine dining world for Loafers to explore the freedom fermentation allows. Lagerstrom, who dabbled at Niche with house bread and cheese programs (not to mention house-made soy sauce, vinegars and fish sauce), was given free reign at Loafers to get as funky as he liked.
No condiment is too small for serious attention; house-made mustard and pickles grace the Cuban-like roasted pork sandwich, and house-smoked beets are piled high with sauerkraut and creamy Thousand Island dressing. Even the rotating nut butter and jam sandwich is taken seriously. Wilson and crew roast and grind the nuts, cook down the berries and churn that creamy butter.
Romantic slow food notions could easily stall when confronted with labor-intensive reality, but not at Loafers. “The work really brings us joy,” Wilson said. “(We have a) great excitement and love for these transformations that happen under our watch. … They’re little science experiments that taste good.”
Union Loafers is waiting on a liquor license to extend service into evening hours and debut a bread-centric bar menu. We’re confident it, too, will be worth the wait.
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