Review: King Louie's in St. Louis

A relative newcomer on the St. Louis dining scene, King Louie’s became a major player about four years ago, when Matt McGuire hired Kirk Warner as the chef and, in a related action, moved the bar to separate, smaller quarters. That enlarged the kitchen and promoted the dining room into the spotlight; adding white tablecloths focused it. Now, as the winner of Best Overall Restaurant in the Sauce Magazine Readers’ Choice Poll, it is faced with a large challenge; Warner and McGuire will be under considerable pressure to hang onto that crown.

A necessary point of disclosure: McGuire’s father and I have been co-workers and friends for more than 30 years. I’m a fan of the McGuire family, Warner and the restaurant, and take great pleasure in writing this, but I did not vote in the Sauce poll, nor in the 2003-04 Zagat guide to St. Louis restaurants where Louie’s received a 25-point rating for food, up from 20 in the last edition, some five years ago.

The building, on the western edge of the Saint Louis University Medical School complex, dates to the time when St. Louis breweries, in the style of English pubs, owned many of their retail outlets.

Anheuser-Busch owned the site now occupied by O’Connell’s, for example, and King Louie’s Chouteau space belonged to Otto Stifel’s Union Brewing Company. It had degenerated through the years, and when McGuire and partners got involved, they looked at it as somewhat of a watering hole for their friends, just as Richard Mutrux planned when he opened the Gaslight Bar, the first saloon in Gaslight Square.

McGuire had larger plans, however. After a suitable time, he removed the television sets, giving notice that Louie’s was a place to eat, drink and talk, not to watch sporting events and the stock market crawl. Since the bar was moved out of the dining room, by the way, it has regained the television capability. McGuire, incidentally, is an alum of the Chicago Art Institute, which gives him an unexplained relationship to the old line about the art hanging in restaurants being as stimulating as the food served in museums.

Warner, who is McGuire’s cousin, grew up in Paw Paw, Mich., where his mother, a fine chef, ran a restaurant. While a student at the University of Michigan, he worked in an Ann Arbor restaurant, but he doesn’t have any more formal training than does McGuire. “As a family,” Warner recalled, “we talked a lot about food over our meals, and I remember that there were interesting discussions, interesting flavors.”

The chef is tall, slender and quiet, in great contrast with McGuire, shorter and as gregarious as any publican this side of Dublin. “I love what I do,” McGuire enthused one evening. “I love being out in the dining room, talking to people, learning their likes and dislikes.” He’s a man of large enthusiasms, whether talking about a food article in a recent magazine, sampling wine with a customer or discussing a recent dining adventure at a St. Louis restaurant. The two men are prime examples of modern restaurateurs, happy to praise other work in the kitchen.

“ I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned just watching Vince Bommarito (Tony’s) work his restaurant during a meal. He was tossing a salad at my table one night, but he was watching a server at a nearby table. Never took his eyes off him. And I can listen for hours to (his son) Vince. They have so much experience, such great knowledge, and they share it. And I think someone like Steve Gontram (Harvest) deserves more praise for what he does. Cary McDowell and Jim Fiala (the Crossing and Liluma) are special; I think Cary is a genius in a kitchen.”

The praise and fraternalism is reciprocated, too. I ran into Fiala at the first morning of the Clayton Farmers’ Market, and we were talking about this and that when the conversation shifted to reports of great meals, as it often does when the Guru and a restaurateur get together. Fiala was talking about a new baby in his house and a dinner with his wife. “We went to Louie’s,” he said, “and I told Kirk, ‘I don’t want to see a menu. Just cook something for us.’ He put together one of the finest meals we had ever eaten.”

Both Warner and McGuire are fans of local organic farmers and purveyors, using meat and vegetables from independent farmers throughout Missouri, and beyond when necessary, and listing their names on the grill menu. Currently, they use meat from Niman Ranch, lamb and eggs from Prairie Grass Farms, beets and greens from Kruse Gardens, goat’s milk cheese from Goatsbeard Farm, greens from St. Isidore, honey from Gibbons Bee Farm, chard and radishes from Berger Bluff, mushrooms from Ozark Forest, free range chickens from Living Springs Ranch and greens from Walnut Grove Farm. In addition, they use local products like bread from Black Bear Bakery and ice cream from Ron Ryan’s Quezel.

There’s a winning aura of informality at Louie’s, and it will improve this summer as good weather welcomes diners to the relatively new, long-in-gestation patio, entered through French doors from the bar area. Grilled sandwiches and entrees, some duplicates of the restaurant fare, are led by salmon, chicken, tuna burgers, ribs, lamb sausage and the like. Salads also are available. The tuna burgers, usually on the lunch menu, are a great taste treat, and a little wasabi mustard makes them better.

Warner’s cooking style shows hints of various nations, especially Asian, but there are Southwestern and Latin touches, and plenty of hearty fare that is basic American, highlighted by a wonderful use of spices, marinades and cooking methods. He provides almost as many types of potatoes as Lou Rook at Annie Gunn’s, and since he worked at Cardwell’s at the Plaza, he also shows the results of elegant tutelage by Bill Cardwell and Dave Owens.

All of it has been distilled into his own style, however. A side dish that might have been called a “vegetable medley” in other restaurants truly was a vegetable medley, but the song included Asian long beans, baby lentils and Swiss chard, along with standards like diced carrots, onions and celery. The result was not only flavorful, but also offered a variety of textures.

Green garlic soup was tangy and rich on a recent visit, and it had been perked up with a handful of delicious smoked mussels. Warner likes to add surprise ingredients to his salads, too, with fried Belon oysters, or fried artichoke hearts, or the elegant combination of shiitake mushrooms, Vidalia onions and asparagus. Most of them are not refrigerator-cold, in the American manner, but show European touches of both warm and chill on the same plate.

He’s also alert to combinations, like a “crab duo” that featured a pan-fried soft shell crab alongside a light, crisp egg roll wrapper filled with crab rangoon mixture. The result was bright and beautiful, with plenty of garlicky crab mixture and the sweet simplicity of the soft shell crab, surely one of the world’s most elegant tastes.

A lamb mixed grill offered a spicy merguez sausage, thick slices from a roast leg and a rib chop. The leg and chop were elegant examples of flavor from different parts of the same animal, and the sausage, rich with Moroccan spicing, was delicious. Dauphine potatoes, mashed and lightly fried, were wonderful, as was a potato-Fontina cheese casserole that came with a magnificent pork chop, brine-cured and grilled to perfection with dried fruit.

Hot and sour soup and pot stickers, on the menu practically from the inception, are the legacies of Mr. Kim, a Vietnamese cook who helped out in the early days. The soup is spicy and spectacular. Bouillabaisse balances East and West, or France and China, and it is excellent, though it sometimes includes salmon, which not only Americanizes the dish, but adds a dominant, strongly flavored fish to a dish that built its worldwide reputation on the milder fish of the Mediterranean, plus and a lot of shellfish.

Service at Louie’s is excellent; the staff is extremely knowledgeable and knows the menu well. “That’s one of the good things about getting some popularity,” McGuire explained. “We attract far better servers and kitchen workers than we ever did. Many just show up and want to work here because they’ve heard of us, and our turnover is smaller.”

McGuire knows wine and understands pairing it with food, and he knows the likes and dislikes – and idiosyncrasies – of his customers. On a recent visit, he poured a 2002 Zinfandel vin gris from Napa’s Storybook Mountain Vineyards, a rosé wine that is close to a red in color, but light as a rose and with the brambly Zin flavor. He followed with a delicate, delightful Pinot Noir from Belle Glos in Santa Barbara County, and for the entrée, with grilled meats, he brought out a dark, hearty Shiraz from The Green Vineyards of Australia. All were just right.

Helen Petty is the pastry chef, a young woman with a remarkable touch and an exciting imagination. An apricot tart was glorious, with sliced almonds balancing the sharpness of the fruit and topped with superb cardamom ice cream, a hint of its apple-pie spice adding a delightful tang. And a cake with rich, coffee buttercream icing and a touch of caramel-flavored crème anglaise was glorious, reaching new heights with the addition of banana ice cream. The combination of talents displayed by Perry and ice cream creator Ron Ryan makes for gustatory elegance.

Over the last decade, younger chefs have begun to dominate St. Louis kitchens, and the results are showing. Think of the Komoreks at Trattoria Marcella, or Justin Keimon, now at Sekisui, or Frank Gabriele at Giovanni’s, or Ny Vongsaly at Zoe’s Pan Asian, or Larry Fuse at Leonardo’s, or Grace Dinsmoor at Modesto, plus those mentioned above and others I am sure I overlooked, and for which I apologize.

But with these hands in our kitchens, St. Louis’s restaurant future is extremely bright, and remember, there’s always room for one more.