lamb meatballs at the benevolent king photos by izaiah johnson

Review: The Benevolent King in Maplewood

What does a James Beard-nominated chef and enterprising restaurateur do after opening six restaurants with just as many culinary concepts in less than six years? If you’re Ben Poremba, you get back in the kitchen and look to your childhood.

Poremba’s vision, cooking skill and design aesthetic have shaped our culinary scene since he and Mark Sanfilippo opened Salume Beddu 10 years ago. (He’s since sold his interest in the artisanal salumeria.) With Elaia, Olio and Old Standard Fried Chicken (which he closed to open the modern Mexican concept Nixta), Poremba transformed the corner of Tower Grove and McCree avenues into a popular dining destination. Then there was the French-Italian Parigi, which just closed in Clayton.

Now there is The Benevolent King, Poremba’s Moroccan-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar, nestled between Acero and Kakao Chocolate in Maplewood. Inside, the floor-to-ceiling mirrors of the previous occupant, Water Street Cafe, make the small room feel more spacious (if a bit discomfiting when sitting along the main wall). The open kitchen and cozy side bar also remain, as does the beautiful terrazzo floor. But the eclectic decor is all Poremba: sleek black walls, straight-back Italian and classic French bistro chairs, gold and brass accents and many glimmering candles.

The restaurant’s name references Morocco’s Sultan Mohammed V, whose benevolence toward Moroccan Jews during World War II saved their community from German Nazis and French Vichists (Poremba’s mother is Moroccan and his father survived the Holocaust.). Known for hiring top-rated executive chefs at his other restaurants, Benevolent King represents Poremba’s return to his roots as a cook. Here, it’s the food he likes to make at home, much like he grew up cooking with his mother in his native Israel.

If you’re looking for the best harissa, a staple North African chili paste, you may have found it – crimson and nutty with a slow burn – served mixed with yogurt for split pea falafel or upon request. 

the dining room at the benevolent king // photo by izaiah johnson

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Benevolent King is as much a cocktail destination as it is a restaurant. Poremba recruited seasoned barman Tony Saputo (Layla, Atomic Cowboy) not only to manage the place but also design and execute the extensive beverage program.

Order the Rex, a potent concoction of rye, bourbon, allspice and clove-infused curaçao, house-blended Barolo vermouth and Jerry Thomas bitters. It tastes amazing, like a Manhattan in Casablanca. It costs $18.

If you’ve never dined at a Poremba restaurant, you’d be forgiven for sticker shock. The candle budget is probably sky high, and the pricey cocktails ($10 to $18) do incorporate a lot of house-made ingredients. Luckily, the bar will make you a custom cocktail for $10 after 9 p.m. 

Regardless, you’ll want another. I suggest The Benevolent if you’re in the mood for an extra-cold martini made with an aromatic London Dry gin, house-made vermouth and orange bitters ($15).

The food may seem familiar if you’ve eaten at Olio, Poremba’s wine bar featuring “Middleterranean” fare. But here, there’s more Morocco than Israel coming out of the tiny kitchen. Salatim (cold mezze and spreads at three for $20 and five for $30), snacks, larger plates and desserts make up the graze-worthy menu. You’d do well to mix and match, taking advice from your server. A small order of salatim and a couple snacks is good place begin.

All tables should be required to order briouat, aka crispy Moroccan cigars of crackly, papery fried phyllo stuffed with turmeric, cinnamon and honey-spiced chicken (or sardines, harissa and preserved lemon). Ikra caviar dip – the milder, less pungent Balkan version of Greek taramasalata – captured the brininess of fish roe tamed by snowy-white creme fraiche drizzled with grassy green olive oil. Cubes of cantaloupe spiced with hot pepper and cilantro vinaigrette thrilled, while nibbles of cauliflower and zucchini tossed in tahini with capers, currants and sunflower seeds seemed so simple yet tasted so complex.

whole branzino at the benevolent king // photo by izaiah johnson

Such simplicity extended to the main dishes with big results. Whole branzino (a Mediterranean sea bass) baked with nothing more than lemon and capers made for a dramatic presentation on its bed of roasted chicory. Two giant lamb meatballs nestled in fluffy couscous seemed simple enough until the smoked tomato sauce, fragrant with warming, traditional Moroccan spices, kicked in with notes of cumin, ginger, clove and chili.

Carrots, sliced length-wise, were chargrilled to a concentrated sweetness and drizzled with chili oil and elderflower vinegar, served next to a dollop of creamy yogurt. A sprinkling of dried Urfa pepper gave the dish a beguiling smoky-salty-sour depth. Not since Vicia has the lowly carrot been elevated to such superstar status. 

In comparison, a single beef kebab between chunks of grilled eggplant, potato and zucchini failed to impress – mostly because it was too meager for its $18 price tag.

At 8:30 on a Saturday night, a DJ commenced spinning a throb of disco hits, though there was no room to swing your hips. After dinner, a couple moved to the bar to sip digestifs. A table ordered nearly every small plate on the menu after passing around many cocktails. 

Whether you go for dinner and stay for drinks or go for drinks and eat a little something, The Benevolent King knows what you want.

Where // 7268 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.899.0440,

Don’t-Miss Dishes // Branzino, lamb meatballs

Vibe // Jewel box-sized space full of energy and problematic acoustics when it fills up

Entree Price //  $10 to $36

When // Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 11 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. – 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Michael Renner is a longtime contributor and critic for Sauce Magazine. 

Tags : Places, New Restaurants, Restaurants, Bars