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Editor's Note: Don't-call-him-a-foodie-but-he-is-one Andrew Mark Veety is an occasional contributor to SLM and to Relish. Somehow we sense that this is not the last list we'll see from the opinionated Mr. Veety this season. We are reminded of Frank Slade's classic final speech in Scent of a Woman: "Finished? Naw, I'm just gettin' warmed UP..."
Tis’ the season to take stock in the year that was and turn our attention to the year that is, or rather, what we’d like this year to be. In St. Louis, 2011 was the year that unconventional and mobile dining broke into the mainstream. From the city to West County, knowing nods replaced inquisitive looks and shrugged shoulders when the subject matter was a pop-up restaurant or an underground dinner, while the now ubiquitous food truck - providing a rolling food court’s worth of dining alternatives – seems to have altered the landscape for grabbing a quick lunch.
So what is in store for 2012? Time will obviously tell, but here are my picks for the top five things I’d like to see in St. Louis this year - a mixture of the possible and the unlikely - that would help make the next twelve months noteworthy if not memorable.
A common discussion with friends often centers around what is missing from the food scene in St. Louis, and ramen - hearty bowls of alkaline noodles and rich, deeply satisfying broth - inevitably comes up. This conversation quickly turns to lamenting the fact that at some point our fair city will get a ramen shop, and it may not even be truly great ramen, but locals will eat it up because it’ll be the only game in town. Catch 22, right? Or lousy attitudes. Well, nobody wants to be proven wrong more than I.
What am I looking for in a ramen shop? First and foremost, it needs to be a dedicated restaurant, not an addition to the menu at some fusion joint or prelude to hubcap-sized maki filled with surimi and cream cheese, a small space with limited - even slightly cramped - seating and the inevitable lines that go with it, the “just so” lighting and the smell of fish and pork broth that has been simmering slowly for hours to welcome diners for the experience of slurping long, chewy noodles.
Maybe Not All Those Burger Toppings, All At The Same Time:
I get it St. Louis, you, like the rest of America, love hamburgers. I do as well. However, when is the last time you sat down and actually ate a burger sans the bacon, eggs, guacamole, barbecue sauce, chutney, pineapple, roasted peppers or mac ‘n’ cheese and various other adornments?
With all due respect to the mac ’n’ cheese burger - which is one of the most absurd combinations I’ve ever run across - all of the aforementioned toppings can be delicious on a burger, but they tend to mask the patty, which last I looked is still the core of a great hamburger.
St. Louis, you want to know who makes the best burger in town, who has mastered the zen art of combining beef, salt, fat and rocket-hot heat to create something wonderful? Back away from the buffet bar of toppings and get back to the basics: a bun, patty, maybe some cheese if it’s your thing, a little mayo, perhaps some lettuce and onion and see what you’ve been missing. Everything else? Get a second bun for the culinary menagerie and just call it what it is: a sandwich.
No Cell Phones:
I had the chance to have dinner at Avec in Chicago recently, and I was surprised by the small print on the bottom of their menu that stated “no cellular phones”. It was the first time I can recall seeing an explicit menu request for diners to unencumber themselves of their mobile devices and the attention they demand.
The request, seemingly reasonable and a common courtesy to other diners, got me thinking about the roles our phones play throughout the dining experience; from locating a place and researching menus, to digital companionship and entertainment while dining, and then feedback and commentary post meal via social media. With all the activity, it’s a wonder we remember what we ate at all. (That is until you remember your phone’s camera, then you can take a picture of it for posterity, obviously.)
To disconnect from this digital lifeline, if only for the duration of a meal, is disconcerting at first, then liberating. I can see why Avec has the policy, and while I’m still a power user of my phone during meals - especially when dining alone - I’ve made the attempt to turn off the phone more often, a rehearsal of sorts for the inevitable time when more restaurants adopt Avec’s cell phone restriction. In short, put your phone away from time to time if only to enjoy a meal that is blissfully analog.
Food is best when shared among friends and family; a dining table is a venue for memories to be made and fences to be mended. It is how we (hopefully) eat at home, so it’s strange to see that when we dine out, there is an element of “I’ve ordered this” and “you’ve ordered that” and if you are lucky we’ll pass a bite or two across the table. Sure, there are times when a dish needs to be protected with a quick jab or three to your companion’s hand, but really, that should be the exception rather than the rule.
Luckily we’re starting to rediscover the act of communal dining in St. Louis, driven in large part by chefs who appreciate the relationship between people and food. Want a better world? Try sharing a large plate of pasta, roasted chicken, or whole fish with the table. Want to reconnect with your family? Convene a family meal around the steam of a hot pot. Want to make a good time last a bit longer? Order an extra dish to pass. Chances are you’ll be glad you did.
Yes, there are some fine cups of coffee to be had in St. Louis, but chances are that cup you had at the restaurant last night was not the highlight. If the coffee program at Half & Half is any indication, better cups are in our future. They key to this change is experience, education, and a critical mass of people looking for something different, akin to how craft beer is now found on the best menus in town. I’ll raise a New Years cup to that.