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We simply can not get good Burmese food here, you know. And where, oh where in St. Louis can we enjoy some of those marvelous Sudanese fish dishes? You know, the ones with the fiery chili sauces alongside?
Jeez, that’s annoying, isn’t it? Food writers and restaurant critics who whine and moan about what we don’t have on the local dining scene. And who drop these “complaints” because they think it makes them sound just ever so cosmopolitan. It’s been probably twenty years now. But we still remember a local, now thankfully departed dining critic (departed as in “left town” or at least blessedly “left writing,” not departed as in “dead”) who began a review of a local Japanese restaurant with the preposterously snotty observation that “of course” the restaurant did not measure up to the best of Japanese cuisine, its luminous kaiseki ryori, the foods served at a formal tea ceremony.
First, we’d have been willing to bet that writer never had kaiseki ryori in her life and wouldn’t know it, if she had, from Magyar stuffed cabbage. And second, it’s pretentious and pointless to complain or even mention stuff we don’t have, particularly when it’s clearly a cheesy gambit to try to impress readers with your own sophistication. And third, it comes across as an unfair criticism of the local dining and eating scene, holding St. Louis to culinary standards no city in the world could meet. It’s as ridiculous as going to one of those hidden, staggeringly exclusive kaiseki ryori restaurants in Kyoto and beginning a review of it by noting that “of course” Kyoto simply does not have any eateries with decent American food, like toasted ravioli. No kidding?
Okay, that established, we’re going to beg your indulgence and hope you won’t think we’re that sort of supercilious prat (when in truth we are an entirely different sort of supercilious prat altogether). But there are some things, dining-wise, we do not have here, not in any significant way, that we could use—and which, unlike kaiseki ryori’s chawanmushi custard or Sudanese kajaik stew—are fairly easy to have implemented.
We speak, of course, of the apéritif.
Servers routinely deal out the wine list as soon as we’re seated at restaurants around town. (Except when we’re at Taco Bell. Where they don’t seem to have one, despite our theory that a chilly Gewürztraminer would go splendidly with the chalupas.) Not that we have anything against wine. But for us, wine without food with it is like YouTube without the famous talking dog. Really, what’s the point? What we’d like, what we’re guessing a lot of St. Louis diners would go for when we sit down for dinner, would be an apéritif.
There are some St. Louis establishment's giving the apéritif its due, albeit mixed with other liquors into cocktails. We speak of Taste by Niche in the Central West End, and the four-month old members-only Blood & Sand at 15th and St. Charles downtown.
The history of apéritifs is pretty fascinating and you couldn’t care less about it so we’ll just skip most of it except for a brief mention of Joseph Dubonnet, a 19th century chemist who came up with a way to get French Foreign Legionnaires to drink quinine to treat malaria. He mixed some herbs and spices with the quinine to make it more palatable; his wife also found it tasty. She introduced it as a before-dinner drink at parties, where the threat was no so much malaria but the agonizing starvation threatened by a typical French social dinner where, in between the time of one’s arrival and the actual serving of the meal, French diplomats can be arrested for, tried on, and exonerated of sexual hijinks.
An apéritif is for your palate what a well-thrown ball is for a schnauzer. It captures our attention, teases, gets us ready for the serious business of not only eating but tasting what we’re eating. The alcohol content is too low to compromise either our taste buds or our good sense, but with enough octane to be gently relaxing so we are not tempted to seize a nearby candle stand and beat senseless the host because he has not brought out anything at all to eat. Apéritifs have then, a civilizing influence on us. Which, Lord knows, we could all use.
M. Dubonnet's eponymous recipe’s still being enjoyed. And Dubonnet would be a great way to begin a meal at restaurants in St. Louis, just as it is in France. And would it be pushing it to note that St. Louis was once renowned as a kind of Club Med for malarial plasmodium, so we've kind of got that historical connection going for us, right?
It isn’t just Dubonnet that makes for an excellent way to begin a meal. There are lots of other apéritif choices. Lillet is a classic, always served on ice and properly, with a thin wedge of orange. In the south of France, it’s pastis. In Italy, Campari is a popular way to commence dinner. (Like Dubonnet and Lillet, the exact recipe of Campari is a secret. It’s rumored to contain ginger and rhubarb. Whatever it has in it, though, it is more bitter than Bill Maher at Christmas Mass. Campari’s best mixed with chilly soda water.)
There are even some fairly obscure apéritifs that should appeal to the pretentiously pontsy who wail about what we don’t have here. When you’re out to dinner with Mr. & Mrs. Rather-Awesome and they start kvetching about how the crepes in St. Louis don’t hold a candle to the ones at that little crêperie just east of where Rue de Vaugirard crosses Rue de Rennes, that would be a good time to be able to suggest they order a Punt e Mes. It’s an Italian dinner rever-upper; the name comes from the “point” of vermouth and the half-point—mes—of bitters that comprise it.
You could revive your own lagging spirits over the dearth of high-quality Cameroonian joints in these parts with a starter of Floc de Gascogne, an apéritif from the Armagnac region of France. Technically, it’s a mistelle, a drink made by mixing alcohol with unfermented grape juice. It’s worth drinking not only for the hints of almond, roses, honey, and blackberries in it, but also because it allows you to explain that floc is a word from the Occitan language and means a “bouquet,” and how often do you get to work Occitan trivia into a dinner conversation?
Oh wait, we know the answer to that. It was the last dinner party you attended, the one where you complemented the hostess on her rendition of cassoulet but then went on to complain about the fact we just can’t get decent farcidure grillée, not like the divine version you had at La Cotte de Mailles in Carcassonne.