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In the winter, snagging a table by the fireplace was a big score.
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Harvest's chef/owner Nick Miller
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Lamb chops at Harvest, artfully stacked.
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Harvest's legendary brioche bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce
Harvest, a restaurant that introduced St. Louis to new culinary trends and wisdom in the 1990s, is closing its doors after service this Sunday, June 15.
Chef/owner Nick Miller personally informed each staff member of the closure over the last two days. Miller purchased the restaurant in September of 2010 from Steve Gontram, its prior chef/owner. Miller had been the restaurant’s executive chef and had worked at the restaurant since 2002, eight years before he bought it. “A third of my life was spent at that restaurant,” he reflected.
Miller (right) began the conversation in military terms, saying that “unfortunately, one of the pillars of the restaurant community is being forced to stand down.”
The reasons for the closure were many, according to Miller. “The overriding issue is the sheer number of dining choices in St. Louis right now,” he explained. “And there are so many new places for people to check out that the old standbys get forgotten. ‘Let’s go back to Harvest’ was something we would have liked to have heard more.”
The other problem was cash flow, a hand in glove factor, according to Miller. “When cash flow gets tight, something has to give,” he explained. “Most times, it’s the quality of product that gets cut and I just couldn’t do that. It was not my style, and I was not willing to take Harvest there.”
There’s plenty of back story on Harvest… and since the author of this piece was one of the original owners, kindly allow such an indulgence.
In 1996, three local restaurateurs (Bob Gontram, Charlie Downs, and George Mahe) formed a partnership with two chefs (Steve Gontram and Matthew Bousquet) who were currently working in San Francisco. The chef duo had clocked in at several of that city’s top restaurants (One Market, Postrio, Chez Panisse, The Mandarin Oriental) but were coaxed here by Steve Gontram’s father, Bob, who thought that St. Louis was ready for a different style of cuisine, presented in a unique way.
Harvest was the first restaurant in town to layer an entrée’s various components, artfully shingling and stacking the dish’s proteins and sides (below). The plating was undeniably one of the restaurant’s claims to fame (and the chefs would throw fits when a persnickety customer would order an entrée plated traditionally, its components neatly separated—a “No Touch,” in Harvest parlance).
The restaurant opened in October of 1996 to positive reviews despite ridiculously long ticket times—the food was simply that unusual and that good. Gontram and Bousquet stymied local butchers by asking them for onglet (hangar steak) and flat iron steak, cuts of meat that had never been requested in St. Louis until that time. The mussel dish—PEI mussels served with lemon oil on a spitting-hot oval cast iron skillet--is as popular today as it was when it was introduced 18 years ago.
What was originally billed as “rustic American food” was revised a year later to “Seasonal Market Cuisine,” a tagline more reflective of both the food and the chefs’ philosophy. Local farmers would frequently visit Harvest’s back door, the chefs often buying up everything the farmer had to offer ($400 worth of yellow chanterelles comes to mind).
Harvest was the first local restaurant to introduce many firsts (that we know of): the first to serve halved heads of grilled romaine lettuce; the first to instruct diners that some fish tastes better if undercooked; the first to, on occasion, recook an entire table’s entrees if there was one send-back to the kitchen; the first to make homemade ketchup--and then switch to Heinz--because its customers never warmed up to the homemade stuff; and the first to entice thousands of guests to partake of a dessert they’d avoided for years—bread pudding—a Steve Gontram recipe that originated in New Orleans and got tweaked San Francisco: Harvest's brioche bread pudding (below) became one of the city's more iconic desserts, even garnering multiple mentions (even by Gerard Craft) in SLM's "The Greatest Thing I Ever Ate" feature from last year.
Harvest was the first to run a six-week lead time for a Saturday night reservation and the first to coax diners into eating at 5:45, because that was the only time they could get a table. Its staff instructed local diners about "day boat" scallops and "airline" chicken breasts. And Harvest was the first restaurant in town to send out a complimentary amuse bouche, a term we bastardized ("I need four am-you-zays for table 53"). They went out to VIPs, to guests celebrating something special, and even to first-time guests, just to show them what this Harvest place was all about.
It was the first kitchen (again, that we know of) where the chefs would order “a round of martinis”--not beers--to be delivered to the kitchen at clean-up time. A tray with six “up” martinis was summarily dispatched…then Gontram and Bousquet would order another round. Before locking the back door after one of many 18-hour days, the chefs would brew a pot of coffee, “and it would still be warm when we got there in the morning.”
The list of Harvest’s chef alumni is impressive: Kevin Nashan, Brian Hardesty, Andy White, Brian Doherty, Brendan Noonan, Josh Charles, Josh Poletti—even SLM contributor/foodie curmudgeon Bill Burge worked the line at Harvest.
In 2012, Gontram founded the St. Louis outpost of 5 Star Burgers, a gourmet hamburgery now with two locations, in Clayton and Kirkwood.
What’s next for 1059 S. Big Bend? Unknown at this point. The one-story, Quonset-esque building is owned by Hank Krussel of Hank’s Cheesecakes, located in the same building as Harvest.
What’s next for Miller? Also unknown. “I have no plans,” he said. “Right now I’m going to step back, recollect, and reevaluate.”
Harvest will be open for dinner Thursday, Friday, Saturday, with the final service on Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Smiling through the pain, Miller said he is expecting “a few tears and a lot of orders of bread pudding.”