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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Lunch Mon–Sat, dinner daily, brunch Sun
Average Main Course: $22.
Dress: Like you’ll be interviewed by the BBC, post-dinner, on your newest translation of Abyssinian poetry.
Reservations: On weekends, it’s not a bad idea.
Chef: Rob Uyemura
"Ya Ya’s? Yep, been there. A while ago. Really good food. Haven’t been back in a long time, though.” It’s a common response to any mention of this West County eatery. Maybe that’s because it’s in an area we don’t think of as heavy with worthy restaurants, sitting off by itself on the Chesterfield prairie. Or because Ya Ya’s is a chain, albeit a tiny one, with four other locations in the Midwest—and we know chains are to foodistas what James Taylor is to indie rockers. We confess, we hadn’t been for a while, either—so we went back.
From outside, the weirdly proportioned building looks like a Mediterranean villa designed by an architect of Soviet public housing. The interior is a cross between the Roman Senate and the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, with massive, natural stone pillars; Chartres Cathedral–worthy ceilings; and comfortable, high-backed booths and tables that accommodate couples and groups. The lighting is noteworthy: soft enough to be relaxing, strong enough that you James Taylor–lovin’ oldsters can read the menu. There’s a large, busy bar. Those lofty ceilings suck up noise; even when Ya Ya’s is full, the atmosphere is pleasant.
Starters are attractive (and we’re glad Ya Ya’s dropped the embarrassing “Euro-bites” heading). Shrimp is skillet-seared pink, along with chili butter and grilled slices of French bread. A house-made hummus comes with chili oil and grilled pita. The calamari’s worthwhile just because it’s the only preparation we’ve seen in town with agrodolce sauce, with its tangy, sweet-and-sour, gastrique-like flavor. Strongly recommended: a brushy pile of wild, Missouri native mushrooms roasted to perfect tenderness, with braised leeks and polenta, swirled with a superior cabernet reduction sauce.
Pizzas are large enough to make a light main course; they’re far better as an appetizer shared. The dough is crusty, chewy, and flavorful. We tried one, well worth it, topped with slivers of caramelized onion, slices of prosciutto, cheese, and truffle oil.
Salads tend toward the extravagant. A salad of field greens with chicken chunks glazed with hot mustard, slices of avocado and eggs, tomatoes, artichoke hearts—it takes longer to describe this salad than to eat it. Every one has a similar string of ingredients. They’re well-constructed and big enough for sharing.
Ya Ya’s offers half a dozen pasta dishes. We sampled a splendid combination of penne, sweet peas, and dried tomatoes, with a dusting of Parmesan, in a mellow garlic cream sauce. The restaurant also uses Laughing Bird shrimp with linguine. These farm-raised shrimp have become chef favorites; their flavor is deep and delicious, nicely matched to the vermouth-sage dressing.
Main courses are generous. The pork chop’s a delightful example. One of life’s few bright hopes in an increasingly dystopian world is the return of real pork, pork gloriously marbled with succulent fat and actual pork flavor. The chop, thick as a Tom Clancy novel, gets pulled from the grill as it’s just saying goodbye to pink. Adding to the luxuriousness of the dish are wine cork–size lardons of pork belly and ravioli with a stuffing the menu says is sausage, but which tastes and looks like spinach. Dark-green leaves of kale are braised, with a couple on top that have been flash-fried; the whole dish is ladled with a rich, dark Marsala-mushroom sauce. It’s great.
Simple pan juices accompany a roasted chicken, along with potatoes and roasted garlic. A slab of bison benefits from a long braise in a port-wine liquid spiked with juniper, served with creamed Brussels sprouts and a clever slurry of turnips and barley that’s nutty and risotto-like. This dish is worthwhile not just for its deliciousness, but also because it’s probably as close as you can get to what a St. Louis meal might have been like in the frontier era.
Ya Ya’s makes a fuss over the sustainability of its seafood, citing the approval of various Friends o’ Fish organizations. And we learn the salmon’s from Clare Island, the trout from Collins Spring, the mussels from Cleveland… Just kidding. The mussels are from Prince Edward Island, combined into a fragrant stew along with shrimp, scallops, and squid, with just enough butter and garlic to make it all entertaining. In another dish, scallops work beautifully seared, with a lemon-butter sauce, vegetable slivers, and a saffron-scented orzo, all of it finessed with a sharp, puckery, orange gastrique.
Desserts are suitably florid. A pecan pie has the right balance, more pecans than sugary goop. We found a lot of love in a burrito of chocolate ganache rolled into a flaky phyllo pastry, drizzled with chocolate sauce and paired with a ball of ice cream. The crème brûlée is huge; sharing is a must.
Ya Ya’s is a fine place to sample some oft-neglected wines: blends. There’s a hefty selection here, like the 2007 Estancia Meritage Bordeaux blend, smooth upfront, with a satisfying tannic finish, tasty with the pork chop. Or the 2009 Heron Mendocino County cab sav, blended with dashes of cabernet franc and merlot, which goes well with the pizza. There are also some good varietals; the scallops will be compelled to sing on your palate with a splash of a 2010 Selbach Piesporter Michelsberg Mosel. A peppery, nicely acidic Labouré-Roi pinot noir’s even more perfect with the bison. (But be sure to sample the blends.)
Service? It needs work. Adjoining tables got bread, though we didn’t. A knife for the pork chop didn’t arrive until we were halfway through the chop. Main courses, on the other hand, arrived too early; all of us were still working on our salads. And we knew the night’s soup special only because we overheard our server describe it to another table. All of this, on a night that wasn’t particularly busy.
Ya Ya’s is, in many ways, a superior eatery, with thoughtful, inventive presentations of very good food. And rare is the restaurant of this caliber that caters to children—we watched a couple of server-kid interactions—so gracefully. Problems here are more distracting than serious. Ya Ya’s is worth a visit—or a too-long-delayed return.
The Bottom Line: Braised buffalo and a sensible pinot noir in a pleasant setting. Life could be worse.