So our editor says the place has some pretty fantastic turtle soup. We figure he’s got to be right, sooner or later. So we’ll go, we tell him; try it out. And maybe have a cochon de lait poor boy alongside to, you know, cleanse our palate.
But here’s the deal, our editor says. They don’t always have it. The turtle soup, that is. Okay. What? We’re supposed to drive all the way down to Utah Street just on the outside chance we’ll luck out and they’ll have the soup that particular day? Hey, we’ve got stuff to do.
So nuestro cocincero says he’ll get in touch with their chef (whose resume includes "personal chef for the Mayor of New Orleans"); when they’re cooking up a batch of Timmy the Tortoise, the chef will let him know, and he’ll let us know. Which he does, just recently. And fortunately we’re free for lunch.
So we go. Riverbend Restaurant & Bar. It’s a great place. In South Soulard. One of those corner joints that are all over some of the older neighborhoods in St. Louis, the kind where the door shaves off the angle where the two walls meet. Old brick and black, cast-iron pillars. Even from the outside you take one look and you know this was a place where once men with handlebar moustaches and celluloid collars hung out, men who most decidedly did not drink Cosmopolitans. This one’s close enough to the Brewery you’ll feel beechwood aged just walking down the sidewalk. (When you take that walk, by the way, note the bowling balls growing in the gardens of a couple of houses. Nice crop this year.)
Riverbend is one of the sadly few places in town turning out New Orleans style cooking. The menu is a mouthwatering array, gumbos, jambalaya, and oysters, of prime Cajun and Creole fare. The étouffée was duly noted in our "The 50 Best Dishes in St. Louis" feature in the Feb 2012 SLM. We tried to focus and kept our eye, though, on that turtle soup.
Turtle soup has a long and storied history in St. Louis. Back in the late 19th century, when people finally figured out how to get food into cans without that special piquant zing of botulism, factories in St. Louis turned out tons of the stuff, shipped it back East. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the breweries, St. Louis could have gone on to become the turtle soup capital of the world. Maybe the Cardinals would be playing today in the Terrapin Dome. Didn’t work out, though. Turtle soup, like Studebakers, nehrus, and Glee, went out of fashion. And stayed that way. It still is. It’d be cool to say that Riverbend’s turtle soup is part of a hip retro-revival of turtle soup and you can get in on it. Ain’t happening, though. Turtle soup will always be one of those unusual foods that have a limited niche. If you’d like to try it, though, or if you’ve had other versions, you need to have the kind they’re serving here.
One of the interesting things about turtles, from a comestible point of view, is that different parts of the animal produce different meat. A turtle has red meat that tastes like beef, pink flesh that’s fishlike on the palate, and white meat you might confuse with pork. (Most “mock turtle” soup recipes substitute pork or veal for turtle.) For turtle soup, all these are ground roughly. The taste is something like a chewy—though not at all tough—pork chop that’s been chopped.
Just for fun, we asked the waitress what kind of turtle it was we were eating.
“It’s a sea turtle,” she said confidently. Which would have been an interesting experience. And simultaneously a felony. Sea turtles, all of them, are federally protected. What we were eating at Riverbend was snapping turtle. Yes, those vicious-beaked swamp dwellers that resemble the love child of Gamera and Laura Flynn Boyle. They’re still caught in the wild, but the meat in Riverbend’s soup came from a farm-raised turtle. Even as recently as a decade ago, farming snapping turtles wasn’t profitable. It takes at least seven years for a snapper to be old enough to have snapper children. However, the international market for turtle meat has ramped up something furiously. (Yep, irritating. Just like you, we didn’t think to invest in snapping turtle farm futures.) In Louisiana and Arkansas and other Southern states, snapping turtle farms are popping up. That’s where Riverbend’s turtle comes from. (We guessed they got theirs from Bob’s Seafood and we were right.)
Here’s the deal, though, that should have you heading down to Riverbend, quickly—after calling to be sure they have it: Nearly all turtle soup served today has a strong tomato base, flavored and fortified by beef stock. The acid of the tomaotey broth plays off the savory richness of the turtle. The turtle soup at the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans is a classic version of this, bright red and tangy. That’s why sherry became a standard condiment to splash in. The richness of the sherry offsets the acid of the soup. Riverbend’s turtle soup, though, is like the one at Brennan’s or Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. That is, it’s made with a powerful, savory, perfectly cooked and smoky roux. Riverbend’s turtle soup looks like gumbo. And it tastes just as good. The flavor is luxurious, the soup thick and lusty. This is not an appetizer course of soup. This is more like a stew, with chunks of green pepper, onions, and celery along with that splendid turtle. A bowl of Riverbend’s turtle soup is easily among the best soups in town. We noticed a couple of tables around us who were eating something else had also ordered Styrofoam cups of turtle soup to go. We’re guessing there are a lot of frozen containers of turtle soup in area refrigerators, anticipating a future drought on the stuff.
And speaking of, well, eating something else, while the turtle soup was a perfectly satisfying lunch, we weren’t kidding about that cochon de lait poor boy as a palate cleanser. House roasted pig, shredded, bathed in its own juices, layered generously on a crusty loaf of French bread. If you’re at Riverbend and they don’t have the turtle soup, it’s a delicious way to hang around until the next batch is ready.
Riverbend Restaurant & Bar 701 Utah St. 314-664-8443. www.riverbendbar.com