Some places and people and moments that didn’t make it into our reviews or at least didn’t get the attention they deserve…
Photographer: Kevin A. Roberts
Bread is as much a part of dinner as a fork. Okay, we’d make an exception for, say, Chinese food. But you don’t need a fork for that, anyway. So we stand by our original statement. We know it adds an expense to an eatery’s bottom line and given the cost of food today, those bottoms can be skinnier than Keira Knightley’s in tight jeans. Bread on the table, though, is one of the signs of a civilized meal.
The best bread—the best assortment of breads—we ate this year was at Juniper. It doesn’t come with the meal; you have to order it. Do. It’s worth it. Also, it changes with whatever bread-wise strikes the chef’s fancy on any particular evening.
One night when we stopped by, it was cornbread, the not-too-sweet kind that’s so popular in the South. A big ol’ fluffy, golden square of it, hot and ready for butter.
There were also “angel biscuits,” sometimes known, again in the South, as “bride’s biscuits,” because they were easy for a newly-married woman to make. (Yeast and baking powder are the secret.) Hushpuppies, with just a whisper of onion. And a Yorkshire pudding turnover, hot and whispery-light and crisp. There are places where bread’s a lovely start to a meal. At Juniper it’s almost like a meal in itself.
There’re these people who make a big deal out of the wickedness of not “knowing” where your food comes from, who sneer about those who they think think steaks come in little white trays wrapped in plastic. Nobody thinks that. Saying it just makes those who do so feel smug about themselves, which is very important to them. That acknowledged, it is occasionally nice to have right in front of you the evidence that what you’re eating was once standing around munching grass and flicking its tail.
Photographer: Kevin A. Roberts
That’s one reason we enjoy the bone marrow as it’s presented at Central Table Food Hall. It comes to your table still on the bone. Literally. A couple of big cow shank bones, crossed over like a pirate flag insignia. Sliced right down the center. Exposing all that delectable marrow. A little melted butter’s drizzled on top. And there are some slices of just barely toasted French bread. That’s it.
Our culinary predecessors sat around a fire many thousands of years ago, using rocks to crack bones just like these, scooping out the marrow. We felt like we were communing with our ancestors digging into this delectable appetizer. And we have it on good faith that those ancestors also washed it down, as we did, with a bubbly Bisol Jeio Prosecco to cut the glistening fattiness of the marrow.
Photographer: Kevin A. Roberts
Side dishes are sort of the Brazil nuts of a good meal. They’re fine and all. But if they were missing from the nut bowl, it’d still be okay, provided there were enough cashews. A place like 801 Chophouse has enough grand food, in the form of beef and potatoes and other steakhouse stuff, that even if there weren’t any sides, you would still be impressed with the place. The side dish there, of Brussels sprouts roasted in a hot iron skillet, along with a toss of English walnuts, is so splendid it’s hard to ignore. It was far and away the best side dish we ate all year.
Photographer: Kevin A. Roberts
There isn’t a lot you can say about some foods after you say the food itself. Just the name itself will close them up faster than a Christmas tree lot on the 26th. They don’t hear anything you say after that. So it is with pig tails. Say, “The Libertine has some of the best pig tails I’ve ever eaten, oh, and by the way, our daughter’s just joined a cult that worships vintage neon diner signs,” and chances are entirely in your favor they won’t hear anything about the cult because they checked out of the conversation right after “pig tails.”
This isn’t entirely unreasonable. We’re pretty much that way when we hear “tuna casserole.” Or “stewed tomatoes.” With Libertine’s pig tails, though, it’s a mistake. The tails are skinned, the meat removed, cooked, then ground into a luscious sausage-like paste, then reformed and the skin’s wrapped around it again, then fried. Then served with a whipped Gorgonzola spread that ups the “Man, this is good” factor considerably.
So instead of “pig tails,” focus on “sausage-like” and “whipped Gorgonzola” and “fried.”
Because it’s one of the most delightful appetizers we ate all year.
There are any number of dining-related extravaganzas in this city. Our favorite is the one in late spring, Food Wine Design. It’s our favorite because we always get reservations under the names “Shel and Heddy Epstein” and since we sit all evening at a big table with strangers, we tell fabulous lies about our career up on Sixth Ave and 42nd Street and make vague intimations about “still dabbling in the garment biz.”
The biggest reason we like it is that it’s just course after course of magnificently good food and wine and beer that concludes with SLM Publisher Leslie Tunney conducting an auction that raises money for a great cause and given that guest have been indulging in the above mentioned food and wine and beer for about four hours, she has to crack a whip like a grammar school teacher dealing with a class of sugar-glazed third graders to get everyone’s attention and be quiet. And she does.
The only person who works harder at this week-long event is the magazine’s Erin Duree who takes care of everything behind the scenes and is still working long after we’ve gone home. (Editor's Note: The fifth annual Food Wine Design will take place on June 1-5, 2015. Watch SLM's website for details.)
Photo by Kevin A. Roberts
You could spend many, many months looking for the best burgers in St. Louis. Trust us. That said, the best burger we ate all this year was the one at Three Flags Tavern. It’s made brisket, ground, and formed into a thick patty that holds in all the flavor and juiciness. A house made potato rolls doesn’t hurt. Nor do the bacon shingles and crispy red onions. It’s the cheese, though, a gloopy, fragrant slab of Delice de Bourgogne cheese, that sends it all over the top.
We’ve long made it a habit to avoid personal contact with local chefs. Not because we don’t like them; we tend to like them just fine. But it compromises our objectivity. We have met Nathaniel Reid on a couple of occasions, where our editor kind of slurred over our name when introducing us. (It wasn’t that he was trying to protect our anonymity. It’s just that he never has been sure who we are or what we do at the magazine.)
The last time was last summer, at SLM's justly notorious A-List Party in the Central West End, and we stood and listened to the esteemed pastry chef talk about his profession and his obvious enjoyment of it. He’s totally unpretentious, so happily earnest and creative. Truly one of the nicest moments for us in a long year of eating and writing and talking about food. (Editor's Note: Reid left the Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis last August to teach and consult, bestowing his pastry prowess on others. He hints at opening his own shop here in St. Louis.)
Tables placed too closely together is a complaint we often get about restaurants. It’s understandable. You’ve just been served a perfectly lovely meal and you’re worried that if you take your eyes off your plate, a person the next table over might just reach over and help himself to a forkful. Then too, the clinical description of your latest medical test or the health of your stock portfolio or that deal you got on underwear really doesn’t make for great general conversation and at many of our meals nowadays, those three topics cover most of the evening’s chitchat.
That said, we were sitting at Farmhaus so close we could literally reach over and touch the next table. So we were trying to engage in witty and sophisticated talk. We didn’t mention underwear at all. A couple of women were seated next to us and were discussing the wine list and we, since we’d already heard what they’d ordered for dinner, suggested the Cabernet Sauvignon. They did. And shared it with our table. It was great fun. They were sisters. One was living in Las Vegas and in town for a visit and we laid out a nice itinerary for them, the Arch and Cahokia Mounds and Soulard. And just in case either of them are reading this: Walmart’s got a great deal going on underwear.
There isn’t a whole lot not to like about doughnuts, sure. And we ate our fair share during 2014. Okay, a little more than our share. Okay, a lot more. An obscene more. It’s part of the job, though. Even so, when we think back over the year in doughnuts, far and away, the best of the year was the dessert of doughnuts at Element.
They’re little knobby puffs of airy goodness, fried up right in front of you at Element’s open kitchen, and served while they’re so hot it’s excruciating to wait for them to cool long enough to eat. They come with a cup of crème brulee that’s laced with coffee. The best ending to a meal we had this year. (Editor's Note: We understand this dessert will disappear from Element's menu with the advent of the new year. Tick. Tick. Tick.)
And speaking of endings, as the cheese plate of 2014’s eating is served, thanks to all our locally sourced readers who put up with our chatter about this whole business of dining and we look forward in 2015 to doing exactly the same thing.