Photograph by Katherine Bish
Wine is both the focus and the starting point at this Webster Groves bistro
By Dave Lowry
Imagine a tapas restaurant in St. Louis that is, well, a tapas restaurant. Sounds simple. And since the “tapas concept” couldn’t be hotter right now were it blessed by Saint Oprah, you’d think more places would get it right: individual-size servings of house specialties priced so affordably one can order four or five, along with a couple of glasses of good wine, and leave satisfied and financially sound. Instead, local self-styled tapas eateries charge full-meal prices for appetizers. Polished and only a few months old, Webster Groves’ Robust gets it right.
At a tapas place, wine is at center stage. Accordingly, at Robust one peruses a vast, tantalizing list, makes notes, then checks the food menu that is helpfully cross-referenced with wine suggestions to see what might best match. A Cabernet with well-behaved tannins catch your eye? Perfect for the Tuscan salami spiked with fennel and peppercorns. A sparkly Cava, more bubbly than a caffeine-buzzed cheerleader? Match it in your mouth with the crostini, hummus and Kalamata olives. Most wines are available by the bottle as well as in 6- and even 3-ounce servings—though annoyingly they arrive in glasses nearly large enough to bathe in—that make such pairings easy on both palate and wallet. “Wine flights” are a useful touch: three sample-size vintages that make for thoughtful comparison tastings.
Robust clearly wants you to enjoy its wine with its food. And as for the latter: almost unexceptionally excellent. In accordance with our professional motto (“We’re eating well, so you don’t have to”), we worked our way through more than a dozen offerings and were pleased with several, delighted with others and unimpressed by only a few.
More than half a dozen cheeses are worth an entire review alone; the serious diner will plan multiple visits to Robust just to enjoy them all. Start with a wedge of Morbier, a cow’s cheese the color of old ivory, with the delicate fragrance of new hay. Creamy, rich as Kim Kardashian and aged no longer than her attention span, a beautifully fresh Belgian Capra goat cheese is blended with honey. Full-fat cow’s milk and fresh cream produce Dèlice de Bourgogne, with a startlingly powerful aroma of mold (moldy in a good way, that is) and layers of flavor that unfold extravagantly with a single bite. The only knock on Robust’s superb cheese selections is that there isn’t enough of the first-rate toasted bread to go with them.
Charcuteries arrive, attractively arranged on paddles, for easy sharing. A chorizo sausage from Salamanca is smoky and spicy, bright with paprika. This Spanish version of chorizo is literally from a different hemisphere than the more familiar Mexican chorizo; if you like pepperoni, you will adore Spanish chorizo. Prosciutto comes in papery sheets, dry, salty and aromatic. A medallion of pâté is just compact enough to hold its shape without becoming rubbery, the meat dense, the flavor rich and liver-ish though not overpowering. Along with a ramekin of superior-grade rough-ground mustard and tiny cornichons, this pâté is exceptional. Note the texture: It’s Campagne style, meaning it’s in the rural tradition, the herbs and pork roughly ground, almost like a meatloaf. But it doesn’t crumble when you cut it. You don’t get pâté of this caliber in a lot of places around here.
The chowder is luscious and smells as good as it tastes: smoky, thickened with shrimp, Spanish chorizo and andouille sausage, along with potato chunks, sweet peppers and onions. Pears sliced and tossed with a pungent bleu cheese work flawlessly in a salad of greens, along with walnuts and sliced beets in a walnut oil–infused vinaigrette. A plate of glossy black Kalamata and green olives is marinated, then tossed with slices of red pepper and little knobs of fresh mozzarella in a shimmering oil that is irresistible for swiping with bread.
Half a dozen mussels—big, meaty, green-lipped New Zealanders—crowd into a bowl with shrimp and a broth redolent with saffron, onions and fennel. This is a creditable version of a Spanish seafood zarzuela. A luncheon plate-size flatbread is topped with leaves of smoked salmon atop a thick white schmeer of lemon and dill-infused cream cheese, sprinkled with capers, thin slices of sweet onion and a tangle of arugula. A pair of crab cakes benefits from an understated aioli of roasted garlic and chives. A blob of polenta stirred with gooey threads of bleu cheese and a syrupy wine reduction sauce are both better than the average sirloin steak arranged in slices over that polenta. Another only average dish is the chicken breast. It’s plump, nicely roasted but underseasoned, and overmatched by a spray of perfectly roasted fingerling potatoes and a silky, delicate jus of apples and Riesling.
Desserts include crème brûlée and a chocolate cream cheese brownie, but for true wine spectators, the best bet is a glass of honey-gold ice wine made from Semillon grapes, the same fruit used in Château d’Yquem. Picked after a freeze on the vine that concentrates its sugar, the wine is fabulously sweet, unparalleled as a dessert drink.
Robust is tucked into the corner of a big, new building in old Webster Groves, one that aims for gracious, Georgian Colonial urbanity and hits faux Smallville instead. The interior, however, is contemporary and stylish. A grand collage of labeled wine box lids on the back wall is the most visually stimulating and successful artwork in any St. Louis restaurant. Seating wraps around a large, well-stocked bar, with another dining room in back. Featured wines (and scores of others available for retail sale) are classified by “Robust factor,” a one-word adjectival description, rather than by grape varietal or country of origin.
The place went from nearly empty at 5:30 to packed in less than an hour. It’s noisy here, and close. Clever arrangement of tables, though, allows for unshouted conversation. Tapas at Robust are fun for a couple but will be enjoyable for a small group, where sharing is part of a happy, satisfying dinner.
Address: 227 W. Lockwood
Average Main Course: Tapas range from $5 to $12
Reservations: Not an option for parties of less than 10
Dress: Like you were posing for the dust jacket photo for your soon-to-be bestseller, Style Advice From the Master
Bottom Line: A legitimate and outstanding tapas experience, with lots of wine selections in a convivial, sophisticated atmosphere