Although I’ve spent countless hours at Lambert Field (I’ve flown through it more than any other airport in the world, by far) my time in St. Louis has been slight, a half-dozen one-nighters over the past three decades: school field trips, business trips, and a quick eating trip three years ago.
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Drive east from Kansas City on I-70, following the Big Muddy Mo for four hours, and you’ll arrive in St. Louis, the older, slightly larger, and, in many ways, more stately city of the two.
It’s home to the Cardinals, the Blues, and the Rams; Anheuser Busch (which, sadly, is no longer locally owned) and Schlafly beers; Edward Jones and Scottrade. It has produced dozens of stars, including John Goodman, Chuck Berry, Nelly, and Mad Man Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm.
In 1904, St. Louis hosted the summer Olympics and the World’s Fair, which not only immortalized the city as the subject of the 1944 musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but endowed it with Forest Park, now a public greenspace larger than Central Park and home to the city’s zoo and a handful of museums. And, in many ways, the park seems to represent the grandeur, preserved in red brick, of the rest of the city. There are universities, and wide boulevards, and, of course, the Gateway Arch, Saarinen’s sleek, silver span on the riverfront that has become the city’s symbol.
And, from what I can tell, it’s home to a fairly robust, and growing restaurant scene, with a healthy number of food writers and publications to cheer it on: Joe Bonwich, the critic of record at the Post-Dispatch; Ian Froeb at the Riverfront Times; St. Louis Magazine; Feast; and Sauce, among others.
As usual, I arrived with a longer list of restaurants than time allowed.
So, from my bucket list, I pinned Kevin Nashan’s Sidney Street Café to the top and spent the rest of my time in St. Louis getting to know the niche family of restaurants (Craft has three of them, soon to be four – Pastaria will open some time later this year). I also squeezed in a bonus, barbecue lunch at Mike Emerson’s Pappy’s Smokehouse.
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One of the most important messages that the Garreltses wanted to convey in the bluestem cookbook is that cooking should be fun, it should be an adventure. And it should be personal. At their very least, recipes are replicable formulas with fairly predictable results, but at their very best, they become trailheads to self-scripted journeys beyond. So, I was thrilled that the Garreltses and Craft decided to tag-team the cookbook dinner, going off-road to create a five-course menu of dishes inspired by ones in the book.
I’m probably the only person who has eaten every dish in the cookbook, and multiple times each (neither Colby nor Megan attended each other’s recipe testing sessions, so not even they have eaten every dish in the book). So, for me, getting to see three of the Midwest’s best chefs play with the recipes with which I spent so much time was especially meaningful. Adapted and revised, focused on seasonal and local ingredients, this menu was the best possible expression of the spirit with which the Garreltses and I wrote the book. Those who came to the dinner got a real treat.
I’ll pause briefly to compare the dinner menu with the recipes in the book. If you want to skip straight to the photos, click here.
First, let me just note that Gerard’s focaccia, sprinkled with salt, herbs, and chile flakes, is wonderful. I could tell it was going to be great when I saw one of his line cooks patting the bubbly, slick dough onto baking sheets when we arrived at the restaurant in the early afternoon. Out of the oven, it was a golden-brown mattress with a pillowy, soft crumb in between. It was gorgeous.
And, although I was skeptical when I saw the Gerard’s amuse bouche – a maple custard with shiitakes and dashi caviar, served in a hollowed egg shell – it turned out to be one of the most delicious things I ate on my trip to St. Louis. The custard was more like a mousse, airy and light, flecked with bits of shiitake mushrooms, crisped in oil, and topped with pearls of dashi. Serving them slightly warm, he nailed the sweet-umami flavor beautifully with this comforting egg cup.
Gerard’s first dish took the hamachi and radishes from the recipe on page 15 and married it to the flavors of the chawanmushi on page 202: dashi, scallions, and hon shimeji mushrooms (these he turned into a chip, as a garnish). What resulted was a beautiful fish tartare, studded with meaty radishes and brightened with fresh mint.
His second dish was a variation of the cod recipe on page 220. He kept all of the flavors and ingredients, and, treating them as color spokes, turned the wheel to recreate each in a new form (it my have been a coincidence, but the plates he used for this course were a particularly witty, visual cue for his playful method). Instead of serving the fish in brodo, with parsnips and carrots tossed in pancetta vinaigrette, Gerard poached the cod in hot pancetta fat until warm and silky, and served it with whipped carrots and a caramelized parsnip broth.
Colby’s first course was essentially the crispy sweetbreads with roasted radicchio recipe on page 206, one of my favorites. But to it, he added the pickled apples from the rack of venison recipe on page 224, using a meatier apple so that the flesh could be scooped out into little melon balls (the recipe calls for miniature, lady apples), and a spoonful of bourbon molasses and candied pecans. A balance of fat and acid, sweet and bitter, this was my favorite course of the night.
For the meat course, Colby cross-bred the strip loin recipe (with Brussels sprouts) from page 172 with the short ribs recipe (served with grits) on page 228. To this dish, he added mustard greens, both braised (with cream and garlic) and the fresh, peppery leaves of the “Ultra Karate Kick” variety, aptly named, from Chef’s Garden.
Megan’s dessert – graham cracker pound cake with chocolate-poached pears and tangerine sorbet – was taken directly from the book (pg. 238), and so were the linzer cookies (pg. 116), which went home with guests as favors (along with a package of Kansas City Roasterie’s bluestem coffee blend). But, she substituted dates for figs in the spicy fig cakes (pg. 188) that arrived with the other petits fours, including chocolate truffles and salted caramels.
Despite the freezing drizzle that set in early on, both seatings remained sold-out. Thank you to all who braved the slick streets to support the cookbook and make the dinner a success. We hope you find your own adventures with the recipes in it. And thank you, Gerard, and your awesome staff at niche, for hosting a wonderful event.* I hope we continue to strengthen our cross-state ties; let’s make I-70 a culinary highway in Missouri.
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After the cookbook dinner, we ended the night at Taste by niche in the city’s Central West End district.
What I especially liked about Taste – one of those Prohibition revivalist bars – is that it also serves food. Most bars of this caliber and type focus on drinks, offering a few snacks, or sloppy sponges at best. But here, in addition to top-shelf cocktails, you can also get a variety of small plates, nicely cooked and presented, like chicken-fried terrine with a crunchy, breaded crust and a warm, jellied meat center, and a comforting slice of scrapple topped with a fried egg.
Next door to Taste is Brasserie by niche, Craft’s Parisian picture postcard with scuffed wood floors and a tin-tiled ceiling. On my last day in the city, I met Gerard and a couple of his cooks there for brunch. The menu was a hit parade of classics, like salad Lyonnaise, quiche du jour, eggs Benedict, and a lovely farmhouse breakfast board with cold ham, six-minute eggs, fromage blanc, and buttery toast. I had a wonderful brisket tartine, smothered with melted fontina cheese, and a haystack of crispy pencil fries. And, to make sure I’d sleep on the flight back to Kansas City, I ended with a scoop of boozy brandy ice cream. It did the job nicely.
In between all the nichery, I went to Pappy’s Smokehouse for lunch, and had dinner with a friend at Sidney Street Café, where chef Nashan offered to cook a tasting menu for us. I’ll get to those two meals in later posts. Check back for the links below.
Brasserie by niche
Sidney Street Café
Taste by niche
* A special thanks to Colby and Megan Garrelts, Gerard and Suzie Craft, David Crum, Nate and Christine Hereford, Adam Altnether, Mike Emerson, Kevin Nashan, Jeff Lehman, Chris Kelling, and Rick Nelson, for a wonderful weekend in St. Louis!
Photos: Meaghan Boyer, pastry assistant at niche, framed by one of the most beautiful kitchen windows I’ve ever seen, niche, St. Louis, Missouri; Gerard Craft with Colby and Megan Garrelts at niche, St. Louis, Missouri; Adam Altnether plating hamachi crudo at niche, St. Louis, Missouri; and “Mr. Black,” a cocktail at Taste by niche, St. Louis, Missouri.