Feast on St. Louis: STL Food Notoriety

Thursday January 4, 2018

Written by Bethany Christo
Photography by Jacklyn Meyer

The spotlight is officially on the St. Louis culinary scene.

In the past year, accolades from national publications including Bon Appétit, Esquire and Eater and esteemed organizations such as the James Beard Foundation have named St. Louis-area establishments among the best in the country. And with the bright spotlight of national attention on them, these local spots have only continued to shine.

Perhaps the biggest achievement this year in the St. Louis culinary scene was Kevin Nashan’s win at the James Beard Awards in May. After five semifinalist nominations, the chef-owner of Sidney Street Cafe was awarded the coveted Best Chef: Midwest title.

“Your real prize is a full restaurant,” Nashan says. “[The James Beard Award is] just kind of like someone saying you’re doing a good job, and hopefully you can take that, evolve and get better. There’s a lot of responsibility; it’s a humbling thing.”

After nearly 15 years at Sidney Street (as well as opening Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. in 2014 down the street), Nashan certainly deserves the praise. His fine-dining culinary powerhouse serves rustic yet refined plates using the absolute best ingredients in inventive preparations, and his passion comes through in each dish. Highly regarded for its game, rabbit and in-house butcher program, Sidney Street also highlights vegetables: an exceptional example is a roasted beets entrée with creamy barley porridge, King Trumpet mushrooms, goat’s-milk caramel and root-vegetable demi-glace.

Nashan’s James Beard win came just two years after Niche chef-owner Gerard Craft was named Best Chef: Midwest. The first-ever to win in the St. Louis area, Craft ended up closing Niche just over a year after winning to make room for Sardella. Craft also owns fast-casual Porano Pasta, cocktail-centric Taste, French bistro Brasserie by Niche, and fresh pasta and wood-fired pizza favorite Pastaria (including a Nashville outpost) under Niche Food Group.

Born and raised on the East Coast, then-25-year-old Craft moved to St. Louis in 2005 with the intention of opening Niche, which took a hyperlocal lens to farm-to-table sourcing and boundary-pushing food. Sardella, a fresh and airy Italian-accented eatery with a focus on small plates like brisket agnolotti (a pasta take on surf-and-turf, with lobster broth, Old Bay seasoning, fennel and bottarga, an Italian cured fish roe) is making a name for itself, including a recent mention in Food & Wine.

“When I was looking for a place to open Niche back in 2005, the thing that I really loved about St. Louis was the food community,” Craft says. “I wanted to be a part of building a culinary scene, to be one piece of that puzzle. The Midwest is humble – the people and the chef community – and that has always spoken to me.”

Although a newer addition to the local culinary scene, Vicia is quickly becoming a key player. Vicia has been heralded in BonAppétit’s 50 best-new restaurants list, multiple mentions in Eater (including its top-12 best restaurants) and Esquire’s 18 best restaurants in the country – and it’s only been open for nine months. Michael and Tara Gallina are the husband-and-wife duo behind the seasonal, vegetable-forward restaurant, and while Michael, who serves as executive chef, is a St. Louis-area native, the pair first garnered national acclaim at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York.

“We were so fortunate to work at one of the best restaurants in the world, take all that information that we learned from chef Dan Barber – about sustainability, about farming, about connecting those two things together – and bring it here in our way,” says Tara, who serves as general manager. “We wanted to take the trappings of fine dining, to have that level of food, but in a comfortable and casual environment that you can come to every day.”

Described as “an eye-opening expression of love for the bounty of the heartland” (Esquire) and offering “a taste of the finest vegetables, grains and meats known to Missouri” (Bon Appétit), Vicia offers reasonably priced sandwiches, soups and cheese boards for lunch and meticulous, elegant small plates and a chef’s tasting menu for dinner. An exemplar of the execution of the Gallina’s mission is a recent carrot main course: The vegetable is roasted, grilled and drizzled with savory pork sauce and a deft sprinkle of vegetable ash.

“It’s exciting to see how many passionate farmers there are here who really care about soil and farming practices, which for a chef makes it really easy,” Michael says. “If you have a vegetable that’s grown in good soil, you don’t have to do a whole lot with it. We try to have our menu be a celebration of what those farmers do every day.”

Also prominently placed on Bon Appétit’s 50 best-new restaurants list (and lauding it as serving the best octopus the author had eaten all year) is Nixta, the latest concept from Ben Poremba, the proprietor of Elaia, Olio and Parigi in the St. Louis area, as well as co-owner of La Patisserie Chouquette. Inspired by traditional as well as modern Mexican cuisine, Nixta also resonated with diners when it opened in November 2016.

“Nixta is a modern Mexican restaurant; that’s a loose term we use,” Poremba says. “We’re inspired by regional cuisine from Mexico, whether it be grandma’s cooking, whether it be street food, whether it be new trends in Mexico. We’re not afraid to twist, upgrade, elevate, modernize.”

The visual experience of eating in the colorful, lively space is matched by the bold flavors, textures and aromas coming out of the kitchen – castacán, for example, are traditional Yucatán skin-on pork belly tacos served with radishes, microgreens, kimchi made with Mexican peppers and a side of housemade tortillas made with Midwest-sourced corn – one of the only restaurants in the area doing so.

“The food scene in St. Louis is full of people who are not afraid to explore – new regions of cuisine, new styles of cuisine,” Poremba says. “We don’t have to play it safe anymore in St. Louis.”

Like Nixta, the St. Louis culinary scene is both worldly and evocative of the heartland. Nathaniel Reid and his eponymous Nathaniel Reid Bakery in Kirkwood, Missouri, offers everyday indulgence in the form of artful pastries and upscale desserts that could easily be found in a  Paris pâtisserie – airy macarons, dainty tea domes, flaky croissants, and savory sandwiches and quiches for the lunch rush. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu Paris (and the University of Missouri, where he did his undergrad), Reid worked at The Ritz-Carlton hotel and Joël Robuchon restaurant in Las Vegas, and was selected as winner of the U.S. Pastry Competition and named Pastry Chef of the Year in New York City in 2010.

With the awards and praises coming in at the brink of what was destined to be a successful career, Reid decided to take his world-class pastry skills home to Missouri, and he opened his French-inspired bakery in 2016.

“I love Missouri; I grew up in southeast Missouri and had the opportunity to travel around and see other things,” Reid says. “That was fun, but there’s always something missing. Home is where the heart is, and that’s definitely the case for me.”

He continues: “Because the people in St. Louis are so passionate about supporting local, that allows people to open new businesses and be exploratory in their concepts. It passes forward, too; they support the local restaurateurs and bakeries, and we can support local farmers and local producers of those goods, as well. It really stays in St. Louis and is beautiful.”

Running parallel to the success of St. Louis’ culinary scene are the strides made in the craft-beer scene. Mirroring national trends, the city’s brewing industry has made a resurgence throughout the past two decades and now numbers more than 60 breweries in the surrounding 60-mile radius – and growing. In 2011, Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. helped reinvigorate the scene by opening its flagship brewery and biergarten in Midtown, followed three years later by a second brewery and bierhall located in The Grove. Urban Chestnut brews both old-world European styles and new-world American craft styles under a philosophy of “beer divergency.” Favorites include Schnickelfritz, a Bavarian Wiessbier; STLIPA, a double IPA; Mercator, a Flemish sour; and Kinsale, a foreign export-style extra stout. Urban Chestnut’s beers have resonated with both local beer-drinkers and the wider community – for example, in the 2016 and 2017 Brussels Beer Challenge international competition held in Belgium, its Oachkatzlschwoaf Oktoberfest lager won gold in the Lager: German-Style Marzen category.

“Brewing beer in St. Louis has been a very important factor of why this city was established and has become so big over time,” says co-founder and brewmaster Florian Kuplent. “Opening the brewery here made total sense – there’s a lot of people who are into beer, very educated beer-drinkers, and the interest for beer is just phenomenal. There are a lot of [boundaries] being pushed, and people are always going to be interested in new and exciting things – I see that continuing here in St. Louis.”

Back at Sidney Street, Nashan agrees: “Good things take time, and this town’s got so many more great years. It’s just the beginning. You can only go forward or backward. If you’re standing around doing nothing, you’re going backward. As long as the city supports it, which it’s done an incredible job with new restaurants, we’re only going to get better and better.”

Brasserie by Niche, 4580 Laclede Ave., Central West End, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.454.0600, brasseriebyniche.com

Elaia and Olio, 1634 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.932.1088, elaiastl.com and oliostl.com

La Patisserie Chouquette, 1626 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.932.7935, simonefaure.com

Nathaniel Reid Bakery, 11243 Manchester Road, Kirkwood, Missouri, 314.858.1019, nrbakery.com

Nixta, 1621 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.899.9000, nixtastl.com

Parigi, 8025 Bonhomme Ave., Clayton, Missouri, 314.899.9767, parigistl.com

Pastaria, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, Missouri, 314.862.6603, eatpastaria.com

Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co., 1831 Sidney St., Benton Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.772.8858, peacemakerstl.com

Porano Pasta, 634 Washington Ave., Downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.833.6414, poranopasta.com

Sardella, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, Missouri, 314.773.7755, sardellastl.com 

Sidney Street Cafe, 2000 Sidney St., Benton Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.771.5777, sidneystreetcafestl.com

Taste, 4584 Laclede Ave., Central West End, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.361.1200, tastebarstl.com

Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.; Grove Brewery & Bierhall, 4465 Manchester Ave., Forest Park Southeast, St. Louis, Missouri; Midtown Brewery & Biergarten, 3229 Washington Ave., Covenant Blu/Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri; 314.222.0143; urbanchestnut.com

Vicia, 4260 Forest Park Ave., Central West End, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.553.9239, viciarestaurant.com

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