By Rachel Huffman
Cheesy cauliflower gratin topped with Brussels sprouts, Dijon vinaigrette and crispy breadcrumbs. Grilled cabbage tossed with Eckert’s apples, tahini yogurt and makrut lime powder. Creamy Missouri rice mixed with preserved mushrooms, nutty sunchokes and rich Parmesan.
At Vicia, vegetables are dressed for the spotlight.
Since its inception, the St. Louis restaurant has celebrated the bounty of the Midwest with fresh, inventive dishes that center on beloved yet underutilized vegetables, making use of all their parts. In its three-course Farmers Feast, an ingredient as common as a carrot can make the strictest carnivores crave more plants – especially when that carrot is soaked in carrot jus, paired with bright gooseberries and garnished with sunflower microgreens.
Michael and Tara Gallina, the husband-and-wife duo behind Take Root Hospitality (Vicia, Bistro La Floraison, Winslow’s Table and Taqueria Morita), learned the value of building relationships with farmers at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a high-end, farm-to-table restaurant in Tarrytown, New York, where the couple met. There, the surrounding fields and pastures inspired the hyper-seasonal tasting menu.
“We got our hands dirty [at Blue Hill at Stone Barns],” Michael says, “and that philosophy has stuck with us.”
“For me, the main takeaway was how storytelling can enhance the dining experience,” Tara adds. “Sitting in front of an exquisite plate of food, guests would learn about every ingredient and the farmer behind it. In the front of house, where I worked, we strived to take guests on a journey. There wasn’t a menu to guide them; there was only us.”
Storytelling, along with exceptional hospitality and guest engagement, is also part of the Vicia experience. Michael works with his team to design the menu for the evening – will the main course feature seared beet steak or marinated spaghetti squash tonight? – while Tara makes sure everyone feels comfortable.
“You’re not pressured to order the right thing,” she says. “We customize the experience for you, so you can simply relax and enjoy the creativity of our kitchen. We never want to overwhelm guests, but we certainly want to exceed their expectations.”
When the time came to leave Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Gallinas gravitated toward St. Louis. Michael grew up in the Gateway City, but more than that, they felt the energy of the food-and-beverage scene and wanted to get in on it.
St. Louis is one of the best food cities in the U.S. Continuing to grow, innovate, diversify and delight, it dishes up untold cuisines in a relatively small footprint. More than that, though, Tara believes that the culinary landscape’s good repute comes down to the caliber of people who work here – and that doesn’t just mean that they’re nominated for this or that award.
“They’re really good cooks and chefs,” she emphasizes. “There’s also a lot of camaraderie amongst the restaurant community, and I think that guests can sense that. We all like to support each other as much as we can, and I think that speaks volumes for the spirit of the industry here.”
“People in St. Louis are open-minded, and they’re willing to try new things,” Michael adds. “I knew that we could make our mark here.”
A beacon of inspiration in the Cortex Innovation District, Vicia boasts an edible landscape that provides everything from fennel to figs and poblanos to rhubarb for the kitchen. Elusive herbs such as epazote, lemon verbena, lovage and papalo also grow like weeds, adding variety to the crop of goodies.
“Our bar program is directly influenced by the garden, which I love,” Tara says. “Every year, in early September, our roselle [a species of flowering plant in the genus Hibiscus] begins to bloom, so we use the flowers to infuse spirits and make syrups, which are added to different cocktails this time of year.”
The on-site garden continually evolves, though, meaning there are always new plants to touch, smell and taste. “Some people just come for dinner,” Tara explains. “Other people want to hear the whole story – every detail of every dish. Our servers thrive on those interactions. They’ll take the guests on a garden tour and show them what they can eat along the way.”
Vicia also focuses on minimizing food waste in the kitchen. Its vegetable top pesto, for instance, saves the leafy green tops of vegetables such as carrots, radishes and turnips from the trash. The herby spread is served with “naked” vegetables at the start of most meals at the restaurant, alongside other snacks such as delicata squash tempura seasoned with pumpkin seed dukkah and hot honey and petite tacos filled with smashed beans, shiitake mushrooms, kale, yogurt and seasonal hot sauce.
It sounds simple, but the bread service with Rolling Lawns whipped butter is also a crowd-pleaser!
“We’re a family business, so everything is personal – even the smallest details [like the bread service],” Tara says. “We’ve been lucky enough to find passionate people to join our team, too – truly talented people who can do what we can’t.”
“Menu development, great service – it’s all about collaboration,” Michael adds. “We’re always trying to bounce ideas off each other – there’s no way Tara and I could do it by ourselves.”
Connecting farmers and food-lovers in a story of sustainable eating, Vicia is an experience unlike any other in St. Louis. Book a table to be part of it.
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