By Mabel Suen
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Joseph Hess
By Evan C. Jones
By Ian Froeb
By Mabel Suen
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Ian Froeb
I don't consider myself a city snob. You know, somebody who considers anything in "the county"-- whether west, north or south -- sterile, boring or worse, full of human-like pod people straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. True, every suburb carries the baggage of its past; the suburb's main social characteristic was physical and class segregation, a sort of green ghetto dedicated to the elite, as Lewis Mumford first noted. Unlike the social islands within a city, suburbanites could stay put and didn't have to mingle with people who were different.
15601 Olive Blvd.
Chesterfield, MO 63017
636-537-9991. Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (open till midnight Fri. and Sat.)
I grew up in the suburbs and live in the city, so I've seen both sides now (cue Judy Collins). I've come to believe that the "county sucks, city is great" (and vice versa) attitude is more divisive than any race or sports issue St. Louis faces. And it spills over into cultural offerings, including food.
First observation: The suburbs -- in my mind, anyplace twenty minutes any direction from my house -- are magnets for prepackaged "theme" restaurants, fitting comfortably into the never-ending array of big-box chain stores and strip malls. No sooner do you pass a Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden than a Joe's Crab Shack pops up, leading you to an Outback Steakhouse or yet another O'Charley's and Applebee's.
Second observation: Some chain restaurants are actually good. When I express this view to friends, most just stare at me, waiting for the punch line. Or they burst into self-righteous rage, usually opening with "Are you crazy?"
Call me crazy, but how many restaurants, indie or chain, would state in print that "only three frozen items are purchased, and packaged mixes are not used in our kitchens"?
Don't get me wrong, I steer clear of most chains. I don't believe in waiting two hours at the Cheesecake Factory when better options abound just up the street. Part of the adventure of dining is seeking out local flavors, unusual concepts and the just-plain quirky. But I've also learned from personal experience that parochial attitudes and preconceptions often coat the palate. Separate the two and you may be pleasantly surprised.
One such surprise is Yia Yia's Euro Cafe -- the moniker, Greek for "grandmother," is pronounced ya-ya's -- open since 1998 in the far-West County suburb of Chesterfield. It's run by the Kansas City-based PB&J Restaurant Group, which operates 35 restaurants -- including five Yia Yia's -- in four states.
Like a lot of upscale chains, Yia Yia's doesn't look like it was cut from a standard mold once you get inside. The thick-beamed ceiling, stone columns and mosaic tile floor make for a rustic, lodgy feel. The rest of the interior is smartly decorated in warm earth tones, with fabric-padded walls and amber blown-glass chandeliers. The wine "cellar," a glassed-in room unto itself, is front and center of the hostess station. The wood-fired oven is in full view of the bar and dining area, as is the bustling kitchen. There's an outdoor patio that offers a view of -- well, not much besides an empty lot and Olive Boulevard.
Themed restaurants are a dime a dozen, but running such a place that consistently produces interesting, high-quality meals is another thing entirely. Chefs at each Yia Yia's are free to experiment to take advantage of local meat and produce, and the Mediterranean-inspired menu changes several times a year. And, yes, according to the company's Web site, the restaurants make use of only three frozen items and no packaged mixes.
Appetizers are taken just as seriously. The calamari, lightly floured and deep-fried, arrived with two tasty aïolis in small cruets -- a gazpacho and a lime basil -- for dipping. How does one make polenta interesting? Make it creamy enough for spreading and surround it with a rich, sweet and savory sauce of pulled roasted duck and fleshy crimini mushrooms. Pomegranate and maple-glazed barbecued chicken skewers with tabbouleh also sounded interesting. For the truly gluttonous, there's a tower of three appetizers served on a tiered rack for $22.95. (Appetizers, individually priced, range from $7.75 to $11.25.)
Yia Yia's big oak-fired Renato oven cranks out several dinner-size pizzas and piadini (Italian flatbread, like pita without the pocket) suitable for late-night noshing, such as prosciutto pizza with asparagus, fontina, white truffle oil and thyme, and fennel sausage piadini with red peppers, onion, tomato and herb pesto ($10.25 each).
A portion of the menu is devoted to greens and sandwiches and is dominated by salads -- just one sandwich -- topped with unusual vinaigrettes, including lemon-feta and toasted almond, and a variety of animal proteins: beef, salmon, chicken, soft-shell crab. Given that all entrées come with a choice of soup or salad, we didn't stray to this section, but it's worth noting that the spinach and caesar salads that came with our main courses didn't disappoint. Those in the mood for a soup should consider the tomato soup with smoked chicken, a rich vegetable broth filled with smoky flavor.
Although many chains adopt a pasta-is-pasta approach, Yia Yia's pastas have two things in their favor: They're good, and you can order them in half-sizes. Linguine with grilled shrimp arrived bathed in a rich sauce of sweet vermouth and sage, with spinach and dried tomatoes. The soft whole cloves of roasted garlic sprinkled throughout were sweet enough to spread on thick slices of fresh crusty bread from the bread plate. Risotto with sweet corn and a pear-tomato broth was topped with a small mound of Dungeness crab meat, making for a succulent combination of flavors.